Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Street Preacher


As I head to the church this morning, I’m feeling unsettled. Maybe it’s yesterday’s election. Maybe it’s the enormity of what lies ahead of me. Maybe it’s the tears of my ministry colleague, kicked out by her church after eleven years, no more health care. No severance. (My Lutheran colleague says that they require and guarantee one month per year of service.) And forced to beg for her vacation pay. With no real help from the Committee on Ministry or Presbytery. Feel like our connectional system has failed. That there are basic justice issues here. It’s depressing.

As I get to the 86th Street door, there’s a woman in the doorway talking aggressively on a cell phone. Everything about her screams “real estate agent.” And that she is. Wants to know if the church is for sale. “No,” I say. “Can’t we just talk a minute?” she says. I should say “no,” but I don’t. I take her in. To my office. We sit down. She pulls out a news article about landmarking from January. “There’s a lot more recent than that,” I say. And I tell her our story. Our refusal to sell. To merge. To leave. Our desire, our passion, to come back in. She smiles, does her best smiling, friendly affect. Still wants to see the building. Tell her I’ve got no time for that. “Not even a three minute walk through?” I sigh. I’m easy. I give her a quick walk through.

I’m always annoyed when someone who wants to buy our church tells me how beautiful it is. For the first time in a long time, I feel that sickness, that stomach ache as I walk through. The sense of loss.

We go back to my office. I ask her about her client. She says to ask her a question, “So is it a religious organization?” I ask. “Yes,” she says. “They’re growing, need more room.” She asks about price. Says her article says $25million. Would that do it?” she asks. I tell her about our short window of opportunity. Tell her to check back later. We’re not for sale.

I open the Amsterdam Avenue doors to let her out. Out on the steps, I feel a chill run through me. There are scattered November leaves on the steps. I remove all the bright Mexican fabrics, the multi-colored cut papers. Time to put them away. The skull has been taken. Only two candies remain. There’s a dirty blanket. A small bag of food.

As I sweep, I hear a voice. “Hello pastor.” I look up. I say, “Tracy! It’s good to see you! I’ve been worried about you. Didn’t know where you were. It’s good to see you.” It is good to see him. Red haired, Maybe my age or younger. I appreciate his Kentucky accent. ( A place I’m not particularly fond of but nonetheless part of my life.) He slept on these steps for awhile. Haven’t seen him in weeks.

“I’ve been in a place down on the Bowery,” he says. “ But I got to leave. Can’t afford the $250 a month. I walked all the way up here for a free cup of coffee. And to bum a cigarette.” (I noticed this morning they’re now up to $12.95 a pack.) “See the guy at that coffee cart over there? He takes care of me.”

We talk about his situation. Welfare’s supposed to pay his rent. “I know why they won’t,” he says. “I miss my appointments. But how am I supposed to get there when I don’t have a metro card?” He’s sober. And a sadness in his eyes.

A casual but well dressed older man walks up. Introduces himself. Asks about the church. He’s a retired architect. “That’s great, you have time,” I say. And I tell him our story. What we want to do. What we need. He sees my “Theses.” Asks if i know what that is. “Yes,” I say. “I put it there.” I take it down and give it to him. “Read this on the bus,” I say. “I know another architect near here,” he says, “let’s see what we can do.” I write down my name, number, e-mail. And he heads for the 11 bus.

Tracy’s still there. “Pastor,” he says, “let me ask you a question. I see you out here every day. I see...look you must be a man of faith, right?” he looks away. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” “No tell me,” I say. “ I mean how do you keep it? How do you keep it? I was....I did...Look, I was an ordained pastor, ok?” A shock runs through me. “What denomination?” I ask. “Pentecostal,” he says. “Los Angeles, California. Mainly blacks and Mexicans. I speak fluent Spanish. And Italian. I...” He looks away.

“It’s not easy, “ I start. “Do you want to talk some more?” I want to invite him inside. “No, no. Thanks,” he says. “I’ll be moving on.” “Look,” I say, “I’m here every day. He smiles. Stubs out his cigarette and heads up the street.

I look after him. Remember the day Amanda and I asked him to move so that we could enter the church. It was Amanda who was able to break through and get his name. Later, after our meeting, I said to him, “Tracy, take care, ok?” About half way down the street, he called to me. “Pastor.” I turned and came back. His eyes were filled with tears. “Thank you. You saw me. Acknowledged me. Called me by name. To most folks, I’m invisible. Thank you for seeing me.”

I try to imagine the story that leads from a Pentecostal church in Los Angeles to the steps an empty church on the Upper Westside of New York City. He told me that on our steps he’d had beer bottles thrown at him. And I remember when he was beaten with a baseball bat. The thin lines between Tracy, my colleague, myself.

I finish sweeping. Close and lock the doors, the gate.

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