Remembering Dick Gregory, the preacher

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Dick Gregory died Aug. 19 in Washington, D.C.

In the 1990s, I worked on several events with Gregory. He was born in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1932, and grew up at 1803 N. Taylor Ave. Although he had not lived here in many years, he stayed close to his roots in this city. During the years I have been active here, he showed up more than several times to lend support to public protest events.

At one of those events, we walked arm-in-arm from this side of the river across the Martin Luther King Bridge, met with supporters from East St. Louis coming our way and had some time to talk. 

I learned a few things from Gregory. After asking me about my background, my interests and how I came to St. Louis, he stopped in the middle of the bridge, looked into my eyes and told me this:

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You’re in a good place to do something here, he said. I’ve lived in some places, most of them too big for me to make much of a difference. There’s a lot to do here — but it’s manageable. It’s not that big. You got an idea, you can make it happen. You can make a difference here.  

He also invited me to a talk he was giving at the major African-American clergy associations of St. Louis. It was a beautiful talk. In his obituaries, he is often referred to as a comedian. He wasn’t funny during that talk. He was preaching.

He was talking to the people at whose feet he grew up. I wrote out what I remembered from that talk. Here is part of what I heard that day:

Brothers and Sisters! I feel it in this room, the power room, you brothers and sisters you have the power, the greatest power in all Creation.

I would have been a billionaire if it wasn’t for you in this room. You kept me from my money, you kept me from my fame, you kept me from my celebrity, you kept me from my name. I let it all loose — because of you. 

There’s more power in this room than in government; more power in this room than the White House; more power in love — than in hate; more power in truth —than in lie; more power in peace – than in war; more power in spirit! The holy spirit, the greatest power in the world.

There’s no power in the world that can withstand the power of the truth.

You taught me this. You taught me there is only one symbol — it is me, I am a symbol for God. I was created in God’s image. You taught me I was somebody special. Created in the image of God. You built me up to make all that money, and then you took it away from me.

Don’t hesitate, don’t get cold on me because the healing of the world begins with the healing of the self.

Oh yes – justice will well up like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream.

One person at a time.

The healing of the world begins with the healing – of the in-di-vi-du-al. 

One person at a time.

All politics is spirit.

All spirit is politics.

I dreamed it at your feet.

God bless you brothers and sisters for making me a poor man, a hungry man, a fasting man, an angry man;

A loving man, a giving man, a believing man, an acting man. A spiritual man – giving it all away.

You brothers you sisters who took my money away from me gave me life, gave me something to do to protect the weak, speak for those who cannot speak, serve holy time in the kitchens of hell to bring the spirit up –

Thank you for the gift of my life.

Amen.

Dick Gregory had a lot to teach. On that day, he gave back some of what he had been given in the place where he was born and nurtured. 

He has a place on the St. Louis Walk of Fame — 6611 Delmar Blvd. in University City — and a street named for him near his old neighborhood.

Dick Gregory Place runs between Martin Luther King Drive and Market Street, several blocks east of Taylor.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.