The Corner Forum
Monday, April 21, 2003
Issue #28

A Reverend's Wisdom

The Rev. Randolph Clay, 80, 1250 E St. NE, spoke to Marc Borbely about the history of the neighborhood, his experience in World War II, his family, and his views on living a Christian life.

Tell me your idea.

Oh, to have a cookout on a Saturday or a holiday — either one, at Kingsman Field, for about an hour or two. Hot dogs, potato chips, half-smoke, something like potato salad. Somebody can make good potato salad, or you can buy potato salad already made.

Wouldn't have anything to lose, anyway. You could try it one time. If it doesn't work that good this time, maybe the next time.

And what's the purpose?

Oh, to make more relationships in the neighborhood, to meet one another, just kind of unity-like. You meet people, and just socialize, just to eat and have a little sandwich together, you know. Something like that.

Of course if you've got anybody in the neighborhood that is in business, it might help to promote their business. It wouldn't do any harm. Just pass out a few cards, something like that. I would say in May — don't want to wait too long `til the summer's gone. Might want to have more than one during the whole summer. Make the first one for May. The money has to come from somewhere. Maybe ask for donations. Wouldn't need much. If you had a few that are willing to make potato salad — some people just like to cook!

What was the last time there was a neighborhood party like that?

Last time? I think Amy [Fisher] was in something one time, and she wanted me to be in it, but I told her I wouldn't be interested. You know Amy — everybody knows Amy. She's a real good person. She's real friendly — she has a good attitude, and that's all anybody can do.

You've got a very good start there [with the Corner Forum] — it's improving all the time. I can take notice, by reading. In a while, you might want to add on a couple more pages! And after a while, people will read that and say, "Well, I'd rather get this than get the Post — I think I'll stop fooling with the Post." [Laughs.] You don't believe that, do you? But it's a lot of interesting news, and that's good, and it's good to know what's going on in the neighborhood. It's good to know what's going on around you. See, you would never find out by reading the Post — I guarantee you that. That's a fact. So I think it'll work pretty good.

You know, I still want to find that thing in the Post. You were saying how they had that picture of your house?

Oh man, that was years ago. Lord knows, they might not even have that nowhere down in the Smithsonian even. These same steps here — I had a stripe painted in the center of them. I had gray on the sides — something like purple or maroon in the middle. And they used color film. Boy, that thing was pretty. That's been 20, 25 years. Lord knows where that thing could be.

It was close to when you moved in here? And you moved in here about what year?

Oh man, I've been here — I'd have to really get some kind of literature to be sure, I would miss it a few years.

Was it before the [1968] riots, or after the riots?

Oh, way before the riots. My kids was all grown and married by the time the riots started. You heard about the Safeway that used to be back here [on D Street]? They had the riots, and after that, they set it afire and took everything.

Were you out here, that day?

Oh yeah. They were stealing stuff, bringing stuff from down H Street. TVs. Had TVs on their shoulders. Man, that was a sad time. But they didn't care nothing about King getting killed. They just wanted to steal. See, people use excuses to steal. They didn't care nothing about King, man. But they sure stole a lot of stuff — I can tell you that much.

You saw people with TVs?

Yes, sir. Coming right through here. Tables, furniture, dressers, chairs — just anything in the furniture stores down there. H Street never been the same since then. Right over here, I seen them passing by. And I didn't go down nowhere near there, because I didn't want to get in no trouble. I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I didn't go down there to see what's going on, where they were getting it from. And then H Street never did get built back anymore since that. It was pretty good — they had stores, furniture stores. They still have a few things, like barber shops. But not like it used to be.

What did it used to have?

Oh, auto parts place, something like Pet Boys. Barber shops, food stands, used stores. They have a Goodwill there right now, but they don't have half the stuff down there they used to have. And there were a lot of empty stores for a long time, because they burned them out, and they just sit there. They restore them now, once in a while. But it used to be good. You didn't hardly have to go downtown for anything.

What else was different back then?

