Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hoping we are inscribed in the Book of Life....


Inside Barney Greengrass on the day before Yom Kippur

Luisa comes in for a visit. Her theology is as inclusive as her smile is warm. I discover that one of her grandparents was Jewish and she has always had a sensitivity to the persecutions of the Jewish people, and the influence of Nietzsche and yes, Christianity on antisemitic ideology.  She understands enough history to find a triumphalist theology impossible, beginning with the Inquisition. And ultimately she understands Jesus more as un camino, a path, a way to walk, more than a doctrine. She brings to us beauty, a full heart and grace whether its the flowers she brings, her sensitive heart or her vision of a garden. More than anything, she wants to be of service. 

RL has arrived early and is hard at work with Teddy on the ongoing construction of his studio/office. More items to buy at the hardware store.

Two workers continue to refine Martin’s studio, silent while his troupe is in residence at the Joyce. (And on the taxi TV screens and the New York Times and...)

The Greengrass truck getting loaded
I stop in to see Gary Greengrass. He’s in his Yom Kippur avalanche mode. This year due to the calendar, he’s only got one day to get his shipments out across the country, the sturgeon that reminds people of home. He appreciates the tables he borrowed from us to set up an assembly line. The truck is waiting to be loaded. 

There’s a man with a sandwich board in front if the church advertising eyebrow threading weaves...trying to pass out cards, too...

Steeler  nation on 86th Street and Amsterdam
At the end of the block, the Con Ed crew is wrapping up their seemingly endless work where the manhole fire happened. A construction worker is wearing a Steeler decorated helmet. As I pass, he looks up, I point to the P on my gold and black hat and he smiles. For some people its sturgeon. For me and the Con Ed guy, its Steelers that connects me to home. Like being a part of an ethnic group. Almost half the city in diaspora since the steel industry crashed.  We all need that connection to home. To where we came from.

Con Ed construction worker


An anxiety filled day. We learned late yesterday that yet another almost done deal isn’t going to happen. At least not on our schedule.  And now all our work from Sunday seems to have been cancelled out and I feel like I’m playing poker with an empty hand. It will take Jamie to remind me how much of our report is still in place. The meeting  with our Presbytery contacts looms ahead. Hard to rally my/our spirits one more time. 

Zeljko appears in my office via Skype from Serbia. He and family are arriving Friday and housing plans have fallen through. The pressure of these realities is giving me a headache.  

Maria and Katrine have a vision of a trilingual school, IE, English, French and Mandarin. Want to start small. This could work. Yet anther road to start down. 

Need to go down to RL’s office at the Gate to see if we can finalize our agreement. And a Spanish/Portuguese/English wedding to rehearse after that. And much, too much on my mind.

It's Erev Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, the holiest night of the Jewish year.

Did we make it? Are we inscribed in the Book of Life, or.... I think of our friends, Mim, Ted, Alice, Asya, Alice and Jon...hope that these days have been meaningful for them..and that their tireless support in thought word and deed will not go unrewarded. May it be a sweeter year for us all. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Jesus, a child, a window


Only one empty coffee cup to pick up this morning....

The first person in the sanctuary this morning is Rachelle struggling to get her cart out the door. She wants to hit the flea markets again. Even though it’s pleasant and cool, the bright sun has her concerned. And I realize for the first time that part of the reason for her eccentric get up is her extreme sensitivity to the sun as part of her ongoing medical condition.  

We’ve got three visitors, an older woman and a young couple. Amy seems to be stuck in traffic, so we begin.

After John reads the good woman,good wife passage  from Proverbs 31: 10-3, I have Marsha read Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman Speech as it was delivered at the  1851
Women's Convention, Akron, Ohio:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.
With Psalm 1, we use the refrain from an old movement/union song:
No, no, nos moveran; No, no, nos moveran; Como un arbol, firme junto al rio, No nos moveran....
We shall not, we shall not be moved; we shall not, we shall not be moved; just like a tree, standing by the river, we shall not be moved..
Steven reads James 3: 13-4:3, Arcadia, Mark9: 30-37 in Spanish, me in English and then begin the reflection.
The lessons this week are really didactic...all straight forward, preachy, no nuance. We’ve got another go around here of more about living wisely...

