Monday, October 16, 2017

Urban Church, Global City: Buenos Aires Day One


Pastor Alvaro Michelin Salomon and Pastor Brashear

My old friend Dennis has come to meet me as I arrive in Buenos Aires. Thanks to landing at municipal airport, we've got just enough time to catch the end of the worship service at the Iglesia Evangelical Reformada de Buenos Aires, or IERBA. (Almost an ironic acronym.) 
La Iglesia IERBA

The soft natural light brings a feeling of comfort and warmth as the sun streams in though a wall with a very subtle cross.
Inside the sanctuary
There is a simplicity here I will come to know as typical Waldensian, reminiscent of the United Presbyterian Church of my childhood.  A simple pump organ supplies music to the hymns, and the pastor, dressed in a simple suit, has a tone that  matches that of the sanctuary.

It's an older crowd, except for Alfredo, who I remember from his visit  to New York, come over from the Flores community this morning. During prayer time, there is much concern expressed about the violent interventions by police in the Catalan independence vote. There are friends  and family ties to Cataluna and the news is disturbing. People are wondering  about that afternoon's Barcelona football game. We will later learn that after much controversy, the game was played behind closed doors in an empty stadium.

After sharing Eucharist, we gather around a table for the breaking of bread and conversation.
after worship conversation
It's very important to the community to share its three roots: not only Italian Waldensian  but reformed traditions from Switzerland and France,as well. Like bringing together Lutheran and historic reformed churches.

They share with their American counterparts the concerns of dwindling and aging congregations and fewer resources to sustain pastors....and buildings.  The challenge of part time pastorates. How and where new members might come from. Deep, deep pride in those roots....but the future?

Dennis and I will have a few hours to rest before taking the overnight bus to Bahia Blanca. We watch the other Catalan team, Espanyol, play the powerful Real Madrid. The Espanyol captain's arm band is the Catalan flag, a quiet statement of resistance.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Remembering Guatemala


Dennis Smith 2017
Being with my old friend Dennis Smith has brought  back memories of our time in Guatemala. These memories were made even more present by the fact that two days ago, it was announced that the second trial of Efrain Rios Montt for genocide was set to begin again.  

I remember that as our Presbyterian Task force prepared to leave for Guatemala, one task force member decided to remain in Mexico City and our then South American staff person had to be persuaded to go.  That was the level of anxiety that preceded our visit.

I remember Dennis coming to visit our hotel room, turning the radio way up loud to thwart obvious bugging  attempts. I remember passing a table of officers in a steakhouse and knowing by their accent they were Argentine advisors. (Israeli advisors were a little more behind the scenes.... )

We spoke with indigenous fellow Presbyterians telling us of  whole villages disappearing, cultures eons old being wiped from the earth.

We were called to visit the  country’s President Efrain Rios Montt.or ”El Viejo” as he was called. Over coffee on a balcony veranda, he pointed to a faded mural of a Mayan Indian ritual including human sacrifice and the bloody removal of a heart. “You see”, he said, this is what we come from.”

We were taken to visit the headquarters of Montt’s California based evangelical church, “El verbo.” We were greeted at the church’s headquarters, surrounded by a razor wire topped chain link fence, by loudly barking German shepherds. A short man in a leather jacket opened the door and let us in. When we asked him about genocide, he folded his hands, crossed his  knee, leaned forward and said, “You must understand, For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” And nodded as if that was that. Not humans, but “rulers of darkness…”

The primal beauty of the country was in  stark contrast to the apparent apocalyptic reality of the violence that surrounded our visit. 

We prepared our report and took it to the 1983 joint assembly of the two branches of US Presbyterians in Atlanta fully prepared to call out Montt’s genocide and call for end to US aid. Guatemala was a clear part of US Central America strategy and the Reagan administration’s relationship with Montt was on of the  many things I could never forgive Reagan for. 

Montt was the darling of American evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. His open declaration of wanting to create a “Christian nation,” his Sunday night broadcasts demanding personal piety and socially conservative moralism while hiding genocide and his tough talking peasant program ‘frijoles and fusiles” (beans and rifles)  made him an iconic leader. In a word, Montt 
was to the Christian Right what the Sandinistas were to progressive Christians.