I think on this corner [of 13th and D], there used to be a cleaners, I think. Where the church is. I thought, sometime, if I could get enough people to rent it, get some money to back myself up, I would start a church and have a church in there. But it takes money, see. I can't do it out of my personal money. It would have to be done some way where you can raise funds or get donations. It's a good spot for a church. Of course the man that was there — I don't know why he left. He asked me if I could come in and help him. See, some religions are different, and they vary a little bit, and I didn't agree with what he was teaching, so I couldn't work with him. I don't condemn him, but I couldn't work with him.

Aren't there two churches there?

Oh yeah, two. Right there on the alley. They don't use that no more. I think they're remodeling that. They're making that something else, and the one right on the corner — that one is yet a church. I don't know who owns it. You've got to have a few people that's for the church, willing to donate some money. That's the way you would start out. It's gonna have to come out of somebody's pockets to start with. Then you make yourself a secretary and a treasurer, like you do anything else. That would be good. But I couldn't do it by myself.

Yeah, there's a lot of things you can do in the neighborhood. And then that corner is a bad corner, because you have a lot of drug addicts up there. 13th and D. This one [at 13th and E], too. They don't come out too regularly [here], but they come out often up there. The church is out there sometime, and it's a way to clean it up, but nobody's interested in doing. A lot of us have ideas — and that's all I have, see. But you've got to have help, and you've got to have a little money. I've got some ideas — that's all I have.

The mayor [Marion Barry] lived real close to you, right?

Yeah, right over where you see that place cut out at [at 1236 E]. The gray one. It was good when [he was here, because there was always] police sitting next door. But I'm not afraid of nobody killing me. I live for the Lord, and the Lord protects me.

Would you ever see him around?

Oh, yeah. I seen him coming in and out, yeah. Sometimes. It was kind of an honor to have him in your neighborhood, I thought. I enjoyed it. But, you know, whatever a person do in their life, he did whatever he did — he hurt himself. The crack and women and stuff. He did that. He couldn't blame nobody but himself, see. He hurt himself, and they didn't want him to be the mayor noway. As far as I'm concerned, even if he didn't do that, they didn't appreciate him being the mayor. Because he didn't do what they wanted him to do, as a mayor. So they just used that as a chance to get him out of there. They took pictures, and made him look bad. I don't worry about that. They're gonna tell lies on you anyway, whether they see you do anything [or not]. I live for the Lord. I go by the Bible a whole lot. I'm not perfect, and I got a long ways to go.

Does this neighborhood feel safer now than it did a while ago?

Oh yeah, oh sure. They still break in the cars now, once in a while. Of course, I keep mine in the back. They can go back there, but they don't go back there, because the dogs back there, they bark at night.

What about prices in the neighborhood? They've gone up.

Oh, yeah. Tremendously. I bought my house, it was 13-something. Now, these houses are 100-something. That's a big jump. Everything has increased — that's why that is. A lady come along, she asked me — and you know I felt bad! — she said, how much you pay for your house? I told her. She lived in the neighborhood before. She said these houses were only $500, brand new! [Laughs.] $500, brand new! And then when I bought it, it was 50, 60 years old. $13,000. And since that time, $150,000!

Or more.

Or more, right! You know, that's a shame, how property goes up like that.

I guess some people are moving out.

Back and forth. Out and in. Old people moved out. Because their jobs changed and all. I don't think because of money. And then the people moving in now, they're people that never lived in here before. Why would the same old people move out and move back in, after the prices went up? You ever think about that? They use the term, like it's the city whites that move in, the blacks run out. It's terms like that — I don't agree with it. I mean, you got the money — it's the money that talks. They don't care what you are. You can be a Jew, or any nationality you want to be. They say they're taking advantage of blacks. They're not taking advantage of blacks. You got the money — who can chase you around if you got money? These people coming in here now are people that never lived here before. They come from elsewhere. Or they have jobs here — the jobs have moved here, stuff like that. So I don't worry about it.

You mentioned the other day that you were thinking about moving out. But I hope you don't move.