In Proverbs, we’ve got the Good Wife passage. At first glance, it feels like one of those let’s not go there passages. But as we look closer, there are lots of counter cultural descriptions  that go against expectations...For example we have a woman of estate...she plants a vineyard....and has strong arms....

And with all this, she is always reaching out to  the needy...

In Psalms...well, what is the scoffers’ seat.? What does it mean to scoff? I mean beyond typical New York City sarcasm? Hope says that she is a scoffer. How she relates to things sometimes, like it or not. And everyone agrees that there is this element of looking down upon.  I connect it with cyncicsm and recall how Sharon Welch says that cynicism is  the prerogative of the privileged...scoffing..Truly oppressed, excluded, do not have time for cynicism. Also related is liberal despair...another sign of privilege. 

James is all about gentleness and wisdom.. and there is in tension the issue of envy and selfish ambition...

3:17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (Like the very essence of the good woman)

Then there is this thought in James that maybe our prayers are not answered because maybe we ask for the wrong things...sure we’ll always pray for parking places, to escape jams (usually of our own making) and to fix things. That’s to be expected. Human nature. But the real issue is focus, where do we focus our attention, our deepest prayers....

In Mark, Jesus is once again being perfectly  clear about what is going to happen..and the disciples just  so completely don’t get it...They’re embarassed when they know that he knows that they were arguing about who is greatest..

Jesus responds that the first shall be last, and the last first....and perhaps the greatest example? Children. In Jesus‘ day they were the most vulnerable in society, truly marginalized, not romanticized like today...

But for all of our romanticizing children, what is the reality? Our poverty rate for children is  22%, the  second highest among developing countries...only Romania, a center for child trafficking, ranks  higher....and over the  last decade, children’s poverty  grew in 38 states..and for black children the rate is 38%, and for Hispanic children is 32%

Perhaps, in the end, we are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable...

The Steven Window
Here is our story (and I point above me to the window above).The window above me is called the Steven window...It was during the ’80’s, the AIDS crisis. That Tiffany window had fallen into disrepair. One man always told hi spartner that when he looked at that window, he always felt like he was the chuld held in Jesus’ arms. When he died,his lover paid to have the window restored and then rededicated it to his partner, Steven. And so even though we have become a much more multicutural congregation and the imagery of that window is white, it is that story that makes it so important to this place. 

Who ever welcomes on these welcomes me....

May we always seek to see the world through the eyes if the most vulnerable. 

After church, we go to McAlpin Hall. Ted and Mim and John H join us as we plan out our strategy and status report for our meeting with represntativs of Presbytery next Thursday. We know what is important to us, it's value, but can we get our point across?

One of Jamie’s real estate friends comes for another discussion of another possible strategy. 

Marty is stationed by Dunkin’ Donuts. I compliment him on his fancy ball cap. So how long did you preach today? he aks.

About 20 minutes.

Just like my father, may he rest in peace. Y’know he used to preach so hard, he’d burst into sweat. Beads of sweat all over. Pouring off of him.  He used to carry five handkerchiefs. Five. You know how cowboys used handkerchiefs, pulled up over their faces? They had to have leather laces to kee theor cowboy hats on. In the wind, on the plains.

I ask if his father wore a cowboy hat. 

He looks at me like i’m crazy. NO. He used handkerchiefs...

We wish each other well. It’s been a long Sunday. The weather is perfect. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

But money, no


The crazy woman from last night is sitting outside on the sidewalk near the bus stop. Teddy told me she stayed the night,and as we expected, doesn’t want to leave. But now she has. I’ve got to catch the Jitney out to the Hamptons for a wedding. Not much time to spare. Teddy wants to talk. 

