Friday, December 31, 2010

The seventh day of Christmas: And this above all


Sun. Warm. Melting snow. Coffee at Barney Greengrass. Open the doors. Sweep the steps. The last day of the year. Moving forward, these are the important words:




and this above all:


The capacity to believe in spite of the evidence and the courage to work to make the evidence change

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The sixth day of Christmas: I wish I knew what was going on


The sun is bright, the snow is melting. Walking down Amsterdam, there’s an ambulance in front of the projects. Someone is being carefully loaded into the back. A snow plow driver had pulled over to see what’s going on.

Stopping into Barney Geengrass for my morning coffee, I marvel at the multicultural staff Gary has put together . Asian, African-American, Latino, tattooed white guys and an actor. All who take pride in their work. They slice sturgeon,nova, lox paper thin with the delicacy of surgeons.

Green snow-suited department of sanitation workers are digging out the trash cans. And widening the crossing pathways on the church’s corners. It’s only taken four days for them to get here. Can’t complain though, major parts of the outer boroughs are still snowed under, angry at feeling ignored by our city and its self-described competent and efficient technocrat mayor. By tomorrow, many corners will be deep pools of impassable slush spilling out into the streets. But not ours. Ours will be dry because we shoveled them out every day.

I open the doors. Marty is sitting there. He looks up. “Is it ok to sit here, Reverend?” he asks. “Sure, make yourself at home.” I sit down with my coffee to join him. “So Marty, what’s going on?” I ask. “I wish I knew what was going on,” he replies. “ How you doing?” I ask. “Not bad,” he says, staring off into the distance. He continues to stare. then gets up and walks off. No extended philosophical discussion today. No jokes, stories of his father. Not today.

I decide to do some paper work. More unexpected bills from the long landmarks fight. Promotional materials from the denomination and Spanish Bible study materials delivered months too late. With unused service bulletins, its all recycling.

Nazim, the super from the Belnord across the street drops by to see how it’s going. If we’re moving back in ok. We talk in great detail about the process of checking out the pipes, getting the water back on. I find it overwhelming. As overwhelming as dealing with the boiler and getting the heat back on. My first priority. A place where I’m feeling stuck. He wants to help make a plan to get his staff involved, with his boss’s permission, of course. We need a licensed plumber. I thank him again for his gracious help removing the gates. For him, helping us is a form of prayer. He wishes me good holidays and a happy new year. It’s time to lock up.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The fifth day of Christmas: a thing of beauty


After breakfast with Marsha planning a stewardship campaign, I head to the church. The sky is gray, the snow melting and dirty. Not much for Deacon James and I to do today. Our paths have held up well. We push the shovels, clear the slush. There are thanks. Two women pass by, Deacon James bows a bit and says, “Have a nice day, ladies.” We look at our paths, clear and dry, allowing people to cross without slush or snow. “A thing of beauty,” we agree. I take down the signs announcing the Christmas Eve service and the Crafts Fair. No George today, only plastic silverware and cardboard lining the step where he usually sits.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The fourth day of Christmas: And then you do it all over again


First thing this morning, I was called by Chuck, my shoveling friend from yesterday, wanting to know our next step. Walking down to the church, I ache all over. But it’s a good ache, physical labor ache.The snow is second day wet, frozen, dirty. As I reach the church, George is there eating a good looking tuna salad. One of the wreaths has fallen down. And someone has left a bag of clothes. I ask if they’re his, he says “no.” So I move them aside. Hang the wreath back up. Get ready to start on the steps. I shovel them off, getting closer to clear.

I’m discouraged to find that most of our hard work of yesterday has been undone. The pathways filled in, ice hardened banks of snow filling the walkways we cleared. (Metaphors abound again.) There’s nothing to do but to dig in and do it all over again. As I start in, there’s Deacon James back again snow pants and a Russian hat. I’m happy to see him and that he’s in good shape. We’ve got an ice breaker and three kinds of shovel between us.

As we dig in, an elderly African-American woman in glasses dragging a shopping cart appears. “God bless you, she says, I can hardly get my cart through. I grew up in the church. If I had my little shovel, I’d dig in myself.” We clear her a path and she walks through, dragging her cart, laughing, talking about the city. “God bless” you she says.

It’s the same routine as yesterday,the people walking over you like you’re not there, like they’re entitled. Finally, a woman says, “thank you so much, thank you.” And James says, “Hallelujah. You take what you can get. Leave the rest alone.” When able bodied young African-American men walk by, he always extends the shovel, asks them to join him. None do.

Rolando Matalon, rabbi of B’Nai Jeshurun, walks through the path I’m creating. “BJ” is the largest progressive synagogue in the country, a major presence in the neighborhood. Marshall Meyer (of blessed memory) brought them back from near extinction back in the late ’80’s. After having gone one on one with the junta in Argentina during the “Dirty War.” Marshall, my predecessor Bob Davidson and Daniel Berrigan made quite a trio in the neighborhood. We have been sharing SPSA with BJ these last three years. “Hello Roly,” I say. He looks startled to see me in my football practice jersey, watch cap and shovel. “Bob,” he says, “you’re getting good exercise.” I think of saying “grab a shovel,” but just say “thanks,” and keep digging.

There’s a crisis. A man in a motorized cart is stuck in the middle of the street. Can’t find a way through. As annoying as these days are for most of us, especially parents with strollers, for disabled people its a frozen hell. The 86th Street crossing is almost wide enough, so we dig in double time. He starts through, gets stuck, James pushes him through to the clear walk. James raises his arms, shovel in one, the other a fist, “Victory is ours!” he shouts. This made coming here worthwhile.

A classic older Upper Westsider in his long camel hair coat, fur hat, wire rim glasses and leather gloves has been watching us. “Where are you people from?” he asks. “West-Park Church,” I say, “that church right there” and I point over my shoulder.” “God’s work,” he says, “you people are doing God’s work.”

