Story & Photo By Randy Gross
Poetry is a very personal thing. Some people even consider it so personal that they never share it with anyone, which is a shame. But for Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Gadsden, poetry has been such a force in his life, it’s pervaded every aspect of that life – as a husband and father, as part of his ministry, and also in his everyday community outreach and activism. There truly is a rhyme and reason to Gadsden’s reason for living – and affecting how others live – and it is because of his passion for sharing his life’s journey so that others can learn from the path he’s already walked, that he has been chosen as this month’s Influencer.
THE (REAL) WONDER YEARS
Anyone who’s watched any of the episodes of ABC’s new “The Wonder Years,” a coming-of-age story of a Black boy in the 1960s, may be able to get a vague idea of what the teenage Nate Gadsden’s life was like. Gadsden’s formative years were during the tumultuous 60s, a time when multiple assassinations and Civil Rights riots rocked the streets of America. Gadsden admits that he was “very spiritual growing up, and very concerned about things,” but he also admits that he wasn’t much of a reader. And hence, not a writer either.
There were two school-related events that were about to change all of that. First, when he was at Camp Curtin School, he recalls: “I was in the 7th grade, and the assignment was to do a poem … and I wrote a poem called ‘God, Give Me Love.’ Everybody was like ‘that was a good poem,’ and I was like, ‘hey, that feels good.’” He consequently began thinking more about poetry and, already a fan of Ebony and Jet magazines, began to read more (he confesses, “I just couldn’t get enough of the news.”) The more he listened to and read other poetic voices – most notably, Sonia Sanchez, his mentor – the more he found himself “turned on by the poets.”
Then, in 1968, one of the stormiest years in American history, the “storm” hit Harrisburg – and very nearly struck Gadsden. After an African-American was named homecoming queen at John Harris High School, a vote recount was ordered for no legitimate reason. A riot broke out and soon spread all the way to William Penn High, where Gadsden was a basketball player. “All of a sudden,” he recalls, “these guys are coming up banging on the doors saying ‘school’s out … school’s out’! And William Penn went off the charts!” Roger Goodling, the basketball coach, cautioned his players, “I can’t tell you what to do, but keep your noses clean,” but the tense scene continued to play out, with windows broken and even appearances by members of the Black Panthers. But, at the end of the day, there was a calming voice: the Rev. Belgium Baxter, who, in addition to his ministerial duties, taught poetry in the Harrisburg School District (and would also go on to become the city’s first poet laureate). “He only stood about 5’ 3” or 5’ 4”,” remembers Gadsden, “but he came up on stage and started doing poetry, and everything he did was rhymed. He just rhymed. But he also told a back story first, which made it more interesting. And I was hooked.”
In Gadsden’s young mind, the connection between poetry and community activism was beginning to take root.
POETICS & INJUSTICE
“Violence has always been with us. That’s not the issue,” asserts Gadsden, not in a fiery voice, but with a distinct passion. Echoing a meme he’s seen recently on Facebook, he adds “the problem is not the problem. Your response to the problem is the problem.” An adherent to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. doctrine of non-violence to this day, he likes to remind people that police brutality existed back in his day, “but we didn’t have cell phones and all these instant ways of getting the word out. So people were being beaten, and imprisoned, and done wrong … but you didn’t know about it as much.”
“When I look at what’s happening today, it’s nothing new under the sun.”
In his poems and essays, in publications ranging from his book “All Things Considered …” to the local newspaper “Black Wall Street PA,” Gadsden focuses on topics ranging from oppression and poverty, to senseless shootings and mass incarceration. But he also speaks of peace and God’s love – both of which guided him through some radical (and yes, riskier) days as an activist/reporter for The National Alliance of Third World Journalists in the early 1980’s.
“It’s not so much being ‘at risk,’ and sometimes you’re just too dumb to know you’re at risk,” he maintains. “But, with Third World Journalists, that was the most risky stuff we did.”
Those risks included visits to: Cuba, where “The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution were watching you everywhere you go” (and who even briefly detained his photographer friend for taking photos of a Russian submarine); Granada, where “within a month of after we left, all of the country blew up … and everyone we interviewed they literally lined up along the wall and blew their brains out”; and also Beirut, where a PLO hijacker – at the time, the only woman who had ever single-handedly hijacked a plane – asked about the photos Gadsden was taking of her, “what would you do with these pictures?,” before adding “I am very wanted and dangerous.”
Gadsden argues that the risks he took as a journalist far exceed more recent so-called “risky” endeavors, such as ministering to and mentoring incarcerated men. “I could do the prison thing,” he says. “There was nothing dangerous about that environment. I mean, I know a lot of those guys. They grew up in Harrisburg.”
FINDING HIS CALLING
Gadsden was already a minister when he met his future wife, Patricia, in 1992. Within a year of their marriage, they opened the Imani African Christian Church. “My aunt was my pastor … she was minister at Church of God in Christ, and I just felt like it was time for me to move on,” he explains. “We literally started a church in our own home at the time.”
