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.

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