I wanted to ask influential Democrat Lacy Johnson about the race for mayor of Indianapolis. He is the party’s district chairman, and the city has evolved to a Democratic Party majority of voters in recent years.
Johnson wanted to change the subject from politics to something else—summer camps and hope for young people. His story illustrates the impact of small acts of faith and charity, with an element of racial reconciliation.
He reminisced about the late 1950s, when he was growing up in a predominantly black, inner-city neighborhood. He wasn’t necessarily “at risk,” but some of his friends wound up in trouble and gave up on school.
He took a different route—college, state police, law school, law firm partner, head of the airport authority and behind-the-scenes political insider. He’s married to Patty, whom he has known since the third grade.
Why did he do so well, even as neighborhood friends went in other directions?
He had a church-going dad and mom. He also points to a summer camp program, organized by Presbyterian churches, for inner-city children.
“Our parents worked hard every day,” Johnson said. “But we were not going to get the same experiences and opportunity that a middle-class child gets.”
The camp organizers mixed fun with hands-on lessons.
“There was reading. We had skits. We’d learn about nature. There was a physical education component,” Johnson recalled. “Where was I going to learn how to row a boat or paddle a canoe? Those small things about agriculture—where was I going to go into a cornfield or barn? My only other experience in a barn would have been at the state fair. Or how to build a campfire—I loved the campfires. That is when the counselors would tell stories. You’d be learning about life through someone else’s eyes."
At the other end of the story is P.E. MacAllister, a prominent businessman and civic leader in central Indiana. He has been as influential among Republicans as Johnson has been with Democrats. MacAllister, now 94 years old, was a key supporter of Richard Lugar when Lugar was a young mayor and started to make Indianapolis known for something more than auto racing.
MacAllister was a camp organizer in those Presbyterian circles, back in the 1950s, through the Inner City Strategy Committee. He offered company-owned farmland for the camp near Martinsville.
Camp organizers may well wonder if their efforts matter, especially for young people who don’t have such options. Johnson has a definite answer for such concerns.
“Why did a church group send a bus into the inner city to pick up African-American kids and take them to camp?” Johnson said. “It was during the civil rights movement. They wanted to do some good.”
Johnson suggests that contemporary “do-gooders” should persevere, whether they see impact or not.
“That had a huge impact on a lot of kids, not just me,” he said. “If the do-gooders keep on doing good, they’re going to do more good than they’ll ever know.”
Johnson did not cite the Bible in telling this story. But he illustrated an old Bible truth for those who work with young people in summer camp ministry, perhaps wondering whether they make a difference in the long run.
“Who hath despised the day of small things?” Zechariah 4:10.