Monday, January 31, 2011

What does the Lord require?

Walking to the church, the dry sidewalk gives me a smile. Our work has made it an easy path for anyone coming to church. As I get to the door to open up, I’m greeted by a neighbor, one of Rudy’s most avid supporters. Shovel in hand,he tells me he’s off to dig out his daughter’s car. He asks what’s going on with the church. I tell him, stressing the boiler  issue. He’s shocked and surprised to hear we have no heat. I tell him to get the word out. 
Holly’s there first again. We’re slow gathering. A visitor from 87th has felt drawn to join us this morning. When I see Deacon James outside, I say, “Look at that walk, just look at that...” He smiles and says, “thing of beauty, thing of beauty.” When everyone has gathered, I tell everyone that he’s responsible for our dry walk, and everyone applauds. And he smiles.  
We share a letter on the uprising in Egypt and offer prayers for their people and others struggling for justice in the Middle East. During the time with children, Pat speaks of her  emotional connection with the Beatitudes. Shares her favorite, blessed are the peacemakers...because of what that meant in her family. For the second week in a row, I invite Shana to read. She’s a mature young girl who never misses a Sunday. Even when her mom and friends don’t come, she’s there. I have her read the climactic verse Micah 6: 8, my scripture for the day.  Paired with Matthew’s beatitudes, these passages almost preach themselves.
I explain that Micah is one of my favorites: it was the verse selected by the young  interfaith leaders group Andrea and i were in for three years. It’s the scripture  motto for the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association that has meant so much to my life and ministry for over 30 years. And the inspiration for the name of the name for our oldest son. It was the text I used when I preached to General Assembly Mission Council, the governing body of our national church. And it was the passage I chose for my friend Melissa’s installation. It is for me the basic job description, for us as individuals and as a church.  

What does the Lord require?
First, do justice. It comes before anything else...before confessions of faith, evangelism, anything...It’s at the core of scripture,whether its the Torah or Matthew 25. It’s about right relationships, and is restorative, putting things back to where they should be. It’s not an extra credit assignment, it’s the basic requirement.And it’s in the social realm that justice is lived out. 
I told them I’d just come from New Orleans where five years later the struggle to bring some people home continues. We wrestle with issues in our own neighborhood: the fight for a living wage, the wave  of homeless shelters, the work of IAF on  debt and limits to legal interest charges. A way to  limit greed. Justice is about community. 
Then to love kindness. It’s more important than judging, in fact you cannot have justice unless you love kindness, love mercy, we need them both. It’s the principle of how we should relate to one another in church. It begins with our theological understanding of the nature of humanity, that we all fail, all come up short.Therefore we simply cannot judge.
This principle even needs to guide the  way the pastor relates  to church, and the church to pastor. And also to those around us. I told them about shoveling yesterday,just to make safer sidewalks, and people’s responses. Maybe two thankyous. But it’s love kindness. It’s got to become part of our personality,something we do by heart. 
And finally,walk humbly with God. The church above all must be humble. .Even this week,in another Presbytery,  a woman was tried for being happily married, to another  woman. The fact that we’re even still arguing about this just doesn’t make sense. Now the military is even ahead of us!
History is filled with examples, even now, people still are hurt by and alienated from the church. These are the voices we need to listen to. I want West-Park to listen to. But again, humility. Let those who wish to say they know better than us, about us, have humility. Let those of us who feel they are bigger, better, more successful have humility. and above all, let us have humility. We who should know better.
I concluded with the Beatitudes. They make clear where God’s special care and concern lie. They’re different than in  Luke, more nuanced. But if you look closely you’ll see that in Luke, Jesus is addressing the crowd and in Matthew, he is addressing the disciples and pointing to the gathering  crowd. Naming them. 
He only speaks directly to the disciples when he comes to these words:
“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
It’s clear that to live out the Micah life, there will be a price. People, even those in the church will look at you, at us, as if we are crazy. But it is to that ministry we are called. And in that we can rejoice and be exceedingly glad...
During the prayers, P____ kneels before the Christ Candle in prayer. Her case is reaching a crisis point. She prays for God’s will to be done. But we humans have to see what we can do as well.
Deacon James asks us to pray for his recently diagnosed multiple myloma. For us all to pray. And then has to leave because of the cold. I get frustrated, angry at how stuck this is. It isn’t right. We’ve got to find the key to unlock that door. To the boiler room. To heat. 
We sing “Lord, make us more Holy” and our day is done. 
On the steps outside, an overflow crowd from Barney Greengrass is sitting and waiting for brunch.
A quiet day. Sunny. Cold. Alternate side of the street and parking rules are suspended..The mini caterpillars are buzzing about moving the snow around. The first month of the year is over.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A service of preparation

Just back from New Orleans, the ground  covered with snow from the latest storm. I walk down the street, uncertain as to what I might find at the church when I get there. The strikers are out at Saigon Grill chanting “Boycott Saigon Grill” and ‘Don’t eat at a sweat shop.”
When I get there, it doesn’t look so bad. The scaffolding has helped again. And someone has done a decent job with the walk. But there are hard packed patches of ice, flooded cross walks  and I’m concerned about people coming to church tomorrow. So I get the ice breaker, the various shovels and set to work.
Deacon James comes by. Tells me he’d been out earlier and did the first path but had to go in  He’s been dealing  with  some medical issues, had his diagnoses.  Some challenging days ahead. He says, “See you tomorrow” and heads back up the street.
But a few minutes later, he’s back. “Couldn’t leave you alone out here,” he says. So we dig in together. Again, in this Saturday afternoon of lots of people out, I’m still shocked at the number of people who just walk over you and don’t say a word. A few scattered “excuse me’s”  are an improvement. The one or  two thank you’s a blessing. 
In an hour we’ve finished our work. Broken through the ice, scraped it off. I thank James and he heads home.  I scatter salt across the walk to guard against overnight freezing. In our tradition, we used to call services the week before communion a “service of preparation.” Today, James and I had a “service of preparation” for tomorrow. 
Latinos hanging out under the scaffolding, chatting, laughing, waiting for the bus.

