Thursday, November 29, 2012

A day with Occupy Sandy, part 1: Far Rockway


Today I break my rule again about on the steps, in or near West Park because of the need for people to understand the effects of Hurricane Sandy. 

Although West-Park has been packing emergency survival packages for Hurricane Sandy relief, I needed to see with my own eyes what is going on. Decided to spend the day with friends from Occupy Faith as we went to check out Occupy Sandy operations.

We began at St. Luke and St. Matthews Church in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, the headquarters of Occupy Sandy. On the fence was a typical Occupy style sign, Mutual Aid, Not Charity..inside, I was staggered by the sheer volume of supplies that had been gathered. The feel of the place was like something between St. Paul’s Chapel after ground Zero and Zucotti Park. I wondered if they still held services here and Father Michael assured me that they did. The sanctuary fills and empties ever day when a squadron of UPS trucks arrives to move supplies to where they need to go (For a time lapse video go to: . ) Occupy’s social media network drawing the supplies in and directing them to where they are needed with carefully coordinated efficiency.

We pile into a van and are led by Juan Carlos of Occupy Faith to our first stop in Far Rockaway. We’re off Seagirt Boulevard near the bungalows section of Far Rockaway visiting a Latino Pentecostal Church meeting in a house with a large tent beside. Pastor Rene Morales meets us, makes us welcome. 

Luke Nephew is an organizer building church coalitions. He tells us that there is a critical need for emergency housing. People have returned to homes they should not be in. There is no place else to go,no shelters in the nearby community. FEMA maintains that the New York City Office of Emergency Management is the missing link. 

There are no shelters here because no power. Not electrical, or heat. But there is a need to build community power as well. The suspicion is that it is politically deliberate not to provide temporary shelter. The city would prefer to see these people leave, bulldoze the bungalows and rebuild with beach condos for a more affluent population. As he’s talking, I see a repeat as to how city officials in New Orleans used Katrina to level the sturdy brick public housing projects.  

Pastor Rene, speaking of his congregation and his neighbors,  says that there are special problems for people without papers. There is a desperate need for food, pampers, place to stay

Juan Carlos Reyes reports that  St.Jacobi Lutheran church, one of the original hubs,is phasing out. The success of Occupy Sandy has been developing out of relationships on the ground. relationships with churches first developed during Occupy and now serving as connections with local communities.  

He describes both the generosity and power of young people. But already there are issues of young people worn out....The question has to be asked, what is the long term vision? Nevertheless,amazing donations continue to come in. For example, someone has just donated a boat large enough for hundreds of people.  Actually, more  a ship. Right now, it’s docked  in Red Hook. What will they do with it? House people? Ship supplies? Remains to be seen. Right now there is a big need for trained mold remediation teams.

The human infrastructure of the Occupy Sandy operation was set up in set up in two  days by a core group of 20-30 people. The church of St.Luke's/St. Matthews now known affectionately known as 520. 9It;s street number.

Father George, an Episcopal priest, says that  what we are seeing reveals the failures of the system.

Rev. Michael Ray Matthews is a national PICO (people Improving Communities through Organizing)working with clergy. They are hard at work on the ground seeking to organize Far Rockaway.Stephanie Goode, another Pico organzier is with him. I recall the good work done in New Orleans after Katrina and the lead organizer, Wesley Woo. TheY smile, knowing Wesley well. He’s trained a generation of organizers.  

Joseph Mc Kellar is with  Queens Congregations Organized for Change, the Queens PICO organization, representing 32 congregations. Over 50 clergy recently gathered at St. Mary's Queen of the Sea to assess the situation. There is a great need for a critical mass of electricians and plumbers. This community has a large population of domestic workers who lost their jobs working in homes that are no longer there. Because they are undocumented, they do not qualify for unemployment relief. 

There are also insurance company issues. Job creation issues. There needs to be  clean up and rebuild job creation, especially for local people. People feel left behind by the city.23000 out of 39000 houses are still without power. Compared to only a little more than  700 in the rest of the city. And again, 
temporary housing. Policy issues. And again,long term issues.Our friends from the National Nurses Union have already done 44000 mental health consults.

Louis, a natural Latin community leader shares his reflections. 
There are serious issues with the bungalows--insurance payments takes up to 4-5 months. People are scared of shelters far removed from their homes, if they cold even get there. The bungalows from 24th to 32nd off Seagirt Boulevard are ripe for predatory redevelopment. 

Voices around the table agree. The process is condemn, seize, redevelop. There is also a burgeoning public health crisis due to the condition of the homes people won’t leave. Some say that more than public health, it’s actually a moral crisis--how can the city ignore this? Allow this to continue? 

There is no light here.Only one generator per block. The people need to come together. To make sure that they keep the message united and the same.What’s called for is solidarity and power.

