Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Letter from Japan


This letter from Japan was read in our worship service last Sunday.

Subject: Blessings

 Hello My Lovely Family and Friends,

 First I want to thank you so very much for your concern for me. I am very touched. I also wish to apologize for a generic message to you all. But it seems the best way at the moment to get my message to you.

 Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend's home. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful.

 During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets.
Utterly amazingly where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an earthquake strikes. People keep saying, "Oh, this is how it used to be
 in the old days when everyone helped one another."

 Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens are constant and helicopters pass overhead often.

 We got water for a few hours in our homes last night, and now it is for half a day. Electricity came on this afternoon. Gas has not yetcome on. But all of this is by area. Some people have these things,
 others do not. No one has washed for several days. We feel grubby, but there are so much more important concerns than that for us now. I love  this peeling away of non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of caring, of what is needed for survival, not  just of me, but of the entire group.
 There are strange parallel universes happening. Houses a mess in some places, yet then a house with futons or laundry out drying in the sun. People lining up for water and food, and yet a few people out walking their dogs. All happening at the same time.

 Other unexpected touches of beauty are first, the silence at night. Nocars. No one out on the streets. And the heavens at night are scattered with stars. I usually can see about two, but now the whole
 sky is filled. The mountains over Sendai are solid and with the crisp air we can see them silhouetted against the sky magnificently.

 And the Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, no.

 They tell us we can expect aftershocks, and even other major quakes, for another month or more. And we are getting constant tremors, rolls, shaking, rumbling. I am blessed in that I live in a part of Sendai
that is a bit elevated, a bit more solid than other parts. So, so far this area is better off than others. Last night my friend's husband came in from the country, bringing food and water. Blessed again.
 Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I felt so small because of all that is happening. I don't. Rather, I feel as part of something happening that much
 larger than myself. This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent.

 Thank you again for your care and Love of me,

 With Love in return, to you all,

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Third Sunday in Lent: We have moved back

Sunny. But still below freezing. Nearing the steps, it’s apparent someone was sick here last night.
As I go to the door to unlock, three people are walking behind me. An older couple, a young adult man. I hear someone say, “So is this a church?” and someone else answers, “well we’ll know when we look  at the signs...” So I turn around, smile and say “yes it is a church an we’re open at 11.” And as we turn the corner and start down 86th, I tell them our story. They are from Chicago, the young man relocating to our neighborhood. They comment about the lines at the restaurants, I joke about brunch vs. church. They tell me they’re catholics and got their mass in yesterday. So I tell them about my friend, my parish priest, Father John Duffell at Ascension Church. And his monthly martini mass. (First Sunday every month, 6 PM) I reach the door. They say thanks. We shake hands. 
Holly comes up the steps as I’m beginning to sweep, her arms filled with choir robes and other Christian Ed materials that had been left at SPSA. Our move back day has begun. From up the street I hear “pastor Bob” and look up and see Brian Taylor. He promised me he’d come here when he was back. 
He asks what he can do to help. I send him to see Holly. He’s quickly back. “Listen” he says “you should let me do that. You need to be getting ready for worship.” I explain that for me, it’s a kind of spiritual discipline. “yes, I know, so give me a chance, ok?” I always enjoy his boyish enthusiasm.  So I let him take over and he does all of 86th Street. 
I greet Deacon Linda on her way from before church grocery shopping. I notice someone is taking pictures of our Lenten signs and walk over to see who it is. And realize it’s Uli. I invite everyone inside. It’s time to begin. I introduce Uli. And Brian. Recall how he’s been Winky the Clown, Santa Claus, and even Spiderman but with us he’s just  Brian.  

Folks are a little slow in gathering. I start with remembering three obituaries from the week. We start with Elizabeth Taylor. What was your favorite movie? I ask. The answers come back: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and of course Cleopatra, Butterifield 8, and for me, the enigmatic Sandpiper with its Shadow of Your Smile. We each had our own favorite. But we lifted her up for her early advocacy for justice and compassion for people with AIDS. She opened the door for the rest if us to follow. 
And Geraldine Ferraro who opened another kind of door for women and elected officials. A door through which would walk both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. And finally, Lanford Wilson. I ask who can identify him and Brian answers right away. He was able to take the everyday language of the people and turn it into lyricism. From his Circle on the Square theatre came the Talley Trilogy, Angel’s Fall, the incandescent Burn This and Hot l Baltimore. That one play makes so clear his capacity to lift up the beauty, the sacredness of all of our lives, even in a seedy hotel. The Missouri he wrote about was an easy drive from Tulsa where my friends from the American Theatre Company introduced me to his work. We celebrate these lives, even as we celebrate the lives of these around us. 
I read a letter for Japan that my new friend has forwarded to me from Emiko Iinuma. Simply the personal experiences of one person, but filled with words about hope, cooperation, solidarity. I had to share it. 
The gospel story of Jesus and the woman at the well is so long, I divide it up, with non-traditional casting: Samantha as Jesus, Brian as the woman. And when the gospel is finished, I say that I’m about to step outside of myself. And I  sing Jesus Met the Woman at the Well...