New Orleans 3: Juke joint theology

Dan and I have found our way to the Candlelight in the heart of Treme. Earlier today we visited the Backstreet Museum across the street from St. Augustine Parish and the memorial to the Unnamed Slave. The former Blandin’s Funeral Parlor has been turned into a repository for a breathtaking collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes and finery from the Social and Pleasure Clubs Second Line parade units. Towards the end of our visit , the proprietor hands us a sheet with important information. 
Over the years of my visits here, I’ve pretty much learned which regular gigs take place  where every night of every week. But now a new door has opened. For the first time I know where the same groups play on which nights every week in the black neighborhoods. And so we have come to hear the Treme Brass Band. Earlier in the evening, we’d run into them ready to parade on Bourbon. We chatted with the tuba player and he was surprised when we told him we’d be heading to the Candelight later to hear them.  
From the outside, the Candlelight is a plain concrete block box.Looks like a roadside juke joint from an earlier time.  A tarp hung from the roof on one side covers a woman with her grilled meats and jambalaya stand. Inside rows of long tables and plastic chairs, a bar and the table with the free red beans and rice. A few players are sitting in the band area, waiting for the rest to arrive. 
As the show  begins, I begin to realize why Dan has been drawn  away from classic jazz to brass band. By now, classic jazz, ending with Be Bop, has become almost like an artifact,  under glass, something to be studied, or performed in a concert. Precise charts, well defined form. It’s a long way from the sweaty hot spots described in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Beautiful,and yet...
Brass band, on the other hand,  has its life in the streets, in the midst of community.  It has roots in the European brass band tradition, but made its music from what flowed out of the whorehouses, and churches. It has never left the streets, from the weekly second lines to funeral parades to these neighborhood gigs.  It listens, converses, picks up whatever’s going on, r&b, hip hop, funk and keeps adding it into the flow. Can move from Jesus to reefer to salvation and lovesick blues seamlessly. And keeps on flowing, like a river. 
So why am I writing about this?  Because I covet that for the church. Not the music, but the way of being, creating. Our mainline denominations have become like classic jazz, at their best, with some congregations presenting beautiful embodiments of a classic faith expression. But the vast majority simply echo the past with the same well worn charts. 
What we need is a church that is in the street, moving, flowing, interacting, leading the followers into dance and at the same time being reshaped by what they bring. A pulsating rhythm of life flowing through the streets and carrying the people who flow with it.
But there’s more. As I watch the room fill, the dance floor bounces with a crowd of black and white, rich and poor, all shapes and sizes, including people with various disabilities clearly a part of the community. This scene in the same place could be happening anytime over the last 100 years. 
The shameful reality is that when it comes to the integration of white folks and black folks at the most intimate levels, the jukes got there long before the church. These joints with their music born at the  crossroads of sacred and profane engaged in the transgressive act of bringing black and white together  to dance, to drink, to love the music to...everything the dominant society feared.  And we’re still trying to catch up.
I’m not saying that the church should become a juke joint. They are each their own reality. But there’s a lesson to be learned about an ethos, a way of being. That embraces and accepts life in all its reality and rawness. An uncompromising authenticity.  If the church can’t do that, it’s over. Or should be. If it can’t go there, its not worth it. Seems to me that’s what incarnational theology is all about. 

New Orleans 2: Questions from the Lower 9th

While taking Dan on a tour of the still devastated Lower 9th, we go visit the Make it Right Homes, Brad Pitts’ s commitment to build 150 homes. In addition to being built five feet above the ground, they’re all creatively green. It makes me wonder, would the Landmarks commission accept voltaic solar panels on the roof? Rainwater collectors to use in washing the steps and sidewalk? Could we install dual flush toilets? Use recycled   wood? In our process of rebuilding can we commit to green and make it work? Be an urban landmark rehab model?

These homes are inspiring. But make no mistake...the continued intentional emptiness of the lower 9th is criminal. It's clear who the powers do not want to come back. Ever.
My friend Matthew is Pastor of Berean Presbyterian Church, the first African-American Presbyterian church in New Orleans. As another small church pastor, we share many of the same struggles. Ironically, small churches can be emotionally more challenging than large ones. They can become ingrown, familial, proprietary and even isolationist, change resistant. I would love to bring our congregations closer, have them share  in our 100th anniversary, take a group from here  down there  to build and share time together. Make our mission life more real, more interconnected.

New Orleans 1: Four things I want for West-Park

After my first day in New Orleans  this year, I’ve decided what I want for West-Park:
  • A “house” brass band
  • An interior that looks like the House of Blues.
  • Liturgical vestments made by MardiGras Indians.
And an annual All Saints/All Souls  day march round the block.

Can we speak to the heart?

Eleanor and I are drinking coffee, a few blocks down the street as fresh snow is falling. She was one of my best interns in 2000-01. Did this amazing project on race in America,  Parallel Lives. Got ordained in the UCC church. Served at the liberal Greenwich Village church Judson Memorial. . Took time off for children. Now she’s ready to be involved again.  And I want it to be with us.
There is much organizational, administrative work to be done. But that could never be the limit of her work. She does that at home, she says. I know I desperately need help. Her sense of call is equally important. She wants,needs, to be able to gather a group of women, share experiences, stories...go deep, to the heart. She shares my sense that for her peers, the old denominational life as we have known it is dead, of little interest. We must find a way to speak to the heart. Or not bother. 
I tell her these are exactly the people I want to create space for at West-Park. One of our “community of communities” that could begin to redefine the space, and redefine church praxis. Working through our connection could be a fun challenge. Developing intentionality is also a necessity, that is being clear as to what it is we intend to do with a strategic plan as to how to get there. She’ll think about it. We’ll see what happens next.
At Barney Greengrass, I notice a San Francisco Giants World Series hat and shirt behind the counter. I knew that last week the Giants  came to town to share their banner with their old neighborhood, Harlem. Willie Mays himself, once the Say Hey Kid  in Harlem, played centerfield for the Giants and stickball with the neighborhood kid, came to talk to the public school children where his ballpark once stood.  Back in the day when the Giants were the Manhattan team, Barney Greengrass was one of their spots. I like that the connection continues. The Dodgers live on in Brooklyn nostalgia, the old Giants all but vanished. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Of one mind

