Monday, November 1, 2010

On the Steps

On the Steps

It was Amanda's idea. She said, "You have to sweep your steps." The first day we went together. While sweeping, an elderly African-American woman approaches. “so,” she says “you been landmarked. When is the work going to begin?” I explain that it doesn’t work that way. That no money comes with that. That we want to get back in. “So what can I do?” she asks. “Well, want to sweep? Or you can contact our city council member, Gale Brewer. Ask when the money comes.”
Our Deacon James Clifford approaches. A retired army vet who lives nearby. Hugs are exchanged. He talks about how he comes by every day to check things out. Except for his recent hospitalization. Clean up a bit. Last summer he spent a couple of days trying to restore an office for me inside the church. “We can do this together,” I say.
I pick up the cup filled with urine and take it to the garbage can. An older black man walks by. Sees what I’m doing. “That’s disgraceful, “ he says. “I was homeless once myself. Always took care of the place I was. Respected it. Kept it clean. These homeless these days. Just don’t know what’s wrong with them.” He shakes his head. Walks off.
I arrive at the steps and find a Mexican man whose age is hard to determine. He is still drunk. Cans of Cobra 40 around. I ask him his name. “Ricardo,” he replies. “Me voy limpiar las escaleras,” I say. “Me ayuda?” He declines my invitation to help. I notice trails of urine and sputum on the steps. Not sure what to do about that. Another Mexican man with a shopping cart filled with tin cans approaches. An animated discussion begins. Yet another Mexican man, better dressed and not appearing homeless, approaches and begins speaking authoritatively to the other two. My Spanish checks out and I can’t follow. They begin to leave. Ricardo unzips, wavering, and begins to relieve himself against the church. “Hermano,” I say, “Por se puede urinar en la iglesia..este es una iglesia, mi hermano..” He looks at me blankly and the three take off.
It’s a relatively quiet day. No signs of any activity. Has James Clifford been here and swept already? But as I sweep I notice, more red mud. That’s what started all this in the first place. Red mud. That’s how we discovered the outside of our building was washing away. It still is.
Cold, damp morning. Open doors from inside, find George sitting there, blocking the steps. George is a large African-American man with thick glasses. Wrapped in layers of robes and jackets and ponchos, with his bicycle rear view mirror attached to his hat, and his walking stick, he has the appearance of a desert character from one on the post-apocalyptic Mad Max movies. He lived on our steps a long time. We have a long history. He is diagnosed as a “highly intelligent schizophrenic.” At a community clergy meeting with the Department of Homelessness, George was proudly claimed as a success story. They had found him exactly the apartment exactly where he wanted it. And he was happily living there. Well, now he’s back. Clearly having spent the night.
I said, “Good morning,George. Excuse me, I’m going to sweep the steps.” He gathered his cardboard and other items and moved away as I tried to explain that we’d be doing this every morning. That we wanted to use the church again. I swept the steps. Removed the empty Cobra 40 can. I still don’t know what to do with human waste...spit, vomit, worse. But being here every day, I’ll have to figure it out.
As I finish, George is coming back. I ask about the overstuffed shopping cart near the steps. It’s not his, he tells me. Said the other guy left. I asked him to help keep an eye on things.
Another older lean African-American man with a white beard approaches. Staring at the church, lips moving. “Good morning,” I say. “Shhh...”he says, I’m talkin to the church. God bless the church” I tell him it’s my church. “So bless me, “ he says. So I do.
Walking back up Amsterdam Avenue, I call Project Reachout. “George is back,” I say.
Sunny mild day. I like to enter the church from the 86th street door so that when I get to the front door and open it up, what I find there will be a surprise. Today I find Ricardo and George on the steps. I wonder if he’s left his apartment or if this is just a visit to the comfort of the steps. I have two brooms. Offer one to Ricardo, asks if he wants to help. He shakes his head, gathers up his SUV shopping cart and takes off up Amsterdam. George has already left the steps and moved to the corner. Someone has left a large pile of clothes on the steps. I go over to George, asks if he wants the clothes. He scowls. “Who? What’s wrong?” I say, “the clothes, do you want them?” He scowls again. “No. Why would I want to do that? They’re small. I can’t wear small. I am not small.” I continue the clean up. Sweep up every scrap of paper, food, cigarette butts. Toss today’s lone Cobra 40 can. At least no human waste today. Wonder if my being here affects that. I think how I grew up in a tall steeple church. Spent my first ten years in the (then) largest downtown church in the US. Five associate pastors. Think about what pastors did and never did. I look at the beat up broom and dust pan. My downstairs neighbor Judy passes by on her way to work at Dorot, an outreach program for people who are elderly, Jewish and poor. We exchange good mornings. My fantasy is that some one will join me. Bring new brooms. We’ll see.
I go back to George. “You have a good day, ok?” He nods. No scowl this time.
I call Deacon James Clifford. He will take care of the steps while I am gone.
This morning I am on an early morning run in barrio in Managua. I smile at hearing the sounds of roosters in the city again. And then I see what I had forgotten. What I’ve seen in third world cities in Mexico, Nicaragua, Palestine. First thing in the morning, all over the world, poor women going out on the sidewalks, the streets, in front of their houses. With brooms. Refusing to be defeated by money, circumstance, garbage or power. Claiming their own power in their own space. Sweeping.
Today at 6 am in Managua I saw men sweeping the sidewalks...
Back from Nicaragua. A sunny and cool Halloween morning. The steps show signs of people having slept there. Folded up cardboard behind the gates. An old blanket and a sweater. I gather these things up and head for the trash can. Then I stop and think. Is it right to throw away the blanket? So I start to fold it up neatly and place it beside the steps. But then I think of the bedbug plague we’re going through. And other possibilities. So I place the blanket and sweater beside the can, not in it.
As I’m sweeping, Katherine approaches. She hadn’t been aware of where we’d be worshipping. Hadn’t seen my various ways of trying to communicate while I was gone. She will call others who might not know.
Then Holly comes. Begins decorating the outside of the church with Mexican paper cut outs and big colorful flowers her daughter Abie has made. And she’s building a Dia de los Muertos display on the steps. Amy and Juan arrive and begin setting up the electric piano and sound system. One by one, two by two the West-Park folk begin to arrive. Some in costumes.

