Go-To Guy for the Displaced

Brown - News
Jeffrey Brown, left, speaking with Patrick and Terrial Wooten. Photo: Rose Lincoln

Walking around with the Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown one day in early October, it was easy to understand why he had been dubbed "Mr. Mayor" at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, where he was overseeing care for more than 200 people evacuated from the lower ninth ward of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

When Brown, appointed in September by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, went a few steps in any direction, residents seemed to come out of nowhere to shake his hand and to share the trials and rays of hope in their uprooted lives.

"I'm not going back yet," a bearded man said, a hint of fear in his eyes. "I talked to my uncle today and he said there are still dead dogs floating in the water!"

Brown commiserated, and thanked the man for having shared a Louis Armstrong CD with him. "I just got a Billie Holiday one," the man replied, smiling.

Brown waved at another man, who came up and said excitedly, "We're moving to Cambridge, so that means we'll be able to go to your church." Brown rejoiced with him, and relayed information he had personally researched about how the young man could achieve his dream of becoming a police officer in Massachusetts. At one point, Brown stepped aside to convene with a couple and this turned into a fairly long meeting. Afterward, he explained that they were discussing what to do about a clear case of housing discrimination.

Between the time the evacuees arrived at Otis (also known as Camp Edwards) on September 8 and the time the last of them had moved on, in late October, Brown addressed "just about any requests and complaints you could imagine," as he put it, from small problems like "trying to find fishing poles so people can go fishing," to big issues such as dealing with tensions that brewed internally and externally, and helping people to discern whether they wanted to stay in Massachusetts or return to New Orleans. For those who decided to stay, Brown and staff from governmental and non-governmental organizations at the site helped them to find jobs and housing.

Brown has been well known in Boston for a long time, as pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge since 1987, a cofounder and co-leader of the Boston Ten Point Coalition, and an active member of the Black Ministerial Alliance. Since fall 2004, he has also served as the Baptist denominational counselor at Harvard Divinity School, advising students from a range of Baptist denominations and teaching classes on Baptist polity.

He attended HDS in the early 1990s to work toward a ThD degree, but, he explained, "then Jesse McKee got killed [in the 1992 Morningstar church gang killing], I started working with Ray [Hammond] and Eugene [Rivers] and that work [the Ten Point Coalition] took over."

Brown quickly became known for his ability to mediate between gangs and between gangs and city officials, as well as for his talent at bridging divisions between local black ministers. Soon, Brown was being invited to share his skills with groups throughout the country and the world. He has traveled to South Africa, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Brazil, and Germany to help solve problems, such as community violence and the use of child soldiers.

Whatever title Governor Romney or others may bestow upon the man who took on the daunting role at Camp Edwards (Brown says he would prefer "humanitarian coordinator"), it is clear that his years as a pastor and mediator have made him the kind of leader who cares about the spiritual needs of people as much as their physical needs.

"The majority of the people here are religious, and some are very religious," Brown said on that day in early October, "so they have been talking about their experience in God language, and they use me as a sounding board."

"Many folks here are going through the grieving process—some have lost family and best friends and they've all lost their homes," Brown said. What's more, "some of them had never stepped out of their neighborhood before, and now here they are in a strange land called 'Cape Cod.' "

It's not surprising, then, that many of the guests were reassessing all kinds of things in their lives. "When people have experienced such amazing upheaval, they feel the depth of despair," he said. "They need reassurance that they can overcome and not just 'cope' with what's happened to them."

To that end, Brown decided, “I wanted to make this place not just a way station, but a safe space where people can begin to heal, piece together their lives, and to create new tools that they can take with them the rest of their lives."

He immediately insisted that the people be called "guests" or "brothers and sisters" as opposed to the more impersonal "evacuees," and went about "assembling the essential elements for a town."

The residents lived in three National Guard barracks, in a somewhat foreboding looking compound that Lt. Col. William Tyminski, public information officer for the Environmental and Readiness Center of the Massachusetts Military Reservation, said was “pretty typical for military housing.” One building housed families, another single men, and the third was the “pet dorm” (among the residents of that one, with their owners, were several dogs and cats, a bird, a python, and some kind of lizard—whenever the lizard was mentioned, much debate ensued as to what kind it was).

Tyminski said volunteers from the Southern Baptist Convention took over running the kitchen. Residents could go to the mess hall at any time of day and find food, drink, and tables set up by various social service agencies.

Nineteen school-age children were taken in by the local Town of Bourne schools, and after-school tutoring was provided on site. Companies and individuals donated a wide range of goods, including cell phones and regular phones, hairdressing services, bikes, and clothing (several guests were wearing Red Sox and Patriots clothing and hats). Halloween decorations hung from a tree; there was a small playground for children; and residents played together on the basketball court.

Perhaps the best testimony to Brown and the Otis staff’s success in making people feel welcome in a place that was terribly far from home was the high number of people who elected to stay in Massachusetts.

Brown said that at least 88 of the original 230-plus people made the decision to relocate to the Boston area, while 32 planned to go back south. As of this day in early October, 70 residents had either returned home or moved into new homes in Massachusetts, leaving 163 people left on base. (That number soon dropped to around 100, then to around 30, then in the final several days of the camp’s hosting operation to just a few people who needed further assistance.)

Speaking in early October, and at various times later in the month, Brown squashed rumors that anyone was going to be "kicked out" of Otis, but explained that with the approaching winter, there was urgency about getting people into warm, secure housing. "We had a chilly night here last week," he said early in the month. "Everybody was clamoring for more blankets, and I told them, you haven't even seen cold yet!"

Even though he was the "go to" person for everyone's problems and needs at Otis, Brown was ever the pastor, talking only of the strength he witnessed among people in spite of the trauma they experienced.

"What has amazed me most is the amount of resiliency the people here have, once they know they have some hope to get to a better day," he said. "These are proud, hardworking folks. They are already bouncing back."