Friday, November 5, 2010

The Sun Has Come Out


Cold, gray, raw, wet November day as I head to the church. I’m a little late for an important meeting in my office. I see the group gathered under the scaffolding: church members, supporters and some from The Friends of West-Park and Landmarks West!, those who led the landmarks fight against us.

But the first person who I talk to is Tracy. “Pastor,” he says, “Look at the mess they made” and he points to deli plates, plastic food containers and remains spread all over the steps. I had wanted to come here early enough to sweep, but here we were. ‘Look, Tracy,” I say, “I’ve got an important meeting happening inside, I’ve got to get the doors open. Can you help me out?” “Sure thing,” he says.

So as Tracy begins to clean up, I go inside and open up the big Amsterdam doors and invite everyone in. There’s too many to fit in my office, so we go to the back of the sanctuary. Using pews and chairs, we make a circle. Introductions all around.

Kate Wood of Landmarks West! speaks up and says they’ve met and want to make a proposal. I brace myself. A bit anxious. They want to sign an agreement committing to raise $100,000 to do the repairs necessary to get us back in the church. I’m waiting for conditions, a demand to control what happens inside, that kind of thing. The only condition, that we promise to keep a church there and not contest landmarking. Fact is, whether they knew it or not, the minute my congregation voted not to sell, to remain and attempt to rebuild here, they voted to give up the fight against landmarking. It is a fight I agree to in principle, but not one for which I would give up our life. Not even for the “greater cause of justice,” as some put it. We would literally have had to give up our life to wage that battle. That did not feel like a call to me.

I responded by sharing our vision of a “centre for spiritual and social transformation.” Ted shares our strategy of incremental growth and reclamation. Mim speaks of my vision of a “community of communities.” Elders Marsha and Hugo speak of our passion to remain in ministry in this neighborhood. To move forward, not continue to fight the battles of the past.

There are looks of amazement all around at the team I brought with me. “Frankly, you’re a lot further along than we ever expected,” someone says. We share our plans with the Columbia Preservation Alumni, the coming Crafts Fair, etc. There is this sense of shock that we are on the same page.

Tracy walks in. “Is this a Bible study?” he asks “Not exactly,” Marsha says. I go with him to the narthex. Explain to him that it’s a meeting to get the doors open again. Get moving again. “I built three churches in was the alcohol...and the fuckin’ wife.” He realizes what he said, looks up at me. “Oh,sorry ‘bout that.” “Don’t worry about it,” I say. “Let me wrap things up and we can talk some more.”

I go back to the meeting We agree to meet again in a week. With a proposal in writing. And our working papers about the center.

I’m thinking about that long landmarks fight. How this church’s repeated votes to stay here, despite good advice and long odds was also a vote to see context as calling, not circumstance. This is a more complicated issue but all my training and experience in community ministry told me that we should have engaged the community at the front end of this process, not after we already had a plan and a demolition permit in hand. Even if that community included people of means, even wealth. While I understand the history of community nimby opposition to the Michalski AIDS Residence we helped to sponsor, the supportive housing sro’s and our historic stand against forced landmarking, the decision to be a community based, not issue or ideologically based church demanded engagement, not unilateral action. I should not have doubted what I knew. Engagement brings the possibility of conversion. Unilateral action forces a win/lose dialectic. The struggle of being a church with open doors, countercultural and yet engaged with our community, it’s not easy.

We go up the street to Popover’s for coffee and a basket of mini-popovers. To celebrate a small victory. Mim asks for a prayer of Thanksgiving. Hugo speaks of how the congregation’s morale should be lifted. Ted talks about how the public will be drawn to this story of the underdog, “the little engine, no, church that could.” That refused to give up. I remembered that this is what Amanda said on her first visit to the church over a year ago. When it sounded like a romantic, unrealistic idea. When no one else could see it.

Someone mentions how shocked people were that the first person I spoke to was Tracy. How we worked together. Ted is thinking how to hire him during the crafts fair. I spoke about presence. Being there. I say to the table, “For quite a few years, I have felt buried alive. I feel like I’m coming out of the tomb.” Mim smiles and says, “It’s called transformation.” And I think for a moment that it’s not too late to be who I was supposed to be, called to be, here.

I need to go back and sweep up. Tracy’s sitting on the stairs. Weaving a bit. A bottle in his pocket. “Tracy,” I say, “How do you like your coffee?” “Cream and sugar,” he says. I go and get two coffees. When I come back, he looks more distant. He looks at me. “I don’t know you, “ he says. “Yes you do,” I say, “I’m the Pastor. We’ve been working together today.” “Do me a favor,” he says. “What’s that?” I say. “Shake my hand,” he says and extends his hand. And we shake. I tell him I’m going in to get my stuff and will be back.

When I’m back to the steps, he’s slumped over. Asleep. I’m not clear what to do. Wake him up? Should I forbid him to drink here? To sleep here?Thirty-five years in urban ministry and I’m still not sure.

So I sweep. A little round Latina woman comes up. “Do they still worship here?” she asks. I stop for a second. ‘Yes,” I say. “I used to come here. When my kids was little. To the Spanish service. When we moved to 94th, we stopped. Is there still a Spanish service?”

“No, we’re all together now.”

“So who’s the Pastor now?”

“I am.”

“And you’re sweeping?”

“Sure. Why not? I get to have good conversations with people like you.”

She laughs and gets on the 7 heading north.

I go back in. Lock up. Tracy still asleep. I decide to call Goddard-Riverside Reachout. Sean knows him well. Promises to come by later, check him out. Offer services. All right then.

Back on the street, Erna is checking out the church. She was a long time member. Our Treasurer. She’d left years ago for our Methodist neighbor. If I had to guess, craziness and chaos did it. I tell her what’s going on. “I saw the doors open,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.” “It’s a long road,” I said. “There’s my bus,” she says. And gets on the 11.

Walking up the street. The sun has come out.

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