Outreach to poor reciprocated by praise to Nelson Johnson

by Jordan Green

Steve Neely sat at the end of the serving table in the hallway of the Beloved Community Center badgering the guests and occasionally making demands of the woman preparing aluminum trays of roast beef, rice, green beans and potatoes on a recent Friday evening.

He complained bitterly about the bureaucracy of government and non-profit services to homeless and unemployed people in Greensboro, those like himself who are the poorest citizens. But he had kind words for one figure who plays a role in the complex of social outreach efforts in the city.

‘“Nelson Johnson puts his effort forward to give you what you need,’” he said. ‘“People try to downgrade Nelson Johnson all the way. I will stand by him all day. He’s the next thing to Billy Graham to me. He speaks knowledge and wisdom.’”

Rev. Nelson Johnson is the executive director of the Beloved Community Center and the pastor of Faith Community Church, a plain brick structure one block over on Arlington Street. But to many in Greensboro, Johnson is better known as the Communist Workers Party leader who led a group of radical leftists in an ill-fated ‘“Death to the Klan’” march on Nov. 3, 1979 that ended before it began with the deaths of five of his comrades and created a public relations black eye for the city.

To Michael Schlosser, the former district attorney who headed up the unsuccessful criminal prosecution of Klan and Nazi members who opened fire on the marchers, Johnson is a plague on Greensboro, the spoke, hub and wheel of all the trouble, to paraphrase written record of his testimony to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Aug. 4.

Johnson has often spoken about both social outreach and labor organizing work with the poor, which some deride as a dubious cloak of legitimacy for his more contentious efforts to get the city and its residents to deal with the killings of 1979. But to Johnson the tragedy of 1979 and his vilification in the eyes of some springs from his work with the poor.

‘“In the course of my life’s work I have been involved in many organizations and movements known by many different names,’” he testified before the commission on Aug. 26. ‘“Some of the names I would not choose to use again. In all these years I have made no secret of my commitment to stand with and stand for the poor, those who are often voiceless and pushed to the sidelines of life and into the ditches of death.’”

The controversial pastor was not present for the Friday night dinner. The center’s homeless hospitality coordinator, 59-year-old Terry Speed, was there, as she is every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 4:30 a.m., and once a week for dinner on Friday. Speed usually has two to five volunteers; on this particular evening one of the volunteers was her sister, Jackie Smith.

That figures like Schlosser bear ill will towards Johnson is not lost on Neely.

‘“Because of that 1979 rally, that’s why they try to drag his reputation down,’” he said.

After lavishing accolades on Johnson, as well as Speed, Neely suddenly stopped and stared at a young woman standing in the doorway.

‘“Get in here,’” he snapped. He glared at the woman and made more disrespectful comments to her before enveloping her in an unwanted embrace.

By then Speed had taken up position behind the serving table.

‘“Tell that lady you’re sorry,’” she said to Neely.

‘“I will not,’” the man replied. ‘“She’s my niece.’”

Speed gently chided him: ‘“Yes, you will. You’re sorry.’”

Neely would soon be on his way.

After Smith had already informed him that ‘“you got on my right nerve, now you’re about to get on my left nerve,’” he asked her to make up a tray of food to go for him. She complied with his request, thrusting it in his hands and walking off without a word. When he followed her to beg something else, she turned and shouted, ‘“Get out, get out.’”

The rest of the clients acted politely and courteously, quietly eating at long tables in a middle room dappled in orange paint, chatting on the front porch or enjoying the warm evening air as they sat on the retaining wall in front of the sidewalk. At any given time between 4:30 and 6 p.m. Friday dozens of people were eating or visiting.

One of the clients, a clean-shaven 33 year old named Paul Gydos, gave Speed a hug as he approached the food line.

‘“This is a beautiful thing happening,’” he said. ‘“I learn more and more that the troubles that I have are just blessings from God.’”

He explained that a friend in a Bible study group had leant him a pick-up truck because of car trouble, which happened to coincide with Gydos’ move from an efficiency to a one-bedroom apartment.

Speed often starts preparing breakfast the night before. She estimated that anywhere from 100 to 150 people come to eat in the morning. When she arrives at 4:30 in the morning there are already people waiting. The Beloved Community Center lets clients take showers, but because there’s only one it’s crucial to get an early start.

‘“I’ve always been interested in helping, especially people who are outcast,’” Speed said. ‘“They’re very interesting, very smart people. For many different reasons they’re stuck, but many people do move forward. A lot of them work, but this is the only place where they can take a shower. Some of them work for the temp agencies. Some of them have homes, but not enough money to buy food.’”

Speed said she got to know the Johnsons ‘— Nelson and his wife Joyce ‘— through their work with the poor.

‘“I look to them as being people who genuinely care,’” she said. ‘“They’re real straightforward. They’re real approachable. A lot of people go to them to really talk, not just for services.’”

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