No, I hope not neither. I'm trying to get my wife back. You know, anything can run across your mind. You say some things sometime you don't mean, too. You don't mean everything you say all the time. But I'd like my wife to come back and be happy for the rest of the days that she lives. The reason she's down there now [recovering from her illness, in Portsmouth, with her sister] is they wanted her down there. It was more convenient, because everything is on one level. So I didn't put up a quarrel. I like peace, you know.

It's tough thinking about the war, and how the war killed all these young soldiers, and these mothers — you know, they're upset over it. They figure the president shouldn't have had this war.

You were in the Army.

Yeah, in World War II. Yeah, man. I was tough. I liked it then. But you can't be too tough when you're old. When I was young, I was tough. I went to Europe for almost four years, seen a lot. Been to Italy, been to Africa. I didn't get to France — you know, I got on the border with France. But I got to see a lot. If I'd never have been in the Army, I never would have seen that, neither. I was glad I went, after I went.

What was it like? What was the war like?

Oh, it was not like it is now. It was a military war. The war they've got over there now, civilians — everybody's in it. They dress up like civilians. It's sneaky, dirty. I hauled everything down there they had. Food, gas, ammo. Dead men, live men. Dead men stinking. Hauled live soldiers up to the front to fight, and hauled dead soldiers back from the front. Boy, I tell you. I was in a truck company, see. I had my life on the line. You get near the front, while the war is going on, and your life is just about hanging on a thread. I was glad, but I was scared. I won't say I didn't care, because I wanted to come back, but I didn't care as much.

How old were you?

Oh, I was 20, 22. Young.

That was in —

— 1942, 43, 44, 45.

And you joined, I guess, after high school.

Oh no, they drafted me. No, I didn't join. No, sir. No, I didn't join no Army! Boy, they drafted me. I didn't have no choice. When they draft you, if you don't go, they'll lock you up. So you gotta go. I don't know about this war — but I understand it's different now. These young boys, soldiers, they're volunteering. These are volunteers, now. These are not draftees, that are going over and getting killed. But they're young boys — if that's what they want to do, what can you do? They want to fight. They want to make a sacrifice with their lives. What are you gonna do? They're not afraid, that's one thing. They're bold. To be bold means a lot, but sometimes it don't pay to be too bold, neither, sometimes. [Laughs.]

Where were you drafted from? Where were you, about then?

Oh, I was in D.C. Georgetown. That's my home. I don't hardly go through there now.

Your family — did they move out of Georgetown?

Oh no. They were older than I am. See, I'm young, and all of my relatives are mostly dead. I don't have but one or two relatives that are living now. I don't have nobody to even carry on the Clay name. I had one brother. He just died. I had five sisters. They died. And all my uncles and aunts and everything, they're all dead — they all were older than me, see.

They died out. Get drunk and drink yourself out. You know, throw your life away. You know how drinking and living a fast life — you shorten your days. And that's what they all did. Oh, I did it too. Lord bless me, I caught it, and I don't do it no more. I prolonged my time, because I don't do that stuff no more.

Drinking, smoking, I've done everything. I never fooled with drugs. But I fooled with liquor and prostitutes and stuff like that. Liquor, alcohol, and gambled. I done all of it. Thank God I didn't fool with drugs. By the time the drugs stuff came out, I had straightened up and got out of it.

What made you straighten up?

Oh, I just had a desire to live a better life. That's the way I want to be — a Christian. You got to be taught how to.

I met my wife — she was already in church. She helped me a lot, and she helped get me in church. I liked her. I was willing to give up even drinking for her. She said, "That's all right, go on, keep on doing it!" [laughs.] I didn't think I'd lose her, but I could see, by keeping it up. But I was willing to make a choice, to give up the drinking for her. But then she told me I didn't have to even stop, so I went on and stopped anyhow. And I got in church, and been in church ever since. I had been going off and on, but she was younger than me.

I'm 10 years older than my wife. That's not much. If a man and woman get married, 10 years don't make much difference. 20 years don't make no difference if you love her!

