POSTED ON APRIL 4, 2012:
New book details Tulsa in the '60s, a crusading priest and the patchwork quilt of community that holds us together
She met Dan Allen, the sharp-tongued "grassroots saint" who started Neighbor for Neighbor (NFN), the day before Thanksgiving in the early 1970s. Ann Patton was a reporter for the Tulsa World, looking for a feel-good holiday story.
She sat down on a couch in Allen's office. In the middle of the interview, an old man came in, told Patton to please stand up, nodded toward the couch and said to Allen, "We need it, Dan."
A family had come in to NFN after a house fire. In short order, the couch was hauled off, and Patton did the rest of the interview standing up.
Now, nearly four decades later, Patton has finished a biography of the crusading and fearless priest who was the force behind NFN, a popular Tulsa social service program. The book is Dan's War on Poverty: A Grassroots Crusade for Social Justice.
Clear, Fixed and Fierce
Father Allen was an icon whose campaign against poverty created buzz amid the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. He had a unique understanding of poverty, from the inside, out.
The seventh of eight children born in the cradle of the Dust Bowl, into the bottom of the Great Depression, Allen grew up clear-eyed and focused. He was steeped in the Catholic faith, an altar boy, graduated from Marquette Catholic School. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest at Our Lady's Cathedral in Oklahoma City on May 25, 1957.
Patton described his official portrait as that of a "spiritual, dark-eyed young priest staring toward some distant truth," with only a "hint of a smile."
Allen became involved in the civil rights crusades of the early 1960s. He sent a flurry of postcards to people back home, to tell them about what he was seeing on his road trips around the country.
Allen and a few of his friends pulled all-nighters in cramped cars to see Martin Luther King Jr. speak. They were changed by what they heard.
By 1967, he became part of a team of four local churches -- two white, two black -- whose goal was to bring these four parishes together to address poverty, social injustice and racial tensions. The Neighbor for Neighbor program rose out of their efforts.
At the time, the program was untested, trailblazing. In Patton's poetic prose, she described those early NFN days: "With Neighbor for Neighbor, everything was experimental and unconventional, as precarious as the lives of the poor, salvaged from chaos only by a mesmerizing vision and relentless dark humor. ... The management was jazz-band at best; the methods were fluid; but the mission was clear, fixed and fierce. Rising from the serendipity and untidiness of it all, what evolved, then, was a series of bold, clean, elegant swipes at poverty and injustice."
The idea behind NFN, Patton said, was that "if you are poor and come to Neighbor for Neighbor, you get help. No questions asked. So you would get whatever they had. You needed Dan's desk, he gave you his desk.
"But in return," she said, "you were expected then to help others. In that process, you gained self-respect because you weren't just taking a hand-out. You were a functioning part of society."
Dan explained it this way: "From the beginning, the idea was not to simply run a charity, but to integrate charity and justice into one. If you separate them, you end up with paternalism or legalism."
In addition to feeding the poor and giving away his and the program's meager belongings, he "attacked poverty from many different angles," Patton said.
NFN, which still operates today in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, offers medical and dental clinics, legal help and other family assistance in addition to food and goods.
The key difference between NFN in those early days and other charities was that Allen was determined to give back everything that came in -- food, money, couches, whatever.
"Dan Allen worked at the grassroots level. He hated bureaucracy," Patton said. NFN was "born at a kitchen table, managed around kitchen tables, and is a story of how really ordinary people did extraordinary things because they worked together with such passion on behalf of what I would call the common good."
Tiny Invisible Stitches
She was inspired by the way Allen and NFN's volunteers viewed their community. "They worked together to do what would seem to be impossible things," Patton said.
Small-scale activism, she said, has power. Father Allen died in 1995, but a small group of Tulsans want to keep his memory and his legacy and his passion alive. And they created the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, a new 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to fostering social justice through education.
The center's board president is Father Bill Skeehan, a retired Catholic priest and longtime friend of Allen. Vice president Carol Falletti created and led Allen's free medical clinic.
Board members include Mike Calnan, Dana Falletti, Tom Long, Lorraine Lowe, and Linda Nicholson. Their first goal was raising the money to commission Allen's biography. And on that same cooperative grassroots level, they've done it.
One friend designed the cover, another guy did the index for free, the designer worked for pennies. "It is possible to write a book, publish it for almost no money and sell it yourself," Patton said. Now they're figuring out how to sell it.
Right now, Patton is selling it out of the back of her car and purse, but it's also available online at annpatton.net. Also look for copies at Steve's Sundries, Ida Red Boutique, and Peace of Mind bookstore.
Throughout this process, Patton has realized the power of community and reached a greater understanding of what holds people together. After she left her reporting days behind, Patton worked for the city of Tulsa and developed expertise in disaster work.
Since retiring from the city in 2004, she said she's "worked most of the big hurricanes," like Hurricane Katrina and Ike. She compares a community to a patchwork quilt -- the kind her Aunt Mae used to make. Family and friends would give her aunt their scraps, and she'd use them to hand-stitch quilts. "She never bought a sewing machine," Patton said. "And she would make these tiny invisible stitches, create these gorgeous quilts and give them away to the poor.
"I've come to think that's what a community is. We all take our bits and pieces and bring them together," she said. "And then it's all held together by these tiny invisible stitches -- people caring about each other, people helping each other. What Dan called neighbor for neighbor. That's what this community is."
For more on the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, check out danallencenter.org.
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