The coldest day of the year yet. Only 17 degrees as I left for church. I was fully prepared to take everyone back to SPSA or if only a few showed up. to a restaurant for coffee and conversation. But Holly and Pat show up, ready to stay. Holly puts posters up on the doors, letting people know we were here. And as people came in, they were determined to stay right here. Though making the service a little shorter might help.
Amy arrives. She’s left her keyboard at home and wants to give the Hammond a try. It does its job well.  Juan has his portable space heater plugged in and we’re just about ready. 
Michelle, a student fro Brazil has come in. She asks if this is a Presbyterian Church, and I say yes. She tells me she belongs to a Presbyterian Church back in Sao Paulo. I’m sorry Hope isn’t here today to speak with her in Portuguese.  I tell her about our small but diverse congregation. Talk of the years’ long mission partnership we’ve had in Brazil, mainly in Recife, and explain the boiler situation.  She’s curious to see what will happen. Marsha sits beside her to keep her company.
I mention that the Citipond ice rink at Bryant Park is having an outdoor winter film series. Wondered how many showed up last night in the frigid weather. And remembering Bowie Kuhn at the first night World Series night game in chilly October 1971 with no overcoat, as if to say, cold, what cold?, I take off my down jacket for the service. 
I tell the congregation it’s a bit tough to focus on the service with the Steelers-Jets game looming that night. My Pittsburgh roots always there. I talked about my exchange of e-mails with my brother describing our various rituals for good luck. Think of my sons in Berlin and France with their “Terrible Towels.” Lift up my black sweater to reveal my Steeler t-shirt. And then I talk about the phenomenon of tens of thousands of people across the country engaging in simultaneous, ritualized totemic behavior to effect a game’s outcome. It must have some effect. And I wonder what that kind of activity directed towards, say, the vote for Amendment 10-A in the Presbyterian Church to remove discrimination against lgbt folk in ordination or maybe to get our boiler back on might do. 
The day’s scriptures begin with Isaiah and “the people who have walked in great darkness.” Echoing Christmas, the continuing light of Epiphany, the revealed light of prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the More Light Movement for lgbt inclusion that began at West-Park. I point to our tall Christ candle, lit Christmas Eve and burning still. 
But the real point of the day goes back to the unity I spoke of earlier. I’m usually not drawn to the Epistle lesson but today is unavoidable. Paul telling the Corinthians he’s heard about their quarreling. How he wants them to have no divisions, to all be in agreement, to all be in the same mind...Is that even possible? 
The quarrels were over allegiances. Look at all our denominations, those that cooperate and celebrate our diverse witnesses versus those that deny the faithfulness, the very legitimacy of others. And that’s just within  the Christian community. I remember Rabbi Potasnik again, different locals, one union...
Our own denomination divided in 1861 over the issue of slavery.. It didn’t come back until 1983. This is tough stuff. Presbyteries are  voting right now on Amendment 10a , one more opportunity to vote for full inclusion. That divide can be deep and hard between those who disagree on these issues.  As long as we’re not clear about where we stand on this, Christ, or at least his body, is divided.
That issue led to one of the biggest moments in West-Park history, the founding of the More Light Movement in 1978, a movement that would spread across the country to this very season of voting. 
This congregation, too, has had its  seasons of division. In 1994 when the majority voted not to merge, to stay at 86th Street, those  who wanted to merge did so anyways, moving to the other church and leaving West-Park behind. Those wounds remained for years.  “Quarreling” was part of our culture. Even in  my time.
But this is a different day. We  don’t think have “allegiance” issues. And we’re not quarreling at this point in our history. But are we of one mind? Is that even possible? Or a good idea? What is clear, according to Paul, is that these quarrels “empty the cross of it’s power...”
So, what are we “of one mind” about? I see agreement around these things:
  • We have decided to follow Jesus . We are not always completely sure what we believe, or the details of those beliefs. But we have committed to walk that journey wherever it will lead.
  • We intend to do that here.
  • We are committed to the Presbyterian way of doing things, the equality of leadership of clergy and elders, reformed and reforming, though we are particularly drawn to the always reforming side of that equation.
  • We see the world in our church because we come from so many places and see God revealed in all cultures and are committed to learning what it means to be truly multicultural.Even on this cold Sunday with our small gathering at least three continents and many cultures are present in worship together. 
  • We desire to be fully inclusive. We may sometimes seem like a closed  circle, but we are committed to openness and  welcome and inclusion  because, like we say every Sunday, we see “the image of God” in every face
  • We believe in the importance and value of every member
  • We love our building but it is we who are the true sanctuary
  • We want justice to be an essential part of our witness, in action, more than words, actions with meaning that is clear to all who see
  • We see beauty and justice as being inextricably linked..
  • We  accept responsibility of stewardship...for this building, but more so for the creation around us...(and we will be green as we rebuild...)
  • And we don’t like being pushed around....
What else? I ask them,  What am I missing?  And many voices rise up in agreement as to our unity, our persistence,our resolution. Marsha asks how are going to do it? And I repeat our four watchwords:
Put together, they make a strategy. 
So we will begin Let’s with what we are of one mind about and see where it goes after that...As scripture makes clear, it was for mission that we were baptized.
Pat says my enthusiasm is infectious. I look at this group. How dedicated they are. Nirka, one of the first members of La Iglesia Presbiteriana de West-Park, originally from First Chinese Presbyterian Church Havana, gets on the train and bus and travels over an hour  from Queens every Sunday to be here. There’s a certain pride and determination in weathering (literally) this time until the boiler is fixed. And I know it will be.
Philip Sings “Jesus the Light of the World” as we take up the offering. We all sing, “Lord, you have come to the Lakeshore” then a reprise of  we’ll walk in the light, beautiful light..then the service is over. And I put my down jacket back on.
I remember a paper one of my boys wrote once in elementary school about Valley Forge, how that winter experience made the Continental Army. This winter will help make us. It will become part of our story. Sometime in the future,people will look back on these days, with laughter, with wonder,and with pride. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