A guy in a white jacket comes in, says he’s Steve the nurse. Don’t I remember him? Well, actually,  no. Needs to speak to me privately. I know what that means. And no we can’t lend money just to see me through to payday. Luckily, I have no cash. And we just don’t keep it around.

I need a sign that says:

No money here. Don’t ask.
Welcome, yes.
Food, often.
Referrals as needed.
Conversation, yes. 
Questions answered, we try.
Arts and culture, yes.
Medical assistance. Yes, but not right now. 
Prayers on request.
But money, no.

Time to head out to the Hamptons.

Full house


The day begins with Kimberley, our new Union intern. It’s our fist intern since before we left for SPSA back in 2008. She’s an experienced arts management person, but wants the opportunity to learn some new things as well. She’ll be helping us with the Center. Steven joins us to work on the website and other social media initiatives. 

Gregory is maintaining his watch on the steps day in and day out.

The conversation with Tracy continues. We pick up on the theme I was exploring with Sarah, as to the difference between organizers and leaders. Tracy had been trained where they talked about advocates and people  in need. I reject the idea of advocates in organizing, insisting that instead of speaking for people, we need to work with people to develop the capacity to speak for themselves. In her training, they wanted to break down the distinction between the two. That advocates or organizers need to understand their own exploitation, their own oppression and feel connected with those they organize. I feel there’s an advantage in being one step removed to better see objectively what needs to be done and to discern who are emerging as leaders. 

Above all, I continue to reject the idea that you cannot allow personal feelings into movement work. I understand that to a point, but again, in work that depends in relationships, the value of the person always has to be respected. And also the person’s right to question. I recall that in the classic model, what is needed is action, reflection, revision. When reflection is set aside in the interest of moving forward, serious errors can happen. When moving ahead takes the highest precedence, damage can be done to people, which in turn damages the movement. In the long run, more important than any individual campaign is creating peoples’ organizations that are built to last through long struggle, not just campaigns.

She shares with me her struggle having come from a Korean Christian tradition that essentially embraces the status quo as sacred and adds immigrant ambition for an ever advancing family on top. I remembered my study partner in my doctoral program, A Korean woman pastor. And how contemporary Korean Christian culture is built upon a Confucian base built upon indigenous religion which enshrines patriarchy. And a  strong emphasis not only on hard work and learning but also the importance of saving face. She knows why she turned away from that expression of Christianity but still feels a spiritual void. Our conversations, the community of West-Park, are opening up some new ideas.

Tracy sticks around to catch up with Teddy. 

My neighbor Gary Greengrass has called with a sense of urgency. His annual Jewish High Holy Day crush is turning into an avalanche and he desperately needs to borrow 5 or 6 tables. I tell him no problem and his crew comes over to pick them up with Teddy’s help.

RL comes in just to stop by and finds Danielle and I sitting in each others’ places and pretends to be startled and we pretend that we did it on purpose to throw him off.

Someone has come to wait for a meeting with Mim. She’s come from the daylong meeting at Union for field supervisors which somehow missed my radar. She filled in for me and we’ll have to catch up. Somehow Kimberley hadn't thought of  it either. 

Jeremy G stops in to continue to  work on details of his upcoming play. And now things are starting to get crazy. The house is completely full and the door to the Session room where Noche has been rehearsing is locked and we don’t have the key. 

We’ve got Jane’s course in miracles, a rehearsal by the Marvell Theatre (they’re doing a season of Burned and Banned...)of their production of God of Vengeance, a 1921 play by Sholem Asch ( There’s a board meeting of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing and then the next performance of  Zeal of the Zealot. Only Marvell is having an unscheduled (IE, for us) fundraiser and wants to be on the first floor. Danielle and Teddy are trying to work out the puzzle as the IAHH board arrives and I take them into the Sanctuary.

