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The Gospel Of Compassion And Kindness: Remembering Emmit Powell

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For years, I celebrated God in my bedroom on Saturday mornings.

I should explain.

When I was a kid, every Saturday morning I would wake up to hear the beginning of the gospel song “Are you Ready for a Miracle?” by Patti LaBelle and the Edward Hawkins choir. A booming voice would come on: “From San Francisco! The most beautiful city in the world! Emmit Powell and the Gospel Experience!” We then would hear Emmit Powell say: “Good morning, good morning. We’re here to brighten your day and your spirits. Sit back, call your friends and neighbors.”

Then Patti would sing “Let God do it! Let God do it!”

As a person who has been called on her control issues, hearing that I should let God do it was a weekly reminder and mantra.

Emmitt Powell had a radio show on KPFA since 1975, where he played gospel songs, read Bay Area church announcements, interviewed singers who, when asked how they were, would say, “I’m blessed. How are you?”

This might not sound out of the ordinary, but this was KPFA.

In Berkeley.

This was a radio station who devoted Wednesday nights to the Grateful Dead, played a recording of “Why I Am An Atheist” by Madelyn Murray O’Hair on Christmas, and broadcast the sunrise ceremony Native Americans hold on Thanksgiving morning. Listening to KPFA would make Mitch McConnell or Mike Pence shake their heads and bemoan all those “San Francisco snowflake liberals.”

Yet, Saturday mornings, there was Emmit Powell, playing gospel, talking to his assistant (around the time when I listened it was Gabrielle Wilson, another KPFA DJ and teacher), about music and the news going on in the world.

I listened to Emmit Powell for years until I moved out of the Bay Area three years ago. KPFA on Saturdays were wonderful. After the Gospel Experience, rhythm and blues legend Johnny Otis would come on with “The Johnny Otis Show,” playing R&B songs by acts he either managed or produced. Then there was blues and jazz. If I didn’t have to go out to work or run errands, I could listen to KPFA all day, while I was reading or writing. Yet it was Emmitt Powell’s soul that always gave me a spiritual boost. As a lapsed Catholic, I have problems with organized religion, yet still consider myself a spiritual person. Listening to songs like “Wade in the Water” or “Don’t Let Nothing Get Your Spirit Down” got me through some rough times. Listening to The Gospel Experience would give me a spiritual shot that helped me throughout the week.

The Saturday after 9/11, I was so sad, trying to make sense of a senseless situation. I put the Gospel Experience on and I can’t remember what everything Mr. Powell said, but I do remember him saying: “We will rise.” Hearing that was such a comfort to me. For days all I heard about was retaliation, blame, and anger and the simple words we will rise made me feel hopeful that we would be okay.

Everyone loved Emmit Powell, especially KPFA’s core audience: progressives who loved Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders and thought PBS NewsHour was the Corporate Media At Work. One time a song was playing that had homophobic lyrics in it. He stopped playing the song right away and said: “I am so sorry about playing that. I had played songs by this singer before and I had no idea he sang songs like this.” In minutes, he received phone calls and emails saying not to worry, they knew he would never knowingly play homophobic songs. During pledge times, he received pledges from faithful churchgoers, atheists and agnostics. He even received donations from prisoners in San Quentin. Every Saturday mornings he threw out a net of compassion, music, and kindness.

And every Saturday, that net would come back full of the same.

When I moved, it became too hard to listen to KPFA and other Bay Area stations. It made me terribly homesick. I didn’t know that Mr. Powell had cancer the past couple of years and when I heard he died Thursday night, I sat down and wept. Here’s the ironic part: I found out on Saturday morning.

Why did I stop listening to his show? In these dark days, I think we all need music to brighten our days and spirits.

Emmitt Powell always ended his shows by saying “I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go.”

And it was always too soon.