Tuesday, November 30, 2010

At Large


Perfect cool sunny November day. As I near the church, I see a young, perhaps African-American, woman pacing back and forth near the 86th Street door. She’s watching me. As I begin to unlock the door, she says, with a heavy French accent. “Excuse me, do you work here?”

I tell her yes, that I am the pastor.

“I am looking for Tracy Dixon,” she says.

I invite her to come around front, to come into my office and talk. I ask her if this is part of her job. “No, it is because I am Christian,” she says. She too had found him on the steps and gotten to know him. She tells me she has located Tracy’s daughter in Indiana and wants to reconnect them. She tells me her name is Laila. “So you’re the one George told me about,” I say. And she smiles and says, “yes, George.” I tell her that Tracy was the first other person I ever heard George show concern for. She tells me how she had found Tracy’s former wife on Facebook and then just before Thanksgiving his daughter. She was very excited. Said that back in September, Tracy had a birthday and she and her siblings had wondered “if dad was still alive.” And Laila hasn’t been able to find him since.

I share with her the story of Tracy and our days together. And how the Common Cause reachout people had taken him away. I hope, we hope, he’s okay. I need to find out. I promise to stay in touch with Laila. I ask her where she’s from. And she tells me France. And that she’s a nanny on the Upper Westside.

While we’re talking Amanda comes in with Bill Tripp, an architect from Portland who will be speaking on ritual space on Thursday here. Amanda too has had her friendship with Tracy. I’m amazed at this network of friends he has established in this neighborhood. And the interesting variety of women.

As I see Laila out the door, there’s an older, distinguished woman with white hair looking in the church. She says that she’s been here 30 years and never seen inside before. Always wondered about it. She lives on 105th and West End. And she too, has a French accent. She tells me of her life. How there was a study of different nationalities and what their priorities were. Some wanted security. Others freedom, human rights. Others more social rights higher. “I am French,” she says. I grew up in a socialist regime. Human needs taken care of. Still, for us, we French, it is pleasure and esthetics.”

She tells me of her religious life, raised Catholic. But always questioning. “They called me mademoiselle pourquoi” she said. And how she eventually came to move away form an organized religion. Too many questions she had. “I have been at large now for many years,” she says in a construction I like very much. “I eventually became a humanitarian,”she says. Tells me that she is 81. A retired nurse.

“Pleasure, esthetics, humanitarianism..., I like that..I tell her that she’s missed another French woman just moments ago. And that the guys across the street are francophone.

“Ah yes, “she says, “the tree men from Quebec..” she smiles. “They are near me too..”She says she used to go to 5th Avenue Presbyterian for the preaching or to a Catholic church for the ritual, Episcopal for the choir. She says I might see her some Sunday. I smile back and say I hope so. “Yes, I am at large,” she says.

Amanda and I go through the church with Bill. It’s good to see it through his eyes. I look forward t hearing what he will say on Thursday night.

Back outside, we go across the street. I introduce Amanda to Francois. He is carving a little sleigh. It’s something the tree people do on slow days, carve from scrap wood. I ask if he does reindeer. “No,” he says, “my friend over on Broadway, no, everybody makes reindeer. I need a different idea.” I tell him another one I saw on Broadway had gotten into carving Hannukah menorah for both small and large candles. That is, as they say, knowing your territory. I promise to think of new ideas.

We say goodbye to Francois, head up the street.


A day that looks on the verge of rain. All clear on the steps. Take coffee to Francois, check on his carving progress. His sleigh project continues. He needs a new knife. On the way to the subway, Ji Young is concerned about her work come January but happy for her daughter Miranda’s school. We’re on our way downtown to the mayor’s office to talk about green issues and our project.

A guy with an SUV shopping cart nodding out on the steps. I ask if he’s ok. Eventually, he looks up, says, “I’m good.”


Meetings to plan the Columbia University Preservation Alumni work day coming up Saturday. Talking with folks from Landmarks West!, it’s hard to set aside hard feelings from the landmarks struggle. On the one hand, I’m touched by the appreciation by the smallest detail of historic design and its beauty. On the other, I want to know that the beauty of each human being on the steps, each person who worships here is recognized as equally beautiful and important. That’s our struggle, our call.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The First Sunday in Advent


The first Sunday in Advent. To come. What is to come? Will we be ready?

A beautiful, cold late November day. I greet Francois and bring his coffee. I’m sweeping as Jim and Holly are getting the church ready for services. It will be our first time all the way down front...where we worshipped before we locked the doors and moved out.

This will be an adventure. No heat. No bathrooms. I feel this is crazy. George, that is the other George, says “Hi,” walks in, looks around. “I see hope here,” he says. And the people show..including Maria Collado, back from Puerto Rico.

We gather outside on the steps Sing “God welcomes all,” “Emmanuel, emmanuel,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (with Barbara Lundblad’s words), and in Spanish, then “Lift Up Your heads, Ye Mighty Gates,” and with that, we light a candle, throw open the gates and enter. And like so many Advents before, light our first purple candle. And I have dressed for the occasion, black robe, purple Guatemalan stole.

I feel strange, looking out at my people wrapped and bundled against the cold, gloves on. I feel shaky, like being on a tight rope with no net. We are back in our building. How is it I believe that simply coming back in here in the cold will get the heat back on? During the service, people walk in, look around, leave. We read scriptures. And I preach. About trying to be awake, alert, present. To each other, the community around, George, Francois, Gary Greengrass.

We take up an offering. We’re also gathering food for the Westside Campaign and Jan Hus, collecting pennies for Penny Harvest, and new children’s pajamas. Then we sing “Soon and Very Soon,” and we make our circle, the service is done.