That way of life has already begun

Snow! To my surprise, when I step outside, fresh snow has fallen, maybe 5-6 inches worth. I immediately contemplate a day’s plans derailed as i head to the church, wondering what I’ll find.  When I get there, the shoveling’s already’s been done. All the way. Even the crossing paths. OK, who do I thank ? Not Deacon James, he’s still recovering from pneumonia. It’s more than Gary Greengrass would do.I’m thinking Chuck  Mac Donald, my shoveling partner. So he went home. When I call him, he tells me that when he approached on the bus, there was a team of six guys already working away.  The city? Neighbors?  Anyways, thanks.
Someone has scattered a trail of bread along the sidewalk beyond the steps.  Given my current relationship with pigeons, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I consider sweeping all up, throwing it away. I look at the snow, decide to leave it.
Nadia meets me in my new office. She is a doctoral student at the Milano School of Urban Management and Policy at the New School. She’s made West-Park part of her dissertation. She’s been following  us and our story  for over two years, now. She’s been studying West-Park as well as my friend Heidi’s church at 100th and Amsterdam and a church in Bayside, Queens. She’s gone beyond academic interest to truly caring about how this all turns out.  
Over coffee and bagels  at Barney Greengrass, we talk. She’s been trying to figure out the big picture from blog and facebook posts and is unclear what’s going on. So I go back to the Landmarks vote last spring  and bring her up to date. This story never quite winds up where she thinks its going to. She’s clearly moved by our vision, the fact that we’re willing to take risks. That the story’s not done yet. And that we can imagine being a church beyond church. She sees a place of  interfaith collaboration. And a place where circus performers would  be welcome. (With a smile.) What can she do to help? 
She suggests that we look not only to seminary interns but to interns at NYU and Columbia and New School urban planning programs as well. What we’re doing is a model that students would  find exciting. And more, she’s part of the Islamic student group at NYU and would like to involve them in a clean up day. She wants to be part of our 100th anniversary process as well. 
I think about this for a moment. Beyond our church, we have made friendships. Many of the members of our planning team for the Centre are Jewish. Seeing something important that comes from their  own values.  Nazim from the Belnord, who says working with us is a form of prayer, and  Nadia are Muslims. There is something about this vision that goes beyond faith boundaries. That speaks to something deep and connective. Interfaith is a way of life, Rabbi Michael said. That way of life has already begun.
We need to nourish it. Be intentional. See where it will lead.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Money is not the issue

Hugo and I go to the coffee shop around the corner to meet our city council member. The coffee shop run by Palestinians, with the pictures of Jerusalem on the wall. Council member Brewer is breathless arriving from a meeting dealing with the new shelter on 94th Street. An angry storm of controversy is rising. We talk about the other issues of the day, the paid leave for municipal employees, the Fair Wages New York City (living wage) bill.  And then we turn to West-Park.
It’s been a year since designation, eight months since the council vote. There’s been one fundraiser, public appearances, good words, but promises yet to be fulfilled. We tell her we want to work with her  to make this happen. She says, “I know, money’s the issue.” “No,” says Hugo, “ money is not the issue, structure is the issue. Structure is the way to get not only money now, but to secure a future. We need a structure that brings together all the sectors for the purpose of developing a long range plan to sustain West-Park.”  We remind her that this is the way to fulfill her public promises during hearings and the vote.  We will work with her, do the work, but we need her personal involvement to open the doors. We tell her of the $50,000, which could be doubled if challenges are met, we have raised completely on our own. Now is the time for community cooperation. And she is the one who can make it happen. She understands what we want. Promises to meet with us a week from Monday. Maybe the boiler is one inch closer to reality.
Hugo and I talk. Yes, I have established presence. The congregation has begun to reestablish presence. To move forward we need to develop more relationships and cultivate the ones we already have. And yes, I have begun to act, visibly, but the congregation  as a collective community needs to begin to act together, to make clear  to all who we are and what we are about. 
Between the corner and the church, I run into Rudy. For many years he operated the gym on the the top floor of the church. Untold numbers of neighborhood children passed through his program, including all three of my boys. Church members sometimes felt slightly annoyed that the gym was commonly known as “Rudy’s Gym.” For years we had an amazing Sunday School program that included scripture based education and gymnastics.  He brought Cirque de Soleil and Big Apple Circus performers there to work out routines and practice at nights. He had an annual gymnastics concert where these performers broke away from their professional routines and just freely created. One of his friends, Sumi Kim,  did a captivating and intriguing  performance piece in the gym where she bounced on a trampoline, played the sax and did a monologue and then did a two person recreation of Bruce Lee’s last television interview, playing the lead role  herself.   One Sunday, I even had Rudy performing on the trampoline as a prelude to the service.  At its best, it was another early example of what we are now trying to create in the centre. After three years, he’s found a new place, a Lutheran church on 57th and 9th. He found  it on his way to visit Jack. He looks for churches with open doors. I tell him ours are open now. We agree to talk soon.
John has brought another theatre group and more theatre people to the church . Again a sense  of excitement and unlimited sense of what could be. A board member has a question. Would we want to censor, restrict artistic expression? I assure them no, as long as we have a shared sense of values, a commitment to an inclusive world.   I am anxious to start making some of these visions real.  Let’s start with the boiler.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Will you help a homeless woman?

