Friday, February 25, 2011

You don't usually get to see pipes like that

The day starts with John reviewing again our financial strategy for the coming year. It is very tight. We may just make it...we need to get partners past the conversation stage and into the commitment stage.
Again, clothes on the steps. And a blanket. Is someone staying here?
My friend Don meets me on the steps. He’s a seminary President emeritus. A rare combination of good preacher an strong administrator. Retired, engaged and active. He served on the Presbyterian Social Witness Council I chair and has known my work for 30 years. And he is a respected elder statesman of the church.  Known for wisdom and balance and not taking sides while still being stalwart in commitment to justice. 
I share with him our vision for the Centre and for the church. It’s important that he see where we want to go. We need more voices in Presbytery that  understand that this is indeed a new vision for what  the church could be and not just another desperate attempt for West-Park to hang on a little longer. 
We really explore what the church could be. Starting from where we are, reaching out to children and families of the international Latin community, including immigrants. A new fellowship of  interfaith families. And intentional outreach to those alienated from the church. Especially younger ones. How we could build on the “community of communities” idea.  Defined groups united in fellowship, especially breaking bread together; witness and service and major liturgical events. 
Don agrees to be an advocate. To look for opportunities for interpretation and also financial support. And to work with us on our centennial campaign. This is the kind of support we need to move forward. 
I leave our clergy study to deal with church issues. The words So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own lingering in my head. We’re pretty much in a birds of the air, lilies of the field kind of situation here.  It’s hard to trust, to not worry.
Today’s worry is keys. Have to wait for a locksmith, run back and forth between  the  church and a meeting with the Presbytery people who are walking with us on this journey. Deacon James stays with the locksmith as I work with my leaders to bring the Presbytery folks up to date. On the one hand, as long as we can stay solvent, we’ll stay ahead of any ecclesiastical problems. On the other, for the first time, I begin to see a glimmer of understanding about what it is we are trying to do and the beginnings of movement  from critique to support. A sign of hope.
Today,on the steps I find  a full set of clothes, including jeans with a belt that look like they’ve just been taken off. OK, is there a naked guy running around the neighborhood? Clothed like the grass of the field? I’d love to know what’s going on here.
A full day. Starts with the fire alarm man. We need new phone line. And probably smoke detectors. The hand pull alarms do no good if no one’s there. Then the plumbers arrive to do a full inspection of the boiler and all the pipes in the building. When they reach Mc Alpin Hall, they look up, amazed and enthralled. Would you look at that, they say. You don’t usually get to see pipes like that. Only in text books. This is great. Late 19th, early 20th century. This is great. Like plumbing archeologists, they check out the pipes on every floor. Because we’ve had steam, they should  be safe. But there is asbestos. (Knew that) And lead paint issues, too. (Knew that, too.) For the first time in a long time, I feel overwhelmed and depressed by the condition of our building.
The plumbers take off. Happy for their adventure.  John comes by to pick up the keys and wait for the Woodshed Theatre folks. They continue to develop their dream, their vision. 
Consider the lilies of the field....

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Loving neighbors: One world, one pain

Jim is the first to arrive today to help set up. We open the church together. So I go out to the steps, I see Marty. I greet him. At first he looks puzzled. Then he says, “Oh, Reverend, I didn’t recognize you. You had all the accoutrements of a shammes.” I lift up the broom and dust pan and laugh and wave.  He comes closer. “Reverend, my father died at 70, may he rest in peace. When he was sixty two, some ministers came and said, “Kaplan, we know you’re a rabbi, but you have to take care of your family. You have to sign up for social security. And he  did. And my mother and we kids, we never wanted. Reverend, you have to take care of your family. Do not wait too long.” I thank him. Don’t say that he’s told me that before . “Remember,” he says, pointing a finger at me and looking me in the eye. Then walks off. Looking  over his shoulder he says, “Have a good Sunday.”
It’s time for worship. There’s lots on the table today.  A lot about love your neighbors. Love your enemies....The love your neighbors idea frames Leviticus 19. Everything that come before that passage is how you do it. The injunctions echo the Ten Commandments, expand on them. And always at the heart of Torah, there is  justice at the heart. For example, the idea of not stripping  a vineyard bare, or harvesting to the edges. The whole idea of gleaning, of leaving something for the  poor, the alien, the immigrant;  especially the undocumented, unprotected immigrant. The idea that we are not to extract every last penny of profit...or  even “keep the wages of a laborer until morning...”
How can that not speak to the idea of a Living Wage?

