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A Radical for All

Alum provides a lifeline for the elderly

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Virgia Phoenix has made a career out of caring for others, ever since her student days at the School of Theology studying under Allan Knight Chalmers, a former mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59). With a deep capacity for compassion and a knack for problem solving, she has spent decades helping the aged, feeding the hungry, and encouraging her fellow Methodists to put their principles into practice.

“I was already a radical,” recalls Phoenix (STH’61), “but coming to Boston and studying under Dr. Chalmers reinforced it.”

What made Phoenix a radical to begin with?

“I grew up in Mississippi. That’s what really motivated me,” she says of her childhood in the Jim Crow South. “It might be my family background. My mother never backed down from anybody. Even though we lived in Mississippi, she was involved in voter registration and activism. My parents always encouraged us to stand up for our rights.”

In Chalmers, an STH professor of homiletics, Phoenix found another role model and “one of my favorite professors.” The onetime National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) president “was very involved in working for social justice, civil rights, and changes in social attitudes. A lot of that influenced me,” she says. “All of the training I got under him really helped me in terms of being engaged in a lot of the issues I became engaged in, like peace and justice.”

Following graduation from BU, Phoenix worked as a director of religious education at various churches and camps in and around Boston and New York. She took a maternity leave to raise her daughter, but quickly “got tired of being a stay-at-home mom.”

When she was asked to help open a senior center in New York City’s Harlem, she jumped at the chance. “And from then on,” she says, “I was involved in the field of aging.” She ended up working for Senior Services of Albany for 21 years, arranging transportation and medical care, weatherizing homes, and even chasing down employers who owed back pay to their former housekeepers.

“Working with senior citizens is really very rewarding,” says Phoenix. “When you help them resolve an issue, you know immediately that you’ve done something to make life better for them.”

For half of that time, she also served as a wellness coordinator for the county, running health education programs, blood pressure screenings, and flu clinics.

Phoenix didn’t give up on religious education, though. She is now a peace with justice coordinator for the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC). She speaks at churches, urging Methodists to follow the UMC’s social principles, which include respect for all of God’s creation and an obligation to seek peace and justice in all matters—economic, social, and environmental. “It’s about empowering them to be more vocal when it comes to political issues,” she says.

However, the bulk of her time today is spent running the Everly Cromwell Community Center, located in an Albany multigenerational public housing development that includes many elderly.

“It’s basically a drop-in center, where we serve three meals a week and we hold a dinner once a month,” she explains. “People can come in and use our computers. We have meetings, book signings, gospel brunches, fashion shows, dance groups, book clubs. We observe African American History Month. We’ve also had GED classes in the past. We do voter education and registration, and we try to help people get themselves into the job market, which is difficult in many cases because a lot of people come in with a history of drug abuse or incarceration.”

According to a 2007 story in the Albany Times Union, “Phoenix prepares and serves food and does the lion’s share of the cleanup, for residents and the local community at large.” She “accepts donations to run the food program, which is free to the hungry, but admits she spends her own money to keep it going.”

The article also noted that diners at the Everly eat with silverware and on china. “I try not to use disposables,” Phoenix says. “It makes you feel better when you’re eating on real dishes, using real forks, spoons, and knives. The other reason is, disposables cost too much!”

The city pays Phoenix to work part-time, but she generally ends up putting in a full-time week. “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning,” she says. “I’m just not the kind of person who can sit at home and do nothing.”

What she enjoys most is meeting people’s needs, she says. “When it comes to food, I know the ones who are vegetarian, who are allergic to seafood, who don’t like chicken. Sometimes people say to me, ‘Well, Miss Virgie, just let ’em go and have whatever there is to have! Don’t be trying to specialize.’ But I’m concerned about everybody’s issues.”

Concern for others—if there’s a thread that runs through Phoenix’s career, that’s it—“Caring for people, and making sure they get a fair break in life,” as she puts it.

Her mother would be proud. In fact, she is proud. “She’s still alive,” Phoenix says of the woman who taught her to stick up for herself and her community. “She’s 107 years old.”

A version of this story appeared in the winter 2012 edition of Focus.

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