Wilson Goode finds peace in the pulpit

Former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. preaches at 59th Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia. He says no one but the occasional college class and reporters in Philadelphia asks about MOVE.
Former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. preaches at 59th Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia. He says no one but the occasional college class and reporters in Philadelphia asks about MOVE.
Posted: January 17, 2011

W. Wilson Goode is on the pulpit of Zion Baptist Church at Broad and Venango, fidgeting with his BlackBerry.

It is a familiar place for Goode, filled with sympathetic and longtime allies, a place where his famously stiff delivery can give way to an only slightly awkward Baptist preacher's brimstone.

A place where, at 72, he can flap his arms and do a little hop and wipe sweat from his brow and tell stories of how a woman with a spoon in the dirt ended up building an entire church.

A place where his elegant brocade paisley robe does not seem vain. A place where he can stroll in, literally, with a feather in his cap.

As he will tell the congregation, he wasn't scrolling through his e-mail, bored up there on the pulpit. The Rev. Dr. Goode was receiving urgent text messages from half a city away, from the First Baptist Church of Paschall, the church of his boyhood, where he is now minister of administration.

On this morning, moments before he delivers his sermon at Zion - "God will speak to you when you least expect it"- Paschall is asking him how to turn the heat off. He is texting back the answer.

He is fluent in both theology and thermostat.

This - knowing his way around the church HVAC system even as he prepares to give the first of two sermons, affirming his sense of being the cog around which order is maintained, of being immersed, of being useful - is what Goode sees as the work of the Lord.

No less providential than the complicated sorrow he experiences driving past Osage Avenue, or the simple grace of people who allow him to move on from what might have paralyzed him, or the earnest requests of people who still ask him for help finding jobs, or the straightforward philanthropy of Goode's nationally acclaimed Amachi program, which matches eager children of incarcerated parents with mentors to help restore their world.

No less heaven-sent than the conquering of his boyhood stutter, the 50-year marriage to a woman he adores, the love of grandchildren he texts daily, or his becoming the city's first black mayor or holding a place in a line of African American leadership that culminates with Barack Obama: All of this, too, is the hand of the Lord.

Redemption, for W. Wilson Goode Sr., is in the details.

The details have always been what he felt capable of mastering: the spreadsheets, the benchmarks, the organizational matrix, the PowerPoint presentations, the deliverables. They are the pixels of a life's portrait God has created. If it is still a work in progress, its outlines are nonetheless confidently drawn. The details are what he turns to, again and again.

"God," he tells the Zion Baptist congregants before him, "expects us to stay focused."

"May I tell you something?" he says slyly. "God promoted me. I'm so glad now I have a new boss.

He repeats: "I'm so glad now I have a new boss. My new boss looks beyond all my faults and sees my needs. He gave me a new benefits package: grace and mercy. He gave me a brand-new pension plan in the eternal. All the things I've done and the relationships I've had, I'd rather have Jesus.

"I'd rather have Jesus than the White House, than the governor's mansion, than the mayor's office, than anything this world affords today. I'd rather have Jesus."

The old riddle

It's like the old riddle song. How can there be a cherry without a stone? How can you tell the story of W. Wilson Goode without grappling with the one moment that for many people still defines him, May 13, 1985?

That searing day the city, with him at the helm, mounted an assault to evict members of the radical cult MOVE, who had made their Osage Avenue home a fortress and were terrorizing their neighbors. The police dropped an "incendiary device" on the house, which started a fire the fire commissioner did not fight - until it was too late: Two blocks of rowhouses burned, and 11 people in the MOVE house, five of them children, died.

Can you see Goode's spiritual and professional quests outside the prism of penance or redemption? Is it possible, as he insists it is, for his deep spirituality and productive, sincere lifetime to neutralize the calamity's psychic scars and lingering shadow?

"Neither the wife or the children, we've never had a conversation about it," he said. "There's nothing anyone can do about anything that's past. They know me. They love me. They know my heart, my makeup. There's no conversation about it."