On the one hand, that made my day. The suffering servant part of me says that just to clear the paths and have hundreds be able to walk through is worth it just as is. The community organizer part of me says we need a sign to stick in the snow banks to say “These pathways dug out, cleared and maintained by West-Park Church,” and the money conscious part of me says that we need donation jar.

We dig back in and finish the pathway across 86th Street. I look at James and say, “I think we’re done here.” “No think about it,” he says, “we’re done.” “Good work,” I say, and snap his picture with his shovels. We put the shovels away. I lock up. I wave goodbye as he heads home.

I say “take care” to George. He nods.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The third day of Christmas: The snow lay on the ground"


Walking down Amsterdam is an adventure. Shoveled blocks alternate with rough deep snow and mountains where the plows have gone by. As I near the church, I see that a path has been shoveled down our block. Then I’m shocked to see George’s feet sticking out from his portal. I’m half afraid to look and maybe find him buried in snow, or worse.

But there he is, calm as always.
“George, are you ok?”


“Did you spend the night?”

“No. I was forced out. They picked me up and took me away.”

“Who? Where?”

“The police. To St. Luke’s.”

“So was that ok?”


“So who shoveled the sidewalk?”

“Your neighbor, Barney Greengrass.”

Just as I suspected. I tell George I’ll be doing the steps now. I tell him I’m surprised to see so much snow, I thought the scaffolding would catch most of it. He tells me the wind was wild, from the west, blowing every which way, filling the street and steps with snow.

I start with the steps. I keep finding folded up newspapers under the snow, like others had come up under looking for shelter until the snow got too heavy. I finish all the portals except where George is. He moves his encampment, picks up any trash around his space. I finish the steps and head for the sidewalk. I give Deacon James a call. His doctor’s appointment has been cancelled. Lingering walking pneumonia and all, he comes and joins me. Together we shovel towards 86th Street.

After an hour, he tires. I can see he needs to head home. I tell him to go warm up, I can take it from here. I decide to dig into the mountain blocking the crosswalk to the other side of Amsterdam. As I shovel, inch by inch through 2-3 feet of snow, it begins to feel like a metaphor. The almost insurmountable financial odds we’re facing. The overwhelming work that must be done to bring a congregation back to life. Well, we have kept living, but back to growing vitality again.

With each shovel full, I’m growing angrier. Yes, our Council member Brewer has been to every event we’ve had, always spoken supportively. But she won the landmarks vote by convincing the politicians she could deliver on at least $11 million. Advocacy groups swore they’d come through. The statements are on public record. In all honesty, it’s been over seven months. Around $11,000 has been raised for external repairs. The Friends of West-Park and Landmarks West! have promised $100,000 to get the insides going again, but at the price of a promise not to seek to reverse landmarking by any means. There are both integrity and practical issues around that. The clean up day felt great, but it’s been too long. Time runs short. Where are the other politicians? Who really cares? Where is the community support group? Why am I shoveling all alone against a mountain of snow? What kind of romantic fool was i to believe that presence alone would bring support? That someone would see me and join in?

In the past, this was the job of our then handyman, Israel Sanchez. I remember the blizzard years ago when he and I dressed in work clothes and tackled the snow. As we shoveled and talked in Spanish, people walked over and around us as if we were not even there. With this sense not of appreciation, but entitlement.And I realized that in blizzards, it’s the support staff, the janitors and doormen the busboys and kitchen staff who always have to make it through the snow so that the rest of us can enjoy our “snow days.” From the far reaches of Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens they make it in no matter what.

Today, some step right over me. Some get annoyed if they find me in their path, the one I’ve just cleared. I want to say, “get a damned shovel.” Some say “excuse me,” some actually say “thanks,” and amazingly two or three say, “thanks for making it safe, “ or “thanks so much for making me a path..” I’ve reached my peak of cynicism when I hear, ‘Do you work here?”

It’s a father and son carrying snow shovels. “Yes, “ I say.

“Are you the minister?”


“Are you sure you’re not just some guy the minister pays to do this work?”

“No, I’m the minister.”

He looks at his son. “Then I suppose we should help. I don’t want to but we will.”

“That would be cool.”

“So you must be a cool minister. How far do we have to go?” I point east on 86th, the length of our building, “anything you do’d be great.”

“All right then, let’s get started.”

And as i continue to dig away at my mountain, they do the whole length of the building. I look up and see what they’ve done. I walk over. “Thank you so much,”I say. “Listen,” the man says, "I could buy a snowplow, rent space from you, we could both make some money.” I ask him where he could store it. He points to the church, “inside.” I say, “Let’s go take a look.”

So he and his son come inside with me. I take them down into the bowels of the church. And there, in the boiler room we see it: a Murray Elite snow blower. “That’s it!” he says. I tell him it hasn’t been touched in three years. He says it looks great. Needs gas. Maybe oil. Check the spark plug. “I think we’re in business”he says. “What the hell happened here?” So I tell him our story. He stops at the boiler. “What’s the deal here?” So i tell him. “You gotta check that out” he says. “Bet It can be cheaper.” So I offer to send him the report.

Upstairs, we talk. The son is red haired, glasses. Toboggan hat, down jacket. Guilford College, a Quaker School in North Carolina. Has been to Israel and the Friends School in Ramallah, wants to go back and do solidarity work. I tell him about my oldest son, Micah. They ask what kind of church this is. I tell them, ask about religion. “I don’t care so much for religion,” Ben, the son says, “I just want to help.” “I’m Catholic, the boy’s mom, Jewish,” Chuck, the father says, “we married Ethical Culture.” I tell them I’ve done lots of marriages like that. Have one myself. Chuck tells me of his long journey here from his start in Corvallis, Oregon to his current home in Harlem. Back on the street, I say to Ben, “my favorite kind of people have issues with religion. Just want to make things better. They ask the right kind of questions.” We exchange information, decide to see where this might lead. I say thanks again and they’re off.

