Most afternoons, the Champaign Church of the Brethren is a hub of activity, with young people learning about sewing and cooking and receiving tutoring.
At the center of all the action is the Rev. DAWN BLACKMAN, the church’s outreach pastor for the past six years.
Blackman has made it her purpose in life to help out the boys and girls of Champaign-Urbana in whatever way she can.
Staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with the 68-year-old Chicago native for a chat at the church.
We understand you aspired to be a Roman Catholic altar girl and nun growing up. True?
I grew up Catholic, and I attended Catholic schools in Chicago: Holy Cross School, St. Francis School and high school at Chicago Loretto Academy. What I really wanted was to be an altar boy, to serve at mass.
But they wouldn’t let me because I was a girl. All we could do was clean the cassocks, dust the communion rail and wipe up the stuff that the altar boys spilled.
When I went to high school, I was a hitter on the volleyball team. At one point, I thought I might become a nun.
When I was in eighth grade, I called the convent. I was told it was better for young women to make that kind of decision following a couple of years in high school.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I decided I didn’t want to become a nun.
Tell us about growing up on Chicago’s South Side.
My parents had two home-based businesses. My mom had a catering business she ran out of the kitchen. She also was a licensed beautician and did hair. And she sewed.
My dad ran an interior design business out of our basement. There wasn’t much interior design work for an African American man because, in those days, there weren’t very many men in that field and hardly any African Americans.
My dad did work for different people in show business in Chicago. And he also painted houses and restored antiques.
And you were in a high school music group?
I sang in a little group known as the McDonald Sisters. They needed an alto to complete their harmonies because the sisters were all sopranos.
We sang Christian music and performed at folk masses. We sang a lot in church.
What was your first job?
I started my own sewing business when I was nine years old. I made knockoff Barbie doll clothes and sold them on the playground at school. I made handmade buttonholes for suits.
By the time I was in the fourth grade, I was a school walker and an after-school tutor. I walked younger kids home from school. Many of them were kindergartners whose moms worked when they got out of school. I tutored younger kids in reading.
I never considered myself an entrepreneur. It was just what I did.
Tell us about your work before you became a minister.
By the time I was in high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I was sure I wanted to have my own business. I kept my sewing business. My mother always said to make sure my income was diverse.
Right now, I am teaching a group of young women. They are called Goddess Works. It is a crafting group. They learn weaving, they learn sewing and doll making.
Because I worked in my mother’s catering business, I had a lot of experience with catering. I did commercial catering for awhile. My uncle had a commercial catering business, and I worked with him. I gained a lot of skills that served me well.
Do you think sewing has become a lost craft today?
Yes. Clothes are cheap. It is cheaper to replace it than repair it. People who buy really nice clothes are more likely to have them repaired.
If you buy a suit for 30 bucks at Walmart, you aren’t going to have it repaired.