Greetings From Alcatraz Ave: Meet Reverend Betty Jean Gray

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Photo: Tuesday Bassen
Photo: Tuesday Bassen

By Andrea L. Hart

On one end, you're in Oakland. At the other, you’re in Berkeley. If you keep going, you’ll end up back in Oakland. If you trip, you’ll fall into Emeryville. It’s an interesting mash-up of municipalities with a rich history of activism and commerce. When I moved here 10 years ago, there was only one restaurant within a short walk and the newspaper once referred to Alcatraz as a “corridor of violence” between South Berkeley and North Oakland gangs. Now it sports a bicycle collective, a cupcake shop, several cafes, two yoga studios, a weekly farmers' market and about five more spaces with permits to open in the next six months.

With headlines constantly barking about evictions in San Francisco and plans to turn West Oakland into a playground for the rich and techie, I wondered what was happening to my neighborhood. To get a sense of my neighbors' perspectives, I talked to people from 10 blocks of Alcatraz Ave. about their lives, their impressions of the recent change and their ideas about how we might endeavor to “do it better.”

Photo: David Jerrett

Rev. Betty Jean Gray
Alice’s Relaxing Bath and Gift Shop
1750 Alcatraz Avenue


Years in the community:
Betty: Over 30
Alice’s: Over 20

About how she got to the neighborhood:

I came from Chicago to bring a mentally delayed son here. There was nothing available in Chicago for him. Someone came through Chicago on a family reunion and whispered that California took care of their own. He only spoke in monosyllables. Now, he’s [gone] to Berkeley High. Just recently he is a leukemia survivor and the blessing is, being delayed, he doesn’t know the dynamics of cancer. We came back for five more months of chemo and, when they told him he had to go back in the hospital, you know what his attitude was? “Oh boy, I get to watch the cooking channel.” Now with an attitude like that, how could I be nothing but up?

About the business:

It’s a rather eclectic, spiritual safe place. One of the flyers says that it’s a healing Afrocentric space.

For 10 years, when we first got down here, there was no money. My son and I used to go home and eat oatmeal. We hated oatmeal. But my priority was this place and, at 65, it gives me some place to come every day. Because old people get batty when they don’t have anything to do.

I was gonna close up because, when I turned 60, the treatment was like night and day. They treat old people funny and I said, “Well, maybe I’ll just leave. And close the shop up.” But a 3rd generation of kids from Willard came in -- that was introduced by another generation of Willard students. They came in and they sat down and they talked about their dreams in a safe environment to an old-G grandma. They can’t talk about their dream to their friends because their friends don’t have dreams. And they might kill them because they have some. So [it's good] to know that there’s a safe place that people can come and they can feel good. The intention of what I do is a very spiritual thing. It’s something that you can’t describe. But I know that I have seen people leave outta here a whole lot happier and a whole lot better.

With this kind of place, it’s a magnet. It draws all kinds... I have no right to have any judgment or opinion because, according to the church folks, I’m a little different because I’m up in here doing something. So they gonna have a label for you any kinda way. But if it doesn’t coincide with what I believe and what I live: I ain’t got no time. I don’t. Because I am here to be an asset to the universe. Not take anything away.

One guy came by and said, “I thought you were gone. Just the thought of you not being here, it made me sad.” Well, you know, that’s a good thing. A lot of lives are touched when they come here. It’s like watching a rose open up and become full blown. And to know it was never about me because we’re nothing but conduits, to know that you have put an impact on somebody else’s life, to make it better. That’s a high in itself.

Rev. Betty Jean Gray on Disease and Dis-ease by KQED

How she got started:

If you’d told me 35 years ago that I would be doing these spiritual consultations, readings, [etc.], I would’ve told you that you are insane.

My grandfather used to go in the woods in Mississippi and gather herbs and different things. So it’s in the DNA. And he would bring these things back and he would sell them to the Caucasians to make healing things, to make money so he could feed his family. Out of everybody in the family, I’m the only one that tapped into the energy.

About how the neighborhood is changing:

We were the pioneers down here. This was a very well known African-American corridor and we weathered the storm so that people can walk their dogs, so people can run and play with their children and their bicycles. I’m not into gentrification and all of that stuff because that’s too political. I’m a spiritual being. I’ve seen the dynamics of the neighborhood change, but it has been for the good. Truly, my business has picked up. People are curious about what is Old Voodoo Mary up in here doing?

The cohesiveness and the love and the light that has come into this neighborhood: what a blessing. These guys next door -- bicycle people; they are so phenomenal! Through the journey that I was going through [with my son’s cancer], sometimes they would come out and they would just sit. I would be here for a couple hours and I would be on my way back to the hospital. And the support and the love if for nothing else but a kind word and a hug. It helps you along when you’re going through a lot.

There was some fear for us, you know. But for the long haulers, we’re all right. We’re all right.

Rev. Betty Jean Gray on Cleaning House by KQED

How can we maintain the good while we keep changing?

I think we have to unite and stick together. And make sure that we keep a lot of love. Just keep that love and that light back in this community. I don’t think no great big ole conglomerate is gonna come down here because, I mean, it’s still got a long way to go. Just sticking together and treating each other as decent human beings. I never thought it would get to be this and look how it has grown. It’s all in what you think too; what you put out there is what you manifest.

You know what we have to do? We don’t have to worry about another fellow. You just do your part. Put some light on stuff you don’t understand. No opinion. No judgment. Just light and love.

About religion:

I’m a 12-degree plus mystic. They say I’m a high priestess. Three years ago, I was ordained Reverend Betty Jean Gray. It took two ministers to do it. My ordination paper’s up there. I went home, I talked to God. I said, “Now look. Do you really have a sense of humor? Because you done took the wildest thing in America and have ordained her Reverend Betty Gray.”



To meet more Alcatraz Avenue neighbors, check out the rest of the series!