There’s still too much to do. I call home, ask for help. Nate will be here soon. Andrea tells me to take a break. I stop into Barney Greengrass. One of the servers brings me a fresh coffee. “It’s hard work, “ I say. “tell me about it,” he says, “I started my day shoveling your sidewalk. Along with the boss himself, yeah, Gary.” ‘Thanks,” I say. And I thank Gary for all he’s done today. “Looks like it snowed,”he says.

While I’m waiting for Nate, I go back to talk with George. “How wide you gonna make that?” he asks, “single file?” and laughs.

“No, at least two by two.”

“Like the motherfuckin ark,” he says, laughing, ”gotta be big enough for two of me.” The he tells me of his snow shoveling days, the “wide ass paths” he made and then the city plows coming by and “fucking everything up.”

I ask, “Aren’t you cold?”

“Nah,” he says, “I’m good. Listen, last night, that thunder and lightning and snow. You been around, ever see the like?”

‘No,” I say, though a friend from Oklahoma where I lived ten years will remind me that there, anything is possible.

“That was apocamotherfuckinlyptic” he says. “Say what if an earthquake come in behind that snow,the earth open up, buildings fall in the ground, heating systems go all to shit, everyone running around like they don’t know what the fuck is gojng on, I be here, the warmest motherfucker of them all, I be prepared.”

And I have no doubt, if the apocalypse were indeed to come, George would come through intact.

Nate arrives. We finish off two great tunnels, two great pathways to cross Amsterdam and to cross 86th. We widen the lane on Amsterdam in front of our building. The sun is shining off our work. I feel something close to happy. I put the shovels away. Lock up.

“You take care, George, I say, and he nods in response.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The second day of Christmas: we're going to need salt


The sky is gray and heavy, full with the prediction of snow. I’m late as I get to church having had to stop at a copy shop to copy the bulletin. At the steps, I’m greeted by George, back again. “George,it’s cold,”I say, “ Not too cold yet this morning,” he replies. He pauses, then, “Hey, they were looking for you. Philip and that lady. The one with short red hair and tight spandex, you’re supposed to open up.” “I’m here now,” I say.

I go in and open the doors. Someone has left a box of Starbuck’s breakfasts on the steps. Who knows how long ago. I ask George about them “They’ve all got eggs,” he says, “I don’t eat eggs.” So I throw them out. I’m cold. And with the threat of snow, I don’t expect too much. Philip arrives. I tell him I need some coffee and will be right back and so I head to Barney’s for a cup. One of the server asks how the church is going. I recognize him as an actor."29th Street Rep, " i say. He reminds me of his friendship with Chuck Willey, a fellow 29th Street rep founder and church member. "It's a never ending 15 year renovation project, " says Gary. When I get back Phillip says, “Ana is here with Jamie and Ashley. They’re inside.”

We all come in. Ana says she was afraid no one else would show up. I decide to begin with casual conversation. Soon Arcadia has arrived. The Andre, looking at Philip and saying “this place’s not big enough for the both of us, brother,” and laughing. I tell them my friend Melissa in Rochester has invited her congregation to show up in their pajamas. I actually did that once in Oakdale, outside of Pittsburgh. On Christmas morning Sunday. We had hot chocolate and cookies and sang carols. That’s harder to pull off on the Upper Westside of Manhattan.

We talk about our Christmases. The Puerto Rican traditions of pasteles and arroz con gandules. And of course, coquitos. A late night visit from Santa. Nicaraguans and pernil and gallino relleno. We share our stories.

I ask for a favorite carol. Ashley asks for “Silent Night.” Then we sing “Good Christian Friends Rejoice” in English and Spanish. Ashley and Jamie come up to light our candles. Arcadia reads Isaiah in Spanish and I read the gospel story. The story of the Holy Innocents. When we talk about Herod, being an ethnarch, of course someone mentions Karzai.How imperial powers always install people to rule on their behalf. How illegitimate power is always threatened by that which is legitimate. How the innocent suffer always, especially children. And how you can't talk about God made flesh unless you allow for that part of the story. For God to be present in human form is to be ready to experience that, be present in that reality. We choose to be in the cold, others do not have that choice. We are called to be present.

I wanted to give Philip the Sunday off but he’s moved to stand up and sing, “Jesus the Light of the World” as we take up the offering. It’s easy to join in. For our doxology, Philip leads us into “We are standing on Holy Ground,” to bless our space.

As we all gather together in a circle, I tell them what Nate had said on Christmas Eve. And that I embrace and celebrate our circle on this morning, this 100th West-Park Christmas, as is. We conclude with “Joy to the World,” and after the benediction, “Halle,halle,halle, hallelujah.”

Ana has brought a thermos of Puerto Rican coffee, cafe con leche, hot, milky, sweet and rich. It steams as she pours out cups full.

We lock up. Go out together. I wish George well. Across the street, there is no sign of Francois and Max and Pascal. No one would ever know that they had ever been there. I pick up pastrami salmon and nova to take home for breakfast. As I leave Barney’s, snow has begun to fall. I see Deacon James heading my way. “We’re going to need salt,” he says, “We’re going to need salt.”

Christmas Eve: On a cold winter's night that was so deep..


It’s finally time to get our Christmas tree. Dan and I walk down the street, stop at Barney Greengrass to pick up two cups of coffee. We cross the street and I pass the second cup on to Francois. Dan and I check out the trees and finally select a Douglass fir, just the right size. Francois trims and bags the tree and says, “Merry Christmas”. I ask him how much I owe for the tree and he says “Merry Christmas,” and smiles. So I say “thanks” and Dan and I head back up Amsterdam.

