Recalling a life lived in history
By Adrian Cabreja
Dr. Eugene S. Callender has got a story to tell.
A number of them, actually.
One would expect no less from a man who has served as a minister, a community activist, a social worker, a political and civil rights leader and an educator.
Callender has also served in five presidential commissions.
The 86-year-old clergyman recalls a number of these experiences, anecdotes and lessons in his new memoir “Nobody Is a Nobody: The Story of a Harlem Ministry Hard at Work to Change America”.
The memoir is co-written by Callender, Lorena K. Rostig and George A. Zdravecky.
“This book, by far, is an accurate description about my life and my career in the community of Harlem,” said the writer, whose disposition is youthful and spirited.
The collection of stories showcases in detail many of the challenges that he faced during his youth and adulthood, and throughout his six decades in ministry, as he worked towards a better future for those in need.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Barbadian Immigrants in 1926, Callendar distinguished himself as a student early on. He graduated second in his class at Cambridge Latin High School, and was turned down by Harvard.
But only because, according to Callendar, the school had already met its quota for black students that year.
When he traveled beyond Massachusetts, Callendar fell hard for Harlem.
“I remember when made my first trip to Harlem as a student; I fell in love with the place. I had never seen anything like it, a place where everyone was black,” chuckled Callender. “This was the place that singers like Duke Ellington sang about. I had to come back.”
And he did.
In 1950 after his graduation from Westminster Seminary, Callender was hired as the first African-American to work as a missionary for the Christian Reformed Church.
Callender decided to focus his ministry work in Harlem.
Guided by a focus on what he perceived to be the most critical problems within the Harlem community, Callender decided to tackle these issues head on.
He delved directly into working with families who were facing struggles with drug and alcohol addictions, domestic violence, and sought to make a smoother transition for those convicted of crimes back into society.
It was in education, however, that Callendar labored to make the greatest difference.
In observing a high number of local youths drop out of public schools, Callendar decided to take action.
“The educational system wasn’t working for the Harlem community, so I decided to create my own,” said Callender.
He was convinced that the traditional models were not ably serving the student body, that their not remaining in school had nothing to do with commitment or intelligence.
Callendar, together with community leaders, formed academies aimed directly at serving the student population of Harlem; among them was Harlem Prep, the renowned institution that Callendar founded with three nuns in a vacant armory. The school became known for its rigorous curriculum of college-level English, economics and biology.
Harlem Prep would also not grant a diploma until a student had been expected into college – such were the expectations.
“A student wasn’t allowed to graduate if he or she wasn’t accepted into a college,” said Callender. “This ultimately led to [greater] rates in transition from public schools to higher learning in New York City.”
Two thousand students would go on to graduate from Harlem Prep.
His personal and professional accomplishments have endowed Callendar with a series of uniquely historical opportunities.
He recalls how his journey brought him into conversations with fellow minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how his friend Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” introduced him to Malcolm X.
“Alex Haley, in front of orange crates in Greenwich Village introduced me to Malcolm X,” said Callendar, “while he was writing the autobiography.”
With his own book, “Nobody Is a Nobody: The Story of a Harlem Ministry Hard at Work to Change America,” Callender says he hopes to inspires other young men and women to concentrate on social issues within their community.
“My book,” said Callendar, who currently serves as the Life Leader in Residence at The Collin Powell Center in the City College of New York ,“is our story, and my experiences are simply a catalyst to reveal that we are never alone and without hope with God.”
For more information on Dr. Callendar’s work and his book, please visit www.dreugenecallender.com.