Joe's Road Trip 2012

2012 Road Trip Day 9: A Gentle Man

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Reverend Jim Davidson in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, in Elizabeth, PA on Saturday, June 9, 2012.

Elizabeth, Pa.

Jim Davidson has followed a curious career arc, from cab driver to journalist to Presbyterian minister. Before that, he went to Harvard on a full scholarship and graduated in 1969. He’s the son of a Cleveland meatcutter. I found out about Jim from his college roommate Jon Rieder, who is now a sociology professor at Barnard: “Jim’s just absolutely brilliant,” Jon told me. “But he goes his own way.” Jim’s way turns out to be simplicity, humility and grace.

Jim rebelled a bit at Harvard. It was the ’60s. But he also rebelled against Harvard–he felt uncomfortable among the rich kids, even the rich kids he met when he joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). They were playacting. They didn’t have a sense of reality about the way most Americans–people like his parents–lived their lives. “I came out of college with only one goal: I didn’t want to exploit anybody,” ┬áhe says. “So I started driving a taxi. I became a very good taxi driver.”

He moved to Pittsburgh and became a reporter for the local afternoon paper, The Press. He covered the closing of the steel mills, the anguish of the displaced workers. He worked there for 24 years, and then the paper was bought by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and he was laid off. “I found that I was pretty good at counseling my fellow workers who were laid off with me,” he said. “It was good work. Doing good work turned out to be the basis of my calling, the basis of my faith.”

He went to the Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh, while working part-time jobs to support his family. “For six years,” he says with a smile, “I wrote and published a newsletter for the saw mill operators of Pennsylvania.” He wrote technical manuals, marketing reports. “At one point, I had six different part-time jobs.”

Finally, he graduated from the seminary and got his church. It was a modest place in Elizabeth, one of the waning Monongahela Valley river towns south of Pittsburgh. It has 90 members, mostly older women. The mills are long-closed and most of the young people have gone to places like Atlanta and Dallas. Many of the young people who remained had problems with the law and addiction. “I baptized a baby last year,” Jim told me, “the day after its mother died of an overdose.”

But most days are not as dramatic as that. This is not a flashy ministry. First Presbyterian isn’t one of those inner city churches that provide a range of social services. It isn’t one of those new evangelical churches that are sprouting outside of town in former car dealerships and gleaming new facilities. (In one particularly symbolic case, an evangelical congregation has bought the land where the Mineworkers Union building used to stand and is building a mega-church on the site).

I asked Davidson what the evangelicals were offering that he wasn’t. “Well, we don’t have a parking lot. That’s pretty important,” he said, with a laugh. “And the new churches have contemporary music as opposed to the hymns we sing, and the congregants and the ministers dress more casual than we do. I don’t know what they preach. Is it the Gospel of Prosperity? They have small groups–exercise classes, weight loss, that sort of thing. We have a Bible study, but that’s about it.”

He also keeps his preaching simple. “I don’t inflict my political views on the congregation. I did give a sermon that emphasized the importance of tolerance when the President announced his position on gay marriage.” But his congregants aren’t the sort of people who want to be roused or challenged or have dramatic conversion experiences in church; they mostly want to be comforted and consoled, and to be part of a community. “When someone gets sick, they’ll get 20 get-well cards and phone calls. That’s the kind of congregation we are. I’ve thrown my lot in with these people,” Davidson says. “It’s the best use of my life and skills.”

I asked Davidson what he saw when he looked beyond his church, at the society as a whole: “It’s very easy to live in this country surrounded by people who are exactly like you,” he says. “If we need to do one thing as a society, it’s to open people’s eyes to the plight of those who aren’t like them. People who don’t have health care, for example.” Davidson works with the Lazarus Project, an effort by the Pittsburgh-area Presbyterian churches to help families in need. “If we decide they’re worthy, we give them $200. That’s all. We’re not trying to change their lives, just give them some breathing space–pay a utility bill, or help make the rent for a month. You know, for a lot of these folks, they work all their lives and all of a sudden, their lives collapse–a divorce or a car accident can do that to people just hanging on.”

I mentioned that I kept on hearing people say that they were sick of paying taxes to give government services, like health care, to those who hadn’t earned them. “You know, when I was reporting on my people who were losing their jobs in the steel mills, I had no idea that a few years later I would lose my job as a journalist,” Jim replied. “People tend not to anticipate these things, but I see all sorts of people falling out of the middle class. Five years ago, maybe one of 20 people applying to the Lazarus Project owned homes, now it’s one in four. So there’s a lot of truth to, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ I think we are called to be compassionate.”

Jim told me about a 13-year old boy with Down syndrome who is “very important in the life of the church. When it’s time to rise, he’ll stand up facing the congregation and hold up his arms, gesturing everyone to stand. A few weeks ago, a woman who had been away for a while, returned to the church and he said to her, ‘I missed you.’ So he’s taking care of the flock in his own way.” He paused, “It turns out, I get a lot more from these people than they get from me.”

His sermon today, Sunday, June 10, 2012, is based on a passage from 4th Corinthians. It is called “Grace.”

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