I’m thinking about Wisconsin this week. The most disturbing  part is the  attack on collective bargaining. Over 30,000 state employees rallied to protest. As an old union organizer  friend of mine in Portland said, the only alternative to collective bargaining is collective begging and we ain’t doing that.” My son Micah sent me a great photo from Egypt showing a man  with a sign saying, “Wisconsin, we are with you: one world, one pain.”
Can you believe that in 1910, the Presbyterians started something called the Labor Temple? At Union Square?  That the Board of National Missions had something called the Unit of City and Industrial Work ? That there was a Labor Temple School led by Will Durant that lasted into the ‘30’s? (By the way, that’s where Durant’s the Story of Civilization came from, his lecture series at the Labor Temple.)
A Columbia University article reported  that the Labor Temple was founded in 1910 by the Rev. Charles L. Stelze of the Presbyterian Home Mission Board. Under Stelze's leadership, the Labor Temple would be "entirely unsectarian, where every man, if he have a message, may give it expression, and if it be good it will receive attention." On its opening day, Labor Temple was attended by five hundred members of labor unions, Socialist, Anarchists, and persons who took interest in labor matters and sociologists.
And as could could be predicted, New York City Presbytery erupted with charges that Steizle and Durant presented socialist and pacifist lectures and promoted Bolshevism and Leninism. (Which Durant did not deny.) And criticized Henry Sloane Coffin for supporting them. How did our church come to abandon  working people?
Again, today in our neighborhood,  The Saigon Grill workers are organizing, protesting, calling for a boycott against the new owners even as the old owners were put away in jail this week. Some of our members would like to see us try and mediate this conflict even as others begin to reach out in solidarity. Our neighbor Trinity Lutheran is the workers’ gathering place. 
Love your neighbor, as you would yourself...that’s what all this is about. 
So now  back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. And remember, he’s speaking to his disciples, those who have already made a commitment. But still, the deeper Jesus gets into his sermon, the harder it gets. Loving enemies? Do not resist an evildoer...really???
I believe that what he’s talking about is how our resistance can lead us to become what we hate. Walter Wink, from up the street at Auburn Seminary,  has written:
The very act of hating something draws it to us. Since our hate is a direct response to the evil done, our hate almost invariably causes us to respond in the terms already laid down by the enemy. To counter their espionage, we had a spy network; to make sure that no one cooperated with the enemy, we needed to spy on our own citizens. "You always become the thing you fight the most," wrote psychologist Carl Jung, and we have done everything in our power to prove him correct.

He goes on to point out that Churchill’s bombing of 43 German cities, including the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg, were essentially terrorist acts directed at civilians. And  the single most deadly terrorist attack of all time was the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I say this even as one whose father believed that those bombings saved him from being shipped out to Japan. The target was civilians,the goal was, as we have come to call it, “shock and awe”...
In the world of the Sermon on the Mount, vengeance and grudges are simply forbidden.
Likewise, you become transformed by your fear, you become your fear. The Inquisition, born as a  response to the Protestant Reformation, revealed a church turned paranoid  and  violent in its efforts to defend itself.
In the pursuit of witches, the church, especially the  New England Puritans, became possessed itself. 
You become what you hate. It has been said that the reality of the new society that will be born is already revealed in the nature of the revolution that brings it about.Which is why the triumph of a non-violent  revolution in Egypt gives us so much hope. 
My reading of Walter Wink’s article from the 1980’s reminded me that, in his words, There is no more  classic instance of counterproductive violence than that employed by the Reagan administration against Nicaragua. When I remember the policies of President Reagan in Central America, his economic policies which so badly hurt working people and continue to haunt us today, it becomes hard, no impossible  for me to be objective in this celebration of his centenary. Funny, Ronald Reagan and West-Park, birthdays in the same year. I wonder if our Presbyterian Peacemaker friends of the ’80’s would see the irony?
Finally, Jesus tells us to be perfect. Perfect? Perfect? It was John Wesley and his idea of  Christian perfection that tried to live that out. For Wesley, perfection was not the state of being unable to sin, but rather the state of choosing not to sin. Wesley's perfection represented a change of life, a freedom from willful rebellion against God, impure intentions, and pride. Wesley also did not view perfection as permanent.
However, in our tradition, perfection  is simply  impossible. As the rolling Stones once sang:
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails just call me Lucifer
I'm in need of some restraint
It is the very realization that we are none of us perfect that makes love of  neighbors, love of enemies possible and judgment impossible. 
We agreed that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are hard to live by. But that wrestling with their meaning is important.
Philip sang “Lord, I want to be a Christian” then  we all sang:
O for a world where everyone
Respects each other's ways,
Where love is lived and all is done
With justice and with praise.
 O for a world where goods are shared
 And misery relieved,
Where truth is spoken, children spared,
Equality achieved.
We welcome one world family
And struggle with each choice
That opens us to unity
And gives our vision voice.
The poor are rich, the weak are strong,
The foolish ones are wise.
Tell all who mourn; outcasts belong,
Who perishes will rise.

O for a world preparing for
God's glorious reign of peace,
Where time and tears will be no more,
And all but love will cease.