William H. Gray, former majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, longtime minister at Bright Hope Baptist Church, and former president of the United Negro College Fund, says that focusing on MOVE when thinking about Goode's life and leadership is a mistake.

"It's a tragedy for all of us who lived at that time, not just for Wilson Goode," Gray said. "Was he upset by it? Yes. Was he disturbed by it? Yes. Did he feel very badly about it? Yes. Is that the defining moment in his life? No. . . .

"In public service, politics, life moves very quickly. That was 25 years ago. Probably one half or better of the black community in Philadelphia wasn't even alive when he was mayor."

Just raising the topic of MOVE stops his son - Philadelphia City Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. - in midconversation. Go any deeper, and you will hit a steel door with an icy wind behind it.

Velma Goode, a woman of warmth and effervescence, becomes similarly elusive.

"Over 50 years, I don't recall many ups and downs," she said, in an interview with Goode in his Southwest Philadelphia offices. "When you plan and then work your plan, you might not reach 100 percent of your goals and objectives, but you're not going to fall that short."

Maybe they are right. Goode says that in 25 years, traveling around the city and the country, nobody asks him about MOVE, only the occasional college class and reporters in Philadelphia, usually only on anniversaries.

Dianne Semingson, city representative during MOVE, says that even right afterward, when she traveled, people did not bring it up.

Mark Scott, director of community partnerships for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which has worked with the Amachi program, recalls an event that fell on the anniversary of MOVE, and says Goode not only showed up, but stayed totally focused. "If it was me, I'm staying in bed that day," Scott said.

After time in Goode's company, immersed as he is in the message of God and good works, you give him the benefit of the doubt. We all have something to move on from.

And really, if you have a role in a disaster of any magnitude, what are your choices? You - or Wilson Goode - either stop functioning, close off the narrative of your journey, wallow in your own misfortune, or figure out a way to go on.

"I did not let it paralyze me," Goode said.

You go on.

In his element

On a weekday morning, Goode is in his element, at a conference table with the latest gadgetry and wiring.

Actually, he is under the table, guiding the cord from Venessa Mendenhall's laptop to the connection that will allow her presentation to appear on the screen here and in Chicago, where his associate, Muna Walker, waits in the ether.

Mendenhall is in from New York, where her company, Dare Mighty Things, helps nonprofit groups with compliance-related issues. She is helping Amachi administer a $17 million federal stimulus grant to expand its mentoring model to 38 states and from children with parents in prison to those more generally "impacted by incarceration."

Goode is both fatherly with Mendenhall and companionable. He clearly likes the intelligence of his colleagues and banters easily with them. He is interested and eager to encourage them. They seem honored to work for him.

Goode looks great. He is trimmer than when he was mayor, the gray becomes him, the hair is nicely cropped. He's sporting a stylish goatee and wireless frames that are kind of hip. Traveling all the time, he has the ease of a man who has made sense of all that has come his way, and packed it away on an upper shelf.

His office at 20th and Market is fit for a high-powered law firm, but much of the time it houses just him and Shirley Hamilton in her running shoes, the same Shirley Hamilton who was his chief of staff while he was mayor.

"Basically, it's really been a joy" working for Goode, Hamilton said. "You don't always find people in management and leadership positions who are constant in their temperament, always honest and compassionate, and never raise their voice or be out of kilter.

"And his work ethic: People who work with him, and especially me, are inspired by his drive, his tenacity, his focus. He never gets off track."

In receiving the government funds, Amachi is starting a bit from scratch, emphasizing job creation to comply with the stimulus mission.

"Muna and I work at 3 in the morning sometimes, don't we, Muna?" he says to the associate on the speakerphone from Chicago.

"Not my choice," is Muna's fast reply, delivered with the confidence of a favored child.

"Essentially," says Goode, "I try to surround myself with smart people who can help do what needs to be done."

Goode's Amachi mission draws strength from his own experience as a child. In 1953, when he was 14, his father began a two-year prison sentence for the drunken assault first of Goode's mother and then of the landlord. A year later, the family moved up to Philadelphia - Goode's father joined them later - and Goode attended John Bartram High School.