As we are talking with one another, a man identifying himself as being with the Department of Environmental Protection comes in and demands to inspect the basement. Maria who worked for the DEP questions him.There’s been an “anonymous complaint.” Claims we’re doing work in the basement. Raising asbestos. I am very annoyed. What’s up with this? Anonymous complaint? And it’s Sunday. Worship time. Would they do this to a Catholic church and priest? Synagogue on Saturday? Finally I take him down. He takes a quick look. Says he’ll report he found nothing.

Outside, Pat and her husband Larry are talking with a neighbor, Victoria from New Zealand. Turns out we shared a very similar relationship with Tracy. She had done internet research trying to track down his family. Had personally taken him to detox. Bought him new clothes. (I’d wondered about that.) I told her how the Reachout folk had come to take him to the hospital. And I wonder how he is. I tell her of upcoming events. Hope to see her.

Walking down 86th, Rudy comes up side by side with me. Says he wants to talk through the events of the last years. Come to resolution. That will take some time. I think of the years of his gym program at the top of the church. His amazing annual gymnastics “concert.” In some ways, the very essence of what we were trying to create. But that conversation will take time. And conversations, relationships are at the heart of our work.

First Sunday of Advent. There’s hope here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Urban Forest Has Returned


As I’m nearing the church. I hear a voice behind me. “Hey, I was there,” he says, “Forbes Field, I was there...” And I realize I’m wearing my Forbes Field jacket that Jim gave me for my 60th birthday last year. The baseball field I grew up with. The one with the “unique configurations.” There’s an older guy with white hair and a scruffy beard. “Yeah, they tore it down like the Polo Grounds. I saw it last week. Saw inside the University of Pittsburgh building where they have home plate. Yeah and outside, on the sidewalk, they have a marker where Mazeroski hit that fuckin homer. Broke my heart...I was ten years old...” And I was eleven, I think. That golden October moment in 1960, in fifth grade when the Bucs came back in the bottom of the ninth to beat the majestic Yankees, when I came to believe that anything can be possible, even at the last moment, even in the bottom of the ninth...I need that now..

He tells me how surprised he was with Pittsburgh’s clean air, clean waters. Sure, I say, all the mills are gone. We talk about the three rivers that meet there. And he recalls an Abbot and Costello routine about that. “Almost as good as who’s on first,” he says. And I keep seeing Yogi looking over the wall as Maz’ homer goes out. Yes, I need that...

* * * *

It’s a gray, wet raw day. One of my favorite days of the year. The day after Thanksgiving. The day the urban forest returns. Overnight, as if by magic, corridors of trees spring up along Amsterdam, Broadway, Columbus. Corridors of green smelling of northern forests. They will remain until Christmas Eve then disappear again.

The Christmas tree business around here is controlled by two rival Quebec cartels. They vie with one another over who gets what corner. The trees are shipped down from Quebec and an army of young Quebecois encamp on our streets for a month selling trees.

In years past, when we were fully operational, I took it upon myself to get to know the tree people who would set up across the street from the church. I’d offer them coffee, a place to shower and a restroom. There were a couple of guys who were here three years running. One was a musician. He’d come into the church and play his music on the piano in the sanctuary. The night he brought us our family tree, he played piano in our apartment and my son Micah accompanied him on the bass. On Christmas Eve, after our service, I would always bring them coffee and hot cider, a candle from our service, and wish them well for their middle of the night drive back to Montreal in time for Christmas dinner with their families.

Since we’ve been closed, I haven’t gone over. Felt I had nothing to offer. This year that will change.

George is back on the steps again with even more stuff. I wonder if he’s permanently left his apartment or this is just a holiday visit. I say, “Good morning, George, how are you?” “Good,” he says, “and you?” He’s never asked before.

I ask him if he did anything for Thanksgiving. “Like what?” he says, “Where would I go?” “Goddard-Riverside?” I ask, “their dinner?” “Listen,” he says, “you don’t know nothin about the hands that prepared that food. What you might get. What your system might not handle." And he’s off on a lecture about food. How if I tried to feed my grandfather what I feed my kids he’d think I was trying to poison him. About the breakdown in our autoimmune systems. The phoniness of vitamins at health food stores. Holistic healing, alternative medicine. The poisoning of the earth by agribusiness. He’s read books, heard talks. I tell him about my recent visit to the farm in Nicaragua, a country rich enough in resources to feed itself but starved by soil depleted of its natural resilience, the loss of seeds that are natural to the tropical environment. “That’s Monsanto,” he says, “motherfuckin Monsanto. That’s domination, colonial fuckin domination.” And he’s right.

I walk across the street. There’s a young man in the shelter by the tree stands. I introduce myself. Tell him I’m the minister from across the street. He says he’s Francois. This is his third year to come here. I apologize for not having come by the last couple of years. How we’ve been closed. The water damage issue. He tells me he’s looked up the church online, read its history, followed the landmarking issue. “Old things need to be taken care of,” he says. I ask how he likes his coffee.

The I go back across the street and ask George how he likes his coffee. He looks at me. Asks how big the coffee will be. Then I go into Barney Greengrass and get three identical coffees with milk, two sugars. George, Francois, me.

I give George his and go back to Francois. Ask where in Quebec he is from. “Oh, no, I am a franco-ottawan,” he says. And he tells me of his regular job in checking out stakes and claims in the Yukon. How the winter there is too much, but the summer’s beautiful, midnight sun and turqouise (he says

turkwaz) waters. I welcome him back and tell him I’ll be seeing him around.

I go back, lock up. Say goodbye to George. He’s still encamped on the steps. I’m worried about him. I call the Reachout team. Their phone goes direct to message. I want to leave a voice-mail about George. The mailbox is full.

I have my own worries.This is all good but I'm aware of the $100,000 we have to raise by mid-January. I’m waiting for Maz to come to bat. It still feels raw. Walking up the street, I feel almost good. The urban forest has returned.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Day of the Eve of Thanksgiving


Beautiful, mild sunny day. James has been here. Only a piece of the building and neatly folded cardboard to remove. Has George been here again? Did he spend the night? Is there a faint whiff of urine here?


