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Octogenarian Joins Flight Against Poverty

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Enveloped by a roomy arm chair, Mrs. J. Leslie French appears to be a typical little old lady. As her thin frame gently rests against a squashy cushion, she gets lost in tales of her youth during the previous century. V Her delightful high voice speaks slowly, obviously savoring experiences as they are recalled. Listening, one might initially think she has successfully ignored this anxious world to enjoy a quiet peace full of memories, grandchildren and cookie-making. Büt don't let her fooi you. At 89, Edna French has the fighting spirit of any modern activist. Literally. And her projects prove it. Mrs. French's most recent cause was the sit-in sponsored by the Black " nomic Development League (BEDL) and the Welfare Rights Organization (WRO) at First Presbyterian Church. The two groups have been sitting-in at Ann Arbor churches to dramatize the needs of local poor famlies. Their requests include recognition of BEDL-WRO as a legitímate agent for the poor, assistance in raising funds for the disadvantaged community, and contribution toward the immediate school clothing oeeds of welfare family children. First Presbyterian Church was the first church occupied by BEDL-WRO. On Aug. 19, the groups began their sit-in. Only one incident, the disruption of the Aug. 23 Sunday service, marred the otherwise peaceful sit-in. A temporary injunction barring disruption of church services and interference with church business forced the group to leave the church on Sept. 4. After re-occupation of the church on Oct. 1, they were served with a second court order to show cause why BEDLWRO leaders should not have been held in contempt of Circuit Court for ignoring the initial injunction. As the wife of the late Rev. J. Leslie French, the first campus pastor in the United States and former minister at the First Presbyterian Church, Mrs. French took special interest in the plans of BEDL-WRO this fall. After Hank Bryant, vice-president of BEDL spoke to a small group of church members about a non-disruptive re-occupation after the initial sit-in, Mrs. French took to the telephone to drum up support for the effort among church members. As she described her interest, 'Tve fought racism and poverty all my life. I didn't like it as a child; I don't like it now. "For 300 years it's been this way for poor blacks. Think of it. We owe them so much. And the church is a good place to start helping them." As. for her specific funetion, she continued, "I was ill at the time the sit-in started, so I couldn't be as active as my son-ir.-law and granddaughter, but I phoned a lot of people to encourage them to take more interest in what was happening. "When I got better, I decided to go meet this Charles Thomas, head of the BEDL. After church one Sunday he carne up to the lobby from the French Room (named in honor of Mrs. French's husband), where they were sitting in, to me. "We had a real good visit. I liked him," she paused and smiled. "He had to leave to clean up the French Room after his group ate breakfast. He was very thorough and earnest about the agreement he made not to disturb any of the church's services. "After he left I saw one of the ministers who said he'd had a complaint about Charles and that he planned to put the group out. "Well, I said to him, 'You just can't do that. They haven't done anything wrong,' But he did it anyway " she sighed. "When Charles was taken to court I went down there twice, even though I wasn't well, to testify that he had done nothing wrong. "He was only talking to me when he was accused of disturbing services. And do I look like someone who could contribute to the disruption of a church?" she laughingly asked. "Charles had been thoughtful enough to 1 take time out to explain'his cause to an interested old lady. Afterwards, he was hurrying to clean up the French room when he was accused of causing trouble. I just wanted to teil the court a little more tolerance is necessary, because he was hardly disrupting." Although she waited as long as three hours in court, Mrs. French never had a chance to testify because both the injunction and the show cause order were dropped. And, since then, the church has agreed to set a goal of $60,000 to be used for the group's demands. Proceeds of a church drive, which begin Tuesday, will be administered by the newly formed Interfaith Coalition of Congregations. After First Presbyterian Church agreed to help, Mrs. French sterted an oral campaign to win support for BEDL - WRO's demands at other churches and by the rest of the community. "The churches should have been more willing to talk when the requests originally were made, so the poor would not have to do something as drastic as sit-in," she explained in a firm tone. "We also should let them administer the funds. For too long we've done things for them, not with them, as if we could manage or know any better how to spend the money. "This way it'll take such time because all funds will have to go through the coalition. It just shouldn't get bogged down in an intermediary. "This just isn't the way to work it," she repeated. Then shaking her head in frustration, she murmured, "Especially when you think of all that needs to be done." Mrs. French's concern for people goes beyond the BEDL-WRO situation. She was one of the first people active in the city's public housing discussions, and privately has assisted many needly families in finding low-cost, but adequate, homes. Another of her main concerns has been the plight of American Indians. The interest is based on experiences as a child, when Indians from Walpole Island stayed with her family in Port Hurón, and as a young woman, when she and her husband lived with an Apache for six months at the Cook Christian Training School in Arizona. 'Tve never understood how we could be ■ so unfair to these people. Again, look at all we've taken from them. "All four reservations in Michigan are in bad condition, and Indians are as needy as the poor blacks. This is another area where the church should try to help," she suggested. Mrs. French's compassion is touching, and her interest is deep. Tears well in her eyes as she relates many of the problems of inequality, making one feel deeply reawakened to both the personal tragedies of poverty and society's inadequacy in the handling of this condition. As she reminisces about similar situations during her youth, her age provides an almost symbolic meaning. Poverty is an ageless problem. accent on women


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