And then once again, Ana’s warm cafe con leche. We pass the peace. And church is over.
The steps are empty, except for clothes and seed left for pigeons. I wish they wouldn’t do that.
    Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Freedom Church

The first of two conversations about my Forbes Field groundskeeper jacket takes place on the corner of 87th.  It starts with the ’60 World Series and yes, I  can still name the starting lineup and key subs and yes, Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the 9th was one of the definitive moments of my young life. And probably one of the reasons I still believe this project can work. It ends with a conversation of the Negro leagues and how Josh Gibson should have been the first to cross over but for his off field issues. I look across the street and remember the conversation my Homestead Grays cap led to with a man who’s started a travel team of young inner city ball players called the Grays. Wanting to keep the legacy alive.
Coffee with City Councilmember Gale Brewer. Back to the issue of the funds needing to be raised.  The shortness of time. Her promises won the necessary votes for landmarking. We’re still waiting. People growing impatient. We need action to get the boiler going, sustain us through the planning process, build the structure for a sustainable future. She promises to write an e-mail outlining what she can do. Will do. My credibility is on the line here as well.
I open the doors, see a poncho. Expecting the man in the top hat. But it’s George, back again. I say, “George, good to see you. Haven’t seen you in awhile.” He nods. And actually smiles. As I’m sweeping, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Rev. Roberts approach. Rev. Sekou has long dreads halfway down his back, Rev. Roberts very short (almost shaved) hair and long earrings. Both dressed very well. We walk up the stairs together.  I introduce them to George. He seems impressed that two people who clearly honor Afro-centric culture are coming into the church.
I give them the whole tour, top to bottom. Rev. Sekou eyes the damage carefully, tests out the Hammond. He wants to see every nook and cranny, including the tiny back yard. I fill them in on the church’s social history as well.
We go next door to Barney Greengrass for breakfast and conversation.  And I have my second Forbes Field conversation. Turns out one of the waiters, David grew up in Pittsburgh and went to the high school where my father was principal. And where he  directed the music for the high school musicals. David, like many  servers,  is also an actor and with my friend Chuck, a cofounder of the 29th Street Rep. We’re trying to get a conversation together as to how they might  use West-Park as a place for theatre. 
I tell the story to Revs. Sekou and Roberts. We talk about Pittsburgh and African-American history. The Negro Leagues. The migration form the South to the steel mills. The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the principle newspaper voices of the African-American community. And of course August Wilson and his definitive ten play cycle on ten decades of African-American history set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. My city, seen through different eyes. Would I go back? He wants to know. I think a moment. No, not now. 
We met through the Living Wage campaign. With roots in Arkansas, he’s been an organizer who’s been a pastor. Rev. Roberts a social worker specializing in pastoral counseling.  Sekou, too, worked in New Orleans, right after the storm.The first place that almost broke him.  The first place he’d been where he felt bringing real change, real organizing was beyond him. We share stories of favorite restaurants, music places. 
But the real conversation is about their vision of a Freedom Church. He has a critique of  IAF organizing as Machiavellian. And not taking fully seriously the inherent intelligence of the cultures of the poor. How organizing and a Freierian approach to education could bring about real change. He talked of the  Highlander Folk School and SNCC and the organizing model that critiqued the SCLC top down approach over against the IAF model. “The one model gets you Rosa Parks,” he says, “the other Barack Obama.”
The  vision, the dream of Rev.s Sekou and Roberts  is to create a church that has at its very roots a commitment to faith based, culture based organizing for social justice along with a deep spirituality. And the need to start that from the bottom up, not into or on top of an existing church. And to start a center where  clergy could come to be  trained in this model.  Could West-Park be the location for this vision? Could it work with/within the Centre vision?
Again, as with El Taller, the shared ideals and values are strong. The clarity  of shared vision is clear. Again, questions of money, resources arise. But the what could be is easy to see. A lingering does the present West-Park become the birthplace of the church that will be? What will it take for the transformation to take place? We agree to talk again.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The weather is getting warmer

He’s there again. And now with a faux leopard skin scarf wrapped around his top hat. As I come around the corner, he catches my eye, takes a long draw on the Ballantine bottle and takes off. If this is going to be a relationship, it will not be easy.  The steps are littered with pull top can lids, roll your own butts and gobs of spit. It will  be interesting to see what happens as the weather warms. And the last two days, it’s been much warmer outside than in. The insides hold the cold in an embrace that won’t let go. 
A woman approaches, harried. “Mister, mister...” she says. “A man up there in a black car, taking  my picture. Why? I don’t know why. Why he do that? I say to him, why you take my picture? You can no do that.  I tell him I call the police...” “Ok, where?” I say, “You want me to go talk to him?”  “No, he lef...but why he do that? You can no take a picture to me without I give can no do that. It’s not right...” ‘You’re right,” I say. “It’s not right. Not without your permission. You did the right thing.” She seems relieved. Walks on.
Breakfast with Ruth Messinger. Former Manhattan Borough President. Former mayoral candidate. Former city council member from this neighborhood. She goes way back with West-Park. Held election rallies there. I need her to talk to our current council member. Offer to help get support to build the structure to get our heat on and create a sustainable future. And to lend her name to our 100th anniversary committee. She’s now Executive of the American Jewish World Service. We share a lot of commitments globally, in New Orleans, AIDS, women’s empowerment. She’s glad to say yes. 