As we prepare to move on, Bishop George Packard says to me, I want to tell you how much I have admired your 
congregation over the years. You, the church, have been the very model of Christian social action.

We head down into the bungalows. Once built as little summer cottages for vacationing city people, they now have been (more winterized and become homes for the working poor. Like I said, ripe for predatory development. 

Louis shows us his street. Describes a nightmare night. His brother told him to leave, but it didn’t look so bad. The ocean is coming here, he told him. And it did. Next time he came out, the water was chest deep. He described a scene like something out of a Wachowski brothers apocalyptic move. Car alarms going off all up and down the street until drowned by the incoming sea. Power lines breaking and flailing around like electric snakes, slashing the water with showers of sparks and flashes until all light went out into a darkness that returns every night. 

Forcing his  way through the water, garbage cans bobbing on the water. Watching his daughter in law go down and then his son pulling her out, putting her on his shoulders for the rest of their walk to higher ground. As he tells the story, the look in his eyes is one of disbelief, horror. 

Louis and Bishop Georage
There will be a town hall meeting this weekend to agree on goals, strategies and tactics. Easy to imagine getting some donated trailers and just taking over that gaping vacant lot in the middle of the neighborhood, just moving the trailers in. Something must be done.

As we make our way out of Far Rockaway, out Atlantic Avenue then along the water, past Howard Beach, Broad Channel,names connected with racial tension and violence in recent years, we can observe the changing and shifting dynamics of the hurricane. Who got wiped out, who didn’t. Who’s got light and heat, who doesn’t. Like I said,we must stop talking abut natural disasters. The hurricane was weather. The disaster was created by policy decisions by human beings.

Riding along the coast, I recall my tours of post-Karina New Orleans. The day reminds me of my experiences in third world countries working for the church in the 1980’s. How we’d load into vans and visit local people on the ground, learning  of their struggles, their resistance. Only this is my own city. Places as foreign to me as Central America or the Middle East. But it is my city....

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

whoever has had the deepest dream, gets the halvah


It’s a quiet Monday in the church. Maurizio Casa, a young opera singer walks in. Interested in doing a series of concerts in the church. He’s lived in the neighborhood before, always saw the church closed. We talk about operas. The power of music. I recall Rafael’s response to Mozart, Don Giovanni and a soprano. (better than crack) And his sadness that his own children are not exposed to this music. How classical music used to be part of our common heritage and is more and more a function of privilege. 

RL comes in to check it dates for possible open mics and showcases. Teddy just wants to see how things are going. Working long hours at Sandy clean up. 

Martin has brought a story from Rumi about three travellers, a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew. And what they discover about prayer. He’d like to turn it into a performance piece and an opportunity to explore the multicultural cauldron of creativity and achievement that was Andalusian Spain. Including an economic analysis. 

Kara breezes in. Wants some time to practice the piano. I’m happy to welcome her. I listen as she painstakingly works her way through war up exercises, scales. Then slowly  and methodically entering into her own shadowy, pensive, classic style explorations. Sometimes I find her over the top cheerfulness a little hard t handle. But Teddy reminds me that she has recovered from a serious brain injury and is pretty heroic in her comeback. So I listen closer. 

Until my couple comes in to visit. He descended from Buenos Aries Jews and a Catholic mother, she from a traditional Catholic background. They’ve been together for 13 years and want to celebrate what they’ve been through to come to this point. The outlines of a ceremony begin to fall fairly quickly int place.

Tonight’s Bible study is Mark 11: 15-19, the Cleansing of the Temple, and 20-25, The lesson of the withered fig tree. We note:
  • It is not the commerce itself that upsets Jesus but the way in which it was conducted
  • A house of prayer for all nations is from the universal vision of Malachi
  • The money changers were part of the national banking system exchanging currencies for a profit, a business under the control of the high priest and his family
  • Doves were sacrificed for the monthly cleansing of women and cleansing of lepers and other who were unclean
  • This is what we would call  a direct action, an action with symbolic meaning against the temple state establishment
  • His forbidding any further transactions to take place cold only have been accomplished with barriers or carefully organized people. It’s a tight action. Though as Teddy points out, being aware that there was existing deep anger against this system, he may  have gambled that if he and his disciples stepped forward, everyone else would join in. 
  • This action threatens a whole way of life and means of support so the chief priests and scribes begin to plot how to get rid of him. 
  • Although the fig tree incident seems peevish, petty and strange, it can also be read as an indictment of the existing system, one which cannot satisfy hunger for bear fruit.
  • His admonition to the disciples speaks to their fear that the temple and everything  that has given them identity and structure will wee no more. You don’t need a temple or a mediator, go directly to God. (I explain that in weddings, I am a facilitator, nit a mediator. Jesus wants us to have that relationship directly.) Jesus wants us to bear fruit. 
  • Since the prophers referred to the temple s God’s holy mountain and it was on a mount in Jerusalem, where al Aksa is today, the mountain to be moved is the Temple. 
  • In order to create a new way of being, you have to be able to see it, imagine it first. (11:23-24) IT’s more about claiming victory now than it s a magic prayer to get what I want. 
  • THe center of a new way of being is forgiveness. Direct from God, not mediated. But you go to the one you’ve hurt first. What’s more difficult for our study group is forgiveness.  We finally talk about how it’s fo rus, to set us free from being held, being co sumed, by the hurt that was don eto us. 