A quiet warm day. Stop for my morning coffee at Barney Greengrass today. Time to start a new routine. Deacon James and I work together. He’s wearing another veteran’s advocacy pin today: “Leave no veteran behind.” He tells me about a reunion of his civilian police group, trained to ride with, support the police. Seemed like a good thing to do after he left the service. I look across the street. The wooden racks and strings of lights are going up for the soon to come Christmas trees.

* * *

When I open the doors for P______ , a late afternoon glow bathes Amsterdam. She comes into my office, sits down. “Rev. Brashear, this is where I come to talk to God. God hears me here.” She looks around the sanctuary. “We can worship in here.”
“Well, there’s the heat....”

“We can wear coats...”

We review her case. The mixture of real and unreal. I tell her that I understand about the burning electric x -rays they send through the ceiling, but it’s probably not a good idea to talk too much about that with other people. She’s put together a massive conspiracy theory, including the mayor. With his massive communications network, he’s behind the cameras they’ve installed to monitor her behavior. Sadly, she believes it’s a conspiracy based on “race”. “They’re all Jews,” she says. She needs a lawyer, fast. Her appeal runs out on the first. I call Gary, an attorney from another church, a close friend church on the east side. I tell him she’ll be calling.

While we’re talking, a man walks in. Another one of those tweedy Upper Westside New Yorker magazine types. I go over to talk to him, introduce myself. “I’ve lived here thirty years and never been inside this church,” he says. “So you’ve been landmarked. Is that good or bad?” “It’s complicated,” I say. He introduces himself, Richard Barry. I explain our plans, our hopes, our vision. “it’s beautiful,” he says, “always wanted to see inside...” I tell him about the coming clean up day, the crafts fair. “You’ll have to come back,” I say.

While we’ve been talking, P___ has been kneeling in prayer at the front of the sanctuary, then in the pulpit. We go back to my office. She shows me a candle she’s taken, to help her prayers. “Let me show you something,” she says. And opens her purse to show me a small can. Inside, another candle. “I always carry this with me,” she says, “so i can pray anywhere...”

She too has noticed the smell on the steps. Her sense of smell is highly acute. We get some clorox and wash down the steps. I lock up. Go back outside. She thanks me, kisses my cheek.

Walking up the street, to go visit Rachel, I call Gary again to give him the back story. He’s been great for us. Defended Hugo when he was arrested for spray painting the scaffolding to protest the Landmarks process. Hugo refused to accept a plea bargain in exchange for a day of community service. When the case was heard, it was dismissed. Free speech won out. Gary will check with their landlord- tenant expert. The night is warm.


A brisk sunny autumn day. Perfect for the day before Thanksgiving. I stop at Barney Greengrass for my coffee. Run into my colleague Katherine and her husband John, who’s been helping us with our project. They’re picking up their Thanksgiving fish orders. I remember all those years we stopped here on Thanksgiving morning to pick up sable and Nova on our way to our annual family meal in Valley Forge. This year son Dan and I will head to Allentown.

Outside the church, Cristiana Pena from the Columbia Preservation Alumni is waiting for me. We’re going to put up flyers for the clean up day coming up on the fourth of December. We talk of our plans. When I mention Allentown, she tells me she went to Penn State. And when I ask her where she came from, she surprises me with South Dakota. “That’s a long way,” I say. “That was the idea,”she says, “but turns out State College was smaller than my hometown. Big school in a cow pasture,”she says, “that’s why I came here next.”

We open up the window boxes, tape up the signs. I’m happy to see these signs and the poster for tonight’s interfaith service at our temporary home at St. Paul and St. Andrew. It feels good to see so many signs of life.

After Cristiana leaves, I finish my clean up. Butts, matches, papers, an empty can of grape flavored high octane, high alcohol, high caffeine Loko juice. Someone asks for directions. An old African-American woman asks me to help her tie up her bags, get them into her shopping cart. The guys from Ready, Willing and Able in their blue jump suits are hitting the streets with their brooms. And the sun is bright.

* * * *

Kate Wood of Landmarks West comes with Stephen Gottlieb, an architectural preservation consultant from Greenwich Village, to tour the church and begin developing a priority list to get us back in the building. They are joined by Susan Sullivan of the “Friends of West-Park.” Although Kate was here for our vigil the night before the City Council landmarks vote, she hasn’t seen the rest of the building, Susan hasn’t been in here for years and Stephen never. And so we tour every inch, ruins and all.

And once again, I do not feel embarrassed. It was, after all, the landmarks intervention that led to the end of the process that would have changed all this. And now, there is my growing sense of hope. Stephen has much information regarding the fire marshal that we haven’t thought of.

As we reach the end of the tour, Susan says, “I know it seems daunting, but...” and i respond, “I am not daunted.” Stephen says that it’s not as bad as he thought. Even the mold. Just like Ted thought. Step by step....

So they will need to consult with the Belnord folks and see where we go next. I say that the “you will need to’s” need to be turned into an actual plan.

Outside, we look at the gates. They have to go first. There’s no more need for them. They only speak of abandonment. There’s no more homeless problem. We’re back. And present again. Stephen talks of a church in Paris where the ”hippies” congregate on the steps. And how cleaning them makes them, well, clean. Somewhere in this conversation Susan seems moved.

We will meet again, see where negotiations,plans will go. It’s time for me to visit my old friend and life mentor Jack. And get ready for tonight’s service. The temperature is dropping. It’s the night before Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reign of Christ


Christ the King, the Reign of Christ Sunday. The crowning of the church year. The end before beginning again. The lowest and highest day of the church year at the same time. Finding in the crucifixion a victory. In life given, not taken, the powers are broken.