Late in the day, I walk by. The man in the top hat is still there. And the warm weather has brought Marty out again. He’s talking again, too. “Reverend, you don’t dress so good for a clergy man. You know my father, he had blue suede shoes and wore a stetson with a blue band with little white ducks on it. He was a sharp dressing  man.”  A young Orthodox Jew in his suit and fedora walks by, sees Marty. Walks over, puts some dollar bills in his hand. “Good shabbes,” he says. And they talk. The young Orthodox man talks about leap year and how it affects Purim and does Marty know.  Marty says of course he knows that. “And of course you always do,” says the young man.”” I learned it all from my father, the rabbi. He never went to school. An old rebbe on the Lower East side said you sleep under my roof for 30 days. If on the 31st you answer the questions I ask you right, I will give you a smicha. (Ordination) And he did. And that’s how he started. What do you think of that , Reverend?” “It’s a good story.” The sun is setting as I go to leave. We wish each other a good evening. 
The Taco Truck with its name in neon lights is on the corner of Broadway. The street side has a dramatic painting of an  Aztec Indian above a young woman stretched out on a rock. A lake and mountains in the background behind them. And of course, the Virgin of Guadalupe in the upper right hand corner, observing the scene. And perhaps also the street. 
The Saigon Grill workers are out in force. With banners. "Stop sweatshop restaurants NOW!" And chants. "Boy-cott Sai-gon Grill, Boy-cott  Sai-gon Grill. Po-der o-brer-o, po-der o-brer-o."
The weather is getting warmer. 

For the love of God, sir, just go

It’s sunny and warm, almost 60 degrees as I open the doors. A dramatic person is sitting on the steps. Lean and tall, wrapped in a colorful blanket/poncho, walking stick at his side. Lean face,full beard looking like the skinny version of Dick Gregory. A bandana around his head and a top hat on top of that. Looking like a tribal dignitary from somewhere. I’ve seen him around the neighborhood before, just never on our steps.  I sweep around him and approach. “How you doing,” I ask. What follows is a torrent of words, anxious and incomprehensible. I lean forward, ask him again. I’m able to pick up, “Well, thanks to Jesus, well...” I tell him I’m having trouble understanding him. Another torrent follows. All I can hear is “Just go, sir,leave. For the love of God, sir, please leave ...” Eyes darting back and forth, anxious. “Don’t worry, it’s ok,” I say. “For the love of God, sir, just go...” I back off slowly. Take my broom, dust pan and plastic trash  back inside, close and lock the door. I will go, leave him in peace. As I walk by, he reaches under his poncho and brings out a quart of Ballantine ale. Looks left and right, takes a deep drink....

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Not going to happen

Cold again. Deacon James and I decide to split the duty today. He does the front and I do 86th Street. Wonder why it’s always worse, if the crosstown street is like a canyon for the wind. As I sweep, I’m thinking about the people in Egypt, the women, sweeping Tahrir Square after the departure of Mubarak.  How that simple act defined dignity, ownership of the process. Just like every day I do this, I feel that much more connected to this place. Like it would be that much harder to give up. Someone calls to talk about a wedding. The weight of accumulated projects, lack of progress feels heavy, as is my concern that our friends don’t start to burn out. This feels like midwinter. Midwinter. 
I leave Housing Court to come and take care of the church.  I take off my collar to do the sweeping.Then I’ll have go back. Realized quickly this morning that this, court,  would become my day. Went there, clergy collar and all, to support a member. He’s been in this apartment for 22 years. Disability payments from his brain injury pick up part of the rent, roommates picked up the rest. Then the roommates disappeared, months unpaid.  The landlord allowed the back rent to accumulate to build a case for eviction. So the apartment could be freed from rent stabilization and rise to market rate. 
We Americans are proud of our court system, the “rule of law,” as we call it. Cornerstone of democracy, we believe. But everytime I come here, I see again how at the bottom level, it is as my member calls it, kafkaesque. The line to pass through security downstairs. My metal overcoat buttons get me a closer inspection. The line waiting to get into each room. The disproportionate number of poor people and people of color in every courtroom. Court appointed attorneys wandering though the room calling out names of clients they’ve never met, stacks of case file folders in their arms. Waiting to make an appearance. Court officers enforcing the no hat, no cell phone rules. Late arriving judge with no robe. 
The attorney for the landlord calls us out into the hall. Searches through his stack of files.  We’ve got no attorney. The social worker argues well. Maybe a deal can be made. The attorney calls the landlord. He shakes his head. “Not going to happen,” he says. We’re going to have to come back in the afternoon. The social worker asks me what it might be like working 8 hours a day to put people out of their homes. 
Back in the courtroom an 89 year old man with a walker, an attendant and a thick eastern european accent is arguing with the judge. The judge is occasionally sympathetic, more often annoyed and condescending. The old man, like all of us, has an internal sense of what justice should be. “I know what you want,” says the judge. Then like the attorney before him, says,"not going to happen.” The old man argues some  more. Then gives up. “You do to me like the Nazis did,” he says, defeated. It was like he had dropped an f-bomb.
I race back downtown to get there before the 2 o’clock start up time. It’s more like 2:45 before it resumes and 4pm before our case is called. The judge starts out thinking its a simple case of  unpaid rent, nothing else relevant. The social worker begins to explain the complexity. All the efforts we have made. The judge asks who I am. I explain that I’m the pastor. He allows me to remain in front of the bench. She explains the effects of short term memory loss. How a move to a new neighborhood could be problematic, if not dangerous. She offers a solution. The judge looks at the attorney. The attorney shrugs. “Not going to happen,” the judge says. The social worker requests an evaluation by Adult Protective Services. The judge mulls this over. “You’re in a bad situation,” he says. “You’ve got no attorney, but your social worker has done a yeoman’s job. Your pastor has come down to be with you all day. That speaks well as to what kind of person you are. OK, we’ll get a APS report. Come back on March 23rd.”
Leaving the courtroom, the APS man approaches. Arms overflowing with file folders. Rich African accent. Takes quick notes. “OK, OK” he says. Tells us he’ll set up the evaluation. Motions us away.
Outside the courtroom, my member says, “I stopped taking it personally long ago.” We talk about Frankl. About how we can’t always change what happens to us but we can choose how we respond. How we understand its meaning. “ I know it’s hard because you experience it personally,” I say.  “Yes, but I don’t let it define who I am,” he says. We leave the court, ready to take the train back to the upper west side. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Valentine's Day: Boiler. Pigeons. Roof.