From there, the Gadsdens moved quickly to The Neighborhood Center on 3rd St. (where, he recalls, “we had a small little chapel of seats, no more than 15 or 20 people”). As their congregation began to grow, they eventually moved to the old Coopers Funeral Home at 14th and Cumberland Streets, “Then, after 8 or 10 years,” says Nate, “our congregation went up, and then it kind of came down, but we never had the funding. So, when we let that go, we became a nomad church.” Currently, services are held at 3600 Vartan Way in the Living Springs Church, but “really, because of the pandemic,” he says, “we’re more of a TV ministry right now – on Facebook Live, every Sunday!” (After all, he adds, “a building has never been the church.”)
Through it all, his wife has always been by Nate’s side. “Pat and I are like the Yin and the Yang,” he muses. “We do everything pretty much together. We have our differences … but it’s creative differences. We built a church together, and we travel together, and she’s a community activist in her own way.”
Pat’s activism would lead her and her husband into another great chapter in their lives: Life Esteem, Inc.
ESTEEM & MINDFULNESS
“We tied our church into Life Esteem,” says Nate, commenting on the center – and brand – he and Patricia founded more than four decades ago. “So, our ministry is tied into all the work we do with families.”
That work includes education and mentorship, plus health and wellness services for the local community. Both Nate and Pat take pride in being what they like to call “life coaches,” encouraging people to develop spiritual, mental, and physical healing through holistic practices and classes ranging from “Celebrating Families” and “Smart Recovery Solutions” to “Meditation and Mindfulness.” Some of the center’s programs are funded through the Dauphin County Department of Drug & Alcohol. Located at 900 S. Arlington Ave. in Harrisburg, Life Esteem is also home to radio and TV programs hosted by Nate, and speakers are often invited there to discuss their literary work, poetry, and spiritual perspectives.
Nate is not immune to giving credit where it’s due: his wife. “She’s built Life Esteem … that was all her baby.” He adds, “Pat created a curriculum called ‘8 Dimensions of Wellness,’ and now there’s a couple of other dimensions they’re going to add … and there are these experts that she’s identified, that will teach these classes, and it all circles around mindfulness. If you’re mindful of your health, if you’re mindful of your surroundings, your fears, your strengths … when you’re really in touch with that stuff, you can do something with it.”
Being both mindful – and thankful – have opened up many doors for Nate and the many people he has mentored over the years.
LOVE & THANKFULNESS
The Sun sets on you through your smile
Smile more often
You are the welcome mat to my happy day
You are the morning
From “A Love Poem for Patricia (My Wife/My Friend)”
Much of the love that Nate Gadsden has helped to spread around Harrisburg has used the conduit of The Writers Wordshop, a poet and authors workshop he created in 1977 (see this month’s separate article by Markeshia Wolfe for more details about the group). A former Harrisburg Poet Laureate himself, Gadsden’s status as a respected poetry mentor led to two other Wordship poets being appointed poets laureate: attorney Claude J. Lewis, and former Heavyword Poetry Championship slam winner Iya Isoke. “When Mayor Reed was in office,” Gadsden remembers, “he would literally just call me up and say ‘Nate, who would you recommend.’”
His love of poetry and the written word has inspired many local writers to publish volumes of their works, and Nate recently published an anthology of Writers Wordshop poetry titled “Our Words, Our Voices.” Among his favorite poetry memories is coaxing a youth he was mentoring at Lutheran Social Services into accompanying him to see Sonia Sanchez at Gettysburg College – and how, though reluctant at first, the man was thrilled to discover that poetry isn’t just about “trees and bees.” Nate’s group is also beginning to venture into the realm of storytelling (on October 17th they hosted the International Storytelling Festival at the State Museum) and he hosts a regular Thursday night interview show on Chris Thomas’ The Voice 17104 (“we have 140 countries tuning in as of now,” he boasts, “including Ghana and Uganda!”) Plus, Nate’s soon-to-be-released autobiographical collection, “In Search of Beloved Community,” isn’t “only about my writing and poetry,” he says, “it takes my whole life and puts it in a capsule.”
That encapsulated life also showcases Gadsden’s love for his community, and his gratefulness for the many experiences he’s had as both a pastor and a poet. “Meeting people who are on the same journey, and understanding that this IS a journey,” he says, describing how his shared journey is something that makes him most proud, and conveying a message to those who have journeyed with him: “Now that you’ve gone through all of this here, you’re now prepared to be empathetic to people who are in the same position. So, all of that stuff you went through, it wasn’t for naught. Now turn your mess into a message.”
And Gadsden’s closing message: “I am most thankful for The Writers Wordshop, and my wife, and just good people making things happen … I like people that are doers and get things done.”
Rev. Dr. Gadsden, by all appearances, has not only gotten an awful lot done, but is far from finished with his journey.