Coming to the church, I find Jim and Holly already there. Not much to clean up, only some folded cardboard. George’s cardboard from yesterday. I’m hoping this means he went back to his apartment last night. They are wiring Christmas wreaths with red ribbons to the door. Removing the out of date information from the sign windows. The windows vandalized last spring when we displayed signs against landmarking. Today the only message is about last summer’s bake sale. There’s new information to come.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Jesus Christ Looked Just Like Me


Heading to the church after an early Saturday morning meeting with our city council member, Gale Brewer. Time to share the plans we’ve been developing with her. Time for her to see our growing community support. And time to continue to remind her of the promises made during the landmarks struggle. Her promises to raise $20 million dollars for West-Park. And that in the last days of that struggle, the political rhetoric changed from trying to save the church building to the commitment to see the church continue as a church, not just a building but a mission. That in some ways our fates are tied together. Ted and I feel the meeting went well. She too is amazed at how the atmosphere around the church has changed and that we’ve reconnected with Gary Greengrass.

I open the doors to the church. And there on the steps is George, back again. “Good morning, George,” I say, “I’m cleaning up now.” “Does that mean I’m in the way? I’ve got to move?” “Yes.” And so he gathers up his cardboard, his pillows, his backpack.

“So George, did you sleep here last night?”


“How’d it go?”


“Anything happen?”

“No. Why? Did something happen? Last night? Before? Why are you asking this? ” A tone of suspicion is rising.

“No, just asking.”

“ Where’d everybody else go? Like the Mexican guy with the shopping cart full of bottles and cans...”

“Ricardo, he’s gone.”

“And the guy with the baby carriage.”

“Don’t know him. Gone too. And Tracy’s gone.”

Tracy? Was he here again?”

I have never actually had a conversation with George, just scattered questions and responses, usually in a tone of gruff disdain on his part. The word glowering comes to mind. His response to the name Tracy is the first sign of empathy towards another human being I have ever seen from him.

“Yes Tracy was here..”

“He was here for a few weeks...”

“The reachout people came one time, looking for him. Asked me if he was around. I said I didn’t know. They said they’d found his daughter, somewhere in the midwest. Wanted to find him...”

“They came and found him here. The reachout people. I think they’re all right.”

“The reachout people?”


He smirks at me. “Oh yeah, they’re good. “Can I help you?” he says in a falsetto voice. ‘Yeah, they’re good.”

And then it’s like a floodgate has been opened. The words come pouring out rapid and flowing. It’s his story. Or parts of it at least. Talks about living in Brooklyn. Having a woman there. Working unloading trucks for the New York Times. Union issues. FBI. Seemed like time to come back to Manhattan. Hung out on Broadway. Sitting on a bench on a traffic island.

“They offer me a job. Security. Told me I’d have to wear a uniform. Didn’t have one big enough. I said could I wear my poncho? They said no. These reachout people, rather see me on SSI, your dime, than working...made me see a witch doctor say I was a nutcase. I was working, understand? Yeah, SSI for my leg that swells up, not my head...”

He talks of being forced into the mental ward at Bellevue. “When I went in, I could play chess, I could beat everybody, analyze things, think things through. Then they put me on medication. Next thing you know, I’m noddin out like I’m on heroin or somethin, droolin like an old man and weak as an AIDS motherfucker. That’s what medication do. Fuck medication.” And he spits for emphasis. “Sides, that’s crazy. Black people don’t get mental illness. It’s a proven fact. That’s all about you. We all descendants of slaves. Can you imagine, slave go massa, massa I can’t go to the fields today, I’m depressed. Massa go, too bad, nigger, I replace you. Bim, bam nigger gone, nigger replaced. A depressed nigger is a dead nigger. I’m proof. I’m homeless. You got to have a good head to be homeless, don’t make it otherwise. A depressed nigger is a dead nigger.”

Then it’s economics. “Two wars goin on. No jobs. What’s up with that? Used to be war come, you jump up and down and go, yay, war. There gonna be jobs. Look at Roosevelt, JFK, even Vietnam. Now we got war, no jobs. Now we got two wars, no jobs. What the fuck? They know exactly what they doin.”

And global warming. “How old are you 50’s, 60’s?” I tell him 61. He says,
“Remember when we was kids? Come Thanksgiving time, you be wearin gloves, be wearin mittens. Like over the river and through the motherfuckin woods, yo? The horse know the way through that snow, motherfucker, yo. And last week like spring here. Ain’t right. ”

I’m starting to wonder where Jim is. Left my cellphone indoors. What if he comes to the 86th Street door and can’t get in? Doesn’t come around front? What then? In the middle of my conversation with George our good friend Ellen, probably on her way from services at B'Nai Jeshurun comes over and gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Tells me to say "hi" to my family.

"George, give me a minute. I forgot my cell phone, be right back.

“It’s the end times, brother.” And then he goes apocalyptic in a Biblical visionay exegesis that’s a mash up of Azuza Street Mission Elijah Muhammad Louis Farrakhan Black Hebrew Nation Rastafarian and George Clinton Bootsy Collins PFUNK. A history of the black man from the Hamite African tribes of Mizraim (Egypt), Canaan, Libya and Ethiopia. How the black man so-called negro turned away from God and was sent into exile, into slavery into Babylon (uh, not Long Island) as punishment. “But what if Marcus Garvey come back, give everyone passports, bring in airplanes, say we all flyin away. You think that happen? Nah, no way. Never let that happen. Anyplace we go become the next superpower. Why?” “Because of the labor, creativity and gifts of the African-Americans,” I say. “Yeah,right. Sides, you all be bored if we went away. We sing for you, make you laugh, dance for you. Run up and down fields for you. We entertain you. We are American culture. Blues, jazz, rap...We laugh and talk loud on buses and subways and scare your ass. We disappear in the night. We keep life interesting for you.We be gone, you be bored.”

