Interview by: Carolyn Burnham
Lester Allen visited his father in Oberlin during his childhood summers and felt so at ease within the community that he decided to make it his permanent home as an adult after service in the military. Allen began work at the Oberlin Postal Department, connecting with people of all ages as he delivered their mail and discovering his gift of communicating with others. Due to his deep love for scripture and the Church, Allen decided to take over for Rev. Mayle when he retired at Oberlin Christian Missionary Alliance Church. Since then, Pastor Allen has become a fixture in the Church, as well as the community. He strives to make an impact on Oberlin in any way he can, from coaching Oberlin High School Football teams to being a committed member of The Oberlin Project and POWER. Pastor Allen believes in sustainability as a means to not only positively impact the environment, but to create jobs and decrease utility costs for community members.
Q: Before I begin, how would you like to be referred to?
A: Pastor Allen.
Q: What words or images would you use to describe Oberlin?
A: Words I would use to describe Oberlin would be diverse, friendly, and inviting. It is a great place to raise your children. I think the town is environmentally friendly and could have a good impact on the environment and on the people that live in the town. That’s my image of Oberlin.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about how you came to live here?
A: When I was a kid, my dad and a lot of my relatives lived here. I grew up in Cleveland with my mother and I spent my summers with my dad in Oberlin. I just loved the town. It was totally diverse and it was different than the area I lived in in Cleveland. Everyone seemed friendly. People I didn’t even know would speak, which was kind of odd because in Cleveland people would walk by and never open their mouth. I did a stint in the military and I thought if I could live wherever I wanted to after I got out, I would make Oberlin my home—and I did. I have lived here, for the past almost thirty-five years now, since the time I got off the military. That’s the reason I came, because of the impact and impression I had of the town as a child.
Q: Is that the same reason why you came to practice in Oberlin as a pastor?
A: That’s something totally different. I came here and my first job was at a Post Office. After working for the post office for some twenty years, maybe, I watched people's children grow up, from the mother being pregnant to having a baby to the baby going off to college—and that’s how long I’ve been living here. Over that period of time you get to see people in different stages of their life: happy, sad, facing tragedies that might have happened to them. I’ve always had an interest in the word of God. I was a member of the Christian Alliance Missionary Church, and then as our pastor was about ready to retire, I decided to seek out being an interim pastor myself. One thing led to another and I became the pastor. My concern for people, my love for the scripture and the lord, those two things are connected. Basically, I have two full time jobs as it is right now. I’m a letter carrier for the next couple of years and I’m a full-time pastor, as I’ve been for over twelve years.
Q: Some people use the word “sustainability” to mean actions that enhance/maintain the economic, environmental, and social welfare of the Oberlin community. The Climate Action Plan defines it as “policies, decisions, and actions that meet current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (7). What does sustainability mean to you?
A: Well, sustainability is what I can do to maintain or to advance what we already have, to improve upon what we already have. A lot of the situations where we are wasting energy, I think we can use it in a more diverse way. I noticed that at the Joseph building when you leave a room the lights go out. I thought that was wonderful. I thought that we could have a sensor like that in peoples’ homes, for the people who don’t remember to cut the lights off, they would automatically go off and would come on when you walk in. Those types of things are something that we as a community should be able to do, not only for the environment but also with the workforce. I’m a member of The Oberlin Project and part of our vision is that we might have programs teaching younger adults how to build solar panels and to install them. That would create jobs and it would help the environment. It saves people their bottom line. One of my things is, when you want to have an environmental impact and want to get it across to people, you have to save their bottom line. How is this going to save me money, how is this going to allow me more money to do other things? If I can show you how you are saving on your utility every month by going solar, then you can use that money for something else. I can teach you how to insulate, or to put your shrubs up in a way to stop the wind blocking, I can put energy efficient windows in. I can make an environmental impact and a financial impact on each individual person who is willing to look into it. The best thing is the word of mouth. If your neighbor tells you, “Hey, look they came by and I put new windows in, new insulation, new furnace, and my utility bills came down 100 dollars,” you’re interested now because your bottom line is being addressed.
Q: Are there actions your home and your church take in terms of sustainability?