I hear a voice cry out, “Pastor Bob” and I turn around and see a man in a parka. He’s rushing my way. And then I can see, it’s Brian Taylor. He’s one of those wonderful bicoastal guys who always spent his New York City time with us. He’s an actor/singer who does a lot of industrials. At West-Park, I’ve seen him appear as Winky the Clown,Spiderman and on at least one Christmas, Santa Claus. He’s got a heart warm as LA and an easy going California evangelical spirit. It’s been a long time, he wants to know what’s going on. I give him the short version. He wants the longer. He’s come by, always seen us closed. He wants to know how he can help. So we decide to meet after Christmas. “God works in strange ways,” he says, “I know God wanted me to see you today.” He gives me a big hug. And as I go, I say, “Merry Christmas to you, Brian.”

Dan says, “Why didn’t you invite him?” And I say, “I told him we were having a service.”
And Dan says, “Not the same thing.” He’s right. Still have a ways to go.

Dan and I start north again and slow down as we reach the protestors at Saigon Grill, their voices sounding more aggressive as they chant “boycott Saigon Grill” and with the sun and the warmer day and Brian and everything on the street, I’m loving being alive in New York City.

                                                                             * * * *

Later in the afternoon as I’m coming back down the street to get ready for the Christmas Eve service, I’m once again reflecting on the fact that sooner or later you just have to accept that Christmas has come. That there’s no more planning possible, what hasn’t been done will remain undone and that all you can do is accept that it’s coming as it is. Let go, give in, accept Christmas. It’s that time again. As I’m thinking this thought, an older African-American woman in a Santa Claus outfit goes rushing by me.

I think a signal was missed and I’ll be doing my set up alone. I throw open the doors, sweep the steps. Outside, I find a crumpled card. The front says, “Thank you Jesus for your greatest gift---you!” and inside is written, “Gabriela, hope all is well. You vanished. Call me. Kevin.” So did Kevin think better of it and throw the card away? Did Gabriela open it and throw it away in disgust, anger or indifference? And I think of that aspect of Christmas and relationships, of brokenness and longing, the romantic desire for reconciliation, for Christmas miracles, for what more often than not doesn’t happen .

I go upstairs and find votive candles left over from Amanda’s candlelit stage that I’ll use to light the steps. I warily turn on the Hammond and am amazed that after three years, even with some stiff keys, the old organ works! We’ll have accompaniment for Christmas Eve. I go find the hymnal that Micah will need for the music. I wash out the urn that held the mulled wine and go buy apple cider for hot cider. I set up a stand and get the cider started. It is dark as I lock up and head for home.
                                                                                * * * *

Later, walking back down the street to the service, I’m lost in my own thoughts. A feeling of doubt sweeping over me again. That perhaps this new hope is just a cruel tease, that change is too hard, the end inevitable. Why not just be prepared for it? I hear my name and look up and it’s my cousin Nancy and her husband, David. They’d been to the church and found the door locked. “I’m on my way,” I say. Their arms are filled with packages. They’re going to stop to warm up a bit before coming back.

I open the doors. Bring the votive candles out and put them on the steps. Would have liked to have done candelaria, farolitos, but didn’t have time to look for the bags. (Actually did that one year, too. Wanted to start a tradition...maybe next year...) Get my wicker basket of small candles and bulletins out by the door. Get the offering plates out. And bring the hot cider out to the street.

I enjoy dipping cups of hot cider for those who pass by. I hope that we can gather on the steps and begin there, but my first guest arrives at 6:45 , takes the cider and goes in and sits down. Another friendly woman initially passes on the cider, but also takes one and heads for her seat. (My cousin Nancy will later say, "at my cousin Bob"s church, you need a hot drink in your hand whether you drink it or not... .")My family arrives. And my cousin and her husband. Then Andre. And another woman. And then Deacon James.

I begin. Somewhat awkward, somewhat stiff. We sing carols. Micah plays. I share what I have learned, that this is the 100th Christmas for the West-Park congregation that was born in 1911. Those here tonight  have added to that life. Whether there is a next year or not will be determined by us and our neighbors. I read Luke’s version of the story, remember my grade school Christmas pageants, our principal William Burson annually reading this text. His bulldog like mien absorbed in assertive reverence. But more so I talk about light. About how its always been there inside us from when the day was separated from night. Through the prophets. To Jesus down to today. Sometimes hidden, sometimes dim, but always there. And that is what we look for in others, to tend or to help rekindle. And that is what we take back out into the world.

We sing “Silent Night,” light our candles. Sing “Go Tell it On the Mountain.” The official service is over. But still people come in to have a cup of hot cider, to look around, to pray. There’s a Russian family, surprised the cider is free. The Asian woman explains that she works for the Japanese embassy, always celebrated Christmas in Japan, wanted to do so here. Three young men from Germany, Cologne, looking for a good restaurant, skyscrapers and a place for Christmas day worship. A couple sits quietly praying.

As we clean up, Nate tells me that I should more fully embrace things as they are. That I shouldn’t be so disappointed at a low turn out and celebrate more each person who has come. Make them feel special. And of course, he s right.

We walk cross the street with candles and hot cider for Francois. And tonight, Pascal,who works the night shift. Already they have begun to take down their shelter. Only hours to go before they head home. Pascal likes the hot cider. And I recall the delicious cider of Quebec.

What happens to the leftover trees, we wonder? They’re gathered. Chipped. Turned in to mulch. On a contract to the city.

We go back in. Rinse the urn. Send the last guests home. Lock up. Andre goes with us. Final “Merry Christmases” to Francois and Pascal. Up Amsterdam, the demonstrators are out at Saigon Grill again. We look in the warm windows to see customers inside. Nate has wondered how anyone could do that faced with a picket line. We stop to talk. Micah is especially interested. But when the woman organizer wants a detailed update on the current state of the Labor movement in Germany, I feel we need to head home. I notice that tonight, all the demonstrators are wearing Santa Claus hats.

