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A man of empowering features

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The Reverend T. Wendell Foster passed peacefully at his home in New York last week after decades of service in the United States and Bermuda. It happens that I had the fortune of catching up with this mentor and his extended family during his visit to the island at Cup Match time this year.

Foster, who was born 95 years ago in Alabama, served for a period as an iconic clergyman in Bermuda in the 1950s, and in the 1970s became the first African-American to serve on the New York City Council to represent the Borough of the Bronx.

He began his life in the abject poverty of small-town Alabama during the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan.

He escaped the terror of Jim Crow, travelling alone to New York at the age of 13. This was the beginning of a journey of personal transformation that led to his involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Mr Foster credits divine intervention for being able to transcend the challenges of the Big Apple in his early teens, with the help of a network of “angels”.

His military service during the Second World War gave him access to a college education, facilitating his decision to become a pastor. It was in that role that he took the pulpit at Vernon Temple AME Church in Bermuda in the early 1950s.

Foster's experience in civil rights meant that his ministry had a decidedly social agenda, promoting personal empowerment. From those seeds, after Mr Foster's tenure at the Southampton church, a group of members from Vernon Temple initiated the formation of the Bermuda Provident Bank in the early 1970s — an effort to create a “people's bank”.

Mr Foster married his Bermudian wife, Helen Somersall, a Latin teacher at the Berkeley Institute, while serving on the island. He then took the pulpit at St Paul AME in Hamilton during the late 1950s.

He continued his promotion of a socially oriented message with implications for the wider community of Bermuda. While at St Paul, Mr Foster was my mother's favourite, and his message helped to shape my own philosophical foundation as an eight to ten-year-old.

Twenty years later, in the early 1980s when we were jump-starting the anti-apartheid movement in Bermuda, I was able to reconnect with Mr Foster, having learnt of his involvement in the American Committee on Africa.

While he was serving his second decade as a New York City councillor, championing a renewal of the Big Apple, he was also engaged in the campaign of solidarity with the people of South Africa.

Mr Foster's support enabled us to get a variety of key figures to come to Bermuda to build awareness in the global campaign to transform South Africa.

In 1984, the 150th anniversary of emancipation, Foster arranged to have the iconic American actor Ossie Davis headline our stage production at Ruth Seaton James Auditorium, entitled Foundation '84.

The sell-out production not only raised funds for South Africa, but also facilitated a community appreciation of the Bermuda story.

When Nelson Mandela was finally released in February 1990, and he made his historic visit to New York and the United Nations, Mr Foster arranged for a delegation of us to attend special events in the city.

Canon Thomas Nisbett, Ottiwell Simmons and myself had the opportunity to participate in a number of events that were laid on.

This was possible because of Mr Foster's role with the New York City Council and his personal relationship with Harry Belafonte, who was the co-ordinator of Mandela's US visit.

In our conversation a few weeks ago with Mr Foster, his wife, Helen, her cousin, Canty Corbin, and his two daughters, it was evident that he was satisfied with the journey he had been travelling.

His wit was still sharp and there was that gleam in his eyes — knowing that he had done his part and encouraging the rest of us to “keep the faith”.

Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda

Keep the faith: New Yorker Reverend T. Wendell Foster preached at Vernon Temple and St Paul African Methodist Episcopal Churches in the 1950s and 1960s, and married a Bermudian (Photograph supplied)
Reverend Thomas Wendell Foster died on September 3, aged 95
Glenn Fubler

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Published September 11, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated September 11, 2019 at 8:41 am)

A man of empowering features

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