A Bishop's Life

 

He was the unexpected child, the “change of life” baby who both delights and confounds its parents, arriving just as the cradle is about to be relegated to the woodpile behind the barn.  Ah, but his would be the brightest spark of them all!

My grandfather, Alexander Robinson Schooler, was born on January 2, 1882, to John Schooler, a bi-racial German and black “mulatto” and his wife Almira, nee Leavell, a “black,” in Garrard County, Lancaster, Kentucky.

Grandpa was proud of his African and German heritage.  A prolific poet, he wrote about life in the United States as experienced by persons of color, illustrating our struggle through both satirical and serious verse.  

Little is known about his childhood, but his writings express a profound love and respect for his mother. Poems about her portray a loving woman whose guidance positively shaped her children’s lives.  The following verse, plumbed from a 1931 chapbook he published, is an example:

 Our Mother 

Mother thy teachings follow me

And I’ll never more contented be

No matter what may be my fare

I feel the strength of your loving care

The good examples you have set

How you would scold me, then would pet

Then would fold me to your breast

And send me sweetly off to rest

 

With the exception of his brother, Leavell, who settled in Cleveland, Ohio, and with whom he maintained a close relationship, the fate of his older siblings—three sisters and four brothers--and his parents is unclear. 

On August 4, 1909, my grandfather wed 25-year-old Carrie Weir Page, a schoolteacher, in Marion County, Indiana.  Their only child, my father, Alexander Page Schooler, was born there on September 21, 1918.

From 1909 until he moved to Southern California in 1931, my grandfather worked diligently as a minister to build and solidify churches and congregations in Indianapolis Indiana, Cleveland Ohio, and Chicago Illinois.  Grandpa never spoke about his ministerial training, but he gained international respect as one of five founding bishops of The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW), and, according to “The Old Landmark,” a website celebrating the apostolic heritage, wrote many significant hymns for the church and co-wrote several with celebrated Pentecostal songwriter Thoro Harris. 

  After moving to the Los Angeles suburb of Watts, Grandpa founded a Pentecostal Church of God in Christ on 107th Street near Compton Boulevard.  Articulate and fluent in Spanish and German, he attracted friends of all nationalities, from the Latino tamale pushcart vendor, to the white real estate broker on Central Avenue whom he consulted about properties. He acquired a ranch in Victorville, California, which he rented to a former parishioner and his family.

As the oldest grandchildren, my brother Philip and I occasionally spent weekends at the five-acre desert ranch in the early 1940s. We chased the lone goat around the yard, sandy dirt stinging our bare legs.  We watched Grandpa slop the hogs, their huge bodies layered with dried mud, grunting and squealing with delight as their troughs were replenished. We gathered eggs freshly dispensed by hens vying for the lone rooster’s attention. We dared the wrath of a rattlesnake and ran screaming to Grandpa when the dirt-colored reptile shook his rattlers at us.  It was on one of these visits, that as a three-year-old I experienced an event that would forever sustain my faith in God and belief in the power of prayer.  

      My grandmother was in the kitchen canning peaches.  I sat on a chair beneath a window watching her, aware that four-year-old Philip was playing outside with Selassie, the son of the renters named for the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. After Grandma removed the last batch of jars from the huge kettle, she placed it on the floor to cool.

“I’m going outside to check on your brother and Selassie,” she announced.  “I’ll be right back, just stay put.”

“Okay, Gramma,” said I.

I climbed up on the chair intending to watch her from the window.  But the chair folded and I fell into the kettle of steaming hot water.  I screamed, the pain was excruciating.  Grandma and the others came running and pulled me from the kettle.  She placed me on a bed and everyone formed a circle and began praying over me, speaking in tongues and petitioning the Lord to “heal this child!”  It seemed that an eternity passed before the praying stopped, but when it did I had not a blister, not a burn. And the pain was gone.

In the spring of 1943 when I was nearing my fourth birthday, my young parents divorced and we moved into our grandparents’ Antwerp Street home in the Los Angeles suburb of Watts. Besides Philip and me, there were my two younger sisters, Carolyn, two, and Loretta, 14-months.  

Our telephone came with a party line monopolized by jabbering females. We children were forbidden to use the telephone without permission.  Once however, when I was about seven, there was an emergency that necessitated my telephoning for help.

Farmers at heart, my grandparents raised chickens. We often hosted Sunday dinners for church members, and fried chicken was a staple. It was no surprise then when Grandpa decided to expand his flock.  He purchased dozens of yellow baby chicks.  To keep them warm, he strung a bunch of lights together and draped tenting over the lights.  One afternoon when he was away the tenting made contact with the lights and caught fire.  The material’s high flammability fed the fire, which quickly developed into a maelstrom that threatened to spread to our neighbors’ homes.  Grandma tried vainly to douse the flames with buckets of water. 