How old were you, when you married her?

Oh, I'd just come back from the Army — a little after that. I was about 25, 26, around that. I worked for the zoo for 35 years. I've been retired 25! Add that together! You know I'm not no young man. I've been drawing a check 25 years.

You said you're 80, right?

Yes, 80, that's right. [Laughs]. I'm not tired of living yet, but I'm not as happy as I want to be, because there are some things I want to do for the Lord, not for myself. I don't need no fine house and Cadillac and all that. That doesn't bother me. I just want to live a life that's pleasing to the Lord, and try to change some other people's lives. That's what I desire to do.

How old were you when you kind of straightened up?

Oh, I was about — let's see, got out of the Army in '46, and then I started living like that, and then got married, and we were living right down there. 453 Tennessee, right on the corner, there was a store there, — a lot of people never know that — I used to live over the top of the store, a grocery store.

I was about 32 or 33, something like that. Changed my life, started slowing down. Naturally, I didn't do any of that after I got married, because I know it isn't right. You're not supposed to run the street and run women after you get married. Then I got into church. It's good to go because you get a different viewpoint on life — you get a mind to do better.

What church did you go to?

Across town. Northwest. And I got out with a good preacher, and he helped me. He didn't marry me — I got married down in Virginia where my mother-in-law lives.

Everything in the church is not right. Now remember that. You get into the church and see some stuff that you think ought not be in there. And there's nothing you can do about that. But you do right yourself. Just like the world — any other part of the world. You know everybody in the world is not doing right, but you don't want to do the way they want to do, so you do right, and let them do wrong. So that's the same thing with church. You won't find a perfect church, where everybody is doing right. So just because you see somebody "I'm church, I'm part of the church" — don't you think that everybody in there is doing right. They can't. They don't want to.

When you say not doing right, what are you talking about?

I mean living according to the Bible. Jesus said, "Do this." See, you have to change your lifestyle. You have to change your environment in order to do what the Bible said. You can't do it on your own. "Well, I'm gonna change and be a Christian now." You cannot do it. Jesus has to help you. God has to help you make that change. That's the reason you have to be real sincere and want to do it.

Therefore, you don't condemn anybody. You pray for them, if you're in a position to pray. You can't do anything and pray. Your lifestyle has to come up to a certain point before you can even pray. A lot of people don't know that. I used to try to pray when I was drunk! What good do you think a drunk's prayers can do? None. Doesn't even sound right. What the devil can a drunk pray? Man, he can't pray. Use the Lord's name in vain a lot — that's what he'll do. And he's lucky, because God could kill him. I say, man, you've got to stop using the Lord's name in vain. I tell them. If you tell him that, and if he don't do it, I don't want to be in the environment. I say, look, I see, I'm leaving.

Did you grow up in a religious family?

Oh no, no. My wife — I met her in the church. Then we raised our own family.

But when you were growing up, you weren't really in the church?

Oh, no. I was going, but I didn't know anything about Christianity. I went because I was forced to go — you know, like your parents force you to go. I went because I was eating their food, and I was under their roof, and I had to go [laughs.]. That's the only reason, see! I was constrained. No, that's what you're supposed to do. How many children do you have?

No children.

Oh, okay. But if you have children, you would bring your children up to fear the Lord. Get them in church. You can't make them be Christians, but it's right for you to teach them and go to Sunday school and learn the word of God. But you cannot make them be Christians. Nobody cannot make nobody be a Christian. God wouldn't even accept it noway. You have to do it on your own free will.

My father was a drunk man. My father married, well he supported my mother and us, but he was like a street man. He was kind of whorish. You know, he was still running women — it wasn't right. Of course, you see how a child can look at something and know it's not right — but what can he say?

I'm 80. I have a lot of wisdom. I don't know if you know about chickens or animals. In a chicken yard, they have a fence around it to keep them housed in a certain area. You know, I used to watch animals. I used to watch everything — that's how I learned a lot. You know what'll happen if you put a hole in the fence, and you put a piece of new wire that'll cover that hole? Those animals will come back and look at that new wire. See, they've never seen it before. It'll get their attention. They'll look at that new wire. Things like that could help you in life!