A guidance counselor told him not to consider college, but people from his church, the Rev. William H. Lemon, and his wife, Muriel Providence, insisted that he do so.

Coming from the farm to the city, a country boy with a stutter, Goode was profoundly influenced by the Lemons. They are heroes in his life.

Ten years ago, he was given the chance to replicate their support and he seized it.

His friend John DiIulio, President George W. Bush's guru on faith-based programs, invited Goode to help with Amachi. DiIulio expected the former mayor to lend a hand, pass along a name, contribute a few consulting hours, give a speech here and there. What astonished him was that Goode did virtually all the initial legwork himself.

Between Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King's Birthday, 2000-01, Goode visited 50 churches with his plan, asking the preachers for 10 volunteers each to be mentors. Soon he had an army of more than 400 volunteers.

The next job was to find the children. Again, Goode undertook the mission himself.

Said Scott, of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, "He made it his life's work."

It's a beautiful mission, in its simplicity and in the way it dovetails with the painful episodes of Goode's life. In one sermon, he preaches that Jesus' greatest agony was not his crucifixion, but his "separation from His Father."

Amachi - a West African word that means, Who knows but what God has brought us through this child - was so successful, it was adopted as a model in 2003 by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which now awards funds to churches and organizations that replicate its mentoring. More than 100,000 matches have been made as a result, each an echo of the childhood bond between Goode and Lemon and his wife.

"I tell my mom, cake without icing is just bread," declares the insouciantly charming Kezia Lawrence, 10, of Southwest Philly, whose mom has brought her and her brother, Kamere, to meet their mentors one afternoon in Goode's Southwest Philadelphia offices.

"My real name is Kezia, but people in my school call me," she reads from a sheet of ice-breaking fill-in-the-blanks, "Kezeria, Kiazya, Keeeeyzia. I try to tell them, but they keep calling me by the same names."

Each match, Goode believes, in its fragile beginnings and deceptively ordinary interactions, is a step toward ending the cycle of imprisonment plaguing black men and their communities.

"I grieve about it every day," Goode said. "America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The goal is to dismantle, piece by piece, the prison industrial complex. One child at a time."


At the Thunderbird Lanes in Willow Grove one recent evening, Vaughn Coleman and Mikah Milam bowled a quick game before heading to Whole Foods for some dinner. Coleman, 39, made his usual strikes and spares and ended up with a score of 200. Mikah, 9, after a strike, had a 44. Coleman instructs, encourages, but shows no mercy - at least not in bowling.

"Like always," the boy says with a smile. He's no sore loser. The two have been together - mentor and mentee, arranged by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Philadelphia - for about a year and a half.

Mikah's father is in prison.

"I don't see him," says the fourth grader. "He did something really nasty. I'm not allowed to tell what it is."

Mikah's mother, Kim, works two jobs, as a nurse's assistant and a home health aide, and has two other children assigned mentors. She says Mikah has become "more open and more athletic" since meeting Coleman, who takes Mikah to the park to throw a football or Frisbee. They clearly like each other. "He's like a brother," says Micah.

The routine nature of the interaction provides its power, the time spent with Coleman, a financial planner, a welcome break from the harried routines of Micah's own busy household in Glenside.

"This was an opportunity to mentor a child one on one," said Coleman, whose own father died before he was born. "What surprised me was working with Micah has been a true blessing to me as well."

Marlene Olsham, chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Philadelphia, which has matched 2,000 children under the Amachi program in the last nine years, says Goode's leadership has been transformative.

"It's ordinary for children whose lives are not ordinary," she said. "These kids need to understand what ordinary is. Ordinary is not a drug dealer on the corner who probably put their father in jail."

Torrance Young, 39, a city civil service worker from Nicetown, heard Goode speak at a Masonic club meeting and signed up to be a mentor. He was matched with Kamere Lawrence, Kezia's brother.

Goode "said he had gone to visit a couple of jails," recalled Young, "and there were grandfathers, fathers, and sons in the same jails."

A graduate of West Chester University, with custody of three sons, 18, 6, and 7 months, Young said he, too, was helped as a child by a friend who "took an interest in a couple of us."