....on a cold winter’s night that was so deep. Noel, noel, noel, noel...born is the king of Israel...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A good day of office hours


In my office, waiting for Eleanor. A man walks in and goes into the sanctuary. As he comes out, I introduce myself. His name’s Fernando. From Spain. Always wanted to see inside. I share a brochure. And our story. He smiles and we exchange holiday greetings as I see him out to the steps.

Eleanor arrives with her daughter Isabel bringing a load of computer equipment to donate. Eleanor was my intern from Union during 2000-2001. One of my best. Her project was the amazing “Parallel Lives” production that drew over 250 to our sanctuary and led to a six month exploration of racism with small groups.When she was here we were on our best upward swing. Later she would bring her daughter to the program Rudy ran in our gym. She’s now an ordained UCC minister. I am hoping I can get her involved in our project. She’d bring the organizational skills I need so much.

Her daughter Isabel is alert and precocious. As Eleanor and I are talking, Isabel breaks in. “ You know what you should do?” she says, “if you start to fix this place up, make it better, on one of the floors you should make small rooms. Parents could rent them and their children could use them for art studios and you could have art supplies to sell. We kids need a place to make art.” I’m amazed at how her idea is exactly what we’re trying to create. “That’s a great idea, Isabel,” I say. “ I’m going to write that down. Tell me your full name so I can give you credit.” “I’m Isabel Mackie Harrison Bregdon,” she says. “They call me Isabel or Izzy and my Spanish friends call me Isabella.” She pauses. “And you know what else? You need to have two rooms for homeless people, people with no place to stay. They could stay here.” She has understood our Centre vision without even knowing it. “And you know how you could make money? You could buy things at one price and sell them higher. Or people could give you things and then you sell them.” I laugh and tell her I’m going to put her on our advisory committee.

As we are talking, Deacon James walks in with his broom. I introduce him to Eleanor. He became a member after her time. He sees that the sweeping is done for the day. And so after hand shakes and holiday greetings, he’s on his way. We talk about getting together to see what might be possible and out of the corner of my eye, I see a woman walk in and sit in the pews, looking up at the stained glass window.

Isabel has walked down the aisle and is studying the creche. I tell her about how in Central America, they call them nacimientos. That on Christmas, someone will steal your baby Jesus and when they bring it back you have to give them a party. And how in Mexico, they put baby Jesuses in Roscas de Reyes (“bread of kings”) that are then ransomed for parties, with tamales. isabel is not sure what tamales are but likes the idea. While we talk, Eleanor notices that Isabel is eying baby Jesus. “Don’t steal the baby Jesus, okay Isabel?” Isabel smiles and laughs.

I see Eleanor and Isabella to the door. They’re heading to WSCAH for some volunteer work. She looks across the street. “I’ve been negotiating with those guys for a good tree price,” she says. “Francois and Max,” I say. “I’ve been taking them coffee. Looking for a good deal myself.” And I tell her about the Quebecois Christmas tree cartels, the Sopranos style competition for control of street locations. Isabel says that if I keep looking, I’ll see their tree. Eleanor says they’ll pick it up on their way to the country, put it on top of the car. I wish them a Merry Christmas.

It’s cold. I want to lock up and leave. Looking around, I see there’s still clean up to do after the crafts fair. We need another day. The woman is still sitting in the pew. I don’t want to disturb her. In winter clothes, it’s hard to tell who she might be. I walk up and tell her I need to close up, ask if I can do anything.

She looks up and I’m surprised to see she looks like a young middle class woman. She’s sitting lotus style on the bench. “No,” she says, “I’ve just been enjoying the quiet time. I always wanted to come in here. I was just passing by, saw the door was open.” Her name is Heather, she lives up on 103rd. I share a brochure and some of our story. Tell her I hope she comes back. “Thanks for the quiet time,” she says, “I needed that.”

I lock up, get ready to go. Can I actually get my shopping done? Get a tree and put it up? Will anyone come tomorrow night? Can we get signs? Will the Hammond work? Will someone help me with candles? Cider? It’s time to get moving. It’s been a good day of office hours.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The days grow longer, the light will grow


Deacon Linda Marassa is waiting at the bus stop in front of the church. She has just finished her daily shift as a volunteer at the Westside Campaign Against Hunger down the street at SPSA. She compliments me on my red and green Christmas Yankee hat. Inside, the door bell rings. I open to find a young man in a yellow down jacket and black Euro glasses. “Hello,” he says,”I’m from Italy. These are good clothes. I thought you could use them.” I say “thanks” and take the bag. Outside, no George. I hope this means he’s indoors and warm. Stop by and say good morning to Francois, talk about the water falls near La Malbaie, Quebec, near Le Domaine Forget where Micah spent two summers. it’s the first day of winter, the longest night of the year.


First, an evaluation meeting with Ted at the Diner and then John joins us for a financial discussion. Some 750 people came through the fair and there was between 9 and 10,000 dollars in sales. The music made the difference in the cold. Some were just curious it to see the space, to see life in it again. The financial mountain to climb by mid-January to gain the chance to bring this project to life remains daunting, even overwhelming. John asks the hard edged questions that must be answered to have a chance to live.

Barney Greengrass is a maelstrom of activity as Gary prepares for the avalanche of Christmas orders. Boxes of bagels and bialeys stacked high, his workers, experienced over the years, keep calm in the storm. By tradition, it seems like every Jew in the neighborhood comes in for a Christmas morning breakfast of sable and lox and scrambled eggs. I wish Gary the best to get through these days. “Say a brucha for me, Reverend,ok?”