Valentine’s Day.  After services yesterday, we gathered on the steps  to make a Valentine’s Day picture to post and say we love our church.Warm and sunny. Almost 50. Until the sun  goes down and the wind picks up. John calls late in the day. He’s with the Woodshed Theatre Collective at the church. There’s more water damage. So I head there. Sure enough, in the northwest corner, more plaster has fallen and there’s a growing puddle on the sanctuary floor. There had been a pile of plaster there before that had been swept up during our clean up day. But it’s clear that the heavy snow that has been on the roof is starting  to melt. This can only get worse. Can we use the money at the Landmarks Conservancy for this? Boiler. Pigeons. Roof.

Choose life

We  are slow gathering today.  A visitor has arrived looking for a service. She regularly sings at Lafayette Avenue Church in  Brooklyn, a vital church where my friend David Dyson (another Pittsburgh guy) is pastor. She’s got a Sunday off and is out to see what’s  in her neighborhood. I know that Jim and Holly are over at Jan Hus today to hear Janie Spahr, one of the early leaders of the More Light movement that grew from West-Park across the country and across denominations.  Oh, and Janie began her ministry as an urban pastor in Pittsburgh. (See a pattern here?)  
I grow increasingly anxious that this might be that day, the day I fear more than any other when no one will show up.  When a bank of lights go out and I can’t seem to find the right circuit breaker, I’m about ready to give up. But the lights come on, the people come and we’re ready for worship.  
Andre chants the psalm in his improvised  jazz style and  we respond. The scriptures are read. 
There’s much to talk about.  it’s been quite a week. An inspiring moment in Egypt. In eighteen days, a dictator overthrown. The people did it. No one else. Not the military, not the US, the people...Although we don’t know what comes next, the way in which this revolution was fought and won gives hope for Egypt’s future and inspiration for people everywhere.
Voting continued in Presbyteries this week to reverse the part of our Book of Order that effectively has been used to exclude  lgbt  people from ordination at every  level of our ecclesiastical life. For the first time ever the  yes votes  are in the majority. Only by 5, 34-29, and there are still 110 to go, but it is a promising  moment, a hopeful moment. I ask the congregation that if any one has Presbyterian friends in other parts of the country that haven’t voted yet, now’s the time to call. I point to the rainbow flag hanging from the balcony. Remind the congregation of our legacy. This time the struggle can be won. 
This week my friend David Bos. of Louisville died. He had been a founder of  the Community Ministries and Neigborhood Organizations and later Presbyterian Association for Community Transformation national networks. He was a true pioneer in ecumenical community ministry. And he almost singlehandedly led the denomination into support for single payer healthcare leading to a series of workshops all across the country to increase understanding and support for just healthcare. And David was a friend of ours. Every time he came to New York City he would worship with us,through good times and bad. Last fall he was with us to give us support in our new project. He will be missed.
The framework for what I have to say is the quote from Deuteronomy 30:  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. It come from the almost the end of Torah..The children of Israel are standing at the edge of the promised land. It’s as if after 40 years, God is asking them one more time, are you ready? Really ready?
Choose life. This quote was a motto of the nuclear freeze movement back in the 80’s. I pointed to the two balconies  and remembered how the 1982 march against nuclear proliferation was planned right here, within these walls. And over  a million people marched in New York City in support of the Second UN Special Session on Nuclear Disarmament.
The passage can be dangerous. On the one hand, it can be misread can as a  prosperity gospel. All that equating life/prosperity, death/adversity. It’s all about following other gods. We do that all the time. I told them of my conversation with the mad prophet on the street last week. How all sins flow out of that first one.
For me, what brought this passage to concrete reality was  9-11.. When we served there as a congregation and toured those smoldering acres of death and destruction in a Stygian landscape. I realized that this is the basic choice we must make life? or death?  My clergy group last Wednesday had debated, can we really choose? Traditional reformed theology would argue that even our capacity to choose is  a function of grace...and yet.....As I’ve reread Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I realize again the importance of our choices. So for others, I’ll grant grace and not judge, for myself, my community, it will be the power and capacity to make choices. 
For we do make choices. We chose not to sell. We chose to remain here. We chose to come back heat or no heat. And we choose to be here every Sunday. It’s about choosing life. The classic Hebrew toast? L’haim. How do we cheer in Spanish?