As our report was being debated in a late night General Assembly session, we were taken by surprise by a   strategic move by the conservative evangelicals. They had brought in two old school missionaries who sang Montt’s praises. A substitute motion was introduced, lifting up Montt’s faith and asking that we recognize him as a brother in Christ  and pray for him to prevent “a worse bloodbath..” The assembly was confused, we couldn’t get a commissioner or mission rep to a microphone, and  the substitute motion was approved. The Presbyterian Church was on record praying for Brother Montt.

Later that night I came as close as I would ever  come to throwing a punch at a church meeting when the gloating head of  Presbyterians for Biblical Concerns (what an unfortunate acronym that was!) came over to goad me about Montt, but friends intervened.

In another year, Montt was overthrown. (Though like a character in a franchise horror movie he never stopped coming back ..) Subsequently, the UN Commission on Historical Clarificationn declared him responsible for “acts of genocide” and perhaps as many as 200 thousand dead . It was estimated that at it's peak the war claimed 3000 lives  a month and 10000 between March and July 1982. In 2013, Montt was convicted for the murder of 1771 Mayan Ixil people in one village. While that was overturned on a technicality, he is up for trial again. His fragile physical state has led to a pretrial humanitarian decision that he will not serve time. 

In 1999, US President Clinton surprised us and  apologized to the Guatemalan people.
That same year, Guatemala President Portillo apologized to the people as well.  
The Presbyterian Church has yet to apologize…


The Presbyterian Church essentially put its arm around Rios Montt while he killed his own people and   indigenous people who were also Presbyterian. That apology is still due….

Friday, October 13, 2017

Urban Church, Global City 1: Stopover in Santiago


Pastor Fred at the Community Church

Arriving in Santiago, it’s so cold and wet it could be Copenhagen. And it’s over a week into spring already….I’m greeted by an old urban ministry colleague, Fred Milligan, a longtime Presbyterian Health Education and Welfare member and one of the founders of the  Urban Presbyterian Pastors Association.  The random circumstances of a layover day on the way to Buenos Aires led to my discovery that Fred is now the pastor of the English language community church in the Providencia District of Santiago.

Even on a rainy Saturday the traffic is heavy on the way into the city. With its highways and high rise buildings, Santiago has the look and feel of a modern global city. 

The church itself has interesting roots. Although Great Britain had limited success in taking South America into its Empire, it did its best to involve itself where it could.  Both independent immigrants and business interests grew rapidly in the 19th century and British interests were responsible for much of Chile’s infrastructure. Today as many as 700000 Chileans may be of British descent.

And so the walls of the once Anglican church are filled with memorials to those who gave their lives in service to the crown in various wars.
Enemies embrace as Christ rises above the battle
Today, the church serves not only native English speakers but those from Santiago’s global community like Japan and India and other places where Spanish is not spoken and English is the lingua franca. 
Sanctuary cross of raw native olive wood

We share pizza, more Italian than American, and a glass of Chilean wine and talk about current Chile reality. With its nearing 6 million residents, Santiago is closing in on Rio, currently  the 4th largest city on the continent. Despite a season of economic setbacks, Providencia's neighboring community of Las Condes  still shows the shimmering glass and steel skyscrapers that led to its nickname of Sanhattan. 

Like other cities, refugees and migrants contribute to the reality, but come mainly from other South American countries, increasingly, for example from troubled Venezuela. There has been the beginning of the presence of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. And a fast growing presence of Haitians. 

Even with the return of democracy, as in other global cities, the income disparity between rich and poor continues to grow exponentially. Like Argentina, Chile all but eliminated its indigenous population. But Fred talks about the continued resistance of the Mapuche people of the south. They have never stopped resisting  and have shown undaunted resilience  over centuries. (I will learn more about this in Argentina…)…

We finish the day with jazz at the Thelonius Club
At Thelonius
And a  Pisco sour. Chileans and Peruvians argue about Pisco like Israelis and Palestinians over hummus. My entry into the world of the church in the city in the global south has begun. Tomorrow to Buenos Aires….

Sunday, October 1, 2017

L'shana Tovah 5778


The High Holy Days Band and me....

As the Jewish High Holy "Days of Awe" come to an end, I want to share with you thoughts from the  sermonI preached for my friend Rabbi  Steve Blane's "Sim Shalom"  Rosh Ha Shana service at the Bitter End, the famous Greenwich Village night club. For me there's an irony in having my first real gig at the Bitter End as a preacher, not as a singer-songwriter.

Rabbi Blane has his jazz group with bass and piano and drums backing him this year augmented by a friend who's played with me many times, Lizzie Taub.

