by Wes Lathrop
One of great joys of being a community organizer is the opportunity to explore and begin to understand the great depths of many different people. As organizers, we seek to understand the history, experiences, pain, anger, passion, and dreams of the people we relate to. We hope to engage in purposeful relationship that springs out of a deep desire to transform the world around us.
I had the pleasure of first meeting Stirling Schwiebert about three years ago. POWER hadn’t publicly launched yet, and we were in a phase of research to better understand the various systems at play in our City. I was staffing the Jobs Research Team and Stirling was an active member of the team, so I set up our first of many one-to-one conversations to begin building relationship with him.
Midway through this first conversation I was shocked to learn that Stirling had a rare illness that would most likely take his life, possibly in the short-term and very likely in the long-term. Stirling confessed to me that he hadn’t always lived the kind of purposeful life he wish he would have. He went on to tell me that even though this disease may take his life soon, he felt God calling him to spend his limited time doing social justice work with POWER.
As I left that meeting I felt great sadness of his circumstances, but even more I felt pushed to live more boldly. I thought to myself that if I was in his shoes, I probably would have been filled with bitterness and simply curled up and felt sorry for myself. I was inspired by his witness, and honestly I quickly began to feel an incredible amount of pressure. If Stiring was going to stand for social justice even in the midst of great tribulation I knew that I (we) couldn’t be half-hearted about the pursuit to transform our City.
As POWER began its first campaign, Stirling continued to be involved, working to engage the members of Old First UCC as well as other POWER leaders to develop a strategy to increase economic opportunity for thousands of Philadelphia International Airport workers. Stirling was always reminding me that it was unacceptable that some people in our City didn’t get the training they needed to perform many jobs, and that if someone works a job they should not live in poverty.
When Stirling’s health became unstable he obviously had to pull back on his engagement with POWER. What was incredible to me was the fact that I would often get calls from him where he apologetically explained why he was going to have to miss a meeting or why I hadn’t seen him lately. I thought to myself – this man could be dying. But here he is calling me to apologize for missing a meeting.
Many people wonder where organizers get their idealism and energy. It is most often in face-to-face conversations with the people we work with, and more for me it is people like Stirling who embody so much of the human spirit that is at the heart of why we do our work. That spirit will forever move me to leave boldly and prophetically.
I pray that Stirling’s witness continues to agitate us at POWER to work powerfully for those on the margins of our society. Stirling, you have left an imprint on this city and on us. We will never forget you.
A memorial service will be held on May 17th at 10AM at Old First (151 N. 4th St), followed by a luncheon at Ruby Buffet, 1100 S. Christopher Columbus Ave. Regards and blessings may be sent to Mike Wass, Old First, or Stirling’s sister Sheila:
Old First Reformed UCC
151 N. 4th St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
7 Bells Court
Philadelphia, PA, 19106
6 Magnolia Place
Bethalto, IL 62010
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The Men’s Shelter c/o Old First Reformed UCC, 151 N. 4th, Philadelphia, PA 19106.