Our IAHH board struggles  with our never ending cash shortfall, worse now in this economy. It can’t just be sustained, we need to keep reorganizing from the ground up. And now we have to find new office space. The church where the current office is being sold to a conservative Korean congregation. They want their building  empty of programs. Our new programs with homeless veterans and formerly incarcerated people, need to go forward as does advocacy to restore the city’s rent subsidy program. The meeting needs to end as the Festival of Fools players enter the balcony theatre for their pre-play warm-ups full of grunts, growls. vocalizations and clashing swords.

I stop by Marvell’s fundraiser in Mc Alpin. A clearly crazy woman has approached Teddy to ask for a place to stay and is now talkig to Jane who with all the activity feels she’s running a gauntlet. Me too.

Rachelle has come in and tracked me down, she too, wants something.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Most of the bad stuff we do to ourselves


One of my periodic visitors comes in. One who’s speech is almost unintelligible. I always hate the part where he rolls up his pant leg to show swollen leg and its bandage. It is only ever going to be what I have in my pocket, nothing more. It’s a common ritual, a bad idea.

My friend Rick Ufford-Chase, fresh from his victory at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board Meeting in Louisville, where the Stony Point Center ( was given a chance to take control of its own property, has come down for a visit. With him are Allan and Todd, representatives of a Birmingham based non-profit, Hope Manifest, ( which has been created to help other non-profits develop financial plans and funding. And Shannon, from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and the Columbia Accompaniment Program ( where volunteers walk side by side with vulnerable people in Columbia, to provide safety and witness. 

I give them the social history tour of the church, especially pointing out the picture of Jan Orr-Harter, one of the founders of the PPF, and the Peacemonger Press,  with the support of Pastor Bob Davidson and the organizing that led to the March Against Nuclear Proliferation, planned at West-Park and bringing a million people to New York City. 

Then we head to Popovers for a longer discussion. Part of what is at stake is the relationship of the Columbia Accompaniment Program with New York City Presbytery’s Social Witness Council, CWSW,  which I formerly chaired. I explained that with the current state of chaos at Presbytery, it’s hard to read. Issues include:
  • Dwindling funds which have led to:
    • Reduction of staff, including Annie who was an amazing organizer for CWSW
    • Reduction of available money for grants

It’s all part of the death, or radical reshaping of our historic mainline denominations. No more available staff to plan programs and conduct ministries. Energy and time absorbed in internal squabbling, shrinking membership, funding bases. The strategy that excites Rick and I is a emphasis on building strong ministry fro the ground up. Grassroots based. If we focus there, do good work there, the rest will follow.  SO part of the discussion is how in a time with no assigned staff, PPF can help Presbytery and its congregations organize to do good work on the ground. It’s exactly what we’re committed to doing at West-Park. And we’re still working to see what our relationship could be.

Later, Paul for Spaceworks, comes with representatives from the Department of Cultural Affairs. Mim and Jamie have come representing the Center. We do the whole tour. The hope is to work with them to develop affordable rehearsal and performance spaces for emerging artists in the city.  

After I return from a late  lunch with Jamie, things begin to get crazy. Lynnea of Frog & Peach wants to talk but there's  an intense man wanting to talk to me. Says his name is Danny. Short with a tight t-shirt, muscular arms, a buzz cut, almost skinhead short and a beard.  jeans and work boots. And burning eyes with a furrowed brow.

An incident has upset him. Walking down Amsterdam Avenue, he saw two men at an outdoor cafe having lunch. He asked a question, as he put it,  a guy responded. Next thing Danny is calling him out and the manger is coming out and telling him to get out before he calls the police. Was that right?

It was his restaurant and you were threatening his customer.

Was I just supposed to take it? I got to stand up for myself.Wouldn’t you? Would you just walk away?


I called him a fucking faggot. A fruit. Are you gay?

No. But....