To see a mentor like Young inspired by Goode is to see another Amachi success. This idea, that he has become an inspirational figure, Goode sees as ultimate evidence of the Lord, the fullest notion of himself. A miracle.

"Everything in his life is a culmination of his spirituality," said Muriel Providence, who watched the teenaged Goode accept Christ more than 50 years ago. "He's a very sincere person, no foolishness, no triviality, no playing around. It's all seriousness. He's still like that. He's a person of no foolishness."

Like little Kezia Lawrence, Goode knows people may call you by names that do not reflect who you truly are. He characterizes himself.

"I don't care what befell you in the past, what names they used to define you," he says in a sermon. "God will not let his children ever fail."

"Hold on," Goode advises his congregants. "And your blessing will come."

A can-do record

By the time he became the city's first African American mayor, Goode had a decent track record as a can-do bureaucrat devoted to neighborhood issues.

Looking back, he said he believed many good things came of his two terms as mayor, citing the remaking of the city's skyline; the opening of departments, boards, contracts, and top city positions such as police commissioner (Willie Williams' replacing Gregore Sambor) and city representative to minorities and women; and the launch of a Center City revival with the Convention Center, the Center City District, the Anti-Graffiti Network, and initiatives to help the homeless, an urban revival for which he says his successor, Ed Rendell, gets the credit.

"I don't take anything away from Ed Rendell," Goode said. "He built on what he had inherited. He had a lot more to build on than I did. The tall buildings, all of that, happened under my watch. Did Rendell take the hand he was dealt? Yes. But he was not around to do the heavy lifting."

Rendell is a sensitive subject. Goode was not one to jump in a swimming pool or scrub City Hall floors while cameras recorded the event. But as mayor, he traveled to different neighborhoods and three times brought his entire cabinet to meet near some of the city's worst drug corners. "It was done so they [the lieutenants] would understand how people every single day of the week lived," he said. "They were petrified. I did it for the benefit of people who lived there to see how government was close to them."

He did not, he says, invite reporters.

With Rendell's time in office all but over, the governor speaks of Goode with admiration. "If you'd ask me, the most defining characteristic of his life has been his time as ex-mayor, not for any sense of self-aggrandizing, just because he cares. I've never seen Wilson Goode interested in being in the limelight. He's just interested in results. . . . It's inspiring."

Rendell went on. "In the term as mayor, he tried to help people. He made some tragic mistakes, in part, because the people around him gave him bad advice. They weren't evil mistakes, where he was trying to gain something political for himself. They were mistakes. I think he's interested more in God's approval than the people around him."

Meant for the pulpit

Sometime after leaving office, Goode was asked to give a laity speech by the Mount Carmel Baptist Church. It revived his conviction that he was meant for the pulpit.

"I could hear God clearly say to me, 'No more excuses, it's time to preach.' "

And preach he does, about 40 times a year in various churches around the city and elsewhere.

"My life is what it is because of my relationship to God," Goode said. "Early on even as a child I felt a special calling from God. . . . I had a sense God was leading me into something bigger than anything I could imagine."

It is a conviction that, oddly, is filled with the humility of a believer and the hubris of one who long ago set aside self-doubt. "I always preach with a degree of nervousness when I start," he said. "As I get into it, I'm emboldened by the fact that I'm in there to represent God."

His tales of childhood are told like fables. The time the hobo came to the house and was invited in for dinner. Young Wilson followed the man outside to give him the $5 he'd saved up for the last five years.

Goode got his start organizing black political candidates as part of the landscape-shifting Black Political Forum, established in Philadelphia in 1968.

He was William Gray's Election Day supervisor in 1976 and 1978, when Gray was first voted into office. When the forum was founded, the city was controlled by a Democratic political establishment that excluded blacks, Gray recalled. "In the 1970s, we changed it."

The growing clout of the black political movement - members first elected Hardy Williams to state Senate, then Dave Richardson, then judges, then city councilmen, then at-large council, and Gray himself to Congress - ultimately helped elect Bill Green mayor. He appointed Goode, the (first black) chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, during Three Mile Island, to be the city's (first black) managing director.

