Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why don't you do something meaningful?

Two shopping carts again today. One completely filled with aluminum pans filled with pasta. This has to stop. Who is doing this?  Thankfully, neither is chained to the scaffolding so I wheel them both to the garbage cans and leave them there. 
John  and Ted come to my office to work on the business plan and budget of church and Centre. Key to the project will be the church’s own sense of its strategy for growth.  When John says that we can’t wait for a superman, I say that we’ve known that for a year. When we moved to come back, we took our own fate in our own hands, took responsibility  for ourselves. And have been reclaiming our space step by step, inch by inch. It also seems that our growth strategy will need to be another variation on the community of communities idea.  And John challenges me to go to the edge of radical theology. We changed from rebuild for rebirth to reborn for rebuilding. If we only can have the time....
Keisha comes in to talk about getting married. We talk about what the service might look like, then I show her the sanctuary. The sanctuary is still beautiful, but the church house, it’s rawness can be shocking. I’m wondering what she’s thinking. If she gets married here, it will be the first marriage in over three years. Something else I didn’t think I’d see again.
Outside on the steps, an older woman with a fine sun hat and umbrella approaches. Asks what’s going on with the church. I tell her our story. She tells me she’s Jamaica born, raised between there and London. Worked in international development. She has a lot of ideas for grass roots fundraising strategies. Bottom,  not top down. Her voice has that beautiful lilt to it, more British than Jamaican. I take her name. Hope that she will help.
Across the street from where I live is my favorite Mexican restaurant, Gabriela’s. This is one of those moments you dread, when  it’s a restaurant you really like that has its labor practices challenged. Age discrimination. Sexual harassment. Retribution. That’s what has drawn the demonstrators to the street today.  I have come at the invitation of my friends from the Justice Will Be Served campaign. Hope is passing out leaflets. 
Tracy, the organizer asks me to speak. I’m wearing my collar, ready to go. I speak about  how exciting it is to see the movement that’s growing block by block, restaurant by restaurant. One group of workers inspiring another. The way the movement has transcended race and language and culture. And how brave the women of Gabriela’s are to stand up and speak out, even at the risk of retribution. How they deserve honor and respect, even as every worker deserves the dignity of their labor and a decent wage. And how our neighborhood can become the first sweatshop free zone in the city. 
Gabriela's workers
Trabajadores unidos, jamas sera vencidos. 

Tracy, Hope, Bob

Tracy wants to know more abut what it was like to grow up in Pittsburgh while the steel industry crashed. And the steelworkers with them. 

As I’m speaking with Tracy and Hope, a later middle aged white man is taking our photographs. He wants to know what my collar's made of paper? 
No, I say, actually it’s made of plastic. 
So why would you wear a plastic collar?
 Because pressed linen is too expensive.
Why don’t you do something meaningful, like something about immigration rights?
Hope says that we do, Does he want to join us?
No. We need an amnesty act. And you need to stop causing trouble for someone just trying to give people jobs, make a living...

OK. This is weird. Tracy is just a bit anxious...he takes some more pictures and goes away. 
Back at the church, Danielle is in the balcony. RL and Dave the sound guy from P & G have ridden in like the cavalry to see if they can rescue our lighting for this Friday’s tsunami benefit. I haven’t seen RL since the morning  after the Crafts Fair and Music Festival last December. In his stetson and long white hair he looks like an old cowboy.  They’re  looking for the poor man (church)’s solution with what we’ve already got. RL’s doing this for Amanda. And because I let him read a poem. And because he enjoys being not a Christian helping a church.
There’s work on the archives to do for Norm. There’s clean up for the Friday night concert to do. And the hard work of trying to bring our concert series to life. In two and a half short weeks.... 

