Good (Man)ners: Rodney Christian on Finding Your Gift and Giving It Back
Good (Man)ners is devoted to male-identifying dudes who share our belief that when you uplift women, you uplift everyone. Read on to hear from Cincinnatians who take allyship to heart.
Rodney Christian grew up in East Westwood – to be frank, one of Cincinnati’s most struggling communities. Even as a kid, he was a leader, but he didn’t know it. One day a friend shined a light on Rodney’s gift of community and relationship building. He encouraged Rodney to help him open a basketball gym so the kids in their community had a safe place to spend their time. Today, Rodney manages a recreation center at Third Presbyterian Church in the heart of East Westwood. It’s open seven days a week, and there’s always an open door for the kids who need it.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I grew up in this community down the street. As a kid coming up, I was always organizing things. I never knew I was going to be part of something bigger. Years ago, when I was a young man, a gym opened down at the old Roll Hill School. Even before it opened, I’d go play basketball with the kids. A lot of the kids looked up to me. A friend of mine, Reggie Roberts, was the one opening the gym up. He realized the connection I had with the community. He asked me to get involved. I have been, ever since opening up the gym. It started with basketball, but it evolved to really everything that I do now.
So it all started with basketball; what other programming do you offer?
We have a reading program. We have a tutoring program. We have our culture corner to teach the kids more about their culture and the people who came before them. We try to highlight African Americans who invented different things that they never knew.
And, actually, that I didn't know, too. When we started putting it together, I was like, “Wow! I didn't know an African American created something like that.”
How have you been able to give so much to the community?
I was very fortunate to get a good job at a young age, right out of high school from my uncle, who passed away years ago. He got me connected with the city; got a city job at 19 working for Greater Cincinnati Water Works. That helped me be able to do what I do: not having to work two, three jobs to survive.
I’ve been involved in the community for generations. I mean, some of the kids that I mentored, their grandkids are in here now. It's tradition after tradition going on here. I just got passion. I just want to see young people have a better opportunity. I want them to be able to recognize their gifts before things go bad. A lot of the kids that I dealt with ended up in jail, died, even got killed and stuff like that. But I try to help them recognize their gifts beforehand. That's why I try to spend a lot of time with them.
When you see their faces, you realize your calling. I don’t say that lightly. It’s a calling.
I believe that God sent me to do this. I feel good that I am doing God's work. I also get a lot back from it. If I'm a little depressed or down, a kid could come here and hug me or give me something he made. Or somebody from the past comes in and says, “Hey man. I appreciate what you do, Coach Rod.” It fills my faith tank back up.
Is that what keeps you going after all these years?
I guess just to see a kid when they see you show up… That’s the key. They light up. They’re happy to see you and are ready to go do whatever activity is planned for that day. When you see their faces, you realize your calling. I don’t say that lightly. It’s a calling.
When Reggie asked me to manage the gym, he said, “You got a gift, man. Everybody loves you, man.” You know, actually, that was the first time anybody ever said that I had a gift. No one ever told me that.
My mother was sick during the time of my growing up. She was in the hospital. My father was in the streets – may he rest in peace. I was raised by my grandmother and had a lot of other cousins and stuff. But no one ever told me, “You got a gift, man. You're good at that.”
That’s why now when I see a child's gift, I tell him that right off the bat. I tell them, “You were given a gift. See that gift. I see it.”
What are some of your favorite stories of kids who have come through here?
There's a lot that I can think of, which is a good thing. I'm gonna talk about Quashawn. He's a champion boxer. And he got some big fights coming up. He grew up here. I used to take him to the boxing gym. He had a song that I used to play going to his practices. He played it on the cellphone yesterday. And I was like, “You remember that?” It’s funny to me when they bring stuff up from the past. They'd be in the backseat of my car, so little their feet never hit the floor. I played that song as an inspiration to them. It’s called “I Believe.”
Now he comes back, when he can, to talk with the kids. He's been through a lot. Now that he's a boxing champion, with more great things coming, you know, it says a lot that he comes back to give back.
I need the kids now to see themselves as the main actor in their lives. They decide what happens. So I try to bring back some of the ones who have been successful in doing a lot of great things. I can’t bring them all back, so I put them on the wall. All their successes. Even school graduations. I put up the ones who graduate from high school, even junior high, so the other kids can see.
Why do you think in so many communities the church is the center of the community?
It’s because there is someone here. It’s what they are missing at home. A lot of our kids that come here have, unfortunately, parents who just drop them off for the whole day. They tell them, “Go to church,” and if they go home, there's no one there.
They just know somebody is here. The doors are open. They can get fed every day. It's what everybody wants from home: someone to be there for them. The church is like a living room where there is somebody here, like a father, like a mother, who can talk to them and be there for them. This church supports the kids where they are. I personally go to their sports games. And not just games – if it's just a spelling bee or whatever going on in school, I try to support them.
Having grown up here and having seen so many generations move through this community, are the experiences the same today as they once were?
One of the challenges when I was coming up is that we didn't have too many places to go. We had that Roll Hill School gym, but it didn't stay open long. We didn't have a lot of opportunities or a lot of resources.
And now it seemed like it's changing. There are more resources. Thank God for this church, you know, because when that gym had closed, when they told us we could no longer use it, we weren’t sure what to do. But, the community council went out and found a spot for me. The council came to the church and said, “We got two young men who are doing some great things for our community. Could y'all let them use this space?”
Right away, they hand us the keys. We've been opening up ever since. This rec center is really the only place to go. It's the only place that's active seven days a week.
Can you talk about the women who live in this community?
The experiences of women in this community are kind of universal. We need more female role models and leaders to come in and step up. It’s easy to get started in the wrong direction in this community. My staff – thank God for them – they do a great job. But I’m looking for more volunteers to come in and help out, especially with the ladies.
Is there an influential woman in your life?
My mother, first of all. I'm so very patient. I got my patience from my mother; she's a very patient woman. And I don't think I could do what I do for all these years without learning patience from her.
Speaking of your family, tell me about your daughter.
My daughter… She's special. I'm so proud of her. She's raising two children: 4 years old and 1 year old. They live with me. She's working consistently and got plans. And, thank God, she’s got a sense of humor because we need it nowadays. We got to get our laughter.