A: Absolutely. We’re in a process, lord willing, of being able to build a new church. The church we're in now was built in 1938, so we’re limited. We can insulate, but we’re limited to what we can do to make the envelope close. In the new church we're planning on having water that comes from the downspouts to recycle and to water the shrubs, and different things like that. We’re talking about having the floor heated and to have the walls insulated with the foam insulation (which is better because it gets in the cracks and crevices), and to talk about those lights I was telling you about and put them in the bathroom of the church. I noticed that you go to a place like Walmart and you have water sensors in the sinks, so people don’t leave the water on and they use what they need and are done. If I was to install all of these new ideas into a building, it would pay for itself over a period of time because what matters is not just building a new building, it’s the utility cost. Even though we're only using it Wednesday and Sunday, and maybe Saturdays, we need this building to be practical. Otherwise there is no reason to put it up. That’s what we're doing now. We're looking towards the future. Being on The Oberlin Project and being aware of all of the energy saving things that people are coming up with is great. I just found out there is a ventilation system that you can have installed on your roof, solar energy, where the sun hits it and then a power fan draws the heat out of the roof. And I thought, how wonderful is that? Now that is something we would install into our building project.
Q: How did you get to be involved in The Oberlin Project?
A: Pretty much the same way we're doing this interview here. People know me from the community because I try to be a positive impact in the community I live in. I moved here because I liked the town, so if I like the town, I should enhance what’s already here. I like to think, how can I be of help? I was on the Oberlin Endowment Board and I coached middle school and high school football. I’ve been on lots of different committees with the community. Someone else knew all the other things I was involved in and approached me about being on The Oberlin Project. I talked to David Orr and he engaged my interest in it, and I thought it was worthwhile (not like I needed anything else to do). I have two full-time jobs and am doing a lot of other things, but I thought it was important. I thought I could make a difference. I was really concerned about jobs because we’re trying to get our young people to work.
Q: I think that sometimes people think that there are more pressing social issues than the environment, but it seems like you really think they are connected. Would you say that’s true?
A: They are connected; I think that if we don’t have an environment, there is no workforce. If we don’t have an environment, there is no clean water; there is no fresh air. I don’t know if you noticed this summer, I don’t even have allergies at all, but I have noticed that the pollen level is up. Now imagine if you’re in an environment that is difficult to breathe in because of smoke and other things, it would make working very difficult. I think that one of the things we were pressing on is the fact that Lorain County doesn’t have a very good transit system. We want buses to be able to run, so one of my ideas was an energy efficient bus that wouldn’t run on gas, but would run on electricity. Then that would create jobs for the drivers and people would not have to use their cars. They wouldn’t even have to worry about cars, but they would still be able to get to where they are working. In Oberlin, we opened up the streets to make it more bike friendly and a lot of people are using their bikes more. Lots of different things like that. Especially where our society is going, I think that the two issues are connected. I think that focusing on the environmental issues could create a positive impact on where we live and could create jobs. You would do both things.
Q: That’s really great. I like how you were talking about showing people how much money you can save on your bills. Even with food, if you are more conscious of what you’re using—
A: You’re right, and you just said it. Even with food, we are talking about having a food hub here in Oberlin where it is locally grown, and locally sent to the stores and markets and stuff like that, so the money stays in the community. You would have people working, people transporting the produce from the fields to the processing place. Fresh. Just been picked this morning, or yesterday. It would be self-sufficient and it would run itself. I think it would draw people from the outside, I think that Oberlin could be a model for other communities, because it has to start somewhere. Although Oberlin is small, it could have a great impact on other places around.
"One of the things I would like is to see the town and the college to work together more ... we are all in this environment together"
Q: Would you say that you have seen a lot of changes in Oberlin since you moved here?
A: Yes, I have seen quite a few changes. The latest change was the old Oberlin Inn to the new Oberlin Inn. I remember going to the Apollo when I was a kid. It was fine then, but it is a beautiful facility now. I love the programs that they have in town now. We just had Chalk Walk last week. We had Juneteenth before that, and we have band concerts in the summertime. Those are things you can only do in a small town. A lot of things have changed in a positive manner over the years, but a lot of things have remained the same which gives the town its uniqueness. Now, one of the things I would like to happen is for the town and the college to work together more and realize that we are all in this environment together. If we do that, we can lift the whole community up and not one just one particular segment. Once again, that would make it a model for other communities.
Q: It seems that there is often a disconnect between the college and the community in certain ways, would you agree?
A: The Oberlin College President [Marvin Krislov] has done a wonderful job of trying to reach out to the community. He has taken some of his own personal time to come and listen to some of the community's concerns. One of the things he has done is try to engage with someone like me, someone he knows is in the community. As a pastor you have a lot of influence over a group of people. He has talked with me about job situations on the college campuses and different situations like that and he has been more than open about it. I think that is one of the things that will help bridge the gap. When we see people who live in Oberlin working on jobs in Oberlin, I’m happy. Everyone has to have a vested interest in everything. When I feel like my concerns are addressed, then I’m more attentive. That’s with everyone. I might be retired, but if my grandson is working at one of these different jobs and I see that the college and community are working together, I’m all for it. Those are the types of things I’m working on and there’s always room to improve. Like I said, the Oberlin College president has been outstanding in trying to have these things come to fruition.