“End time comin.” And he says, “What’s the unforgiveable sin?”

“Taking the lord’s name in vain, “ I say.

“No,” he says, “blaspheming the Holy Spirit. It's different. You know what blaspheme mean? You know what leperers are?”


“Yeah..but not like you think. Not like today. it's like’s when you lose this, “ he pointed to his arm, “and become that” and points to my hand. “The Jesus you got is blasphemy. Jesus Christ looked like me. Wooly hair, the Bible say, just like me. You know I’m tellin the truth. You went to school.You read it. But you keep it hidden. That Jesus you got in there,” he points inside the church, “is a historic figure. The bastard son of a pope. That’s who that is. He fuck women, men, girls, boys...He don’t care. That’s why the Catholics worship the right one for them, he’s a pedophile.” He continues on. Been nearly a half hour of stream of consciousness so far. “ Fuck that Martin Luther King. There’s got to be retribution. God’ll do it. Insurrection, then race war. You can’t stop it. And you can’t escape it. Jesus said some of this generation shall not pass until the son of man has returned. But no one around that old. And he not there. I figure must be reincarnation. Ain't no one been here that long..but our spirits have... we feel like's we been here that long.. so..we been here before. ”

Jim has arrived. Time to leave the apocalypse and go inside to work. I tell George that I’m heading in. Tell him to keep warm. He laughs. “Look at me. Do I look cold?” And I see his layers...sweater, coat, jacket, Palestinian kaffiyeh around his shoulders, sweater, jacket, poncho, camouflage hat with ear flaps, knit pullover cap....No George, you don’t look cold.

            • * * *

Jim, Holly, Marsha and I are there to prepare for the upcoming clean up day scheduled for December 4th. Going room by room marking what’s garbage, what stays. In the old lobby, Marsha looks depressed. “It’s a crime what happened to this church,” she says. I agree. Later working in the session room, sorting things, I say, “Look, I know how you feel. For years, I felt defeated. Like we kept trying to find a way to get this done. Before we moved out. And never could. It was always like this. Too few people, too much stuff..We finally just walked away. Waiting for some future. And every time I’d come in here, I’d feel beaten again. But not today. In two weeks, there’s going to be a whole crew here. And a dumpster. And all this crap is gone. Gone. Then we can breathe, can start over. For the first time in years, today i feel hope."

Marsha and I find a collection of old love letters. Sweet, affectionate,caring...Written by a man who loved. Kept by a woman who knew she was. Wondering how they came to be here, in the middle of the ruins of this church. “I’m the wrong person to be doing this, “ says Marsha, “I can’t put these down.”

Holly comes to me excited. She's found what looks like a tintype or photograph from the early part of the last century. It's of a little girl. She's seen ghosts here before, including the pastor who had committed suicide on Christmas Eve. "Remember the little girl I told you about," she says, "the one I saw in here? This is her...this is what she looked like..."

Finally we’re done for the day.

Walking back up the street, I say to George, “Have a good afternoon, George. Enjoyed the conversation...” He nods quietly. A hint of a smile.

I hear his voice behind me, “Yo, Jesus Christ looked just like me.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

In the Spirits in Which It's Offered


After breakfast, I'm crossing Amsterdam and run into Shirley in the middle of the street. She's an octogenarian and peace activist, the classic Upper West Side cultured leftist lady, the kind who once defined our neighborhood. She was a founder of West Side Peace Action when SANE and FREEZE working out of the balconies at West-Park decided to settle their differences peacefully and join forces. She was one of the organizers of the historic 1983 national march against nuclear proliferation. They've had no home since West-Park closed. She asks how many years until we can go back to the church. When I tell her, oh, maybe two-three months, she looks pleasantly shocked. "You know, we're now Manhattan Peace Action, "she says. "There's not so many activists anymore. Why? Don't they care? The young people?" I think about trying to explain that people still care but that the practice and culture of activism has changed since the '80s. Then I think better of it. And as always, she pulls out a flyer announcing their next event and places it in my hand, insisting that I come.

Breakfast has run long and I miss James who once again has done a great job. Megan the freelance journalist is visiting with me in my office when Tom from the Belnord walks in with Nazim who manages property related issues for the Belnord. Tom, formerly the first executive of Friends of West-Park, is here to inspect the damage and figure out what must be done to restore water and heat in the building. We’re going to do a complete inspection tour and Megan follows along.

We start in the sanctuary and I share my priority of getting everything operational on this side. In their eyes, it doesn’t look so bad. Nazim checks out the electricity and says it’s ok. Then we head for the scarier parts in the water damaged church house. Tom has not been in there since before the water disaster. He’s both a bit shocked and fascinated by what’s been exposed. When he sees how much junk is still around, he volunteers to secure a dumpster for our upcoming clean up day so that we can really empty the space out.

Finally to the scariest place of all, the basement. I show them the black mold. “I’ve seen worse,” he says. We check out the boilers and accompanying asbestos issues. Then we try and figure out what we’re facing. Electricity looks good. Water, well some broken places have been capped. The rest of the system will have to be checked out to see where there are leaks. And as for heat, the pipes are now an issue. Being empty for over a year, rust can settle in and compromise, weaken or block the flow. This could be an issue. We talk about, explore possible temporary heating solutions, portable boilers, etc. There are more ways to do this than I imagined. And Tom will talk to our council member Gale Brewer to get her involved in and supportive of this work.

Later I tell Megan how whenever I had to come into this building, I felt depressed, like my very soul was being sucked out of me. I would leave exhausted and drained. But not now. I see it all. And feel hope and possibility.