So after the Torah reading, Rabbi Steve called me up
Robert Brashear and Rabbi Steve Blane
and this is what I had to say: I have to ask....Rabbi,  this is the first day of the Jewish New Year, right? So what month is it? Tishri? And he replies that it is the ninth month.  What? I ask. How's that?

Well, I've done some reading and I discovered that the commentators record how the Jewish faith community faced a difficult decision. Would it be a holiday in the first month, Nisan, which celebrates their liberation? Or this day from the  ninth month, celebrating creation?  And so the community chose creation, a universal symbol, instead of a tribal celebration. And I am convinced that it is that choice that has enabled the Jewish religion to be a true "light to the nations."

The world needs a birthday...and this day is as good as any. It's an opportunity for a fresh start....and how we need a fresh start. Since last year, 5777, I wish we could have a whole do over, but that's not going to happen so a fresh start, a new beginning, will have to do. Never turn down an opportunity for a fresh start. 

So these days are days when you seek to become "one" with God again. And there are rituals related to forgiveness. It's good to remember that we don't ask God for forgiveness for something done to another person. We have to begin with that person. Likewise, we can never offer forgiveness for something not done to us. And ultimately the forgiveness we offer, the letting go, sets us free. It frees us from defining ourselves by our suffering inflicted by others. 

Reconciliation on the other hand is something different. It's a process. It takes two. And takes work. So I have two challenges for you during this season...first, think of one relationship that is damaged or even broken.,think of just one thing you could do to take the first step back to relationship and do it. Just one step. It's one step back towards wholeness. 

Now the other is this. I recently heard a Lutheran pastor say  that the one person who is the most difficult to forgive is ourselves. I knew that's true. So in these days of seeking and offering forgiveness, start by forgiving yourself. That would truly be a new beginning. That's what being inscribed in the book of life feels like. 

I love the symbols of the season....the round challot, for the ever flowing cycles of life. The apples and honey for a sweet year. 

It's the first day of Tishri, it's Rosh Ha Shana. Take the new beginning.  Enjoy the sweetness of living. L'Shana Tovah.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

a brief note....


Just a brief word from the author...greetings from Denmark...they say the happiest country in the world...but more of that later...

It's now official...after a few glitches, thanks to the hard work of Sam Gibbs, what was 'West Park Press" has become "Just Enough for the City."  What began as the daily reporting on the story of West Park Church as it sought its renewal and rebirth by West Park Pastor Robert Brashear now becomes an ongoing reflection on the role of the church in the global city and of followers of Jesus in our day.

There are still pieces of reflection and analysis related to West Park that will be part of this blog, but in a larger context. All the history remains available on the blog as well.... I look forward to continuing our conversation!

Yours on the journey
Pastor Robert Brashear

P.S.....Now that I am officially emeritus from West Park, I am free to explore the world and open to invitations!  Feel free to contact me at to explore possibilities...

Lord I want to be a Christian


Pastor Bob and Elder Geraldine Herrin

On a cold and rainy morning, I walk down Beverly Road in the Kensington neighborhood In Brooklyn to the Beverly Presbyterian Church. A pleasant neighborhood with old Victorian houses. Later l learn that it is also a culturally mixed community with many folks from the islands. And that later today, then streets will be filled  with children chasing away the devil as part of the Jouvier West Indies celebration….I am met by Elder Geraldine Herrin, a very active lay leader, who will work with me in the service…Here is my reflection:
Lord, I want to be a Christian…
Someone once said to me that there were two kinds of Christians…the ones who heard Jesus say, ‘Pick up your cross and followup me” and those who heard him say, “ I came that you might have life and have not abundantly” and that the two really didn’t understand each other. I’ve been  thinking that there’s more to it than that. That in order to have it abundantly, we need to pick up our crosses…while not forgetting joy…
Well, Lord I want to be a Christian…
Our brother Paul has a pretty good list of what it takes…let’s go over that again….you could almost do a sermon series with a sermon about each one of I read them, think back over the last week to anything that may relate to any of these…
9Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil, 
hold fast to what is good; 
10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
 12Rejoice in hope, 
be patient in suffering, 
persevere in prayer. 
13Contribute to the needs of the saints; 
`extend hospitality to strangers.
14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 
15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 
16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 
18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 
19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 
20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Are there particular traits of a Christian listed in this passage that you find particularly difficult? How might you practice them this week?