Steady rain falling, washing away the snow. Lakes at the street corner crossings and ice covered with water. Seriously treacherous.  People have been standing all day under our scaffolding, waiting for the bus, now that the bus shelter’s gone.  In the cold rain, the protestors are back at Saigon Grill again. In the darkness, wraithlike wisps of mist dance through the streets like ghosts.
One block down the street from the church, a group of  neighborhood clergy gather at Euclid Hall to meet with staff of the city Department of Homeless Services to discuss the new 94th Street shelter. The Euclid is a former  SRO turned into a supportive housing facility by the Westside Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing and also serves as home for its main offices. WSSFSH had its birth as an outreach of West-Park. It’s first and only director, Laura, began WSSFSH while serving as a Parish Associate at West-Park.  
We want to press DHS on several issues:
  • The failure to involve us at the front end of the process.
  • The possibility of reducing the total number of residents from 200
  • The nine year length of the contract to provide shelter.
DHS staff range from open, committed and collaborative to defensive,arrogant and bureaucratic. We’re told that this may be the “crest” of conversion from hotels to shelters. But that they don’t go looking, only respond to proposals. I point out that with so many hotels in the neighborhood, more proposals could be expected. The city is under heavy pressure to create more shelter space beyond its current 9000,( 2500 women)  a night capacity which last night only had three empty beds.
The 200 number is, they say,  a “midrange” number. Contract length a matter of economics. None of the men will be from the mental illness sector of the homeless population. There will be lots of services provided. And this is a “second step” shelter designed to house those on the way to permanent housing. The nuanced explanation does not explain that these are men who have  failed in other settings. 
Another deputy suggests that there’ve been multiple contacts with Community Board 7 and we should work through them. That suggestion is almost cynical since in our experience, much of the Community Board is not only secular, but in the words of former CB 7 Chair Sheldon Fein, from the Orthodox Jewish community,  openly hostile to the faith community. Even though with the Catholic and Jewish community, we represent thousands of voters. Besides, I point out, many of us work directly and personally with DHS personnel all the time. We have personal work relationships. It’s not hard to get us together. 
Pastor Elise points out the impact of the converted hotels on her church. How they’ve had to pick up responsibility for feeding many more people from privately operated facilities. The growing drug problem. But mainly our need to be able to find housing for people who show up late in the day.  Sending someone to Bellevue or Brooklyn is just not realistic. DHS agrees to work on setting aside some beds for people who “sleep on church steps.”
UCC pastor James asks if someone has to literally fall asleep on the church steps to be eligible. This leads to a complicated conversation with George for DHS agreeing to personally work out details with Pastor Elise. This is our one concession, along with an openness to setting up ongoing dialogue on the broader issues. 
George references the George from our steps as an example of their success. He tells me they’ve found him a new home and that he’s happy with it. “He fell out of our system awhile,” George says.
“I know, he was back with us,” I say. “When I called when it was really cold, I found his  case had been closed.” Pastor Elise mentions seeing him during the Crafts Fair.
“Well, he had failed to do what he needed to stay where he was.”
“Yes. He told me he left voluntarily so he wouldn’t get evicted because if he were  evicted, he’d never get another place.”
“He sometimes gets delusional about things.”
“I knew that didn’t sound right, that’s why I called.”
“We found him  a new place. He seems happy.”
“He comes back,” I say.
“Yes, it’s a process he has to go through. But after 30 years on the street, we’ve convinced him to come in.” So much of his work is so frustrating, it’s good that this story seems to have a good resolution. At least for the moment. DHS George is one who gets personally involved to make things work.
And yes, there is a difference between street homelessness and those who’ve experienced an economic disaster who come to our doors. 
On the way back up 86th street, a bundled up older African-American woman approaches me, hand out. ‘Will you help a homeless woman?” she asks. I meet her eyes. Say “sorry.” Years  ago, when I first came here, Marc from the Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness told me that whether  you give or not is not what is important. It’s acknowledging the humanity of the other. It’s invisibility that truly pushes the homeless person into isolation. (West-Park Pastor Bob Davidson was one of the three original founders of the Assembly along with Rabbi Marshall Meyer and Daniel Berrigan.) I begin to walk on. “What’s your name?” I hear from behind me. I turn and say “Bob,” then look for whatever change I have to give to her. “God bless you,” she says in response, “God bless you.”
Today its only light rain and a feeling of rawness. I take the time to clean up the 86th Street side. The wetness doesn’t help, everything damp and sticky. Up close to the church, I notice more pieces of the building have come down jn the rain. Mainly chips and chunks and telltale red mud, but that’s what started all this is the first place. So many people believe that now that we’re landmarked, the scaffolding should come down. Maybe we need to put out  a sign that explains that it’s for public safety. And with fundraising the way that it is, it’s not coming down anytime soon.
Call Deacon James to see how he is. Haven’t seen him in awhile. Call Holly to take care of a business issue. And think again about Tracy. Layla has called again. His daughter is trying to locate him. Let’s see what I can find out. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Different local, same union: Interfaith is not a strategy, it's a way of life