Memorial Day: The Circle of protest grows

Memorial Day. It’s a day for doing work around the house. Yard work. Back home it was the day the swimming pools opened. Danielle and I are at the office, preparing for the week ahead. 
One last renegade pigeon is in the narthex, sitting above the closed door. I open the doors wide, try to shoo the bird out. In typical bird fashion, the pigeon flies back and forth through the narthex, from south to north and back again, completely missing the double open doors a few inches away. Back and forth, back and forth. I use a broom to try and direct the bird. Danielle tries the drum trick. He goes to the floor and sneaks his way back into the tower where I won’t pursue him. The bird’s behavior would be less annoying if it didn’t remind me so much of human behavior. The back and forth, doing the same pointless thing over and over to exhaustion,  missing the open door, the obvious way out, the clear solution. 
Outside, the shopping cart from yesterday has grown into two. One filled with brooms, dust pans etc. and the other with bottles and cans. Now attached to our scaffolding with a chain and bicycle lock. This has got to go. I place a sign on the carts warning that if not removed, we’ll call the police to cut the chain and remove it. 
Danielle’s parents have arrived in the city for a visit. I’ve got work at home to get to. Time to lock up. 
On the way home, back up Columbus, I see Hope waiting for some other pickets in front of Dominos. Soon they have arrived. Very quietly, an exciting movement is growing step by step, restaurant by restaurant. The Chinese and Mexican service workers have found each other and are building an ever stronger  coalition of solidarity. Formerly intimidated immigrant workers, emboldened by the action of others, are beginning to speak up. And as the rejection of sweatshop practices spreads, so do the number of businesses signing the fair labor pledge. The dream of creating a sweatshop free zone in our neighborhood moves closer to reality.  It all began with the Saigon Grill workers. The circle of protest grows. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sixth Sunday in Easter: Every day is Judgment Day

Andre’s there waiting for me when I arrive.
Razor blades. That’s new. AA batteries. Empty food containers. Ketchup packets. A man’s denim shirt. A jacket. A Lord and Taylor’s shopping bag. A red shopping cart with bottles and cans and a woman’s boot. The other boot. A broken Presidente beer bottle, that’d  be a Dominican beer. And around the corner, a Gordon’s gin bottle. No vodka today. 
Luis and Alma arrive. Then  Amy. Amy and Andre begin to practice. 
I start at 11.  Talk to the kids about Memorial Day.  We thank the soldiers for what they did for us, they say. I ask how many had parents, relatives who served in World War II. Most hands go up. Arcadia reads the gospel, Andre chants the psalm and we respond. And I read Acts 17:  22-31. And pull up a stool. I need to go back to last week. The end of the world. Judgment Day.  Did you think about it? For how long?  It’s there at the end of the passage, but who did?
I joke that when I couldn’t reach Amy’s cell last week, I thought that she might  have made it. Amy said that all the kids at school were buzzing. Luis’ father was worried. He told him not to. Andre said that we always have to be ready. Some  paid it no mind. Hope said it was about relationship. And I said that yes, some of my colleagues said that it was about Jesus’ life judging righteousness. That we measure against that life. Always comes up short. And Andre said, isn’t that what grace is about? And I said for sure. And that’s what sets us apart from Baptists and Free Church people. We don’t make decisions for Christ. That was already done for us. Even our capacity to commit, a function of grace. And we never know. Not really. Never have the full mind of God. Adam’s desire. The first sin. To claim to have God’s knowledge. 
But there is judgment at the end of this passage. We’ll get back there.
So we’ll take a look at Paul’s sermon. What’s Paul  up to here? Who is he preaching to?  The Athenians. He respects them, honors their traditions, what they hold sacred, speaks their language....and then...uses the opening of the unnamed God to get his message across.
To an unknown God...that’s the dark....trying to find....maybe not even far...perhaps so close we can’t see...
It has implications for multiculturalism, inclusion. Like Belhar. Our differences are both an obligation and an opportunity. It also means taking serioiusly what it means to live across the street from Matt Damon and three blocks from public housing projects. And I recall the other warm night’s impromptu do wop concert.  We have to learn to speak to both. We need not only survive but to grow.
So Paul says that God has fixed a day...Well,  it wasn’t  last week, but when? October?  That’s the new date. (I hope it’s after our  gala, says Marsha.) There has been mad weird weather lately....
So we are to be judged in righteousness....Calvin said, God does not leave us to an untimely end...
And I circle back to Memorial Day. Our family tradition of visiting the cemetery. Every Memorial  Day raises questions...why do they die? I remember my uncle. The Navy paid him to go to medical school. Served  in World War II. Married a Quaker. As the Korean War went on, it didn’t seem right. He’d paid his obligation. Asked to be discharged by reason of conscience. And eventually succeeded. When the Vietnam War loomed for me, his example inspired, informed our family conversations. 
And here it is. For the men and women in Afghanistan, Iraq and...every day is Judgment Day, the potential end of the world, for them, for those who love them. And still, it is the poor who go to die for others. Those who make the policy decisions. They need to be honored. Special stars and stripes baseball hats on big league teams tomorrow is not enough. They can’t remain on the periphery of our  awareness. We are responsible to hold our leaders accountable. 

