A priest with Chicago-area roots is visiting a church in North Beverly to celebrate his new book that chronicles young members of a congregation in Virginia standing with their pastor and bishop in opposing segregation in the 1950s.
The Rev. Roy G. Pollina, the former rector of Christ Church in Martinsville, Va., recently published “Justified by Her Children: Deeds of Courage Confronting a Tradition of Racism.”
He will visit the Episcopal Church of the Holy Nativity Chicago, 9300 S. Pleasant Ave., on Sunday, April 3, to preach during the 9:30 am service and then host a book-signing and discussion.
Pollina’s work is already winning awards, but he credited the people whose story the book recounts for it being so well received.
“I tell people, ‘Sadly, the story is better than the storyteller,’” Pollina said. “This is only my second book. I hope I did the story honour. I think it is a story of a brave man, a brave bunch of youths and a brave bishop.”
Pollina, who attended Proviso West High School in suburban Hillside, writes about the Rev. Phil Gresham, the rector of Christ Church in the late 1950s. The rector joined teenagers and Bishop Neff Powell in advocating for the integration of a youth summer camp in Virginia in 1958.
Adults opposed the decision, but by 1962, the camp became integrated.
Gresham had departed two years earlier after leading Christ Church for four years, and he died in 1985.
The young people have guided, however, now lead Christ Church.
Pollina credited them for doing their part to fight racism.
“Gresham’s young people are the lasting heroes of this story,” Pollina writes. “In a long look back at a time few will remember, they can still teach us today about the justifying wisdom of getting involved.”
Pollina was inspired to write the book, he said, when he was installed as rector of Christ Church in 2011. Powell attended the installation and told the congregation about a crozier—a stylized staff symbolizing the governing office of a bishop—that he received from those brave children several decades earlier.
Pollina retired in 2015, and he has spent the last five years writing the book, using numerous sources that equaled 294 in the book’s list of references.
Christ Church was the first time Gresham was a rector, Pollina said, and he arrived during a time when integration was a social and political hot-button issue.
Only 29 years old, Gresham wanted “to draw these people together,” Pollina said, and he endeared himself to young congregation members. He had a jukebox installed for them to host dance parties, and, as a former college wrestler, he started a wrestling club and became a coach.
Gresham was “a reluctant warrior,” Pollina said, but after a heated meeting regarding segregation in 1960, he quit as rector and returned to his mother’s house in Richmond, Va., the next day.
“He had tried and tried so hard to lead these people without making a big issue,” Pollina said. “He was loved by the youths.”
Pollina and Holy Nativity Deacon Daryce Hoff Nolan have been friends for four decades.
Pollina will first present his book on Wednesday, March 30, at St. John the Evangelist Church in Flossmoor, and Hoff Nolan is thrilled about his visit to Holy Nativity later in the week to share Gresham’s story.
“The thing that’s important to me about this book is that it’s one person who made a huge difference, who probably never even knew he made a difference,” Hoff Nolan said. “He was just following his heart from him and his faith from him.”
She also said Pollina’s visit is important.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to talk to somebody who firsthand has seen the harvest of long-term anti-racist work,” Hoff Nolan said. “And that’s really what it was. … Roy is very much an advocate for racial healing.”
Pollina said his book helps show how the fight against racism is ongoing, and “It didn’t end when Obama became president.”
Pollina knew the subject is a sensitive topic concerning people in a Virginia town where he once preached, but he wanted to tell the truth.
“I’m not going to call them racists,” Pollina said. “But, if they said racist things, I’m going to write that.”
“Justified by Her Children,” published in March 2021 by Mariner Media Inc., was awarded a silver medal in the Illumination Book Awards in the family/parenting category.
Based in Traverse City, Mich., the awards highlight selected Christian books.
Pollina said he’s honored to share Gresham’s story.
“Gresham loved and respected the youths of his parish, and they returned his love and respect to the degree that, half a century later, Phil Gresham is remembered by them as the greatest priest they ever knew,” Pollina writes.
“May it give us hope.”
“Justified by Her Children” is available at marinermedia.com, amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Google Play Books and other stores.
For information, visit the Facebook page for Roy G. Pollina.