The steps are quiet today. The sun is shining, the air warming. “A beautiful day,” says Francois. From here on out, the days grow longer, the light will grow.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The day after


As I go to open the doors, I hear George engaged in animated discussion with someone else on the other side. Amanda appears and as we’re talking, Hope walks in and says how good it makes her feel to walk dow the street and see the church doors open. We review the events of the last few days. How having worship upstairs while the craftspeople set up turned out to be a great idea, a witness, in fact. How good it was to have all those craftspeople our building, cold as it was. How the music had been so good and the musicians so supportive of what we are trying to do, even some of them not only playing for free, but contributing to the church as well. How so many of our church members spent so any hours working at the festival. All in all, it felt good to have so much life filling the space. And after the last three days, it ll feel strangely quiet.

I go out side to sweep. But first stop and ask George why he’s not at his apartment. “They fucked me,” he says. And explains that new regulations have reduced his four year guaranteed housing contract to two years, ending in January. And if he doesn’t get out voluntarily, he’ll be evicted. And that if you have an eviction on your record, you’ll never get another apartment. Later my friends at the Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness explain that the limit kicks in if you are “not actively seeking work,” but for George, that’s not an option. He somehow believes that there’s a connection coming back to the steps and avoiding eviction. And then he says, “these motherfuckers are even charging rent to stay in a shelter. Can you fuckin’ believe that? How fucked up is that?” (Dennis from the Assembly tells me that the shelter rent law got thrown out.) And I think of erstwhile political candidate Jimmy Mc Millan and his “Rent is Too Damn High” fringe political party, looking more sane all the time.

Then George is off on the corporations, their layoffs, how the rich don’t create jobs, they just eliminate people to get more rich. And then he says, “You want to know how bad it is? you know that buy back program the NYPD has? The money for guns program? I hear even white people are bringing in their guns. How we gonna have a motherfuckin’ insurrection with no motherfuckin’ guns? And as you know, we have a new regime coming in January and things gonna get worse. Just you watch...”

As I’m sweeping and George is preaching, RL walks by in his top hat. I ask him to bring me back a cup of coffee. And now George swings into the Illuminati and their master plan to thin the world’s population and expand their control. How the government is in on it. And the various flus, avian, swine, are just ways to force people to get vaccines which are ways to poison us. And that Bayer Pharmaceuticals out of Germany, is doing to us what they did to the Jews back in the Holocaust. “I told you this before,” he says, cocking his head and eying me for emphasis.

Up in the balcony, Amanda has lit her candles, set up the mike and a camera on a tripod. She’s going to use the opportunity to do a reading of the prologue and first chapters of her book. RL has appeared to listen. Piano Dan, who provided the sound system, arrives too. Together we will be her audience.

And so she reads her story of how as single mother with an infant daughter, she regained her cafe, reclaimed it with her own hands, brought back to life. That’s the experience she immediately connected to the first time she saw the inside if West-Park. Saw it as a metaphor for a concrete vision. And wanted to help. That’s part of the story. As she reads, these words too enter into the sanctuary, become part if its spirit.

When she’s finished, I help them pack up all of Dan’s equipment and load it into his car. His help for the Balcony Music Festival had been invaluable. Couldn’t have done it without him. Somehow it all fits, the trunk closes and they’re off.

I call Reachout to ask about George. They’ve closed out his case, thought it was over, problem solved. George had said to me, “People think, once you get a place, you never be homeless again. Bullshit. We be there awhile, the circle back here. That’s how it go.” I tell them he’s been on the steps for three days. They say they know of no change in housing situation. I repeat, it’s been three days. So they promise to send over his former caseworker, do an assessment. See what can be done. I also track down Tracy’s caseworker, leave a message, wanting to know how he’s doing.

Tonight will be Comfort Ye! at Symphony Space. Still benefitting the Westside Campaign Against Hunger, the Interfaith Assembly and New York Cares. It started here, right here at West-Park sixteen years ago. The sounds of all that music still lingers in the walls, “O Holy NIght” still echoes.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent IV: Today we lived in the church that will be


I go to the church at 8:30 am to let Greg into to set up his drums. As I turn on the lights, I’m puzzled when the two sets of lights under the balconies don’t come on. I try flipping the breakers back and forth and nothing seems to work. I’m tired of being responsible for the lights. I wanted to let Greg in, sweep the steps and go to a warm place to get myself together before the service.

Around nine, when I open the doors, there’s George arriving with all his stuff, prepared for the day. I wonder why he has come in from his place in the Bronx to sit here in the cold all day. I think it could be the crafts fair, the chance to talk to people all day. I see a shopping cart in front of the steps. I ask George if it is his and when he says no, go to examine it. There’s a bag filled with coats. I think about bringing the coats inside then think better of it. So I move the cart over beside the city trash can and decide to leave it at that.

Greg arrives and unloads and heads to breakfast. I continue my electricity oddyssey. I remember the saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a sign of insanity. I decide to go sweep the steps. I’m thinking how the crafts fair people will feel about this. If I’ll have to call an emergency electrician somewhere. I even call Jim to ask his advice, but there’s no answer. I’ve put almost an hour into this.

Close to ten, Amanda arrives. I share my anxiety. We check all the breakers again. Then she suggests maybe its a wall switch. No I think, couldn’t be. But there on the vestibule wall, one unturned switch. I flip it. That does it. It’s that simple. Sometimes its as simple as flipping a switch.

We’ve decided to worship in the balcony since the sanctuary is filled with crafts displays. We’ll be on the stage. At the same level as the Tiffany stained glass window. Amanda’s arrangement of candles and antique candle holders found in the church on the stage stairs.

Greg has returned and is setting up. Then my son Micah. My friend Rick Ufford-Chase has come down for Stony Point for the morning. Soon Amy and Juan and Philip and Andre all arrive and we’re ready to worship.

We begin with the traditional Advent “O Antiphons” chant, as revised by Katherine, accompanied by Greg on the berimbau, that one-stringed Brazilian instrument associated with capoeira. Ted comes to be with us as the crafts people are setting up. And the congregation arrives,filling the theatre seats. And I’m happy to see Andrea and Nate and Dan arrive too.

I introduce Ted and give him a special thanks for all he’s been doing to help us.