I finish with Tom and Nazim. Megan and I go back to my office. She interviews me for another hour going over every aspect of history, of our church’s journey and of my own. When I talk about where we are now, seeking to engage the community, that our future will be better if our neighbors invest themselves in this process, how they will take responsibility for a future and what that means to me, she seems visibly moved. I talk about how this congregation has consistently voted to remain here in ministry every time its had the opportunity to leave and that therefore for us our community, our context is a calling,not a circumstance and that this means the responsibility to engage and the possibility of transformation.

While we are talking a distinguished looking man walks in. Says he's always wanted to look inside. Never saw the doors open. He describes himself as a fan of churches and architecture. Carrying the fall issue of Lapham's Quarterly issue on religion. Says he brings an "Anglican's eye" to his visit. I tell him our story, our dreams. He's anxious to come back for the Crafts Fair.

I tell Megan about my blog tracking the daily experience here. (And now she’s in it.) And her importance in getting the word out. I lock up and we walk out into the sunlight.

Across the street, sitting in the sun, at the Belnord, I see Marty. I walk over and say,”Marty, hi, how are you today?” He says,” I just now came out from my room at Capitol Hall. Reverend, may next Thursday be only like today.” I think a second and realize that he’s talking about Thanksgiving. He sees me thinking. “It’s a holiday,” he says. “I leave you with that thought.” But as I prepare to say goodbye, he says,”Oh, one more thing. The priest, the minister, finished his sermon. One of the congregants, to express appreciation for the sermon brings him up a case of whiskey. For a minute, he’s not too sure what to say. The he says, 'Thank you so much. But it’s not the gift but the spirits in which its offered.' He smiles. So do I. “ I think I first told you that twenty years ago when we first met.(Hey, it's fifteen, but no matter.) You know in Kentucky and the hills of Tennesee they still make moonshine. They say there’s no unexplored places in America, but there are,there are...” I say, “Marty, you have a good afternoon.” And he says, “and you have a good holiday.” I walk up the street. In the sun.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Unique Configurations


Hmm. Only some left over challah today....

P____ comes to my office. To pick up the papers we’re filing to contest her eviction. She’s from the Indian Asian community of Guyana. Raised two great kids. Works for the Board of Ed. Clearly intelligent and once studied science. And seriously bipolar. With paranoid delusions. Creative, scientific and paranoid. But also blessed with a special presence of the Holy Spirit and an ability to see things before they happen. I testified for her before. She’s angry because under oath I “admitted” I had no way of knowing for sure where she slept at night.

Her landlord has made a good case. She doesn’t come across well in the trial transcript. But how could she? I mean, that’s the point . I wish I could convince the judge that in her apartment she can make it. Without that, she easily becomes a street person. It would be a short journey.


Sunny cold morning. Good to have Amanda back helping again. We’re sweeping. A large African-American man approaches. Young. Pulling a suitcase on wheels behind him. “Getting ready for midday prayers?” he says. “Well, no” I say. ‘What kind of church is this?” He asks.

“Presbyterian” I say.

“Ah, John Wesley” he says.

“Not exactly. John Calvin.”

“Ah yes, Predestination...”

“But it’s all about grace.”

“And the overwhelming power of God. God can save anyone He likes. All of us if he wants. Mussolini if he wants. Any a them. Or none of us if He wants.”

“I agree. It’s all up to God...”

“Nothin we did to deserve it...”

“ I’m Bob. I’m the pastor here.”

“I’m George,” he says. (But not the George who slept here.)

“Look, George, I’m enjoying the conversation, but I’m uncomfortable standing here talking while she’s doing all the work. I’m going to get another broom. Stick around,I’ll be right back.”

And when I get back, he’s gone.

What if we did do midday prayers? Melissa said to do it. Every day.

Back inside, we go into my office. Tracy’s blanket, actually a fine quilt, sits draping the chair he sat in. As if he were still there inside of it. Invisible. We talk about the bedbugs plague. I gather up the quilt in a black plastic bag and take it away.


Back from Melissa’s installation in Rochester. Lots of her members ask about West-Park because she preached about us last week. There’s much on my mind. Uncertainty about a Presbytery meeting. Trying to think through a strategy. Worried about money. All as I walk down the street. When I get there, it’s amazingly clean. Someone has been here. It must be Deacon James Clifford.

There’s drama on the 11 bus parked in front of the church. Voices raised, multiple threats made. Disrespect of women is mentioned. Old women shake their heads. Older men are muttering and trying to intervene. Anxious white folk exiting the bus. Police are being called. Two men exit shouting. Threatening the bus driver from outside. She dares them to step back in the bus and “make her day.” She calls the police once more. Then leaves the bus stop.

I call James. He’s just back from the hospital. Says he’s about 35% over the “walking pneumonia.” But before he went to the hospital today, he stopped by to make sure that everything was ok. I tell him we’ve got to show up at the same time some day.


A quiet, sunny, crisp fall day. Everything clean. Deacon James doing a great job. One day after Presbytery agrees to let our plan move forward. Vulnerability, danger and all...we will move ahead.


On my way up 86th Street from the subway, I see Marty. He’s sitting on the steps of the Belnord, the historic apartment building across the street from the church. (Matt Damon lives there...) He’s not yet been rousted by their security staff. In his watch cap and one eye open and the other squinting, he resembles Popeye. When I ask him what he’s doing, he always says “collecting tips.” He always sat on the steps of the church until we closed and the homeless encampment began. They scared him. His father was a famous Rabbi named Kaplan. Lived in the Bronx when it was Jewish. Marty is extremely intelligent and has been bipolar for years. Mainly coherent, though sometimes not. He lives in Capitol Hall on 87th, one of the last remaining SRO’s on the neighborhood. I realize I’ve been avoiding him for too long. Part of my embarassment about the building. It’s time to reconnect.

“Hello,” Marty.

“Hello. Reverend. Hey, I saw the doors of the church open last week....”