Every day is judgment day.

                                        * * * * 

At the end of the service,we sing Happy Birthday to Andre. And Luis and Alma tell us it is their 40th anniversary. They remember, recall, describe that day in this very place 40 years ago. We gather in a circle around them. Bless them with prayer. And I reflect on 40 years worth of shared love. 
                                          * * * * 
Another street festival. One block over on Broadway. I walk up and down the blocks.  How many chicken on a stick/gyros booths can there be? Like last week only one block over. It's street fair season...... Hang out in the Safe Haven basketball booth, passing out fliers. Spend time at Counclmember Brewer’s booth. Go to the performance stage on 86th to pass out fliers. This is so not my gift, working the crowds, so counterintuitive. . 
My friend Matt is playing. An older/ageless/toothless hippie/homeless woman is twirling in time, ribbon sin her braided flying hair. Deadhead style. A short older guy, bearded, leathered, equally toothless dances with her, pulls out his harmonica, plays along. Disappears. Leave her twirling alone.
I’m passing out fliers. My wife Andrea, her sister Susan just back form the Brooklyn Flea stop by. And Katherine, just back from Portland. I need to ask Matt for help on my concerts. I’m passing  out fliers. It’s sunny and hot....

Are you perplexed, Reverend?

Getting ready for tomorrow. Go to Councilmember Brewer’s office to get information on tomorrow’s street fair on Broadway. Marty’s outside. 
So your taking your constitutional on Pennsylvania Avenue he says.
More like Columbus Avenue, I say.
There was an Italian kid in my class. He said it wasn’t Columbus Day, but Columbo Day.  A play on words, you know?
Well, no. Like really, he was Italian.
Yes. Born in Genoa. Like Maimonides. Born in Genoa, moved to Spain. Maimonides and Columbus. When  was Maimonides?
Not sure, Marty.
He wrote Guide to the Perplexed.  Are you perplexed, Reverend?
More than I’d like, Marty, more than I’d like,
He chuckles. You enjoy the day, okay, Reverend?
You too, Marty, you too.
Finish the work with Danielle. Time to go home.
The Saigon Grill workers are on the line as I pass by.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dead birds and Dutch visitors

On the way home after dark. Starting to feel like summer on the streets. People just hanging out. An eccentric white guy in baggy cargo shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and sideways cap is walking down the street, singing in  loud voice.  In front of the projects two black guys come out and join him. Now they’re jamming. Singing harmonies. Impromptu doo wop concert.
Couldn’t put it off any longer. We have to go into the south tower. Deal with pigeons. I put on a face mask, keep my hat on to keep them out of my hair. White plastic gloves. I have a thought. Grab a drum.  We open the door, start banging on the drum. There are at least three pigeons fluttering around. They can’t seem to find their way out. There’s a reason for the expression birdbrain. Finally they fly out. 
I enter the room, scooping up dead pigeons. Last time I did this, didn’t think I’d have to do it again.  Danielle holding the bag. Find three. Then climb up the ladder to pull the hatch back down to keep them out. Danielle reminds me to tie the rope tight. Feel like we’ve won a battle, not the war. But pushed back the frontier some. They won’t be aimlessly wandering around the office anymore. 
Two tourists have come in. From Utrecht in the Netherlands. I give them a quick sanctuary tour as they snap pictures. Talk about my good friends from Holland, Romelia and Arjan now in Peru.  I give them some neighborhood tips, recommend the Boat Basin Cafe for a late afternoon stop.
Jane drops by for a conversation. A man from an opera company comes in looking for a performance space for a September concert to honor their late producer/director.  I leave the opera man with Danielle and head to Popover’s with Jane. It’s clear we’re going to work together. What is it going to be? Need to get something planned for fall.  And in the meantime, keep the conversation going.
Danielle and I finish the paperwork to prove the drain pipe leader situation has been corrected. She’s amazed at what her work includes on any given day.  Dead birds and Dutch visitors. Drain pipes and opera. A good day.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Still a church to be built