That’s the context in which I look at the Gospel, Matthew 5: 21-37. It’s a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. This year, because of our long Epiphany season, it’s the longest longest stretch we ever have with the Sermon on the Mount..(Pastor Drummond at West End told us of a friend that preached on it for a whole year.) It’s about a community in 70 CE trying to figure out how to live after fall of the Temple. And I’m convinced that for Jesus, it was part of his project to make the  Jubilee real. (Jubilee in the Torah every 7 times 7 plus 1 years forgive all debts, restore everyone to community and begin again.)
I remind them that Jesus is speaking to disciples, people who have already made a commitment. Jesus looks at tradition, then ups the ante. For him, the Law is all about the heart of the matter.
Want to talk about murder? Even anger harms. I’ve seen in communities how  anger can be used to  intimidate, to push the other around. It’s  also good to admit that sometimes anger is exactly the appropriate response.  And we need to acknowledge it, own it, or it can devour us. The issue is not denying it or even controlling it, but learning to actively manage it.
The need for reconciliation? Especially  before communion? Can you imagine what that might be like? If you had to leave the table and go be reconciled with someone before sharing in the eucharist? Hope and I were all day in a Presbytery “reconciliation” process yesterday. It’s hard work. Necessary, but hard. 
Talk about divorce?  In Jesus’ day, this was an issue about community, (divorce still impacts our community life today) and justice. The issue at stake  here is economic justice, so that women would not abandoned, driven to the margins. 
This is all in the context of Jesus’ use of  hyperbole. This is an answer to those who say they take the Bible literally. (But there are reports that some actually  do do this.) Why only right eye?  The right arm? Do we assume that if the left causes you to sin it’s ok? 
As for lust in the heart, it’s about objectification. Remember Jimmy Carter? How this admission affected him? Still, I’m going to come down on the side of choice again. It does make a difference. Like anger, feeling it is not at issue. What matters is what you do with it. 
We know how the world is. What Jesus gives us is a vision of something better.....a vision we can work towards. 
Finally, we need to let our yes be yes and our no be no....whose word can  be counted on. And both what we say yes to and what we say no to are important. And sometimes we have to say no to get to yes. And in all these choices, it’s about choosing life.
Marsha reminds people of the need to give, to get 100% members giving to show our commitment to our own life, and to meet our challenge grant. And we make plans for the afternoon IAF Assembly. 
Andre leads us in a version of kum ba ya that brings the song out of the world of cynical reference and back to its powerful South African roots. It rises from the bottom up.
As usual, when  the doors are open, after services there are  visitors who want to see the church.  So I do my best enthusiastic tour guide . I’m still amazed by the  number who say they’ve lived here all these years and never been inside. Opening that front door is a basic necessity. When  they ask where the money will come from, I say politicians who’ve made  promises. Com   nunity groups that have made promises And people just like you.
Time to lock up and head home.
Later that afternoon, I swing by the church in my van. Marsha and Deacon James are waiting for me on the steps. We’ll swing by 78th and pick up Arcadia and Hope and be  off to East New York for the Assembly.  We’ll go to St. Paul's Baptist, the church made famous by Johnny Ray Youngblood in Upon this Rock, where the Nehemiah Houses were born. Where faith based community organizing turned a neighborhood around. We’ll join with over a thousand others to hear Senator Schumer and Congressperson Weiner promise  to join us in the fight to preserve Social Security as it is and improve the  system's responsiveness. And new schools’ Chancellor Kathy Black promise to meet with us within two weeks to further our agenda for more just public education. And on the way home, we’ll talk about how we could get our own council member to a greater level of public accountability. It all begins with relationships. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