“We’re open every day.”

“The they let you open them? Is it legal? The law...the police...”

“Yes, it’s legal...never was illegal. We’re going back in.”

He ponders this.

“Do you still live at Capitol Hall?” I ask.

“Yes, I’ve lived there since 1990.” He looks up at the New York Black Yankees cap I’m wearing today.

“Like I told you when I first met you, Reverend. My father (and the word father sounds like it only can in the Bronx) would come home after his sermon take off his yarmulke and put on a baseball cap.”

“Any particular team?”

“ No, just a multicolored baseball hat. He was good friends with the police and firemen. They always gave him hats...”

I remember a conversation we once had. I’d find him on the steps sometimes with papers and a pencil writing in tiny letters. I’d ask him what he was doing. “i’m figuring, figuring” he’d say. But this time he looked up and saw my Pittsburgh Pirates hat. “Say,” he said, “did you ever see Clemente?”

“Yes, he was my favorite growing up.”

“So tell me. If Clemente was so good, why did he play right field instead of center?”

“Easy,” I say, “because of the unique configurations of Forbes Field.”

He laughs and looks at me. “Yeah, that’s it. Unique configurations, that’s the right answer, unique configurations.” And he laughs.

Today he looks up again. “There was a minister friend of my father. Gave him my first three wheeler..How are you doing, you know, financially?”

I look at him, shrug my shoulders, hold my hands out, palms up.

“That minister, he told my father, ‘look Kaplan, you better sign up for Social Security.’ You know, you should consider that, at least look into it while you have time..”

I consider my answer. “I’ll do that,” I say. “Marty, take care, ok?” He waves good bye. Walking across the street to the church, I’m thinking of unique configurations.

          • * * *

At the church, James Clifford is already at work. He’s wearing his Korean War vets hat, with service pins on it. He’s got a brand new broom and a dust pan.

“Reverend, guess where I had to go to get this. All the way to West End and 89th. I have a porter friend over there. I’ve been borrowing things from the place next door, just walk in, borrow them”

He’s referring to the prewar condo next door, where the manse used to be. Top floor. Eleven rooms, five bedrooms. The year I came here, before we arrived, the church sold it for $850,000. It’s worth around $4.5 million now. Sigh.

“The porter, there, Spanish guy. Got angry with me. I’m not sure what happened. Had to go all the way to 89th where I have another friend. You need to get me some keys.” He’s right. We agree to meet again tomorrow at nine.

As I’m walking up the street, I hear a voice. It’s my neighbor, Gary Greengrass, the owner of Barney Greengrass: the Sturgeon King. After their early beginning in Harlem, in 1908, they’ve been here on Amsterdam since the 20’s. They supplied sturgeon to everyone from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Larry David. And been on television shoes from Seinfled to Sex and the City and movies, most recently Revolutionary Road.

Well, ok, I’ve been avoiding him, too. Probably haven’t had a conversation since 2008 when he set up a tent under our awning to celebrate his 100th anniversary. I always used to send him flowers on Rosh Ha Shana. The homeless encampment was hard for him, scared his customers. And I felt helpless and well, ashamed. He’s been “on my list,” I’ve felt ready to reconnect.

“Reverend, “ he says, “I’ve been wanting to thank you. We’ve been seeing you here everyday. It makes a difference. It doesn’t smell anymore. It’s clean.”

I tell him about our daily clean ups, my office hours. No more encampment.

“So are you still looking to sell?”

I tell him our story. Our hopes for a Centre for Spiritual and Social Transformation. The tough road ahead. He nods in sympathy.

“Listen, what’s it gonna take to get that scaffolding down? How long’s it been up there? Ten years? Fifteen?”

“Eight,” I tell him, “Only eight,” I smile.

“What is it, the outside? That red sandstone? What do they call that?”

“Red sandstone,” I say. He laughs. And I describe the public safety issues. Our city council member’s promise of at least $11 million. The special fund at the Landmarks Conservancy.

“So listen, if it’s not coming down could I put something on our side, just to let people know we’re here?”

“Sure,” I say, and tell him about our plans to open up for the Crafts Fair and other activities. We shake hands. Awkwardness over, relationship reestablished.

I walk up the street. Thinking about unique configurations.

A Cold Day


Not much on the steps this morning. Some containers of Starbucks pastries scattered on the sidewalk in front. I am throwing them away and look and see Tracy at the corner. All wrapped up in the blanket I gave him yesterday. Under the scaffolding. “Tracy, “ I call out. He sees me and walks over.

“Pastor, so we became friends, right?” I say “yes.” “So I need to ask you something, ok? Can we go inside? I’m freezin my ass off out here.”

“Sure, let’s go into my office.” So we go inside. Sit down. He’s still wrapped up in his blanket. “So could I get back into a church? I was a believer, I...” I tell him of our plans to come back in. How he’d be welcome. He tells me how he could get some men together, do some work, help out. How he built three churches in Los Angeles. I tell him about the upcoming crafts fair. How there might be some work.

“Say,you wouldn’t have a piano or guitar? I’d like to play for you.” And he tells me of his life in music. Says Billy Preston taught him to play keyboard. “Wait a minute,” I say, “how’d you meet him.”
‘Well, it was Eric Clapton..”

“Come on”

“Well, yeah, it all goes back to Johnny Winter. Do you know him?”

“Yes, amazing guitar player, albino with long white hair...”

“Well he’s from Dayton, that’s where I grew up.” I tell him my brothers’ wife’s from Dayton. From the Appalachia neighborhoods. A brier.

“Yeah, that’s what they called us, briers...”

And I tell him about Eric Clapton in Tulsa when I was there. There to clean up. Get sober. And Leon Russell. The Shelter studio.

