Bringing People Together- Cathedral Village

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Rev. Dr. Robert L. Polk, an African American octogenarian, has devoted the better part of his life to social justice and race relations.

Changing attitudes about racism is one of the most daunting missions a person could undertake. Rev. Dr. Robert L. Polk, an African American octogenarian, has devoted the better part of his life to social justice and race relations.

Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, Reverend Polk saw how racism and class injustice closed the minds of his family to the idea that African Americans could be offered equal employment or social status.  Polk spent a lifetime trying to dispel that notion.

As a teenager, Polk was active in the Congregational Church in Chicago. There, he made friends with people from all races and backgrounds. He became a shining example of what the church wanted to accomplish in its social action and race relation initiatives.

Later, Polk applied to an all-white college in Nebraska, but was turned down because none of the white students wanted to room with a black man. Church officials were dismayed with this decision and set about changing the mind of the Dean of Students. Before long, a letter of acceptance arrived and Polk found himself in the midst of an all-white campus.  Staying true to who he was, he nurtured friendships with classmates, creating an environment in which he and the students learned from one another.

His desire to enter the ministry led him to attend Hartford Theological Seminary.  The student body was made up of people from all races and backgrounds, which confirmed his belief that color does not have to be an issue.

The Civil Rights Movement was on the horizon with its attendant demonstrations, violence and challenges. For this reason, Polk’s family was opposed to his pursuing a ministry in the south at that time.  A new direction came by way of a parish in a rural farming community in North Dakota.  At that time, most people in this small community had never even seen a black man.

After leaving his parish, Polk was appointed Youth Program Director for the YMCA in Minot, Nd. An Air Force Base was under construction near Minot and the town leaders were concerned about the influx of blacks and Hispanics. Polk took on the role of “bridge builder” between the base population and the new residents, which turned out to be quite challenging.

In 1960, Polk became Youth Minister for the Riverside Church in New York City.  This historic and prestigious church of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was interdenominational, interracial and international. Polk had great success in creating fellowship between students from many races and backgrounds.

A few years later, Dillard University, an historically black college in New Orleans, offered Polk a position as Chaplain.  At Dillard, he struggled to alter the tenor and substance of the college and bring it into the 21st Century.

When Polk returned to the Riverside Church, he became the Minister of Urban Affairs. In this position, his mission was to reach out to the immediate community and Harlem. An active community leader, he served on the board of directors for City University of New York, New York Urban League, Albert Schweitzer Fellowship and many others.

During 55 years of ministry, Reverend Polk played a critical role in helping to break down racial barriers. He believes that even small changes affect people’s attitudes in ways that benefit all of society.

Today, Rev. Polk lives at Cathedral Village in Philadelphia and is currently writing his memoirs. After visiting many communities, Polk immediately fell in love with Cathedral Village.


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