Large bundles of cardboard boxes flattened and bound with string. Some open, torn, laid flat in the north doorway. Did someone come here seeking shelter? In this 20 degree weather? And was taken by the police to St. Luke’s? Sometimes I feel like an urban version of a tracker, looking at clues to see what might have taken place while I was gone. What I’d see if there was a video camera recording 24/7.
Today, Steven is returning with more of his Woodshed Collective members. And John is bringing a director friend. It’s late afternoon and gathering dark as I lead the tour, beginning in the scariest part, the basement. As we go up and down back staircases to surprise arrivals in different rooms, the theatre folks have the delight of kids in a haunted house or on a scavenger hunt.  As we look at the semi-ruins of the chapel, one member says, “you’d normally have to pay a lot of money to get something to look like this.” We finish the tour. They will continue  to thjnk about “immersive possibilities.” John says to his director, “what could you do with a place like this?” She says, “What couldn’t you do.”
Earlier today I joined in  our annual neighborhood Martin Luther King, Jr Day march for peace. This year’s theme is “economic justice.”  Including a call for support of a bill to provide paid sick leave for city employees. As we march the streets , with police escort, going in and out of five houses of worship, pausing at each for a reflection, a song, an act, we weave a reality throughout the neighborhood. This  is a perfect example of what Bill Tripp spoke of in his presentation on Ritual Space. We have turned our neighborhood into living, breathing ritual space.
Walking from Holy Name to 2nd Presbyterian, I’m  joined by an older woman. She says to me, “I know you, you don’t know me,” her nam e is Ulla. She’s one of  the amazing group of septuagenarian/octogenarian committed members of Peace Action. She speaks of her many years of activity at West-Park. Wants to know if we’re finally saved from being torn down. So I have to slowly explain the realities  of landmarking.  She talks  about having  come to the Crafts Fair/Music Festival, how much it meant to her to be back inside after all these years. How beautiful and alive  it looked. She asks where the money will come from to fix things. And I say, “people just like you’." And she laughs. And then  I  say, seriously. And describe our step by step process.  
At the next stop, I’m disturbed when the pastor, after describing what an inclusive and multicultural place the school at her church was,  asks us to conclude  by singing “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, bearers of the cross.” Well bearers instead of soldiers certainly demilitarizes the old hymn. But doesn’t make it inclusive.
Out on the street, I join my friend Father Duffel,and Lutheran pastors Elise and Heidi. Good solid organizers all. Leaders in working for rights for homeless and for their issues. They share my concerns about inclusiveness. At the Franciscan church, the friar spoke of the God we call God, Allah, Adonai, Dios....Our Presbyterian hosts were Christocentric. That can’t feel welcoming when what you’ve come to attend is an interfaith witness.
I thought back to Thursday night’s event again. The imam calling us to King’s vision of ecumenicity. Rabbi Potasnik of the New York City Board of Rabbis said that we were in  “different locals, but all part if the same union.” Later, I spoke with my friend Rabbi Michael Feinberg of The Religion Labor coalition.  He shared with me his disappointment with certain leaders of this event. “I’m used to people who live interfaith as a way of life. Not see it as a strategic tactic. When they had a preservice ‘prayer huddle,’ I thought of joining in just to be there, but it felt like it wasn’t for me. I’m getting too old for this...”
Elise speaks of how one of our rabbi colleagues finds much of what we do not inclusive. FatherJohn and Pastor Heidi are in agreement. I talk about last Thursday and say, “interfaith is not a strategy, it’s a way of life.” We agree we have to make that more understood. On King Day, 2011, we should be further along than this. 
They want to know  about what we’re up to. Elise came to our Crafts Fair/Music Festival and was very moved to see life coming again. I talk about how we’re not looking for a real estate deal anymore, that it’s a new process. Hard for some to understand. How we tried to rebuild for rebirth but now know we must be reborn to rebuild.
I watch the line  of people winding its way through the streets connecting  our houses  of worship. The kind of ritual space Bill Tripp described for us goes beyond any particular tradition, is by its very nature inclusive. The immersive theatre experience being imagined by Woodshed, how it works, is yet another expression of Ritual Space.  That's the vision of the  Centre we are seeking to bring into being. A place for artists, activists, companion travelers of all kinds. This can be  our part of the emerging Beloved Community we can take responsibility to build.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday 2011: We shall overcome someday

This is the Sunday we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Jim and Holly are the first to arrive to help set up, as usual. Then our musicians. Juan has brought a small space heater. There’s  Philip and then Amy.  As cold as it is, I joke that later that afternoon, over 60,000 people will sit outside in colder weather watching  a football game. (Of course a few beers help.)
During the time with children, Deacon Pat asks what would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. think of today? She recalled her pride, her tears when Obama was elected. There has been change, but...
That indeed is the question before us today.  
There is much on my mind as I think about that question:
*  The shock waves that continue to flow out from the shooting in Tucson. How the President's words reminded us of the HOPE he inspired as he ran his campaign. Would these words touch anybody, change anybody not already committed to civility in the public arena?  I wrestle with the current level of divisiveness, our continuing  fascination with guns. And how we deal with the mentally ill. And the fact that families of victims and accused need support and prayer.
  • Our clergy meeting in Wednesday when we talked about the new shelter for 200 men.  The city’s need to find shelter for burgeoning numbers of homeless. The new profit opportunity for the illegal hotel owners to sign shelter contracts with the city. Yes, shelter is needed in this cold. But what we really need are permanent affordable housing apartments to better weave the fabric of our community. 
Hope asks: so if they’re paying $100 a night for shelter, why not let the men stay there permanently? Have enough services available to help the residents  transition back to work? Back to neighborhood life? Wouldn’t that make sense?
  • And i ‘m thinking about the city wide rally for the Living Wage we went to Thursday night at Convent Avenue Baptist Church.  Reminding us that Dr. KIng’s last mission was to join the fight  for a living wage for sanitation workers in Memphis. The statistics are disturbing: the citywide unemployment rate is 9.1% and the unemployment rate for people of color is three times that, around 28%. Only 2.3% of city contracts go to companies owned by people of color.  And worst of all, 30% of the children in this city live in poverty.  What would Dr. KIng say?
What’s being asked for is pretty small:  $10 an hour with benefits, $11.50 without. As I overheard at the bar at Gabriela’s while waiting for my take out pollo con mole poblano, “In New York City you have to be middle class just to be poor.” And its inappropriate for a billionaire mayor to talk about letting  the market decide when these companies receive subsidies  from city taxes. Certainly the Los Angeles experience seems to show that employment actually increases with a living wage, not decrease it.
In the words of Dr. James Forbes, Pastor Emeritus of the Riverside Church and Director of the Healing  of the Nations Foundation, we have to learn how to tangibilitize our  values. From the verb tangibilitate : to  make tangible, real, concrete our values.
* And it was one year ago that the Landmarks Commission voted to designate West-Park as a landmark. The commissoner said he would do “everything in his power.” That was a year ago. Councilmember Brewer said that she could  and would raise $20 million. Subcommittee Chair Landner was convinced help would come. Committee Chair Comrie promised we would  “be all right.” That was eight months ago. So what do we do now? What do we have  to do to make our story public? Hold these offocials accountable? 