Andre said our “Sanctuary” sounded like Mussell Shoals. Rick and I sit on the musicians’ bar stools. He tells us that he’d been hearing about our saga. And that when he’d heard that we were returning to our sanctuary and were ready to worship in the cold, he knew he had to be there. That this was his kind of church. That there’s no place he’d rather be in the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

He tells us his own story. And of his election as moderator of the PCUSA. How he was interested not in the church that is dying but in the one that is being born. How he’s spent his years as moderator not making ceremonial appearances at presbytery meetings but at small churches with 12-15 in worship where the new church is breaking forth. And he told us the story of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. How after its exciting community based ministry, it had gotten to the point where Presbytery voted to close it. Which is when John Fife persuaded them to reverse the vote,went there as pastor and the rest is history. Especially the Sanctuary Movement of the 80‘s, sheltering refugees from Central America. Their new church is built like a pueblo kiva and is the only Presbyterian Church Rick has seen with a crucifix because the congregation knows that you have to go through crucifixion to get to Easter. Death to new life. He challenges us to look into our past as an inspiration to find the new place we’re being called to. Of God’s special love for the most rejected ones. I think of how Andre says we’re a church whose members know what it’s like to get their asses kicked. And of that wonderful, best left untranslated Nicaraguan expression, los jodidos. Rick praises our courage to risk dying to find life and tells us he’s with us on the journey.

I pause for just a moment and realize that I will have to do in my sixties what my friend John did in his thirties.

We were worried about how to worship with the crafts people coming in to set up. We were afraid we’d be run over. But I’m glad we did . It gave them an opportunity to get to know us and why we are here. Later, many exhibitors told,me how much the worship had meant to them. So it was a witness.

To start the afternoon music, it’s Micah, Greg, Andre and I. And I sing, “I Wonder as I Wander,” “Mary Had a Baby,”and finish with ‘Light of the Stable.” I’m frustrated, I wanted it to be exactly what I wanted.It was not. I go to lunch with my family feeling depressed. New York 1 hasn’t shown up. I’m still waiting to see anyone from Landmarks West! or Friends of West-Park or the others who organized to “Save West-Park,” and have yet to step up. My family reminds me that when I feel that way I have to reach out, not go inside. And encourage me to go thank every exhibitor , something both so obvious and to me counterintuitive.

When I go in, my friend Dave Sasscer and his Caribbean band is playing. I remember doing his wedding last summer, glad he’s part of this. And then I go thank every individual exhibitor. Tell them that even though crowds may not have been what they wanted, it means a lot to us. That they have filled the space with life, helped us on the way. Have become part of the story. And almost all smile and thank me, tell me what it’s meant to be there. And more than half offer to help in any way they can. And their responses warm me.

The day’s music was again amazing. There was Lori Leifer with Yiddish and Israelil folk songs, Czech born Luba Dvorak with his own music , (yes, actually of the family of that Dvorak), Rob Wolfson, who played at the Ritual Space event, and finally Amanda once again. Her Balcony Music Festival made the event for many of the exhibitors and visitors alike, helping to show what we could be.

At the end of the day, the “West-Park Singers” sang several songs and then led a community carol sing. They had been started as a “small cell group” by our Elder Samir Elias who brought them together every Thursday night. Every year they would host a community carol sing in our sanctuary. Many feel moved to be back in this space after three years. And to do this in memory of Samir who died a summer ago. The carols go out into the sanctuary, guests, exhibitors, church members singing. When we come to “O Holy Night,” I choke up. I remember how the voices of singers from the Metropolitan and New York City opera companies would blow out the windows of the church with this song at the end of each year’s annual ComfortYe! Concert, we organized to benefit the homeless. It was one if the first expressions of the vision we are developing for the Centre. My heart aches with brokenness in relationships and loss, even as new life begins to appear.

Somewhere over 700 people came through. Including the Presbytery moderators, clergy colleagues, Pete Salwen, author of Upper West Side Story, the architectural guide to our neighborhood and opera singer Renee Fleming attracted by the Crafts Fair signs and amazed by the natural acoustics.

West-Park members organized by Arcadia came through with hours of tireless work, keeping the food concession going with hot soup and sandwiches and classic New York hot dogs. Hosting the exhibitors, greeting visitors, doing whatever was needed. They really owned it.

When the kitchen closes, everything’s gone but four hot dogs. Which I take across the street to Francois and Max in the Christmas tree shelter.

I’m thankful for all the ideas:
*The Fashion Institute instructor who envisions art shows and selling “sponsorships” for the ceiling glass panels
*The jeweler who offers “sweat equity”
  • The woman crafts person who suggests muralists to do the scaffolding to represent what goes on inside
  • The musicians who want to do a benefit concert

Everyone is gone except Ted and Judith and the support staff. Oh, and in the balcony, singer RL Haney, picking up some equipment. From the balcony he thanks everyone for inviting the musicians, gives his rap about being thankful for landmarking, the spirit is good even if his facts are skewed. He comes down, shakes hands all around, leaves.

A few minutes later, he’s back. “I crawled back in,” he says, “Could I trouble you for seven minutes of time?” I’m not sure what he wants, but why not? So he tells me he wants to recite something he’s written, that he has to do it here. A piece he wrote about a Christmas experience over 30 years ago called “Red Ryder and the Fat Lady.” Though he’s adamant about not being a Christian, he’s looking up at stained glass Tiffany Jesus as he opens his notebook and starts to read. I look at his rail thin body in his three piece suit, with watchfob and chain,his top hat, long white hair in a pony tail, piercing blue gray eyes, full white beard. Hear his declamatory Western voice. Remember all those nights at the P&G. When he gets to the part where Mable fires the bb gun and an ornament bursts into pieces, his voice cracks. He tears up.