I don’t like these guys. I like women. And tells me a story of  being picked up by  guy last night, being paid for all night, drinks, drugs, I danced my ass off...and then not staying wit the guy He was pissed off. Is that right?

I shrug my shoulders. Seems like you set it up.

We watched the Wrestler with Mickey Roarke. I love that movie. He says the world don’t give a shit about me..remember that?

Circles back to the street incident again. I just don’t feel good. About myself. Be on the streets for 3 years. An all too familiar story follows of someone who’s been a lower level janitor, custodian, then laid off in downsizing. 

So how do you keep it together?

Alcohol. Dope. Cocaine. Specailly that crack....prostitutes with no protection, no condoms, probably get AIDS or somethin....then back to the cafe scene again. What does this mean?

Sounds like you’re dealing with a lot of pain. An danger. 

Anger? My mom died when I was 3. Why? Why did that happen?  He looks at the statue of Jesus on my desk. Why does he hate me? Why did he do that? Why? To me?

He doesn’t hate you. And he didn’t kill your mother...I don’t have an answer.

I like sex. I like masturbation. Is that wrong?.

Not necessarily. 

He thinks it is, he says, looking at Jesus.

Actually he didn’t say anything about it. 

Why does he do this to me?

He doesn’t. I think most of the bad things we do to ourselves. 

Back to last night again. To the guy.  He lived in a SRO.... Cause he’s got HIV. They say you have to have HIV to get an SRO...Is that right?

Not true. Westside Federation has all kinds of  buildings...AIDS, mental illness, senor citizens, addiction....

Rehab never fuckin works...

Not if you don’t follow up. Not what i’m talking about. I give him the number of the Goddard -Riverside, our neighborhood settlement house. The home of our  friends at  Project Reachout. Go talk to these guys. They’ll know what you're  eligibe for....

He takes the card. Starts back through the cafe incident again. If I see that motherfucker again, I’ll smash him. I’ll fuck him up, I’ll...what does that mean?

It takes a big man to walk away, quiet.

Then back to the Wrestler one more time. The world doesn’t give a shit about me...What does tha mean?

That means you identify wth Mickey Roarke. Think no one cares.  And maybe no one does. You have to start with yorself...Look, it’s geeting late.

Lynnea has peeked in a couple of times. And ultimately let.

Just five more minutes, Can I have your number? Can I call you? Just to talk?

So I give him the church number. He squints. Furrows his borw. Walks out.  

Didn’t get the calls doen ai wanted to do. I have people I  need to visit. I am not dismissive of Danny. Not that I don’t care. Just really worn out by addiction right now.  Just wears me out.

If you want to do something about  it, we’ll walk with you...if not, I’ll listen. Within limits. I know they are there. Finding what they are is hard. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The critical question


Soledad Barrio of Noche Flamenca

I join Teddy on the steps. He shares stories of his weekend. The OWS gathering in Foley Square.  Well organized. Together. Seeing friends from back in the day. Well, September, that is. Lots of musical groups. All around good vibe. I share stories of my morning. Getting to Zucotti by 7 am. Cut off, surrounded by steel barricades. The lines of police in full riot gear. We gather by the Suvero sculpture. The Red Cube. 

Bishop George Packard
Chris Hedges
My clergy friends from Occupy Faith joined by Veterans for Peace. Retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, resplendent in purple robes, is himself at home with both groups. A bronze and silver star from Vietnam. Chaplain in Iraq in the Gulf War. Commander of all military chaplains. That was his diocese.  First one arrested in the action at Trinity Wall Street last December. He is, as journalist Chris Hedges calls him the Peoples’ Bishop. Hedges too is here and speaks. Of how the Stamp Act rebellion preceded the American Revolution. And the Russian uprising of 1905 preceded  the Russian Revolution of 1917. So the Occupy movement sets the stage for the end of  the current global economy of domination and control. 

