The Rev. Norma Patterson spends half her time helping people get into heaven. The other half, she’s raising hell.
The East St. Louis pastor recently became president of United Congregations of Metro East, an interdenominational group of 32 churches that work for justice in education, housing, employment, transportation and the environment.
Sometimes the volunteer job involves battling the political system. Patterson, 69, writes letters, makes phone calls, visits public officials, attends rallies and leads prayer vigils.
“I feel like I am making a difference,” she said. “I’m doing what the Lord wants me to do, and that gives me a sense of well-being.”
On a recent Tuesday night, Patterson had a meeting of the East St. Louis Jobs Task Force in the kitchen of her church, Good Shepherd of Faith United Church of Christ. A dozen black contractors and construction workers shared a pot of chili while plotting strategy on how to bring more jobs to the city and promote fair-hiring practices on government projects.
“I’m here because there’s strength in numbers, and this group is extremely sincere about getting jobs for our black youth here in East St. Louis and to kill the myth that they don’t want to work,” said contractor Edward Slack, 80.
“It aches me in my heart to see kids running around not being able to find work, and we can’t do anything for them. Even black businessmen can’t help much. We can’t get adequate loans to help us grow our businesses. (As a task force), we work together and pool our resources.”
I’m here to help people go where they need to go. I don’t need to go anywhere. I’ve lived my life. But I recognize that some people need help to open some of the doors that are closed.
The Rev. Norma Patterson on her activism
Patterson kicked off the meeting with prayer and an update on her lobbying activities in Springfield and Washington, D.C.
“(U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin) said we will be getting an Amtrak stop in East St. Louis,” she said. “Exactly when it’s going to happen, I don’t know. But that’s a victory.”
The good news prompted a round of applause and a couple of “Hallelujahs.”
The bad news? The Illinois Department of Transportation’s new high-speed train from Chicago to St. Louis will stop in Alton, not East St. Louis as the task force had hoped.
Patterson often plays cheerleader, giving pep talks to those struggling to make ends meet and directing them to resources.
“She’s a wonderful person,” said construction worker Timothy Rice-Bey, 55, of East St. Louis. “She does everything she can to help you out. She reminds me of my mother. She has kind words, and she never gets angry.”
‘Quite a journey’
Patterson’s father, Alfred Edwards, was an East St. Louis contractor who built Good Shepherd and other churches. He and his wife, Dorothy, had 15 children. Two died as infants.
“My dad built our home on Converse Avenue,” Patterson said. “It was a shotgun house, and as they added more kids and ran out of room, he just built on the back.
“We were the first people on the block with indoor plumbing. We had a bathtub, a bathroom sink and a toilet, and they all had running water. That would have been about 1952. People in East St. Louis still had outhouses.”
Patterson married her college boyfriend in 11th grade and graduated from Lincoln Senior High. Since that time, her career path has been all over the map.
Patterson worked as a U.S. Postal Service clerk for 13 years. After getting divorced, she returned to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in English education and master’s in Victorian poetry at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
“We lived without a father in the home for a long time,” said her son, Jeff, 48, a St. Louis contractor. “But you couldn’t tell it from our upbringing. You couldn’t tell it from the way our house was kept.”
Patterson attended East Side football games played by Jeff and his brother, Jimmie, hauling equipment in her “beater” car, a 1975 Caprice Classic. She also kept up with daughter Janeen’s activities.
Patterson believes her parental involvement and the “grace of God” kept her sons, in particular, from becoming statistics on the streets.
“She’s always been a strong woman,” Jeff said. “She’s always been independent. She’s not afraid of anything.”
32 Churches in United Congregations of Metro East
10 Grandchildren of the Rev. Norma Patterson
While a graduate student, Patterson taught at SIUE. Then she worked as a middle-school language arts teacher for 16 years, became a St. Louis school administrator and moved to Florissant, Mo.
By the early 2000s, Patterson was living comfortably in the suburbs, with a new car, a nice home and money to travel to places such as Hawaii.
“But (that) was not enough, and the Lord was letting me know,” she said. “He said, ‘Go back and help those people where you came from.’”
Patterson began ministering with her brother, the Rev. Christopher Edwards, founder of Good Shepherd. He returned to the U.S. Army as a chaplain after 9/11, and she attended Eden Theological Seminary for three years to become a United Church of Christ pastor.
“That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?” she asked. “It was driven by a sense of obligation, responsibility and duty, not just to the people in this congregation, but to God.”
Prayer and candor
Patterson was sitting on a comfy couch in her church office, where she counsels people on everything from domestic abuse to financial problems. Diplomas and awards line a wall. A painting of a black Madonna and child sits on an easel.
Good Shepherd is a community haven for some. A grassy field, once used as a city dump, separates the church from a residential neighborhood with its share of crime. Bars cover doors and windows.
On this evening, two police cars were parked next to a basketball court where black youths were shooting hoops.
“That’s for security,” Patterson said. “They would turn that basketball court into a drug-distribution center if it weren’t for them.”
Good Shepherd joined United Congregations of Metro East in 2011 and helped create an East St. Louis Cluster. (The group also has clusters in Alton, Granite City and O’Fallon and is developing one in Edwardsville-Glen Carbon.)
Patterson had distributed food and clothing to poor people, but she knew it would take political activism to bring jobs to East St. Louis, and that it would be easier to get the attention of public officials with a coalition.
“As a citizen, as an individual, you can’t just walk into these places and talk to the people who run them,” she said.
Patterson stands at only 5-foot-1 with curly auburn bangs and a bun, and glasses with rhinestone temples. Supporters like her frank and fearless approach to social issues, as well as her down-to-earth personality.
One of former UCME Director Ken Aud’s favorite stories involves a Springfield meeting with Ann Schneider, who had just been appointed director of the Illinois Department of Transportation. Patterson took her hand and prayed for her success before grilling her about minority hiring.
“I just see (Norma) as a woman with a spiritual grounding and a heart for justice,” said Aud, 69, of Granite City.
Aud still serves as on the UCME executive committee. His church, First Presbyterian, helped persuade Granite City to join the Illinois Cool Cities program, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Patterson retired from education in 2007, moved back to Illinois and now lives in Fairview Heights with her daughter’s family. She has 10 grandchildren.
Good Shepherd is a family affair. Brother David Edwards serves as associate minister, sister Charlotte Lee teaches Bible studies, sister Kathy Jones is finance manager and son Jeff takes care of church maintenance.
“I’m here to help people go where they need to go,” Patterson said. “I don’t need to go anywhere. I’ve lived my life. But I recognize that some people need help to open some of the doors that are closed.
“They need jobs. They need training. They need to be able to feed their families and have some dignity. That comes much later. After you’ve eaten and paid your bills, then you start feeling good about yourself.”