Born in Poland in 1921, Ruth Jordan was a Jewish immigrant to the United States. Her family traveled around the country as her father tried to capitalize on his distinction as a rabbi. The family could not make a living this way, and eventually settled down in Suffolk, Virginia, and opened a general store. They lived above the store, which was located in the mostly black section of town.

Ruth's father, Tateh, was racist, and overcharged his black customers. Ruth resisted her father's prejudices and sympathized with the black people in her town. She recognized that the Ku Klux Klan, and the white population in general, fostered a tense, violence atmosphere. As a Jew, Ruth found herself excluded from the white world of the South, and felt she could partially identify with the hardships of her black neighbors.

Ruth's adult life differed greatly from her life with her family in Suffolk. She married a black man, Andrew Dennis McBride, and became Ruth McBride. She had eight children with Dennis, who died while Ruth was pregnant with her son James. The family lived in Harlem together for years. In Harlem, Ruth lost the privilege she had enjoyed in the South. She worked at draining, poorly paid jobs. She socialized exclusively with black people, and essentially lived the life of a black woman.

Ruth converted from Judaism to Christianity after her move to New York. She became increasingly involved with local churches, and eventually opened her own church with her husband. Ruth's parents had forced Judaism on her, causing her to resent religion. She embraced Christianity because she discovered it on her own. After her separation from her family, Ruth needed some source of relief from the guilt she felt, and she found that relief in Christianity's emphasis on the power of forgiveness.