When Chris Hobgood was growing up in the Belgian Congo, his days were a mixture of American and African routines.
Mornings, he and his brothers and sisters received an American education from his mother - using the Lexington, Ky., school curriculum his missionary parents brought with them to Africa. Afternoons, all six Hobgood children fished and played barefoot soccer with their African playmates.
That life ended more than 25 years ago, when Chris Hobgood returned to America to finish his high school education. But it was several more years before Chris Hobgood found "home."
If you were looking for the Rev. Chris Hobgood ten years ago and couldn't find him at the First Christian Church in Alexandria, you might have found him in a low-income neighborhood, quieting tempers, or in a City Council meeting, raising tempers.
Today, you probably would find him meeting with one of the many organizations to which he belongs - each of them a vehicle for doing what Hobgood considers his job: "harnessing change to make the world more human."
Hobgood has been working at that job for the past 13 years in Alexandria, where he has come to be known as one of the key figures in promoting better race relations.
In the racial disquiet of the late '60s and early '70s, Hobgood was on the street helping to defuse explosive confrontations between white and black. Through the next few years, he worked as chairman of the Alexandria Economic Opportunities Commission to find solutions to the problems that had caused the black community to erupt. Most recently, Hobgood has emerged as a spokesman for the tenants of the Shirley Duke Apartments, one of the few low-cost housing complexes in the city. It is soon to be closed.
Hobgood is a stocky, graying man in his early 40s, whose square-jawed face has the look of someone who has weathered many conflicts. Sitting in his small study at the Church, his desk a foot deep in publications and a pipe smoker's paraphernalia, he talked recently about his childhood and of the 13 years he has lived and worked in Alexandria.
Hobgood was born in the Belgian Congo, now Zaire. He was the youngest of six children, three of whom have returned to Zaire as missionaries. For 10 of his first 15 years he lived in Zaire, with occasional trips to the family home in Kentucky.
Hobgood describes his parents' work as "a social ministry for religious reasons. They believed it was terribly important to show people the love of God, but doing that might mean working in literacy training, writing a grammar book or translating the Bible into African dialects."
When he was 15, Hobgood was sent to live with his sister in Wisconsin so he could attend a U.S. high school. He suffered "radical culture shook," he says. "I thought in the African dialect for the first six months."
After high school, Hobgood won a partial football scholarship to the University of Kentucky, but later transferred to Transylvania College where there was no football and he could concentrate on his studies. He hoped to become a medical missionary - to fulfill his mother's dream.
At Transylvania he met his wife, Cary Meade, whose idea of their future was different from his.
"She wasn't raised in Africa," Hobgood said, "and the idea of living there was not as appealing to her as it was to me."
Her reaction made Hobgood examine his reasons for wanting to return to Zaire.
"Part of my wanting to go back to Africa was wanting to go home. And then the possibility arose that maybe the United States could become home."
They were married in 1959, while Hobgood completed graduate studies at the Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. In 1961, they moved to Charlestown, Ind., where he was pastor of the Christian Church until 1965.
In 1965, Hobgood became pastor of the First Christian Church in Alexandria, where he has been since. As he sees it, his life as a clergyman here falls into four phases.
He spent the first two years in his new pastorate "looking around and learning." In the second phase, from 1967 until 1972, he gradually became an outspoken advocate for many social issues - mental health, civil rights, open housing, integrated schools and the national peace movement.
Sometimes his aggressive tactics made him less than popular. For instance, Hobgood recalls a school board meeting when he told Superintendent John Albohm he would willingly testify in favor of a plan to integrate Alexandria schools. "Reverend Hobgood," said Albohm, "we have a workable plan. If you speak for it, it might lose."
Although establishment Alexandria eyed him warily, Hobgood was known as a friend to many low-income blacks and whites in the city.
"He served as a sensitizer to the white community," said the Rev. Samuel NeSmith, a black minister. "He knew the establishment, but yet had a feel for the common person, and that was evident from the fact that he was seen at places like Hopkins House (a black community center) and the Boys' Club. When the white community needed him he was a perfect entree into the black community."
As it turned out, they needed him in the fall of 1969, and again in the spring of 1970 when, Hobgood says, "Two incidents occured that surfaced a lot of the discontent among blacks in Alexandria."
