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Blast From The Past: Urban Encounter Exposed Students To Different World A Few Miles Down The Road

Blast From The Past: Urban Encounter Exposed Students To Different World A Few Miles Down The Road

Sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd — a Minnesota man who died after being detained by police officers, one of whom kneeled on Floyd’s neck and back for more than eight minutes — protests have swept across the country. 

Most have been peaceful in nature, including ones that were seen a few weeks ago in Cheshire. Some, unfortunately, have turned violent.

This is not the first time that America has experienced such discord. Just a few years ago, after a series of highly-publicized cases of alleged police brutality, similar protests began around the country and a few turned violent as well. And of course, in the mid- to late-1960s, civil unrest was commonplace as the country, dealing with racial injustice, war in Vietnam, and a clash of generations, seemed almost always in a state of upheaval.

It might be easy to believe that the current generation is the first to tackle such issues, or that the country is “finally” beginning to discuss racial injustice and tensions that exist between peoples of different backgrounds, but of course that isn’t the case. The problems plaguing the country at the moment are the same ones that have been present for decades, and each new generation has tried ways to solve them.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that, in 1970, Cheshire and its students were caught up in many of the same conversations taking place today. How does one heal the racial wounds of the past? How do people come together to make a better tomorrow for everyone?

The answer in June of 1970 was much different than it is today. According to the front page article in The Cheshire Herald on June 11, part of the solution, local leaders believed, was to introduce predominantly white, suburban-living students to predominantly African American communities in New Haven. Set up through the Christian Community Action Program called “Urban Encounter,” sponsored by Cheshire’s First Congregational Church, the goal, according to the article, was to get younger people outside of what we would refer to in 2020 as their “bubble” to see a different reality happening only a few miles away:

The group spent 13 hours in the Hill section of New Haven where they walked about meeting and talking with residents of the area, as well as with some of their leaders and spokesmen. It was the first all-Cheshire group to participate in Urban Encounter.

(The program) is described as “an educational experience which includes both fact-finding about inner-city life, and also a challenge to participants’ attitudes, feelings and understandings of what it means to be poor today … a chance to see what the inner-city is actually like.”

… According to (Parish Associate) J. Richard Sherlock, the decision to participate in Urban Encounter was a staff decision. “We decided that one way or another we had to bring this program to Cheshire. We’re glad it was the young people who went first. They are more willing to listen and learn. And change.”

According to The Herald story, from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. the students walked along the streets, talking to people and even stopping to play some games with other local children. With only a short break for lunch at the Zion Lutheran Church in New Haven, the group spent their time meeting as many people as possible. While many interviewed by The Herald afterwards admitted that their parents had warned them about walking in “bad areas” and looking out for “troublemakers,” the students found something different:

Viewing the streets, they found that one would be “run down,” another “better.” Main streets in general were described as “not bad,” back streets as “not good.” They felt that the recreational facilities in the area are not sufficient for the number of children who must use them.

“We saw a number of children playing basketball,” said Mr. Sherlock, “but the parks were too small for the number of kids trying to use them.”

The article went on to explain that the students met with several community leaders during their trip; everyone from the head of the Urban Institute of New Haven to director of a community housing group that focused on rehabilitating properties and selling them to local families.

The students, according to the article, returned to Cheshire determined to share their experiences, and spoke to several church and community groups afterwards, relating what they’d learned from the people living in the area and the advice they’d received from community leaders.

It seemed all believed that the persistent issues could be resolved as the next generation began to tackle the problems, as Mr. Sherlock expressed to The Herald:

“Racial problems in our country can be solved,” said Mr. Sherlock. “They are at the root of the problems in the country. Even though I worked in a much worse inner-city area while I was at Yale Divinity, I found Urban Encounter still had an impact, even for me.”

On the one hand, it is undeniable that significant changes have been made since Sherlock and those Cheshire students participated in their program nearly 50 years ago. None of us should deny that reality for to do so not only blinds us to how such progress was made, but also minimizes the extraordinary work of so many to fight for equality and justice, often under the most hostile of circumstances.

But it would no doubt be disappointing in the extreme to everyone involved in such a program back in 1970 to see that many of the issues they were confronting remain a part of our reality. It shows how difficult this work has been and continues to be, and how there are no easy answers to such deeply-rooted problems. 

It will take today what it took so many years ago: The determination of good-hearted people willing to do the difficult work.

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