* And two wars that seem to go on with n en din sight wit mainly children  the poor and people of color dying. 
Dr. King had,as spoken by the prophet Isaiah, a mouth “like a sharp sword.” We need like he did, that experience of precision, disappointment, failure that comes with the prophetic call. The feeling that all our work has been in vain. Dr. King knew depression a swell. How do we move beyond that? 
Part of it comes in understanding that Isaiah makes clear that this call is universal, not just for “Jacob” and certainly not just for Christians. Imam Talib reminded us that Dr. King called us to set aside our prejudices and join together in a truly ecumenical movement, in sense of worldwide household. That means full acceptance of all, even those whose experiences lead them to question or reject faith, all who join together in good will. To that we have the challenge of being  universal without being unitarian. To maintain the uniqueness of our witness even as we reject triumphalism. 
The Psalmist speaks from a place of depression as well. Many of us have been there. Even Dr. King. What doe it mean to sing a new song? What is new? Are we ready to embrace it? Brave enough to sing it?  God gave us “an open ear.”  To hear what? The voice of God? The voice of those around us? Is there a difference? Yes, Dr. King was rooted in the African-American Christian experience, but he grew to a universal vision.
On Saturday, I saw the movie “Red Shirley.” His interviews with his 100 year old aunt, a refugee from Poland who became a union organizer in the garment workers Union. How as a Yiddish speaker she had to speak to Italians. How today its Latinos and African-Americans but still the same union. She was at the theatre in person after the movie. Spoke of  her sadness at the passing of the day when society, young people had a shared sense of social right and wrong. What realities were simply unacceptable. What does it take to live a life of commitment? To raise our children so they will have that innate sense?

I show the congregation my bracelet. the one with basta! on it. I say, 'Basta de que? Basta de guerra, injusticio, politicos que dice muco y hace, basta de todo...enough of it all..."
When asked where he was staying, Jesus told his disciples “come and see.” Yes, come and see. He is staying with the immigrants, the mournng in Arizona, the unemployed, the children in poverty...he is staying there....Walter Breuggeman said that the “Jesus event”shows God “eagerly invested” in the world. We are inheritors not of certainty, but a continuing struggle to know God and follow Jesus and to seek to understand what that might mean.  How our seemingly small witness can move from ineffectiveness to global impact. We are called to a deep openess to what might happen. 
We cannot live in 1968 or any other era or time than our own. We must resist the appropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr for any self-serving purpose, the ritualization, the holidayzation of the day. We must begin  by being ultimately present in this moment with everything we have. 
That’s what we talked about.  Philip sang “How Great Thou Art,” recalling the Thursday night service. P____came to the candle, praying for her case. We spoke of the next day’s march. of the week ahead. And held hands as we  sang our Halle, halle, halle, hallelujah and “We shall overcome...” with everything that lies ahead, inside and outside our doors...
Deep in our hearts, we do believe, that we shall overcome some day.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Our window is small

So what would be the story behind one surgical glove? Makes you wonder...
Today’s breakfast with my attorney. Slowly he moves from skeptic to ally as he begins to understand the vision. That we’re not talking about a real estate deal, but a process. And he begins to see why people  would be excited about the vision. But he’s right about the strategy to move ahead, beyond a dream.  That we have an opportunity to move our presbytery beyond its internecine battles to a place of moving forward. That we are in a context of a dying mainstream tradition with new life happening around the edges and that we have to be able to make clear that this is not just one more attempt for little West-Park to keep hanging on, but about something that’s bigger than West-Park, something that could be a model. That would need research, input from around the country. I know the people who could do that, who are doing it. Our window is small. Voices other than ours have to see the hope and lift it up before a preoccupied body. We need to be able to describe it with clarity. David against Goliath is not enough. We’ve said from the start that this is not about our small congregation but maintaining a place, an opportunity for reformed presence and witness in the center of the Upper West Side. There is no crowd  of traditional Presbyterians out there looking for a church. We need to somehow be able to engage those who are “spiritual but not religious.” Those who have been hurt, burned by the church or pushed out. (Like the West-Park of the ’80’s was, only in a new day.) An opportunity to move the church away from its self-absorbed irrelevance to living authentic presence. “Lunatic fringe with a strategic plan,” as Rick says. Not an easy task. With allies, we maybe can do it, he says. But without, sisyphusian at least, improbable at best. Only with allies do we have a  chance.
Waiting for a response from our city council member? Will she respond? if not, what then? I stop by her neighborhood office on my way home to see if i can set up a meeting.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

There's a story to be told

“Hey boricua!”
Passing the projects, a burly latino guy in Northface yells at me. In my winter jacket, baseball hat, sunglasses.
“Hey, you Spanish, right?” I ignore him and keep walking.
“You Chinese?” I keep walking. A woman is passing.
“Hey, mami, that’s my father,” he yells at her. “He look Dominican, no?”
So I’ve covered three ethno-cultural groups in one block. 
The keys are still on the steps. And a mini bottle of tequila.
Ted and I stop into Barney Greengrass  for coffee and to await our appointment with Norm Bleckner. A friend of his from the 92nd Street Y stops by. We talk about what we’re up to, the upcoming 100th anniversary celebration. Ted asks her if she’d like to be on the committee. And she actually seems interested.  Something about the vision intrigues her. 
Norm meets us in the church. He creates displays and museum exhibits. He came to the house party at Ted and Mim’s. The vision moved him.  He’s here to talk about setting up an archival exhibit for West-Park. An interpretive exhibit. Something people can see when they walk in. Something to see the impact of the church on social history. Another of Amanda’s ideas coming to life. 
I show him the memorials to Lewis C. Bales and the Rev. David R. Downer. Their inherent mystery. The Spanish names on the World War II plaque. There must have been Latinos here before the creation of La Iglesia Presbiteriana de West-Park. We stand in the sanctuary, I tell the stories. Then give him the tour, stories as I go.
“There’s a story here. You have to tell it,” he says. “It intersects with the story of our neighborhood, the city. People forget. They have to know. I want to do this.”
There’s work to be done. Gathering our paper archives. The proclamation from the city on the 25th anniversary of the More Light movement. West-Park’s pioneering in the gay marriage movement. The history book from the 150th anniversary. Online photos. Architectural plans. T-shirts, sweatshirts, artifacts from the work groups that came through after 9-11. The catalogue of all the windows. The Tiffany contract. The Kilburn contract. The agreement with God’s Love We Deliver. Hours of work ahead. He sees an old 48 star flag in the session room. Old sets of tarnished communion ware. “All of this, we can use all of this..” he says. 
There’s a story to be told.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Not as bad as expected

The snow was not as bad as expected.