I remember Peter, Paul and Mary singing this song. There’s a video on Youtube, Mary rocking, flicking her head to keep the bangs out of her eyes. (Yes, I am old....) But as with most of their songs, it didn’t begin with them. Online I found recordings by the Alabama Singers, Dave Van Ronk, Ian and Sylvia, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Pilgrim Travelers, and my personal favorite , the Swan Silvertone Singers. Must be something about that story...
Today is the third Sunday in  Lent.
And Friday was the 100th Anniversary of Triangle Shirt Waist fire.  Uli, Katherine, Andrea and I went Friday night to a performance of a new work, From the Fire. About that fire. The victims were women,  all immigrants . They spoke Yiddish and Italian. Some were as  young as 15, two even 14,  the oldest only 48.The tragedy  led to lots of changes, child labor, fair labor, etc.  But far too much is sadly the same.
Today the immigrants  are speaking Spanish, Chinese....
I can’t help but wonder:  what sermon was preached here right in this place that Sunday 100 years ago?What did they think, feel, say?  And down in the Labor Temple?  On Union Square. How did they respond? What was the conversation in its neighborhood? This neighborhood?  This is the context in which our church was born.
Lot of images of water this week. In Japan, I learned from our friend Takako, children under four can’t drink. the water. So what if your child is four? And yesterday they declared the tap water unsafe. And as Emiko reminded me, so with water,so with vegeatables: spinach, lettuce, broccoli..the whole food supply has been compromised...So Emiko and her friends are are gathering non-perishable food items to send to Japan.
And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the control of water is almost as important as the settlement issue. On one  side of the wall are irrigated fields and swimming pools. on the other, parched gardens. 
Water.  Meanwhile, in Exodus, in the wilderness,people getting impatient..Freedom hasn’t brought them what they expected. At least back in Egypt, back in slavery, there was certainty. Can you relate? And so they grumble...
"Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"
And Moses’ lament. Most of us  pastors understand.. Which one of us, at some point or another, has not felt what shall I do with these people? They are just about ready to stone me..Been there.
And so Moses is instructed to strike the rock.(I always thought that was strange, with God on it?) So in Psalm 95 that we Andre chanted, the  rock of salvation is not about solidness, but about the source of water. Living 
Marsha, Luis and the table

Luis, Alma and Marsha
In light of our struggles Romans 5:3 give me pause. 
 ... but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Well, yes...but sometimes, no. Two people, two children of the same family, same neighborhood, same parents, same family life and yet....radically different lives,lived, experienced...Suffering can also  wear us  down, wear us out...
It’s back to Frankl again, his book I’ve been reading this Lent  ....Man’s Search for Meaning..Like I told my son Nate a couple of weeks ago, very few things have inherent meaning of and to themselves. They take the meaning we give to them. We choose, (though our tradition would tell us some can’t)....
As we’ve talked about before, hope is not optimism. HOPE is radical.One of our touchstones in this congregation comes from Jim Wallis and what he has to say about hope, that hope is to have faith despite the evidence and the courage to work to make the evidence change.
So now we come to Jesus and the woman:  water again...Some say that the whole story is a parable. That the five husbands symbolize who had occupied Samaria, who they intermarried with. And this new one is Rome...That it reflects on the conflict between Jews and Samaritans.That grew out of a divided kingdom. Different worship mountains. Different cultures. Prejudices. Politics...
But all I’m interested in is the story of Jesus and the woman. Just like the all those singers of the song. It’s elements are  set up like a classic courtship story. Like Jacob, like Moses. You see an attractive woman at a well. You ask her to draw you some water. If she does, it’s on.
What surprises her is that he sees her as she is, not as how she presents  herself. And he sees her as who she could be. She sees that he knows her. And she calls him a prophet.This shows that she is on a  journey. it’s not an epiphany, an all in one shot getting it, it’s a process. We move from the season of epiphany into the season of Lent, the season of  journey. 
In this season I notice that Jesus’ food is to do God’s we are on our journey, may we be fed in the same way. By seeking to act, to be who we are called to be. 
And as we move towards the celebration of our hundredth anniversary, we think of those who came before. May they go with us too on this journey...
Andre sings Rock of Ages. And we all sing Guide My Feet. As we gather around the table for our final blessing, I give Brian and Uli pieces of the building that have fallen off this week. Uli is very touched. Will put it on his desk. Like my Berlin stone. 
A young couple with a child comes in. Wants to know about the story. The woman is interested in offering health screening services. 
It’s time to move back. We gather and walk together down to SPSA remembering the day we left. Brian has a brunch date but plugs in the vacuum and cleans before he leaves. 
We’ve got quite a crew. Luis and his van. Marsha. Pat and her husband Larry.   Alma. The girls, Jamie and Amanda. Just about everyone. (Hope has gone to join the Saigon Grill picket line.) Luis loads the communion table, the biggest  symbol of our life in diaspora, at the center of every worship in our SPSA space, onto a dolly. And Marsha and I pull it back up the street. Ahead I see the girls struggling with a file cabinet on wheels. One has come off. At every intersection, random people appear to help us with the move. 
Finally we are done. We turn the communion table upright, wheel it into place in the center of the sanctuary. Read the carved  Do This in Remembrance of Me on the front. 
We did it. We have moved back. Not exactly as we imagined it. But we are home. Every day like this, I believe, in spite of the evidence.  I hope.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sixteenth day of Lent: Never cross a picket line

