In the 1960s, Tulsa was sharply divided between the haves and have-nots, a two-city place where an affluent Southside could largely ignore the festering poverty of North Tulsa. It fell to Dan Allen, Catholic priest turned social activist, to find a way to bridge the divide.
He began by turning the vestibule of St. Jude Catholic Church into a gathering place for donated goods for the poor. Soon it spread into the educational wing, then the parking lots, and eventually across a nearby farm. It was ramshackle, untidy, and endlessly creative.
As volunteers’ efforts to provide help mushroomed, so did their understanding. From this beginning, a new but unique social service agency, Neighbor for Neighbor, was born in 1967. In time, NFN would consume the lives of Father Allen and his followers, transforming both the lives of needy folk and those who sought to help them. As he became a voice for the poor, Dan also lured a surprising number of more affluent citizens into dedicating their lives to helping. It was, he said, an exercise in religious education, a tough University of Poverty, teaching understanding and compassion.
Many of today’s mainstream programs, such as the food bank and a voluntary school desegregation program, were birthed at NFN. Similar neighbor agencies sprung up around the region. But most important, NFN became, in the words of one founder, the social conscience of the city. The story has insights from yesterday and lessons for the challenges society faces today and tomorrow.