Easter morning hikers to sunrise services on Cerro San Luis on April 15, 2001, noticed a column of smoke rising near the base of the Cuesta Grade. The iconic A-framed United Methodist Church was burning to the ground. To this day, the suspected arson has not been solved.
Lutheran, Jewish and other religious groups came together to offer assistance. The fire also strengthened the resolve of Central Coast UMC congregations to help rebuild black churches in the deep South hit by arson.
Del Dingus, a former Cal Poly Professor in soil sciences, along with his wife, Yoshiko, made six week-long trips to the humid South to rebuild churches.
Asked what motivated him, he recalled a trip to New Orleans for a conference on world hunger and GMO food production. It was 1968 when he was a graduate student at West Virginia University. Five students, a Central American, two from Pakistan, a Mormon and a Jordanian — none with a driver’s license — joined him in the state car.
“I’d have to drive,” Dingus recalled.
It was on that trip when he got a taste of racism. Here’s his story:
“All seemed to be going well until I stopped for gas. The snack shop attendant looked at the dark-skinned students, then at me, and said they didn’t serve ‘n----.’ I asked for a box of peanut cookies. The clerk waited for what seemed a week but finally took my money.
“Every place I asked, we’d be served food out back — as long as it was carry-out and taken on the road. We were watched to make sure we got back on the Interstate.
“New Orleans was a much more welcoming place. Our hotel was clean and served lamb, as well as pork, which was ubiquitous in the South.
“After five days at the conference, it was the time to head north on Interstate 77.
“We were in Kentucky, almost home, when a flashing light came on behind us. I pulled to the right and stopped. ‘Get out of the car! Keep your hands where I can see them! Anyone have a weapon?’
“‘No!’ we answered in unison. Fear gripped us. ‘Stand up and put your hands on top of the car and spread your feet!’
“The officer didn’t ask for a driver’s license or ID. I turned toward him slowly. ‘Sir, is there a problem?’
“He shined a strong light in our eyes, one by one. I asked again, ‘What’s the problem, Sir?’ No answer. Then, ’Who are these blacks you’re transporting?’
“’They’re not Negroes. They’re Jordanian and Pakistani students from West Virginia U. Go Mountaineers!’ I said.
“‘I just clocked you doing 50 in a 25 zone,’ he said.
“I’d seen the sign listing the speed limit as 25. ‘I’m sure I was not speeding, sir.’
“‘It is 2 a.m. and I am going to take you in until we can figure this out. In cases like this I need to call the Judge to do the booking process. He becomes upset when I get him out of bed because I have stopped a speeder. We must protect our residents from guys like you.’
“‘Sorry, sir, I respectfully disagree with the speeding charge.’
“‘You can tell that to the judge!’ the officer said.
“The students were very concerned. They could be held, too. The officer picked up his ticket book and thought about what he should do. I asked, ‘Are you sure you want to wake the Judge? How about letting us go and we won’t come this way again?’
“After again shining his light in our faces, he said he never wanted to see us in Ivy Mills again.
“We returned home about midnight, exhausted. In the morning Majeed (one of the students) pounded on my door. ‘Here is your box of peanut butter cookies from the trip.’”
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The Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship BBQ fundraiser at the San Luis Obispo Elks Lodge is set from noon-3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, at 222 Elks Lane.
Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.