A brief stop in before meeting Jed at Popover’s. To talk about the Centre. The upcoming concerts. Andre’s concerts. If we do the Bible marathon, Jed wants to be down for 1 and II Chronicles. At 2 am. Accompanying himself on the piano. Now we must do it. 
He goes in. Sits down at the Beckstein. Piano Dan’s tuning is holding. Jed hasn’t been here for years. I remember his Def WAM!(Worship, arts, music) benefit. The night he played and I sang Bird on a Wire as Greg played the drums and my son Micah the bass.  And the amazing liturgies he and Katherine and I created. When Sundays were fun.  In this space.  He’s still playing as I go off to see Katherine. And then Mim. I come back after a visit to Jack’s to get ready for Session. 
Hope comes in to plan. And then the members. There’s a lot to talk about. Our roles as by the Book of Order. Lawsuits and lawyers. Presbytery and politics. Boilers, bathrooms and pigeons. Worship and Sunday school. Pastoral care.  Saigon Grill and sweatshops. Rainbow flags and outdoor signs.  A lot to talk about. 
In all the swirl of the centre, there’s still a church to be  built. Not a building. A church.

A piano. And pigeons

Piano Dan is there as I get to the church. Working on the Beckstein. Tuning. Teasing. I know him from nights at the P & G. Part of the circle that calls the place home. Monday night open mikes, special gigs. Thought they called him that because of his unique way of getting more piano notes into any particular place than you might have thought possible. He opened our December Balcony Music Festival. Provided the sound. And now I know that he’s called that as well  because he’s a piano tuner, a piano man with probing fingers, a soft touch, precise and intuitive as to a particular instrument’s unique personality.  With his retro look, recently cleaned up considerably, he’s a throwback to the Upper Westside that was, part of its uptown pre gentrification boho era. He’s gently coaxing the Beckstein back to itself. 
Danielle and i are talking. Deacon James comes in, just back from a round of oral surgery. Which for me always borders on cruel and inhumane. He’s stuffed with cotton. I offer to buy him ribs, but he’s not real up for that at the moment. 
There’s a smell coming from the south tower. Got to be a dead pigeon. Hate that I’ve got to go in there and remove it. And then go up and pull down the hatch. Danielle and i go up, open the door. Frightened idiot birds scatter around us. And we both jump startled. And I shout. We close the door. Retreat. the pigeons win this round. 
This has gone too far. Random birds come strolling into the narthex. One hung out for hours one day. Under the snow shovel. They waddle back and forth on the steps, too tired, or as I fear, too sick to fly. Basta. Enough. For most of my folks, it’s the boiler that’s most symbolic. For me it’s the pigeons. It’s annoying that we’ve ceded territory over to them. Something disturbing, Hitchcockian about it. If there were  still a real yellow pages, I’d be looking for pigeonbusters.
That’s the day. A piano. And pigeons.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Another rainy day

Another rainy day. My coat and shirt are soaked. Mim comes in to plan that evening’s Centre team meeting. She’s brought sandwiches for Fairway for us. A former golden gloves boxer from the neighborhood walks in. Wants to start up something for the kids in the gym. Just needs room for a punching  bag. Shows us pictures of Al Sharpton with his late father. Says that Sharpton introduced him to James Brown, the godfather of soul. Do exactly what he says, Sharpton said, look what he did for me, and ran his fingers through his hair. We tell the boxer we’re looking at the whole picture. 
A couple from Santa Rosa, California, is checking out the  church. Came for their son’s NYU graduation. Came up to eat at Carmine’s. Wandered down this way. Love old churches. 
So much to be done. Trying to make pr for the concert happen. Marsha and I meet to plan for the night. 
The Centre team meets. We report on our progress.The legal situation.  What needs to be done on the 501c3 application. Concert plans. Business plans. Gala plans. The need for a program committee. Katherine notices they our fliers need times and prices. 
Representatives of Friends of West-Park and the neighboring  buildings met with us. Many haven’t been in since February. Amazed at how much has happened. Their desire to help. We decide to focus on priorities: a boiler, the bathrooms, elevator. Our need to produce a business plan. Underlying all of this is my awareness that we need cash now. That the summer may be very bleak. That if we’re not able to find sustaining funds, this all goes away.
On my way home, it rains again. Hard. And I’m soaked. Again.