Day trip to DC to lead workshop. Sign on wall in men’s room at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church: Bathing and shaving are not allowed in the restroom...
Uli and Bob
I leave a Presbytery meeting in Brooklyn Heights and hop on the 2 train to get to the Saigon Grill workers’ rally. My friend Uli meets me there. And Pastor Heidi Neumark of Trinity Lutheran as well.  It’s actually turning  into a movement to create a sweatshop free zone on the Upper Westside. The restaurant owners decided to close for the day. Although they do have counter pickets. 
Of course, the politicians are here. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal. State Senator Tom Duane.  Latino elected officials. Representatives of various Democratic  neighborhood organizations. Local business people. Including my favorite, Juan Campos, of Mama Mexico.  Sr. Campos is not only a business person but a man of faith. He’s part of the Mexican Puebla community that has made the Upper Westside a Poblano diaspora.  He has quietly flown bodies of poblanos who have died in New York back to Puebla, back to their tierra. He speaks with quiet dignity and clarity, “No restaurant has to make a profit on the backs of its workers,” he says, “there is no excuse to oppress workers, especially immigrants. I am an immigrant myself.” He has supported everything we have ever done regarding the homeless. 
Every speaker references the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. My friend, Pastor Heidi, wove a passionate metaphor around the image of fire. And ended  with the chant, un pueblo unido jamás será vencido.
And then it was my turn. This is what I said:
I am the pastor of West-Park Church. Just down Amsterdam. For months , I’ve been watching the strikers on my way to and from work. Every day, regardless of the weather.Sleet, snow, rain, freezing cold, they are there. I walk by. Express my support.  But one of my members said, isn’t it time to join them? So she’s been out here on the picket line, marching with the strikers. And now, I am here.
I grew up in Pittsburgh. There, the first golden rule was do unto others as you would have them do unto  you and love your neighbor as yourself. But the second golden rule was, never cross a picket line. 
That Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the victims were women. Immigrants. They spoke   Italian, Yiddish. Nothing changes. Today it’s Chinese and Spanish. There’s no such thing as an illegal alien, people sin papeles, without papers. There’s just workers. Human beings. All deserving of dignity. Of decent wages. And working conditions. 
A few weeks ago, we marched in solidarity with Wisconsin. I saw a great picture from Tahrir Square in Cairo. “Wisconsin we are with you,” it said, “one world, one pain.” Yes the issue we deal with is global. But actions start here, right here, with the Saigon Grill, with our neighborhood. What can you do? We all have businesses that are part of our  daily lives. The grocery store, the bodega. The dry cleaner. Go to them. Tell them you appreciate them. And want to keep shopping there. And ask them to sign the pledge. To simply agree to follow fair labor practices. That’s all. 
I’ve heard myself in translated into Spanish before. And the translator does a good job. But it’s my first time to hear myself translated into angry chinese. Sounds good. 
Re. Brashear, Pastor Heidi and Council Member Brewer

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fourteenth day of Lent: Nothing fancy

A thin layer of snow when I first go out. It’s a sunny day. The snow will be gone by noon. Not  trace of last night’s visitor. The steps are soaked with water from melting  snow and yesterday’s rains. 
I open the doors to wait for the plumber. Marty walks by, glances. Greets me with something between a salute and a wave. John from Mac Felder Plumbing arrives. He was in on the first failed attempts to get the boiler going again right after the burst pipe two years ago. He’s here to help us get hot water into  the bathrooms, boiler or no boiler. He checks out all the sinks. Tells me it’s pretty simple. Will make me a proposal. Says, confidentially, we need more restrooms. 
On the way out, he asks about the boiler. I tell him of the process of visits, evaluations, waiting for the bids. He grimaces a little. “Look,” he says,”the old one’s shot. You need a new one. But don’t let them talk you into something fancy. You don’t need it. A simple new cast iron boiler will do it. In  a week you can do it. That and the asbestos abatement. That’s all. Nothing fancy.” It’s not the boiler. But the hot water in the bathrooms is an important step along the way. 
I thank him. Close up the place. Later tonight, Hope and I and Uli will join the Saigon Grill workers. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thirteenth Day of Lent: Tomorrow night we will join them