There’s the mic checks. The personal testimonies. I think of speaking. Don’t. Standing by Pastor Donna from Judson. A practice sit down. And then we begin. The goal is to disrupt, if not shut down, business as usual at Wall Street. The police, with a clearly thought out strategy,  initiate and create  the confrontation too early. The Bishop is arrested.Too soon.  Along with our communications person. Not good. As the press literally presses in, pushing protestors  behind them, Pastor Donna and I feel the crush of the crowd and need to step out. 
Pastor Michael Ellick speaking to Pastor Donna Schaper of Judson Memoiral

What follows is an ongoing cat and mouse game between a shifting, swirling Peoples’ Wall and the police.  Assemble. Sit. Resist. Arrests.Scatter. Regather. Can’t even tell how many are there. I last awhile. Decide to go. Not my day to be arrested. I have been there. Have been a body. Enough for today. I tell Teddy it was good to see people in the streets again.But it was not the same. Slogans felt a little forced. Not quite that galvanizing sense of urgency from before.  And some people just live to get abused and arrested. That’s what I share with Teddy. 

Martin comes out frantic. Last day of rehearsal before opening night at the Joyce. Needs hours more time. Offers to pay. I tease him, only a little, and agree. Mariola talks with me about the arrangements and when do I want my comps? Disappointed tomorrow and Wednesday not possible.

A young man comes in, looking around. I find him at the piano. He’s from out of town. Here for a visit. I listen to him play.

Hugo arrives with food. Tonight, rice and beans and a beef stew. Our Bible study group will enjoy the food. As will occupiers. And dancers too.

Tonight we pass the halfway point of Mark. At the gentile city of Caesarea Phillipi, we find the critical question. First, Jesus asks, who do people say that I am? And Peter answers, John the of the prophets... IE, the one who picked up the mantle of John’s movement, or the forerunner to the Messiah, or....

Then here it is, But who do you say that I am? And Peter says, You are the Messiah...

Jesus reponds by telling them to keep silent. And then speaks of the Son of Man who must suffer, be rejected, be killed...but also rise again... And Peter gets upset and rebukes him and Jesus responds with Get behind me Satan. Well alright, then. What’s going on here?

First, what does Peter mean? By the Messiah, he’s looking for a national liberation project. One where Jesus will lead his people, his nation to overthrow the Roman occupiers. Will restore the Davidic kingdom.

Jesus rejects that. Calls himself the Human One, coming from Daniel’s apocalyptic vision  in the midst of horrendous persecution and oppression under  the Syrian Antiochus Epiphanus.The Human One comes from the midst of people, humanity. Jesus is saying that this is not a national project. Some of our own people are the enemy. Some of our own people oppress us. And some who are not our people are our alies, our people. It’s a new way to cut it. Not Romans vs. Jews, but the Romans and the ruling class collaborators against the marginalized and poor regardless of nationality or ethnicity. In other words, it’s a rejection of identity politics in favor of a class based coalition. Satan is the tempter. Of course it is tempting to Jesus, the man, the human one, to imagine himself the new Davidic king. But that was not his call. 

He references the culture of shame vs. honor. The cross, used by Rome for political subversives, to make a public spectacle of resistors, hung naked in public. To follow Jesus is to risk that fate. But there will be a judgment. And Jesus' going to the cross will break the power of dominion. There is nothing more that can be done to him. That is what some will see, the kingdom of God, come with power. 

So that is the question that stands at  the center. The fulcrum, as Ched Meyer puts it. Who do you say that I am?  On the answer to that question hangs everything.

We finish our conversation. The sounds of gritos and pounding, flashing feet continue to rise through the floor. 


The house is eerily quiet without our flamenceros. Tonight is opening night. 

Jane and I meet at our Starbucks annex to discuss yesterday’s Occupy anniversary and my participation in one of her salons and possible work with a consultant friend of hers to discern our best ways of working together.  And the ways in which we have been mentors to each other. A joint holiday project. I walk back to the church to close out the day.

A Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower has been left on the steps.