All the pieces to the puzzle are there

I’ve just about finished  and am back inside the church when Deacon James pops his head in. “Hey, you’re taking my job away,” he says with a smile. “Well, someone’s got to do it,” I say back, smiling too. I notice he’s wearing a  Steeler stocking cap. “Well at least you’ve got the right team,” I say. “They made it to the  Superbowl, still a good season,” he says. When I go to open the door for Bernardo and Jennifer from El Taller, I see James is out front, working on the edges.
El Taller is a Latin American cultural and education center further north on Broadway in what was once an “automat” restaurant. They share the building with Casa Puebla, a Mexican consulate for that state located here because  of the number of Poblanos that have moved into the neighborhood. (Doubling the number of  Catholics in the last ten years. Pastor  Heidi Neumark of Trinity Lutheran  has  also  done great outreach and somehow combined Mexican immigrants with runaway lgbt youth and others for a vibrant congregation.)
Bernardo is a large bear of a man with a husky Argentine accent. He’s the founder. Jennifer is an artist but also handles the business end of Taller. Several years ago, we did a concert series with El Taller that ran almost a year, every Friday and Saturday night. The best of contemporary Latin American music from Afro-Peruvian pop to Argentine fado to Puerto Rican punk to classic latin big band and Gipsy King style flamenco all filled the walls of West-Park with sound.Jennifer had staged an art exhibit in the balcony.  We took back control of the theatre to do this programming. We turned the stage into a space with small tables with tea light  candles and a wine bar. Some of the acts did very well, some not so well. Part of the issue was advertising. Another part? Not sure. The momentum, the synergy, we had hoped to create hadn’t happened. But this  series was another inspiration for the vision of The Centre we are working to create.
As we tour the building, they feel good to be back in it again. Bernardo shakes his head at the beauty of the acoustics. “You know,” he says, “the sound here is perfect. Rich and warm. You don’t find that everywhere. There are no more big studios in Manhattan. They’ve all gone to Jersey. You could do a whole recording business here. Even live concert recordings. Two groups actually did live concert recordings here and another singer did an album with the help of Reginaldo,” (Regi was my former Associate Pastor. He had done major work on the whole series.) “it could be great.” 
We walk through the building and over and over again they’re excited by the size, the beauty of  the space. Like other artists who’ve been through water damaged Mc Alpin Hall, Jennifer says, “I’d use it just as is.” We finish the tour, sit down to talk.
“Have you thought about going green?” asks Jennifer. And I smile. Talk about Amanda’s connection with the City’ s new head of sustainability. How he was here for an event in December. Our meeting with the City’s Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, author of Green Deen, a Muslim approach to the environment. How we’ve dreamed of this as a model green urban redevelopment project. And of the urban green special high school at Brandeis down the street.  The partnership possibilities. And Jennifer talks about their vision. Complete with drawings of what an urban space could  be. Photovoltaic panels, hydroponic possibilities. There are architects ready to volunteer to do this as a model. The issue is they don’t control their space. 
By the time we’ve finished talking about transformational work with immigrants , creative approaches to working with AIDS, Freirian-style  language education I know our visions match. Like other creative ventures, El Taller too has struggled with money. Especially in this economy. But they’ve also survived for 32 years. 
Deacon James pops in again. “While you’re busy talking I’ve been busy doing the 86th Street side.” “Good,” I say, “it’s been getting a little trashy. Someone had to do it.” I really enjoy that we do this together. “See you in church on Sunday,” he says.
Bernardo, Jennifer and I agree to meet two weeks from now for further discussions. This conversation reminds  me why I get excited. And anxious. All the pieces to the puzzle are there, lying on the floor. The issue is putting them all together. In time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

It's all math

As I’m sweeping, I see a man walk up the steps and look into the church. He comes back down and approaches. Lean, rangy. Short, gray hair and neat beard. Plaid shirt buttoned at the neck. And that wild mad prophet look in his eyes. “They serve meals in there?”  he says.
“No, we’ve been closed. No heat...there’s food down the street, at the Methodist church.” 
“What kind of church is this?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Well, Protestant.”
“That’s the devil’s work, all that division, dividing Christ like that.”
(I’m almost ready to agree with him.)
“It’s all about the first commandment, thou shalt have no other gods before you, it’s all false pride, I’m right, you’re wrong, it’s all in scripture, I keep right here, close to my heart,” he taps his chest, “it’s the only thing I have left, they can’t take away. Every sin, every sin, comes from that first one. From Adam on down. Trying to be like God, know right from wrong. False pride, my friend, false pride.”
I’d like to tell him that I once preached a sermon on that, how all the commandments follow from the first, all sins a form of idolatry. But I can tell I’m not going to get a word in edgewise. 
And then he’ s off.  Quoting Peter Stoner (‘How ‘bout that name?” he says.) in Science Speaks, with a forward by “famous scientist” H. Harold Hartzler and inevitably to Josh Mc Dowell’s More than a Carpenter.  The 60 prophecies fulfilled by Jesus. The odds of one man fulfilling all these being 1 in 10 to the 157th power. The state of Texas covered knee deep in silver dollars, a blindfolded man finding one marked silver dollar. “It’s all mathmatics, my friend. All math. The only true science. The rest is opinion. If you haven’t read Mc Dowell, you don’t know nothin’.” I’m receiving a five minute rapid fire seminar on the evidentiary evangelical literalist apologetic.
“Every word true, my friend,” he taps his chest, “it’s all math.” He’s talking faster and faster, now off onto becoming a sovereigned citizen. “It’s a fact. Like diplomatic immunity. You can do anything you want. Except murder or treason. Anyone can do it. But if you do, they’ll conspire against you. Oppress you. Come out to get you...” I’m trying to imagine him in a dialogue with George. He’s leaning right into my face.
“Excuse me,” another voice says. “Can you tell me the way to St.Luke’s hospital?” I’m thankful for the interruption. I begin to tell him how to get there from here. The Prophet says, “All right then, my friend. I’ll be on my way. Next time. You’ll see, it’s all math.” And he’s on his way.
“Sorry for the interruption,” the second man says, “but maybe I saved you.” I consider the irony of that statement and repeat my directions to St. Luke’s.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mark Koenig, our national Presbyterian UN person at the corner on his cell phone. The buzz in my pocket says he’s calling me. I greet him. Take him inside for a tour of the church. Then take him next door to Barney Greengrass for coffee and conversation.
Mark shares my Pittsburgh roots. Years of experience in international peace causes. I share with him our vision for the Centre. A place where we can explore these issues. Bring people together for exploration, collaboration. How we could work together. He’s getting ready for the annual meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. He’s taken by the vision, what it could be. That’s the issue, moving from what it could be to actually being. Before those who can see the vision get worn out.
Later, John and I meet to prepare for our meeting with Susan from Housing Works. And our neighbor Susan. Financial issues have arisen. The economics are hard right  now. Still, the project seems right. And we need this kind of anchor to have any chance at all of making it work. We pass through a difficult moment. Then agree to meet to continue to come up with a proposal that might work. John is working hard on the numbers. It’s all math.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Herculean task