But we have to live these things out in the real world…
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.    Really?
What does that mean strategically in our own time?…
Let me be personal a minute…a few weeks ago i came to the Roulette here in Brooklyn…there were over 500 people came out..a choir of over 50 people from three generations singing protest songs from three generations…black, brown white, Asian, gay, straight, bi, trans, young, old….it was moving …and they had information tables up from all kinds of partner groups doing good urban gardening and community organizing…one of the group was Gathering for Justice  started by Harry Belafonte and concerned with child incarceration…
But right now, they’re asking people to turn off the National Football League because Colin Kaepernick cannot get a job….last year, he decided not to stand for the nation anthem because of the ongoing crisis of African-Americans killed by police…and the fact that police are never indicted…so now no team will hire him…
I grew up in Pittsburgh, rooting  for the Steelers was a way of connecting with my hometown. Something my family would do every weekend. SO now next Sunday, what will I do?  I have to think about this…
See, we have to make these things real in the world we live in…
Like we all can get behind hospitality for strangers, right? Write our letters of protest related to our President’s wanting to ban immigrants and build a wall… we all have immigrants in our lives…it only gets REAL when we get to hard ones like “blessing those who persecute us..”
I mean really? How do we do that?  Jill Duffield of Presbyterian Outlook writes of being at the Charlottesville protests and a colleague of hers looked over to the other side…with the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan guys…and her colleague said, there’s a lot of pain over there….and Jill felt ashamed that she had not felt any compassion for them….
Who persecutes you? How do you bless them? Do you pray for them? And what do you pray? Do I really want our President to change? What’s going on inside you?
Also note the conditional in the peaceful living part…
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 
Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, leave room for the Lord’s vengeance….
If you really want to be a Christian…if you really want to follow Jesus, it’s going to hurt…this is how much…when Jesus  tells Peter what’s going to happen, and note that his greatest enemy is not the occupying Roman army, it’s the religious establishment that has sold out to the Romans…
Charles Sykes in Sunday Times…in reference  Paul Ryan quoted…Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play “ A Man for All Seasons” :  what profit a man to gain the whole world, but for Wales?
And Peter’s responds Jesus, O No Lord, not you…and Jesus responds get thee behind me Satan..
(In Jesus ‘ day, Satan was basically the  accuser and tempter…not so much the devil and punisher…)
Why did he say that? Because as a vulnerable human being he would  just as soon avoid the whole thing…
The passage concludes with …there are those in this generation that will not taste death before Jesus’ kingdom comes…what?
I’m not completely  sure…but I think here is where we get back to abundant living,…here we are back to JOY…
Rubem Alves said that he was tired of the politics (theology) of heart burn…that we can’t just project images of suffering … that numbs people…(or they numb themselves…) In the end, If you want people to believe in a better world, they need to see it, imagine it…we need images of beauty..and to be able to celebrate, in his words, 
Life in all its perplexity, paradox and most of all profound beauty…
In all this I see the smiling face of Archishop Tutu…who long before apartheid fell declared we have already won…and lived as if it were true until it became the truth…life abundant….

Lord I want to be a Christian…in my heart….

Friday, September 8, 2017

My NFL Dilemma


The Steelers Diaspora knows no bounds...

A new NFL season is upon us. Usually I would be breathless with excitement about another season of following the Pittsburgh Steelers. But this year, I have a dilemma.

Some context is necessary. Rooting for the Steelers is not just being a sports fan, even a passionate one. For someone from Pittsburgh, it's more like being part of an ethnic group or religion, even with it's own rituals and liturgies. It's part of who you are.

The Steelers rise to football prominence and power coincided with the city of Pittsburgh reaching its nadir as the steel industry collapsed. Mills that lined the banks of the three rivers and supported the nation's war effort and post war boom employed workers by the tens of thousands. These mills shaped a region's identity and ethos. As the furnace fires were banked and doors shuttered, hearts and spirits broke. Even more, desperate workers fled the city in an ever flowing stream seeking economic survival creating a Pittsburgh diaspora across the country.

The Steel Curtain Steelers gave the city a sense of dignity and pride. Franco Harris' "Italian Army" bridged the gap between August Wilson's Hill and Italian Bloomfield.  When you arrive at the Pittsburgh Airport, you're met by two life size figures: George Washington in his French and Indian War era uniform and Franco stretching for the "Immaculate Reception".