In the first, a black youth was hit on the head with a police revolver. The officer said he had acted in self-defense. The incident set off demonstrations and riots that the police department, which had only one black officer, found hard to handle.
The second, more serious, incident occurred when a black youth was shot to death by a white store manager in the Arlandria area. The manager said he thought the youth was stealing razor blades.
This time the rioting spilled out of black neighborhoods, and for the first week of June 1970 Alexandria witnessed street confrontations, vandalism and firebombings.
At the time of the two incidents, Hobgood was one of several clergymen who had volunteered to be on call if police needed help in defusing tense situations. He remembers one situation after the first incident, when about 40 blacks gathered on a street corner and refused to leave when ordered by Lt. Charles Strobel (now chief of police).
Deputy Police Chief Clyde Scott, who was present, confirmed that Hobgood was able to disperse the crowd. "He was one of the few white leaders who could communicate with those people - he knew many of the black leaders."
In the aftermath of the racial tensions, Hobgood began working toward finding solutions to the problems that had surfaced, attacking in particular police-community relations, unemployment and child care. From 1969 until 1972, most of those efforts were through his work as chairman of the Alexandria Economic Opportunities Commission.
His role caused some problems at his church. "We lost some members," he said, "and there were considerable anonymous phone calls and mail, which peaked in 1968 and 1969. There was a period of two weeks when we lost pledges of between $5,000 and $6,000, which we could ill afford. Part of it was a distortion of my point of view, and part of it was pure, honest disagreement."
According to Vola Lawson, who was on the staff of EOC when Hobgood was chairman, "He was most active in trying to involve other clergy in the problems of low-income people and minorities and in strengthening the EOC employment sector."
Through the Steering Committee of the Alexandria Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which Hobgood helped found in 1972 and still chairs, he helped set up programs to introduce school children to the police. Hobgood has just completed a term as president of the Greater Washington Council of Churches.
By 1973, says Hobgood, "I became interested in retooling my life by learning organizational techniques," and in the third phase of his ministry, during the next two years, he spent much of his time at the Mid-Atlantic Association for Training and Consulting, studying applied behavioral science.
For the last three years, in what Hobgood calls the fourth phase of his ministry, "I've been trying to take that training and use it in organizational life. I still believe in raising political cain in cases where things are just plain unjust."
The problems of the tenants forced to move from the Shirley-Duke Apartments earlier this year represent such a case. At a press conference in April, Hobgood was the spokesman for the Shirley Duke Relief Committee, a group concerned over diminishing low-cost housing in the city.
"I envision Alexandria in the near future as a ring of high-rise buildings full of expensive condominiums excluding dogs, children and minorities, surrounding Old Town," Hobgood said. "I'm not advocating more public housing; what I am advocating is a housing ladder that enables people of varying incomes to find a place to live."
Hobgood's interest in maintaining an economically and socially integrated city stems, he says, from his own family's pleasure in living in two such communities in Alexandria: Del Ray and Strawberry Hill. His two teenage daughters and the 8-month-old son he calls "a delightful and now very welcome surprise," all benefit, he thinks, from living in a heterogeneous society.
Hobgood would like to see the steering committee expanded to a housing action coalition "that would see the federal government, the city and the private market system join together to explore ways to make a heterogeneous society be in everyone's interest."
Judith Feaver, chairman of the Community Development Block Grant Advisory Board, thinks such a task force would be beneficial. "There are lots of housing programs in the city, and it's a good idea to have a group not only monitoring what is going on, but taking an overview, seeing what is being missed and finding ways to come in and help out."
For Hobgood, action on housing issues is one way of attacking the racial tension he believes still exists in Alexandria.
Comparing the atmosphere today with that of ten years ago, he says, "In many ways it's quite tense, but for a different reason; not for obvious racism but for a more subtle form of racism, as in the housing market. There may be even more separation of blacks and whites in Alexandria now. There's as much dialogue now as then, but it hasn't produced attitudinal changes. What we're discovering today is that we haven't made as much progress as we thought we'd made - and I include myself in the 'we.'"
But he plans to continue working for change, even if the gains are few.
"I'm optimistic," he says, "because of my own history, my family and my faith."