Fifth Sunday in Easter: The world didn't end and there was a street festival

OK. We’re still here. It’s not clear to me who’s not, but it looks like judgment day or the rapture or the end of the world didn’t come.  We’ve got work to do.
Amsterdam Avenue is closed to traffic for the annual street festival. Walking down to church, booths are being set up. Sunglasses, socks and underwear, silk rugs, t-shirts, hats, newspapers, banks, politicians, corn dogs, Thai food, kebabs, lemonade, mozareppas, falafels, pulled pork, pizza, local restaurants with their specialities, a micro brew festival, shooting baskets for stuffed animals, a crazy quilt of the unique and local and the banal that just shifts from street to street as the summer street festival season marches along. And West-Park. 
As I near the church, Luis is getting the tent set up. We’ll have clothing, women’s self development projects, jewelry from Africa made from coke cans, Andrea’s mother’s pottery, brownies, cupcakes and lemonade, like a miniature version of the whole festival. And fliers for our concerts. 
street festival

Schatzie the Butcher is setting up his famous dirty brisket   stand. I stop by Barney’s for my coffee. Happy street festival day, I say to Gary. I hate it, just hate it, he says. An anthropomorphic pizza slice is walking up and down in  front of the church: 3 dollar pizza, pepperoni, cheese... 
I invite those not actually working inside for worship. Start with the fact that we’re still here. The world didn’t end. Asked if anyone had noticed anyone gone?
Explained how it had been a tough week in our life. The AC.Presbytery. The lawyer crisis. A lot going on...the festival, a softball game, the Presbyterian Welcome celebration of the end of official discrimination against lgbtq people in our church. 
How resurrection living is a way...What are we talking about? A lot about stones today. One of my friends wanted to use the title everybody must get stoned....well...

The stoning of Steven.  Was this really what  he was supposed to have accomplished?  What do we actually believe? When a friend’s mother died, her neighbor Rabbi Jeremy, said he saw no honor in suffering. And that death sucks, no way around it, just sucks. I remember Pablo Richard. How he said that his problem with North American Christians is that we  go to the happy ending too quickly. Have to allow ourselves to experience the pain just as it is and let it be. 

Living stones. Back in the ‘80‘s when I went to Israel/Palestine, you could take one of three trips: the we made the desert bloom Israeli trip, the oppressed Palestinian trip or the sacred stones trip. One Jewish friend said of a church itinerary, but you won’t see any living Jews. Another friend  responded, you won’t see any living anybody.  When I first met Palestinian Christians, , they said, you come to see sacred stones and miss the living stones..People love our stones, but the stones are not the church. We are the living stones. 
John 14: 6 is usuallly funeral passage...I used it at a funeral just a few weeks ago..
How does it preach as a  living passage?
The first pastor I worked with, my mentor and friend, Bill Wiseman, said that when  he was a young evangelical, he saw the Jesus in this passage as a stopper...a traffic cop with a stop sign, you have to say the right password., believe the right thing, claim the right doctrine to get in. But as he got older, he saw a Jesus with open arms..opening the door, welcoming all....
Resurrection living , Christian  life is not about doctrine or right words.. It is about is a path....
I remember Silence, the amazing novel by Shushaku Endo. The young Portuguese missionary who goes to Japan, anxious to suffer for the Lord, believing that then he will finally hear not silence, but the voice of God, the voice  of Jesus. He rejoices when he is captured, ready to embrace torture. Ready to offer himself. And then discovers that his torture  is that Japanese Christians will be tortured until he gives up the faith, tramples on the image if Jesus, publicly renounces. Finally, the disappeared priest he had come to find comes to visit him. You did not come here so that they should suffer for your faith, he says, you came to die for them. So then the young man knows what he must do. With heart breaking, he steps on the image of Christ, renounces the faith. Then at that very moment, Jesus speaks to him, Now you understand, he says, to give up even what is most dear to you...for the sake of others...When I read  that, I finally understood how John14:6 is the TRUTH. Jesus is the way. A path. Like they said when I first went to Nicaragua, nuestro hermano es el camino a Belen...our brother/sister  is the road to Bethlehem . 

Like Jesus says that you can see the father in him,
we need to see the face of God in one another, and show the face of Christ to those we encounter..see all the images of God assembled here, we say...the living stones...
We finish the service. Go out to work the street fair.  Danielle and I running back and forth to the copy shop to get fliers for the concert series. Issues with layout. Printing. Delays.   Amanda and I go to talk to Councilmember Gale Brewer about the concerts, fundraising. It’s been a year since the landmarking decision. We pause to get Amelia a kebab, meat on a stick. 

The cold damp day keeps the crowd down. (When will it be warm?) We sell some things. Talk to some people. Pass out some fliers. 
I try one of Schatzie’s dirty brisket sandwiches. Working on anew neighbor relationship here. The softball players have left and returned. Another loss. But at least no mercy rule this time. Steven says we’re starting  to come around. My friends Beppe and Liljana stop by.  One of the marshals comes by to remind us we have to be off the street by six. It’s been a long day.

Leila and Marsha