The Rooney family never forgot it's immigrant Irish roots and kept the family home on the north side. The modestly appointed owner's suite always kept room for neighborhood kids every Sunday. The Rooneys, like the Maras in New York, were throw backs to a different era where football was a family game. (Actor Rooney Mara is a daughter of that era.) Steeler alumni tend to stay in the city and remain part of the city. It's all one fabric. And of course they play at Heinz field.

Sunday afternoons are a form of liturgy. (Not to mention that some Pittsburgh congregations have created black and gold liturgical stoles for their clergy for use during the ecclesiastical season of playoffs...). We gather in homes or in Steeler bars or those multi-screen sports bars carrying our "Terrible Towels" ( thank you Myron Cope of blessed memory) and seeking others wearing black and gold and for the next 3 hours feel like we're home again.

Throughout many changes in my own family, those Sunday afternoons were the one time we came back together. When we got two new cats, black and white and gold and white, we named them Troy and Casey. (True Yunzers will get that.)

It transcends class and politics. I remember visiting a nursing home during playoffs and seeing the beds festooned with black and gold. When my courageous pastor friend was brought up on ecclesiastical charges for celebrating the marriage of two women, all out of town trial  guests found a "Terrible Towel" in their welcome basket. Look, it just IS.

BUT....there are realities I can no longer ignore. First, there is the no longer deniable evidence of what the game does to the human brain. And the NFL has continued to go Big Tobacco on that one. I'm haunted by the image of Mike Webster's later years, to name only one. The anchor of the Steelers' Super Bowl offensive line and perhaps the epitome of its character reduced to paranoid dementia and homelessness from a damaged brain. That's hard to ignore.

Then there's the reality that was pointed out to me by my sports management graduate son. That even though the NFL is the richest of the big 4 sports, it's players share the LEAST in its profits, have the shortest careers and fewest guaranteed contracts and most life changing injuries and weakest union. Randy Newman's use of the "plantation" image is not far off. The fact that players are voluntary employees doesn't change the basic justice issues involved here.

And as if that were not enough, we now have the situation of Colin Kaepernick.
Repping Kaep
Essentially, for having chosen to take  a knee during the national anthem ( and where else in the world does every sporting event have to begin with the national anthem?) in support of the protest against the unabated killing of black persons by police, aka "black lives matter", Kaepernick has effectively been black balled by the NFL.

Look, I know all the qualifications. Yes, he turned down an offer. But yes, the 49ers would have released him had he signed. Would they have resigned him with a different contract? Who knows. And yes, he has sometimes been unwise and immature. Piggy socks? Uh, no...Castro t-shirt? Not so smart, but....Not voting? Well, not strategic but I actually  understand. .Most importantly, Kaepernick has shown a passionate desire to learn and grow and study his heritage and yes, put his money where his mouth is devoting millions of his own money to at risk youth. In essence, a responsible young man seeking to do what he can to better the world. One might think that admirable.

But when recent quarterback signings include second tier arena league journeymen, it can no longer be denied that there's a black ball, literally, for Kaepernick. The league has welcomed back countless domestic abusers and one notable perpetrator of animal cruelty. But somehow a dignified protect against injustice is too much.
Wearing Kaep at Maggie's

Family members have forwarded the call by group of black pastors to "black out the NFL". (( Hundreds rallied in front of NFL headquarters to call for a meeting. Folks I stand with in the city, like Gathering for Justice (, have made this their action for the fall.

As a side note, the NFL may be facing a bigger problem ultimately. While one of my sons will continue to participate in fantasy football for professional reasons, there is no passion there. Among my boys friends, many have turned off on the NFL. They still back their particular baseball teams in season. They are passionate about the NBA ...the whole league, not just teams. And not a few of their friends have season tickets for the NYCFC soccer team, which seems to have connected with millennials.

So here's my can I stay connected to the Steelers and my roots without supporting the NFL? Is it possible? How long should the boycott last? Until Kapernick gets a job? Goodall meets with the ministers? My one son compared it to do convincing his fraternity brothers to give up hazing. Just because it's tradition doesn't make it right. But the Steelers thing is more than tradition. It runs deeper. So this Sunday, what do I do?

I actually for the first time chose to miss a Steelers game in NewYork this preseason when it would have cost $225 to take my boys to a meaningless game the guys they want to see no longer appear in any ways.  $75 ahead to cheer for the laundry, as Seinfeld put it.