Those early years of organizing, of envisioning a more just political landscape are often forgotten, Gray said. Goode is one who can take credit for the transformation.

Mayor Nutter said the triumph of Goode's 1983 election was singular. It created a coalition that continues to influence city politics. Of the major cities that elected their first African American mayors in the '80s, Nutter points out, Philadelphia is the only one to have elected a second and a third.

"It's not just a phrase people say, I'm standing on the shoulders of others, it's true," he said. "I don't get to be mayor ultimately if W. Wilson Goode Sr. is not the first."

Goode's time in office took place against a less forgiving racial backdrop in the city.

"Being the first, to have that additional responsibility, duty, obligation, public engagement, public perception, it's something the city had never experienced before. People don't know what to do, how to interact, how to perceive you."

Former Mayor John F. Street, the city's second black mayor, who tussled with Goode as mayor while he was on City Council (and whom Goode blamed for sabotaging his budgets) says the two now talk regularly.

"I can tell you in the Afro-American community, he was thought of as fundamentally a good mayor who cared about neighborhoods and cared about their well-being. As both managing director and mayor, he really spent a lot of time in neighborhoods and communities. There was a very strong, positive feeling about him in the community."

He went on. "The MOVE incident colors everybody's opinion of those years. I think those of us in the Afro-American community don't hold Wilson Goode personally responsible for MOVE. We still believe, and I still believe to this day, the police, fire, and managing director are more responsible than anybody ever suggested. When you look back on it, Goode handled the situation with credibility."


One rainy spring afternoon, Goode drove his Volvo SUV over to the University of Pennsylvania campus.

Once again, John DiIulio was acting as his biggest booster, bringing Goode in to speak about leadership. He gave the students his life story, with its lessons:

"Sharecropping was an interesting example of leadership. It was our job to take someone else's land and work it. We picked up 20 percent [of gross income]. By the time we paid off expenses it was around 10 percent. It was barely enough to survive the winter. . . . We survived because of the ingenuity of my mother and father. . . . We did not have electricity, running water, or central air-conditioning.

"I did not have a BlackBerry at that time," he says teasingly. "My father could not read or write. He was never able to read one word or able to write his name. But he was able to raise seven children successfully."

When the boy was 10 years old, his father told him: "Wilson, you are the smart one. You are not going to spend your time working like we do. You're going to make something of yourself." It was prophetic. "I see myself as a part of a struggle, and the struggle in this city is to ensure that everyone born is treated equally."

A simple route

The topography of Goode's life remains disarmingly simple. The route from his house in Overbrook to his office in Center City takes him past Osage Avenue. The office of the Southwest Leadership Foundation that now coordinates Amachi programs is next to the Paschall church.

Just over the city line is Darby, where he met his wife - "refreshing and wholesome" - who had also come with her family from North Carolina. "I never had to guess what was on her mind," he has written. "She told me."

"Her face," he remembered, "still had the sun-browned glow of the country."

A short walk from the church takes him to the 6900 block of Greenway, where he grew up. Walk those blocks with Goode, and people appear, one woman he used to baby-sit as a child, another who was a neighbor, several with pressing issues, all talking to Goode, seeking help with problems, wanting to let him know what's going on. There is an expectation that he will, even now, help them.

And he tries to. He has never given that up. "Some people call him like he's still the mayor of Philadelphia requests," said Velma, laughing. "And he still responds like it's his responsibility."

"He's a workaholic," she says fondly.

"I have no hobbies," he concedes. "In spurts, I know how to relax."

His means are modest, as they were when he left city government with barely enough cash to pay for an official city portrait.

Goode never considered working for Wall Street, never was tempted to cash in. His five-bedroom split-level with the garden his wife tends is the smallest house on the street.

His is a life that rose up and crashed and gathered its power again, with lessons worthy of a thousand sermons. Throughout he has kept his own sanctuary within arm's reach.

He says: "I told her, if she left me, 'I'm going with you.' "

Contact Inquirer staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.


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