“Leon, oh my God...Tulsa, I played the Palomino Lounge once. Or maybe that was Los Angeles.Dunno. I was wild, crazy, young. It was the ’70’s, y’know? We’d smoke dope, drink, play all night..”

“OK, oil company, pentecostal preacher, music....”

“Yeah, well I never toured or nothin. But when they came to town, I’d play with em. Every night. Work all day, play all night. Then church on Sunday. I was filled with the Holy Spirit. Loved the girls. Well, women actually.” I ask him if he could get it together to play in front of people again. I imagine him playing with Amanda and the P&G crowd. Could I keep him sober long enough?

And piece by piece his story comes out. His brother who died. How it still hurts more than he can say. “How’d he die?” “Oh, it doesn’t matter anymore.” His father who raced hot rods. His name,Bob, just like me. Never beat him but made him sand cars as a punishment. Then left home and abandoned him. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out an empty vodka bottle. His hand is shaking. He looks at the empty bottle. “Shit. I need to come inside...”

We talk about how he said his mother in law would always take him in. So if he had a ticket to go back to LA, if she’d take him in, would he go? “Yeah, in a minute..let’s call her now...” he looks through his pockets. “Lost the number...”

I look at my watch. It’s car moving time. I tell him I’ve got to leave. But that I’ll be back. He asks if he can stay while I’m gone. I pause. Think. Consider all the possibilities. OK, I’ll take the chance.

I look over my shoulder, “Don’t let anyone else in, ok?”

“You can count on me.”

I’m thinking about Tracy. Forget where my car is. Find it five minutes late. Just as its being hooked up to a tow truck. Damn, never saw the hydrant. “Hey, that’s my car.” “You’re too late.” “I’m here. The car’ s here. You’re here..”

“Listen to what I’m telling you, it’s too late. Don’t worry, it’ll be safe,” says the tow truck guy. But that’s not the point, it’s the hundreds of dollars, the hours of time, locating the pound...I give in and accept it.

Back at the church. “I’m gonna die here.”

“No you’re not. Not gonna happen.” Been there. Done that. I remember Arthur Cafiero. How he joined us on the steps when we rang bells whenever someone was executed. How he’d come in and sing with us. His last good day. How he’d lost control. Become incontinent. His shame. It was quit drinking or die. How he froze to death after three failed attempts to get him inside that night. How the New York Times covered his funeral. Photo and all. And how the Post called me a bleeding heart killer. Buried him in the church cemetery in the Bronx. No, Tracy, you don’t die here.

I tell him I’m calling the outreach folks from Goddard-Riverside. They’re slow in coming. He’s shaking. “I need a cigarette.” I think about it. What the hell. I tell him I’m going out for coffee, that I’d take care of him. I head to the convenience store. Buy two coffees with cream and sugar. And a pack of Marlboro lights.

When I come back, he’s gone. I panic. Quick look around the church. Run outside. “Tracy,” I yell. Had the Goddard folks come and taken him away?

Then I see him around the corner. “Tracy..” He sees me. “I was looking for cigarettes..” I pull out the pack. “I told you I’d take care of you...”

We go back to the steps. I give him the pack. He fumbles with the matches. I take the cigarettes. To light one. And decide to smoke one with him. it’s been along time. We stand and smoke, he looks at me. “Hey, for a pastor, you’re not a bad guy. You’re a real human being.” ‘Thanks, I appreciate that.”

We go back inside. “Listen, can we go down to the front of the church and pray?” Just then the Goddard folks show up. A small young woman, dark with long black hair. A Latino guy in a baseball cap. I’m looking at her teal fingernails. “I’m worried about your shaking...” she says. Thinks its DT’s. “We’ve got to make some calls.”

“So we’ll go down and pray while you do that,” I say. So we go down. Sit in the front pew. Looking up at the Tiffany backlit Jesus. “Can’t believe we smoked on the church steps..” he says. “There’s worse sins,” i say. “There are. I’ve done em all. Well, cept for killing someone..”

I start to pray. “Oh, God, i thank you for this time with Tracy...”

“No. Don’t do that,” he says, “You’re not thankful. I’m a piece of shit..”

“No, you’re not .You’re a child of God. A sinner, just like me, just like all of us.. Loved by God, just like all of us”

“Let me do this,” he says. And he looks up at Jesus, tears streaming down his face. “I am so sorry..” I rub his shoulder, tell him it’s ok.

“You take good care of people,” he says.

“Well, not so good as i like, I haven’t done a very good job at that.”

We drink our coffee.

The woman with the teal nails tells me he’s the responsibility of another agency, Common Ground. He’s been missing from his room. They’ve been looking for him. They’ll be here in half an hour.

He wants to smoke, we go back to the steps. “Listen” he says, “you’re not fuckin with me,are you?”

“I mean some people,say they want to do something for you but they’re just fuckin with you. Will you stay with me?”

“I’m not fuckin with you, Tracy, I’ll stay.”

“You’re bettern a pastor, you’re a good man.” Not always, I think.

He asks foe one more favor. To arm wrestle. I agree. We lock up. And for what seems like minutes we're in stalemate, using all our strength with no movement. I try to push his arm over he takes my momentum and turns it back on me. He laughs as he wins.

Finally the Common Ground folks show up. Another young guy and a young woman with her blonde hair pulled back. “Tracy,” she says. “Hey, I’ve been missin” you he says. “Yeah,”she says. “I’m a Kentucky girl, remember?”

“I”m freezin to death,” he says, “can you take me some place warm?” “Sure,” the guy says, “I’ll fire up the heater in the van right now..” “it’ll be warm?” “Right now,” he says. They’ll be taking him to the hospital. They help him off the steps. He’s shaking, wobbling. One under each arm, me in the back. He looks over his shoulder. “I won’t forget you,” he says. And they enter the van.

I’m shaking as I walk up the street. It’s a cold day.