Faith in action on Garvin Street

A month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bishop Benjamin Watts, senior pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in New London, was invited to offer a prayer on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Shiloh ministers have always been a source of comfort and strength in times of crisis, but the church had come a long way from humble beginnings to national prominence.

Shiloh was incorporated in 1900, but its history goes back to the mid-19th century. Believing that churches are defined by people not buildings, parishioners worshipped for years in a variety of places, because they couldn’t afford a brick and mortar sanctuary. At times they convened in a room over A. Rudd’s Feed and Grain Store on Bank Street, in Tannery Hall on Hempstead Street, in Hempstead Street Hall, and in a privately owned building on Green Street. It wasn’t until 1905 that the congregation was finally able to conduct services in a place of their own on High Street.

While many people deserve credit for Shiloh’s resilience and growth, the Rev. Albert Garvin, who served during the Great Depression through the turbulent 1960s, is the focus of this story. When he was called in 1937 to fill a pastoral vacancy, he was the perfect choice to lead the church through hard times. He helped the congregation cope with high unemployment, hunger, and housing shortages — all problems that were exponentially worse for minorities. World War II brought a population boom to New London and a surge in Shiloh’s membership, but it exacerbated the housing problem and didn’t end discrimination. Through it all, Albert was a tireless advocate for people in need.

When New London put its old city jail up for sale, the church saw the opportunity to acquire a much-needed larger building and scraped together its limited funds to enter the bidding. When other, better financed contenders realized they were competing with Shiloh, they withdrew their bids out of respect for Albert. Hard work and dedication turned the jail into a proper church. (But you can still see the vestiges of a cell block in the church basement!)

During the Civil Rights Movement, one of Albert’s colleagues was Linwood Bland, Jr., president of the New London branch of the NAACP. Together the two friends dealt with many challenging situations. One especially tragic example occurred in September, 1963, when Charley Mae Jones, a recent arrival in Connecticut, received a heart-stopping telegram. Her younger sister, Cynthia Wesley, was one of four little girls who’d been killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Jones had only been working in New London a week and didn’t have enough money to travel back for the funeral. The distraught woman turned to Albert, who sprang into action. He and Bland reached out to friends, media, and businesses across the entire city. People responded generously and quickly, providing enough for a plane ticket home. A few days later, Albert led an ecumenical March of Mourning from the Parade to Williams Memorial Park to honor the victims.

In 2001, Bland published a book, “A View from the Sixties: The Black Experience in Southeastern Connecticut,” in which he recounted many of the crises he and Albert had faced together. He wrote admiringly of Albert’s ability to achieve positive results through quiet diplomacy, and his willingness to create a public ruckus when the situation called for it. I think Bland preferred Albert’s assertive mode, because he recalled approvingly that he “was really something to see when he went into action.”

After Albert’s death in 1972, High Street was renamed Garvin Street in recognition of his spiritual and civic leadership. Anyone who helps turn a jail into a place of joyful worship and leads others through dangerous times deserves to be honored. But in the end, the most meaningful tribute may be the simplest; Linwood Bland spoke from the heart — and for many — when he said of his old friend, “He was there whenever I needed him.”

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