One year ago, the Landmarks Commission voted to designate West-Park as a landmark. It felt like a crushing defeat, even though the appearance before City Council would be months in the future.  Amanda came in for the hearing. Holly, Hugo, and Hope were all there as well. Following the vote, I stood side by side with our city commissioner Gale Brewer as we spoke to the press and she promised her support. I asked her what exactly she would she do. Then the  staff of Landmarks Commissioner Tierney called me in to his office to pledge his support. Again, I asked exactly what it was he would do. It was a painful morning....

 An early morning check-in showed that this time the scaffolding had protected the walkway.  Chuck Mac Donald, my shoveling buddy from the blizzard, is waiting for me at the church. We help a guy whose car has been buried by city snowplows dig out. One final push and he’s on his way.
We don’t have to get out the old snow blower, shovels will handle today’s work.  I get the steps clear and then we tackle the sidewalks and the treacherous street crossings. Chuck finishes with clearing a path through the bus stop. I notice the shelter is gone. Not sure when that happened. A solid hour of shoveling and we’re done. 
In the bowels of the church, we discovered old bags of salt. We carry them upstairs to salt the walks and steps. Walking down the street, spreading  salt by hand, I feel like an old time farmer sewing seeds. Chuck examines the walks. “A work of art,” he says. Shovelers tend to say things like that when they’re done. Having done my share, I agree. 

Putting the shovels away, Chuck notices the two marble plaques embedded in the sanctuary narthex wall. One on each side of the doors. Both young pastors. Lewis C. Bales from the 1840's and the other David R. Downer. Both died in their thirties. Bales in San Francisco. And Downer's has a strange inscription: "....he terminated his ministry and his life on..." Why word it that way?  Chuck wonders if there are any abolitionist connections here.  I wonder why these two? Which former church were they in? Who demanded that they be placed prominently  in the new church? Why? I google both names, find no information. A project for someone. We also notice that there's a World War II plaque but no World War I. Mysteries continue.
We go back outside. I shake hands with Chuck, say “thanks.” “No” he says, “Thank you. I feel good doing this. Next time I’ll just put you on my list. I’ll be here. See if you can find a gas can for that  blower.”  And we shake hands once more as he takes off. 
Though I had made phone calls and sent e-mails to build a snow alert strategy, Andrea is right, I didn’t close the deal. Need to make sure everything is in place for the next time. Now. 

Marty checks out the newly cleaned steps and considers sitting down. I greet him. Ask how he's doing. He eyes me warily. "Oh, it's you father."  Then walks on down the street. He's been pretty non-social recently. I wonder what's  going on with him.
I hear my name and look up. Coming around the corner looking esqimoesque in a fur lined hooded snow jacket and furry boots is my neighbor Lutheran pastor Elise Brown. Our neighborhood clergy gathered at her church this morning to discuss a new community issue. There’s a shelter for 200 men opening two blocks down the street from her. 
Here’s the situation:  our Upper Westside neighborhood once had 60,000 SRO units, the lowest rung of affordable housing. Most built in the post World War II boom years. First, thousands were converted into market rate apartments. Then, more recently, old SRO’s were converted into illegal tourist hotels. Now that the state has vowed action to shut them down,owners are turning to the newest profit field, sheltering the homeless. With a newly burgeoning homeless population, the intention of closing the shelter at Bellevue, and the overall dearth of available housing stock, the city is paying $100 a night per homeless person. This shelter is just the beginning.
It’s a tough moral spot for clergy. No one wants to deny temporary shelter to those who need it, especially in the cold. No clergy wants to seem an ally to the growing sense of NIMBYism in a greatly gentrified neighborhood. Yet the placement of 200 socially vulnerable men on one residential block is unfair to both the neighborhood and the men themselves.  The community needs to be in on these plans at the front end, not once there’s a fait acompli.
In the bigger picture, what we desperately need is to turn the units into permanent affordable housing units. Units that would help weave an economically diverse community fabric. Something  to slow the hastening bifurcation of the neighborhood into only rich and very poor. A dichotomy that cannot be healthy. We decide to seek a negotiation to make this shelter work as well as possible. And develop a strategy to move units into the affordable housing market. I leave the meeting early to tend to my shoveling. At lunch, I’m reminded that my colleagues have people to take care of that. 
The day finishes with a visit from Steven Squibb of the Woodshed Theatre Company, known for their  production  of “Twelve Ophelias” in the empty Mc Carren Park swimming pool in Brooklyn. He’s interested in the building for an immersive theatrical experience. In room after raw room his eyes light with imagination and ideas. We cover every inch of sanctuary and church house. He’s amazed by the beauty of the sanctuary, the acoustics and the remains of the upstairs Papp theatre.  We head to Barney Greengrass for coffee and a discussion of possibilities.  My hope always is that when creative people, like the musicians and craftspeople at our December  fair and festival, see the space, new ideas will spark and new visions become real. New energy to flow.

I start to think about his planned production. Different scenes of the same play going on in different spaces. Audiences wandering from space to space. Interacting. Piecing together their own understanding of the production. And i begin to wonder about the liturgical possibilities of this  model. 
Not as bad as expected. A good day.