You worked at the [National] Zoo for a while, you said.

A while?! Thirty-five years! That's a good while! [Laughs.] You know what? I don't even go by there. Thirty-five years, and I'm gonna go past a place like that? They've got all new employees out there. I saw a fellow yesterday — him and I used to work together. I don't have anything against the Zoo, but the point of it is, I worked there so long I don't want to have no part of it. It was a good place. I didn't have no trouble, and I advanced a little bit — far as I wanted to.

What were you doing there?

I worked in a boiler room. I chauffeured for the top man. I worked my way up. See, I'm mechanical-minded. I can do mechanical work. Drove a truck. Worked with plumbers, and electricians. I can do anything now. I'm not real dumb. I call myself dumb, but not real dumb.

A lot of times, life is shortened by the way [a man is] living, where if he didn't drink, and smoke and run women, he might live 50 years longer. I know that. All the guys I was raised up with — they're all dead. Most of the guys I went to school with — they're dead, because I don't live the way they lived. That's part of the reason. I don't say it's 100 percent of the reason. That's part of the reason.

See, you gonna die anyhow. Like people get cancer. Well, you're gonna get the cancer whether you don't drink or smoke. You have people accuse people of smoking — they call cigarettes "cancer sticks." But you get cancer whether you smoke or not. You can get cancer from food! You've got to eat, haven't you? But that's the way the world is. It's a tough world. People are selfish, ornery, evil, got race-hate in them — hate is hate, ain't too much difference whether it's race-hate or not.

You said you wanted to spend the next few years of life living the way God wants you to live.

Oh yeah! I've been doing it all along. I've been doing that all along anyhow, for 35 years, at least. But I desire to do more — more zeal. You know, because my time is getting close to dying.

How would that look like?

Like, get some people to change their way of living and be Christian and go to church. Not only go to church, but I mean be Christians. You can go to church and not be a Christian. If you go to church without being a Christian, you're not doing no good. It don't help you. You can go to church every day, and live in that church, but if you don't allow God to change your heart, you still go to hell.

How do you be a Christian, then?

You ask God to forgive you for your sins. You're born a sinner — everybody is. What happens when you ask God to forgive you — that you're a sinner and forgive you, what you call accepting the Lord — then you will be a different person altogether. Then you stop doing the things you used to do. And then you start living for the Lord Almighty. See God comes in and helps you to do it. You don't have to drop one bad habit at a time. God can fix you so can just cut off the desire for everything.

But it's good to be morally good. Whether you're Christian or not, it's good to be kind and treat your neighbor right. Be nice. Be friendly. The Bible says love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, you should have a love for your neighbor just like you have for your own self. You're not supposed to commit adultery and want your neighbor's wife. That stuff is wrong.

Just love your neighbor. You know who your neighbor is? Anybody you run across. When it says neighbor, it don't have to mean my next-door. I can run up to the corner, meet a man from New York, the way God looks at it, he's my neighbor. In other words, a man can be your neighbor and you not know him. See, a lot of people don't know that. That's the reason a lot of people need to be taught the Bible, because they're not taught it, and they don't run across anybody who teaches it.

And then a lot of people can't teach it, because they're not living the right life. In order to teach it, you have to do it. Would you want somebody to teach you something and you look at them and see that they're doing different? No. You look at him, and you say, I wonder if he's doing what he's teaching me! If I say, "Hey, don't you smoke! Smoking is no good!" And every time you see me I got one that long [Rev. Clay points about six inches in front of him], sucking on it. You must be crazy, telling me not to smoke, and you smoke! A lot of people don't know how to break it down, keep it simple. The point is simple. In order to make the Bible simple, you have to do it. What do you want a preacher he's doing different and he's gonna tell you to do good, and he's doing bad? He'll make you sick — you tell him get out of your face.

Thanks a lot, Reverend Clay.

Okay, have a good day! §