“Quick child, call the fire department!” Grandma was calm in times chaotic.

I ran inside and picked up the receiver. The line was busy: “Well, girl, then she said . . .”

“Please,” I interrupted, “I need to make a call.”

“That’s just too bad, little girl, we’re talking here!” came the snappy retort.

“But this is an emergency—there’s a fire in our yard, and I need to call the fire department.”

“Aw, stop kidding. You’re just lying to get us off the phone.”

“No, I’m not!  Our chickens are burning up and the fire’s gonna spread to our neighbors if we don’t get help here!”

The desperation in my voice finally convinced the women to relinquish the line.  Soon a big red fire engine pulled into our unpaved driveway, wheels churning up clouds of beige colored dust.  Two white helmeted firemen jumped out, unrolled the huge canvas hose and aimed it at the blazing inferno.

Seeing the tiny charred chicken corpses in the aftermath of the fire saddened us all and Grandpa never again tried to increase his flock. 

  Grandpa read voraciously and spent hours each day in his study—a small room he built just outside the kitchen door. Sometimes I stood nearby and listened as he prayed and spoke in tongues.  I remember his speaking of visions, messages from God or angels, experienced during his hours of meditation and prayer.  

“What’s a vision, Grandpa?” I asked one day.  

 “It’s something so beautiful, child, that it’s hard to describe. It’s light and it comes, lingers, and then fades away.  It lets me see things more clearly, things that have not happened yet.  Someday you may understand.”

World War II was on, and as our block warden it was Grandpa’s responsibility to see that Antwerp Street residents complied with blackout protocols. When the warning sirens sounded after dark, we had to turn out all lights or replace bulbs with blue lights, cover all windows with woolen blankets and take cover underneath the large mahogany dining room table. 

“But Gramma, I don’t want to die!” I whimpered, trembling with fear.

“Hush child!”

 Summer Saturdays found us kids taking turns accompanying Grandpa on his downtown produce market forays, where he plucked discarded fruits and vegetables from vendors’ waste receptacles.  

The trip downtown was just the first stop on Grandpa’s Saturday ventures.  In this pre-freeway era, we drove the long palm-tree lined boulevards south to Imperial Highway, then east past Alameda Street to canvass the plentiful junk and lumber yards. 

With an eye for useful scraps, be it a car part to repair or replace a broken one on his beloved Model-T, or a piece of lumber for a building project, he’d pick through scraps of metal or wood.  Owners treated him with the respect reserved for a man of the cloth, and he often walked away with the precious find at little or no cost.

An especially memorable event was our cross-country trip to Uncle Leavell’s house in Cleveland, Ohio, during the summer of 1945.  It took us weeks to creep across the United States in the old Model T.  Grandpa attached huge canvass bags of water to the car’s bumpers for our desert crossing. In addition to changing a zillion flat tires along the way, the car frequently overheated, and he spent a lot of time pouring water down its steaming hot radiator.  

There were other challenges.  Owing to Grandpa’s skimpy budget, we kids often found ourselves in strange churches on Sunday mornings, standing before groups of white faces, singing songs we’d learned in church and Sunday School.  

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so

Little ones to him belong, they are weak but He is strong.

Not quite the Jackson 5, we could have been named the Bedraggled 4!  How could congregations not respond to four innocents who never stumbled over the appealing words of the songs we delivered at the tops of our lungs?  The host pastor dutifully passed the collection plate, and Grandpa bought enough gas to get us going again.

Grandpa pulled along a small house trailer he’d built for the trip. Painted grey, it resembled an Airstream crafted from wood. Nights found us gathered around a campfire that Grandma used for cooking.  I still have a scar on my right foot from sticking it into a fire’s waning embers after being asked to check and make sure the fire was completely out.   

We arrived in Cleveland just in time for Philip and me to enroll in school. We shot to immediate stardom in the other kids’ eyes.

“You guys came all the way from California, Hollywood, movie stars and all that?

“Yep, and we’ve never seen snow!”

“Well, you’re gonna see so much snow here, you’ll get sick and tired of it, just like us!”

But when October came, Grandpa packed us up and pointed the Model-T westward. Twenty-two flats and another miracle later, we were home.  

About that miracle: Three-quarters into our journey home, while Grandpa was parking on a hillside road, the car’s back door flew open and three-year-old Loretta slipped underneath it.  Unaware of her fall, Grandpa continued backing up, running over her leg.  Realizing what had happened, he jumped from the car and scooped her into his arms. Both grandparents began to pray.  Loretta was not injured. 

The years with my grandparents passed quickly and what faith I have today is a result of my time with them.  They never stopped praying, they never lost faith. 

Grandpa left us in December of 1950, but his indomitable spirit lives on through his legacy of love and devotion to his faith.