Don Samuels: The Great Black Hope?

Can Don Samuels heal what ails the North Side and Twin Cities’ race relations in one fell swoop?

Don Sameuls: The Great Black Hope?
Photo by Craig Bares

If you’re a Mpls.St.Paul reader—likely white, likely socially concerned—then Don Samuels has a message for you: Come to north Minneapolis and serve. If you’re the sort of white person who wants to help the city’s poorest—and most crime-ridden— region but is afraid of being called a racist, the Jamaican–born minister says that’s OK. He refuses to let white institutions bear all the guilt for the degradation of the North Side, calling out the predatory clergymen, irresponsible parents, and mau-mauing opportunists in the black community. We’re all sinners, says the ordained Baptist minister—but if we openly acknowledge our deficiencies, we can move forward together.

Don Samuels has more than a pulpit: He has a seat on the Minneapolis City Council representing its blackest precincts. While many in north Minneapolis and elsewhere see a combination of John McCain and Barack Obama—the Straight Talk Express leavened with the Audacity of Hope—others say Samuels is more like Al Sharpton in a mirror, a demagogue whose primary goal is to curry favor with whites. Even today, Ron Edwards, cochair of the Minneapolis Police Community Relations Council, says simply, “He has a problem with his affection for black people.”

By refusing to play the victim card (in a mostly white city), Samuels finds himself on some mayoral shortlists should his friend R. T. Rybak not run in 2009. His indelible outspokenness trumps any political ambition, however, as he builds bridges even while others burn.

Don Samuels works weekends. One Saturday, he climbs aboard a former Metro Mobility van and leads a tour acquainting two dozen geographers and liberal churchgoers with the North Side’s simultaneous degradation and rehabilitation. Still trim at fifty-seven, with closely cropped hair only now showing gray, Samuels, dressed in a casual suede jacket, upscale pullover and running shoes, and stonewashed jeans, looks like the toy-industry manager he once was. Outside, along the streets of his own Jordan neighborhood, a block with four consecutive boarded houses gives way to one where crime has plummeted since a dealer-infested convenience store was closed.

Even though he speaks in a bouncing Jamaican lilt, Samuels’s words have a touch of acid, and not just for people his own skin color. He reels off statistics about our willingness to accept north Minneapolis as a dumping ground: “Did you know that 48 percent of this neighborhood is under eighteen and we also have the highest concentration of sex offenders?” Motoring down a stretch of Lyndale that Samuels says is scarred by narcotics peddling, he notes four nearby black churches, adding bitterly, “You’d think four churches could get together and stop the drug dealing here twenty-four hours a day.”

On Sunday, Samuels finds himself in the pulpit—at southeast Minneapolis’s cozy Minnehaha United Church of Christ, where he gives the sermon. The fifty or so listeners—nearly all white—can’t help but be mesmerized by a homily dappled with cackles, belly laughs, and two varieties of giggles: a self-deprecating “he-he-he” and a devilish coda to statements Samuels knows are controversial. His voice steadily rises in timbre toward a passionate point, then stops dead and calms after it is made. The voice urges them toward a vision of a better future—if only they will take the time to care. For example, he tells churchgoers, “one of the biblical interpretations of the original Hebrew and Greek text which we call ‘righteousness’ is really translatable as justice.” Then he adds, “We tend to prefer the righteousness part of it, because it demands less of us.”

Devilish giggle.

Samuels recounts recent efforts by sixteen 13th Ward congregations—black and white—to jointly help the North Side address its problems. When the groups first met together and shared their concerns, he says, blacks worried “Will white people let us lead?” and whites feared “making a mistake and being called racist.” The differences, he says, are being bridged with “honest dialogue,” and he challenges those at Minnehaha UCC to “go where the violence happened” and join the “solidarity of the communities [to] address this problem that has been relegated to one geographic location and primarily minority people.”

Even to a secular observer, the moment is inspirational, more practical than pious, and closer to home than to the heavens.

Reverend Michael O’Connell is rector of the Basilica of Saint Mary and pastor of the North Side’s 450-family Church of the Ascension. “Don’s the best thing that’s happened to the North Side in a long time,” O’Connell says. “He obviously cares deeply for people. He understands the biggest issue is safety. But more than anybody I know, Don has been able to bring people into the North Side and get them engaged—with their personal time as well as their connections in the broader community and financial assistance. A lot of that adds up to programming for kids. That’s desperately needed, especially when the money stopped flowing from the federal government.”