There’s no one here but me and the young African-American support staff and Judith. They occasionally look up, somewhat puzzled. He finishes. Judith walks over and thanks him. He thanks me. Gathers up his papers and equipment and heads out into the cold night. His spirit has now become an offering, part of the collective soul of this space.

I turn to Judith, “I have an interesting job,” I say. She laughs and says “Multidimensional.” Judith and her staff leave. Nothing left to do but to lock up and go home.It’s quiet now.

Today we lived in the church that will be.

Walking up Amsterdam, George is still on the steps.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It's about being human


Coming to open up the church for the second day of the crafts fair, there is George encamped on the steps again. Milk cartons, bags, a whole temporary home around him. I wonder how to handle this. I tell him that there’s going to be a lot of people coming through soon. “I know he says. The crafts fair. Sounds good.” Who knows, maybe the signs attracted him.

Later in the day, Marty will walk by. “Reverend,” he says, “ the Irish always say top of the mornin’ to you....and the rest of the day to yourself. You always need a story like that, “ he says. “You know, my father said that Solomon was the wisest man of all time. But then the demons tricked him. But maybe you don’t know about that?” he looks at me quizzically with his “Popeye” look. “So are you worshipping in there this weekend?” “Yes,” I tell him, “ yes.” “That’s good,” he says, “that’s good.”

George sits like a silent sentinel in his doorway.

Slowly the fair and festival comes to life. Some of the crafts people are disappointed in the size of the crowds. We’re getting traffic, though not as much as expected. Some are concerned. Judith asks me if I can do anything about the man on the steps. I go talk to George. He’s pretty trusting and open with me these days. I don’t want to mess that up, it was hard to get to this place with him. He asks me if this is going to be an annual event. I say I hope so. He talks about a church on the Eastside that used to have a crafts fair every year. They'd hire him to do security. He’d love to do that. He would only want $25-30 a day. Not the answer Judith was looking for.

The day’s music festival arranged by Amanda is everything I could want it to be. There’s Ron Bousso’s traditional folk music and Mandola Joe’s mandolin. Justin Robert James brings his own songs and voice that takes me back to Stan Rogers. Peter Galperin’s another father and AYSO soccer coach just like me and a good singer as well, the Cornell Brothers Washtub Band brings a sound of Americana. It’s a truly eclectic collection of mixed genres. Today the musicians are facing out into the sanctuary instead of the theatre. The whole fair is their audience.

At 3 PM, Kim Uwate, violist from Manhattan School for Music performs. She somehow found her way to our congregation’s life in the basement of SPSA and became part of our community, sharing her music in worship and even “talent shows.”We all went together to hear her senior recital last year. Her solo performance finishing with Bach silences the sanctuary and draws applause. She smiles when I say that some people asked if she had cd’s. She’s our only classical performer.

I share a popover and a conversation with percussionist extraordinaire Greg Beyer. I first heard him reciting from Brecht’s Galileo while accompanying himself on flower pots years ago with the cutting edge West-Park Chamber Society led by Erasmia Voukelatos until she got married and became a mother and moved to Jersey City. I’m glad I got to do the marriages both of Greg and Ersasmia. Greg has worked countless times in this sanctuary with me interpreting scripture through percussion. Greg has said that percussion is not an instrument but a way of expressing our experience of the world. He’ll be with us tomorrow.

Late in the afternoon, the Times band brings their own style of reggae to warm up the house in the cold,late hours. I look around the sanctuary and see people everywhere dancing. A long dreadlocked artist is dancing with an older woman. My church members  have left our food concession and come to the balcony to check out the music. The place rocks. “One Love,” “Superstition,” “Beast of Burden” and more.

Some people came to shop and stayed for the music. Earlier in the day, our City Council Member Gale Brewer arrives. She’s been showing up for West-Park a lot these days. But we need more press. (And more money.) Ted talks to her. She calls New York 1 News. They’ll be showing up tomorrow.

I look outside. Our young security man Jamaal has been sent to deal with George. Instead he’s been sitting there for hours enthralled. He looks up at George like he was  a griot. Occasionally I hear a word..”Israel..,” “white man..,” “all was fine until..” I would love to hear this dialogue. Occasionally folks bring George sandwiches and hot dogs from inside. One older woman tells me how she worries about him but that his “white man” rants scared her at 5 am on the way to the pool. (I’m glad he made the pee bottle disappear when I asked him, although with a smirk sent my way. He plans his outdoors sojourns well.)

Later I talk to Jamaal. He tells me that it was an interesting conversation. Affirmed a lot of things he’d already thought. But then he tells me, “Look, I was raised a Muslim, became a Buddhist. I believe that what goes around comes around. It’s not just the white man. it’s the atrocities we’ve all done to one another. It’s about being human.”

My West-Park members have put in a long day at our food concession with hot split pea soup, sandwiches, hot dogs. Arcadia and Hugo and Hope and Marsha and the whole Martinez-Santiago-Ayala family has put in endless hours. Because they believe in this process of trying to come back, to come alive again. Samantha and Brandy have been selling my late mother-in law Pat’s pottery that was donated to the church.

I’m glad to see that Rachel has made it out of her house with her healing hip replacement and walked all the way over here from 87th and Columbus.

I’m happy to see old friends. And at the end of the day my family. All come to be supportive. Including my three musician sons and my wife’s uncle David Sear, a folksinger, radio host and journalist and lover of all kinds of music. They’re here to hear Erin Mc Dougald whose jazz set closes out the day with a classy touch. It’s like an intimate club in a small sanctuary. My bass player son Micah watches her bass player with interest and respect. Judith says that despite all, it was a good day. I say to Hugo that we don’t have much money but we know how to give people a good time. He laughs. A valuable time. A time that says who we are.

It’s time to lock up and go home. As the last musicians leave, I look and see George on the steps. Wonder if he’ll be there tomorrow.

This is my story. I wonder what the others’,from a different perspective, point of view, focus, might be like.

It’s about being human.