I put on my white alb and green stole. Gather the folks on the steps. Holly takes salt and pours it around our circle and up the stairs, protecting our space. Talk about Martin Luther, 433 years ago. Why he picked this day. Explained about the 95 Theses. Then I pulled out my “15 Theses” and read them aloud:
  1. The church is the community of God’s children acting together as the Body of the Risen Christ
  2. The church is the people of God, not the building
  3. The building has been given to the church for the extension of mission and ministry
  4. We are called to witness where we are...this corner in this neighborhood: this means engaging our neighbors
  5. The church is not for sale
  6. The building is not for sale
  7. Our souls are not for sale
  8. We left our building voluntarily as a step towards rebuilding and renewing
  9. Bureaucrats and zealouts kept us out
  10. We return here because we choose to
  11. We will reclaim, renew and restore this building as we reclaim, renew and restore our mission, our ministry, our witness...and ourselves.
  12. Our obedience is first and foremost to the God who created us
  13. God has already given us all that is necessary to do the mission God has called us to
  14. Neither government nor church council (Presbytery) can take that mission and ministry from us against our will
  15. We invite any and all who would be partners to join us now.
We are West-Park.
Here we stand. We can do no other.

And I took out a hammer and nailed these to the church door....
We sang “A Mighty Fortress..” in English and Spanish and went inside into our narthex and the back of the sanctuary where Holly had built an ofrenda for El Dia de los Muertos with fruits, chocolates, photos of old confirmation classes, coins and a bottle of wine. After the service, all will share..
Philip goes and buys candy. We set up a table and sit to greet those walking up the street, lots of trick and treaters. Lots of parents. Lots of questions about the church. Wish I had flyers. And press. Take some folks in and show them around. Over and over again people ask “when does the work begin?” So any don’t realize that landmarking only gets you landmarked with no money to do the work. Over and over again I patiently explain.
One older man passes by and stops. “Pastor Brashear,” he says, “I see you honor the pagan as well as the Christian..” “It’s the eve of All Hallows,” I say, “All Saints.” He smiles and wishes us well.
We pass out candy and raisins. Talk to people. Wish them a Happy Halloween. We’ve been gone for three years. Will take awhile to convince folks we’re back.
We leave an ofrenda, a candle and candies on the steps as we leave.
11/1 All Saints Day
Sunny cool day. Not quite 50. Interesting to look at our altar. The candle’s gone. But most everything else still there. The skull, three chocolates,even the small cup of wine. (That is a surprise.) I start to take down the flowers and the rest of the display. Then I think, no, today is All Saints Day, tomorrow All Souls. I decide to keep it up through these days. And I add a flower or two to the gate where I had taken down a paper cut silhouette. When I see passersby stop and check out our doors, intrigued looks on their faces, I know this is right.
Someone has left a garbage bag of clothes on the steps. I open it and look in. All dirty, used up. This is not charity. At least they didn’t gift wrap anything. I take it to the trash barrell.
Once I ran a community ministry. We insisted gifts not be wrapped so that people could have a choice of what they wanted. One church member got bery angry. “Why is it so important for you to wrap this up?” I asked. “Because if they saw what it was, they might not want it, “ was the angry reply.
Los santos vivan....

No comments:

Post a Comment