Rebel With a Cause: Brooklyn Priest Father John Powis

His half-century on the streets of New York

Among the radicals was a trio who arrived at Presentation one evening asking Powis to write a letter for a job-seeking relative just out of jail. "I look up and they have three .45 automatics pointed at me." He was ordered to open the church safe with its $1,800 in bingo money. "Twice I couldn't open it. One of them says, 'We usually just blow the heads off white men.' " The safe finally complied. Powis was gagged, hooded, and locked in a bathroom. When the police arrived, they showed him pictures of likely suspects. He recognized one of the robbers. It was Black Liberation Army leader JoAnne Chesimard, a/k/a Assata Shakur. "I didn't know her, but I had heard that a few weeks before she and others had robbed and killed a white real estate broker on Howard Avenue. I guess I was lucky."

The priest whose life the radicals spared continued his mission. When federal job training funds arrived in the mid-'70s, he helped local residents renovate five buildings on Pacific Street. A few years later, organizers from the Saul Alinsky–inspired Industrial Areas Foundation were invited into the neighborhood. Powis helped found what eventually became East Brooklyn Congregations. Leaders hatched plans for hundreds of one-family, low-cost homes to be built on East Brooklyn's vacant, rubble-strewn tracts. They would be sold to those trapped in public housing, unable to afford homes of their own. Through confrontation and cajoling, the group won over Mayor Ed Koch to the program, dubbed Nehemiah, after the prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem.

"We have 4,000 beautiful little homes now, right here in Brooklyn and the South Bronx," Powis told the congregation. "We have five foreclosures. People all over are being foreclosed because they paid too high a price. We have five. Nehemiah could work all over this country."

Powis: A rich history of working for the poor
Elizabeth Bieber
Powis: A rich history of working for the poor

He finished his sermon the way he had begun it. "This will always be my home," he said as the wheezing of bus brakes was heard through the open windows. "I ride that 60 Wilson Avenue bus every day. I always think as I go by here that people should know that this is a place that is interested in my life, not just in my spirit.

"They say that I was what they call an activist priest. Well, maybe I was. I don't complain and I've had a wonderful 50 years." He closed with a prayer, asking to make the world a place of peace and justice. Then he walked slowly up the aisle in his red vestment, smiling and with his head bent forward.

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