Today is so cold, bits of trash soaked in this week’s rain are frozen solid to the sidewalk.  I decide to move my office down 86th to Starbuck’s for awhile.
First there’s Jim W. A long time member of the church. He was a loyal follower of my old predecessor Bob Davidson.  Jim worked at the front desk during the ’80’s;  the peak of the explosion of homeless on the streets and the crack epidemic in our neighborhood. He had backed Bob’s plan to leave 86th Street and merge with Rutgers church down at 73rd. Back in ‘94. And when the plan failed to be approved by a 55-45% margin at West-Park after Rutgers had approved it by the same margin, Jim and his wife Carol elected to stay at West-Park instead of joining the exodus of leaders who went to  Rutgers anyways. The struggle had been bitter. And personal.
Jim had been one of the funding members of our Men’s Spirituality and Writing Group which had emerged out of work John Hudson had previously done with our congregation. It continues, in some form, until today. Jim had a way with crisp, dry prose in short stories that read like late ’50’s New Yorker. 
Losing his wife Carol after all those years had been very hard on him. They had kept each other going. She had been an Elder and the most generous of people in every sense. Together they were our congregation’s delegates to the Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness. Given his history with the pro-merger group, he’s been skeptical, to say the least, about our vision of bringing the church back where it is. I felt good about moving him from out and out rejection of our plan as crazy to being able to describe it as a Herculean task and express support for me in that process. 
In fact, the purpose of today’s meeting is to work on a grant to go to his  aunt to secure funding for our boiler project. His effort to do this despite  his deep questions about the project speak to his faithfulness. We spend the time working on  revising the proposal. I’m very thankful  for his stepping forward on this.
While I’m finishing with Jim, Jimmy arrives. He came to worship two weeks ago looking for some place else, but felt “God led him to us.” His face is warm, expressive and open and I’m not surprised he had  a career in the hospitality industry, working in managerial capacities at hotels all over the world, in Egypt, England, Spain and Germany. He’s from an AMEZ background and carries some of that sprit with him, though he sees God as bigger than any of our understanding  and that every house of worship is God's home.  It comes to me that his skills  could be very helpful in our 100th anniversary celebration. He seems to be  excited by the idea.  Later, I think that I need to remember to tell him what an important concept hospitality is in the Bible. 
Finishing up in the church, Hope and I talk. Our pressing the Interim Executive Presbyter on the insurance issue seems to have gotten some attention. He seems ready to help. 
Maybe we made some progress today. But Jim is still right. The church, the Centre, the whole project---it is a Herculean task.   

This stuck place

The wind feels like a March day in February. As I go to unlock the door, I finger the broken stub of a key that unlocked the gates. I remember that when I went to throw it away, Amanda said, “No, don’t. You  need a reminder of  what it was like to have those gates up, what it felt like when they came down. Keep it with you.” While sweeping the steps, someone tosses an empty orange juice box my way. What’s up with that? Trash accumulating on the 86th Street side. I’m going to have to deal with that, but for now I’ll focus on the big stuff. 
An older woman approaches, “Me perdon, esta usted hispano?” I simply say, “Que necesita mi hermana?” It turns out she’s looking for a particular grocery store. It’s ten blocks to the north. She’s come to ochentayseis  instead of noventayseis. I point her in the right direction. “Gracias, pepito,” she says as she leaves. 
I hear the voice of  one of my members, a single mother. “ Bob,what are you doing with a broom?” “Sweeping, “ I say. “I do this every day, have to keep the place clean.” She needs diapers for her child. It’s a difficult time, jobs hard to come by.  I offer her a personal check, but that won’t work. Western Union only cashes business checks. It will take another visit to get what she needs. Her frustration as she hangs on the edge grows harder.
I meet with Tom and Susan at Popovers, two doors down. The agenda starts with the boiler, getting new estimates, quotes. And continues with trying to break the logjam with the community groups offering assistance in return for promises not to contest landmarking and why we simply can’t do that. They seem to agree, want to help. Now to move the politicians...This stuck place around the boiler has to end for anything to flow freely. It’s slowing momentum. 
I look out the window seeing Deacon Linda on her way to volunteer again. 
The temperature will continue to drop all day long.