Last week the little house at 789 Stevens Ave. in Portland was torn down. It was just across the street from the Stevens Avenue Congregational Church.

There’s nothing remarkable about that. Houses are torn down many times a day in this country. But, there was something significant about that particular house. A black family lived there for over 100 years. How they came to be there is a mystery.

Is it a coincidence that they just happened to land there in 1870, across the street from a church that was founded by a group of abolitionists chartered in 1886, but formed earlier? The neighborhood was so white that in one census, in 1930, they were classified as white – apparently an automatic thing to do. All other records list them as “mulatto.” The names and ages of the family members are correct, but that particular designation was wrong.

My family belonged to Stevens Avenue Congregational Church. Indeed, my great-great-grandfather was a founder. My mother was the organist there for over 50 years. However, I’m writing this because of the impact one of the occupants of that little house on Stevens Avenue had on my life and on the lives of many other children. Her name was Mary Barnett.

She was my very first Sunday school teacher. Mary would be a saint if Congregationalists had such a designation. Her message has stayed with me through all these years, and I’m 82.

It is very simple: “God is love, always turn to love.” When I visited Mary sometime in the ’60s she showed me her address book. It was full of the names of the children she had nurtured and meticulously kept track of all through the years. There were many changes of address. That is how I received a birthday card every single year until she died in 1970.

Those many years ago, she planted her seeds and then faithfully watered them. The words of the song she taught us still rings in my ears, “God loves all the little children of the world, black and white, red and yellow, all the little children of the world.”

Today, when we are still living under the shadow of slavery, it is time to tell this story. The demolition of that house should not pass into history without some recognition.

There is a postscript to the story. Stevens Avenue Congregational Church is still quietly continuing its services to the community with its church suppers, its Boy Scout Troop No. 1, the Grace Street Ministries and others. But there’s one thing that would make Mary Barnett beam from her place in Heaven: There is a black pastor in the pulpit.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: