HIS CINNAMON-COLORED face is gently furrowed and his fingers are heavy and thickened from a lifetime of building things. He reads frequently, but his intense hazel eyes require no glasses. And though the missing teeth are barometers that reveal the wear of time, his strength, agility and lucidity suggest a man far younger than his 92 years.
But Elisha Rolling is both a piece of Washington history and the walking and talking epitome of the black experience in America.Sitting with him in the living room crowded with the clutter of a lifetime, a room he keeps as hot as Hawaii, he talks of his faith and his memories of the development of modern Washington. And he talks of his penchant for building, which has culminated in a tiny church crafted totally by his own hands in the lot behind his house in Northeast Washington.
It is a builder's church, not gracious but sturdy as an ark, and it suggests a spirit similar to that of the late James Hampton, who created a gleaming throne made of tinfoil and old lightbulbs that is now on view at the Museum of American Art at 8th and G streets NW.
Rolling is at first distant when a visitor arrives at his small home. "There's nothin' much to talk about," he says. But he warns to his subject and to his company and talks about his father, who hauled the bricks that helped build modern day Arlington and Alexandria:
"Pa was a carpenter by trade. He was a wonderful builder. He was a big fella and had the arms and hauled bricks." That was a time when mule-driven barges brought coal to the Capitol and, during the Johnstown floods, the "water rose up to the horses' knees."
As a young man, Elisha Rolling profited by a mechanic's and builder's wits, learned as a boy at his father's feet. He learned early to drive a car, and during World War I, once served as chaffeur to Woodrow Wilson before Wilson became president.
As he still today boasts, "I'm a bricklayer, carpenter, plumber. I have about "leven sets of tools. I can fix anything 'cept a woman's small watch."
Elisha Rolling is somewhat of a relic, who ironically was decades ahead of some of the new country pioneers who have recently moved to the country and the outskirts of the suburbs to match their wits with nature's in a rebellion against technology gone awry. He is at no loss for living without newspapers or never turning on his 25-year-old television set. He is a self-taught man who attended classes only through elementary school, but has a library of 500 books that he often discusses.
This man is also a historical link in the progression from the 19th to the 20th century for a certain class of blacks who weren't on welfare, weren't carpetbaggers, but worked by their hands and wits. "I got more suits than you," he boasted to a younger man, "My tools are a circus. I got a set that can't be excelled except for scientific use."
But most of all, he strikes me as a man possessed not only by himself but by God, almost a visionary.I point to an amplified red banjo with a neck he made from a two-by-four. It is leaning against a low table that contains a radio, countless old, heavy books and three Bibles.
"Would you play?" I ask him.
He gets up from the easy chair where he'd been sitting near the stove, sticks the plug into the socket and sits in a nearby straight chair. His renditions of "Highway to Heaven" and "Telephone to Glory" follow.
"I can play all of those songs," he says, finally, pointing to a hand-printed list of religious numbers printed in large letters. "My wife died 15 years ago but I don't get lonesome."
Elisha Rolling has never held a church service in the cinderblock building behind his home. He has no congregation. But the church is complete with hymnals, a baptismal pool, 150 chairs, crafted heat ducts, toilets and pianos.
"I hadn't heard men teaching truth," he explains. "So God gave me the means to prepare a place where people can teach the truth like it is in the Bible. I'm waiting for a message. The first meeting I'm going to be the speaker if the Lord spares me. God has spoken to me four times in the past 42 years."
It is understandable. Elisha Rolling is a man from an age in which the destinies of blacks were so suppressed that the only manliness and satisfaction was completely through the spiritual route for the vast majority. Obedience to God brought prevention of accidents even; complete devotion ruled their days and nights. It was an age that did not pass for many blacks until the advent of the modern civil rights movement.
To his several children and grandchildren who live in Washington and elsewhere and who keep a close watch on him, Rolling is a man who lives in a fantasy world, somewhat out of touch with reality.
But as I left him, to drive back to reality, I could only marvel at a church that faith built, at a fulfilled and industrious man who participated in a world as it was being made, at a man from another century, in spirit as well as fact.