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.

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