Q: If there is one major request that community members would request from the college, what might that be?
A: If I could put my finger on it, it would be to open up so that there is no schism between the college and the community. I’ll give you a scripture, “Two cannot walk together unless they agree.” So for us to advance, we have to walk together. There are things the community can do too, like when the college reaches out to not be so standoffish. But that is just where the trust comes in. My hand is not going to get smacked away for reaching out, and yours is not either. We’re trying to walk together. I can’t think of one thing, but just generally more jobs and better economic bottom lines that will allow people more spending money.
"The sun powers the fans and sucks the heated air out from the roof. I thought that was just the best thing since sliced bread"
Q: Do you take any actions in your home specifically about sustainability?
A: Now that our kids are up and about, it’s really just me and my wife. My wife is more of a warden than me because she pays the utility bills. She constantly makes sure that lights in rooms that we are not using are off. We already have talked with POWER, so we are already getting more insulation in our world. We are getting a new roof on hopefully before the summer is out. Were looking into getting ventilations in, and hopefully solar panels. We had the land to do so. We try to reuse our water from the downspouts in the garden for the plants. The water from the downspouts—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Its fresh water, rainwater. We recycle that, we use that. There’s a lot we do, but there’s always more we could work on. We’re working on more insulation, using solar panels for different things, and solar vents for venting the roof out, which helps the roof with the circulation of air. The sun powers the fans and sucks the heated air out from the roof. I thought that was just the best thing since sliced bread. Greg Jones from POWER came by and we changed out all of our light bulbs into energy efficient ones, and even ones in our garage, so they just slowly gradually come on. That’s my wife’s area, trying to make sure the utilities stay down. She has seen the difference in our utility bill, that’s her thing.
Q: Is there anything you would like to tell your fellow community members regarding their care for the environment or respect for nature?
A: Like I said earlier, if I was to give any advice at all, it is to give POWER a chance. Look at your bottom line where you would actually have more money in your pocket, and it’s not as difficult as you might think. There are groups that are available for low-income and fixed-income people that can help get these things done, where it’s not going to cost you a lot of money if you meet certain parameters. Sometimes people feel like they are overwhelmed and they feel like they’ll never get to where they want to be, but they have to start somewhere. Like this summer, I’m going to get my windows insulated. And then next summer, I’ll put a new water tank in. I would say just try it because you will be surprised how much it will help your bottom line. Then you’ll see how it makes a difference in your community.
Q: Is there anyone who inspired you in these actions?
A: As far as environmentally, I would have to say David Orr. I have never seen anyone with as much energy as he has. He’s a funny guy, but he gets a lot of stuff done. He has a greater vision than just Oberlin. He really gets into how to be able to save money and be a positive impact on the environment.
Q: Have you had any interaction with the Environmental Dashboard signs?
A: No, but I have been to meetings where they were discussed and shown how they work. I haven’t been directly involved in it, but I think it’s important. I do. I just haven’t had the opportunity to participate in anything like that. I think it’s wonderful and a great idea, but as far as hands on—I have not.
"If you know what your gift is and you can find your opportunity to use that gift, then you use it in a positive way."
Q: You seem like such an integral part of the community. Do you have any mentors?
A: I had a couple of mentors and both of them passed away. Two reverends, Howard O. Jones, an Evangelist, and Reverend Charles Mayle, who was the former pastor at the Church I’m now a pastor of. Both of them helped me through the ministry. Of all the things I do, that is the most important to me and has the most lingering impact. I can do the most good in that area. If you know what your gift is and you can find your opportunity to use that gift, then you use it in a positive way. As they poured into me, I try to pour into those who are behind me.
Q: How do you speak to your people at church? How do you really reach them?
A: That’s good, that’s an excellent question. I think that how it happens is I’m a bible-believing, bible-preaching type pastor. So, say you are coming to me for advice. I can give you my own intellect, or I can tell you what the word of God says and then give you an example of how it might have impacted my life or somebody I know. That’s more practical for me, and it’s a stronger foundation because it’s based on the bible and not just my personal ideas. I approach preaching the word the same way. If I use the bible and then explain certain parts and how it can impact you today, it makes a difference. If you forget all the stuff I said after I give you advice, you can go back to the Bible and go over what I read and God will send certain things back to your memory if I keep that as my base. People come up with excellent little anecdotes, but when you clear all of that out, where is the meat? Can I go back a month from now and still find it? I use that as the thing that gives me my springboard. No matter what I say, you can still go back and check it yourself.