Something between rain and snow today. Spring? March. A brand new pair of men’s checked pants, tag still attached. Completely soaked. And an empty paper bag. And some big new chunks of red sandstone from the building. And more red mud.
I welcome Emiko Iinuma into the church. She is the founder of the Harmonia opera company, the only Japanese opera company in the US. She is a dignified older woman with a look of deep pain. She has come to talk about organizing a benefit concert to raise money for Japan. 
Earlier today in my lectionary group, my friend Takako had spoken of the water crisis in Japan duel to the radiation. Babies and children under four not to drink the water. (But what if my child is four?) Ms. Iinuma takes it further.  Lettuce, spinach, broccoli, the rice fields, the whole vegetable  food supply compromised.  Tap water dangerous. She and her friends are gathering non-perishable food items to send to family. 
I think of the whole nuclear history with Japan beginning with the  horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A pacifist country under the nuclear shield of the US military. And now vulnerable nuclear power plants at risk of melt down. It’s a flashing warning light. Once again, the tsunami was nature, the disaster the result of human policy choices. 
We talk of her plans. She loves the acoustics. We agree to the benefit on June 3rd. It’s the kind of event we want to welcome. As we are talking, a young family enters the church and approaches. There’s a father and mother, a tow headed boy and a girl in a stroller. And of course, a story.
Come from Mt. Aerie, North Carolina (the real Mayberry)  for a new job. Presbyterian. (Of course.) Waiting for a money order at Western Union. Just need some help to feed the children. (He shows me hotel receipts.) Promises to pay me back. I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I still want to believe the stories I hear. I’ve been paid back, oh, maybe twice? I give him what I have. 
Bruce, Becca, Bryce and... Cammie. (OK, what happened there? I’m really an R, says Becca.)  I wish them well. See them out. This visit means we’re officially back.
At 1, I meet John and Ann Friedman from the Landmarks Conservancy. It’s time to start the plumbing and roof work. I have to run to be with  a member in housing court, again. Later, John will tell me that there’s multiple flooding in the building. A new leak. Emergency work needed. And John has neither hip boots or Wellingtons. 
Court is long. A judge who sincerely wants to help. Says my presence, in a collar, helps. (Always wear a collar to  court.) He’ll grant a delay. Can we do a concert? Raise some money? Keep him in his apartment? We have a chance. He’s a former Broadway star. Anxious to do  concert. 
Uli and I walk to the church in cold rain. He’s come from Germany. For over 10 years, he brought young people from Germany with the Fellowship of Reconciliation to stay at West-Park. To experience life in a truly multicultural, global city. To work in soup kitchens, homeless shelters. To worship with us and share our life. 
That relationship led to my visits to Berlin and later Duisberg. To the creation of a working partnership between church immigrant asylum workers in Germany and Arizona. No mas muertes in the desert, on the Mediterranean. An international day of commemoration for those who have died. (June 26). And ultimately to my son Micah moving from Edinburgh to Berlin. It’s part of my life. And the church’s life. 
Hope is there. We study the Belhar Confession, forged in the crucible of South African apartheidt in 1986. Now being voted on by Presbyteries for inclusion in our official Book of Confessions. It’s a powerful witness that cultures, languages, differences, are both opportunity and obligation for reconciliation and unity. That any practice that stands in the way of boundary crossing unity is sin. And that we have the mandate to pursue this unity, not just be passively tolerant of it. 
In its classic confession format of affirmation and rejection, Uli sees echoes of Barmen. That radical statement of the Confessing Church in the face of the Third Reich. And he’s right. Belhar is built on the foundation of Barmen. These reformed statements go to the heart of witness, of a social ethic, of lived faith.
As we leave, the combination of snow and freezing rain has made the streets treacherous. In the face of this weather, The Saigon Grill pickets are down to two Mexican and two Chinese workers. Hope has been walking the picket line with them. A movement is growing to get neighborhood stores and businesses to agree to an antisweatshop standard. To be a sweatshop free zone. There’s a meeting coming to plan a major rally for Saturday. Tomorrow night we will join them.
From the corner of my eye, I see someone approaching our steps. It’s our independent recycling entrepreneur. The one with the SUV shopping cart. When I go back to reclaim my cell phone, he’s all rolled up in a red down sleeping bag. Plastic bags of cans and bottles are piled to the top of the doorway. 
Esta bien? I ask. 
Si, he says.
Pero hace mucho frio esta noche.
Si pero estoy seguro en mi saco.
Bueno. Tenga cuidado, mi hermano.
I’ll look in on him tomorrow.