The forgiveness part is clearly the most difficult. I explain that its different than reconciliation which requires critical clarification, amends, mutually agreeable trust building steps. Forgiveness is a letting go that doesn't require interaction with the other.  

Marsdah has brought fresh muffins with pecans. Leads to a discussion of Tulsa, pecan season, pecan orchards where you could gather fesh pecans. That image of a new way of being is coming into our imagination. Still has a ways to go. 

Martin's Rumi poem:

Three Travellers Tell Their Dreams
Rumi, translation Coleman Banks
Three devout men of different religions fall in together
by chance traveling. They stop
at a caravanserai* where the host brings as a gift a sweet
dessert, some taste of God's
nearness. This is how people out in the country serve
strangers. The Jew and
the Christian are full, but the Muslim has been fasting all
day. The two say, "Lets
save it for tomorrow." The one, "No. Let's save self-denial
for tomorrow!" "You want it
all for yourself!" "Divide it into three parts, and each can
do as he wants." "Ah,
but Mohammad said not to share." "That was about dividing
yourself between sensuality
and soul. You must belong to the one or the other." But finally
for some reason, he gives in,
"I'll do it your way." They refrain from tasting. They sleep,
and then wake and dress themselves
to begin morning devotions. Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman,
Zoroastrian, stone, ground,
mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the
mystery, unique and not to be
judged. This subject never ends! Three friends in a grand
morning mood. "Let us tell
what dreams we had last night; whoever has had the deepest
dreams, gets the halvah**."
Agreed. The Jewish man begins the wanderings of his soul.
"Moses met me on the road;
I followed him to Sinai: an opening door, light within
light. Mount Sinai and Moses and
I merged in an exploding splendor, the unity of the prophets!"
This is a true dream. Many
Jews have such. Then the Christian sighs, "Christ took me
in his arms to the fourth
heaven, a pure vast region... I cannot say..." His also
deep. The Muslim, "Muhammad came
and told me where you two had gone. 'You wretch!' he said,
'You've been left behind! You
may as well get up and eat something.'" "Noooo!" laugh the
Christian and the Jew. "How
could I disobey such glory? Would you not do as Moses and
Jesus suggest?" "You're right,"
they say. "Yours is the truest dream, because it had immediate
effect in your waking life."
What matters is how quickly you do what your soul directs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I don't miss the kingdoms, but ahhhh....the kings...


Muddy Waters
Weekend after Thanksgiving. Teddy waiting, everything ready, as usual. Arrange chairs in a circle, but we grow beyond and into the pews. Son Daniel is here. He always comes when he’s home. Andre recognizes. How do you reconcile that? He says with a smile. And I say, What? And Andre says that boy is mannish....and laughs which leads James into a whole discussion on Muddy Waters. ( )

I tell Deacon James that Andre tells me he’s been sweeping the steps again. Yes, I feel up to to take my old job back....

Today is Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday.  So I ask what people think of when they hear the word king.
 Royalty. Riches. Unjust power. (That was Anna.)
Tut. Cole. Nat King Cole. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort
I ask how many remember the movies Harold and Maude? In it, Ruth Gordon plays an octogenarian holocaust survivor eccentric loved by a young man, Bud Cort. She says, I don’t miss the kingdoms, but ahhhh.....the kings....

So it’s Christ the King Sunday. It’s a gateway Sunday. One of those Sundays that open a door from one season to the next. From the long green season of Pentecost, ordinary time, into Advent.The culmination, the crowning of the church year before we begin all over again. The year ends with Christ enthroned as King. But what does that mean to us now?  

Wondering what to do with this Sunday led to my questions of Katherine which led to her years of working with us as our ecumenical associate and now with the Center. When I heard what she had to say about this from a feminist perspective, I said Rather than me say your words, you come say them yourself...and then week after week after year after year the dialogue continued. 

We start with Revelation. The Alpha and the Omega. A few weeks ago on All Saints night, we came together and read the book the whole way through. Can’t say I understood it any better. Anguished plea, hallucination, revenge fantasy, final word of affirmation and comfort all in a time of intense persecution. If Christ is King, Caesar cannot be. If Christ rules, Caesar cannot. We choose his realm over empire.

The Tower of Babel, by Breugel

In the gospel...kingdom....king...confrontation with Pilate. In Leila and Berik’s new show, upstairs, there is that painting by the Russian Nick Marci. There’s Bruegel the painter with his Tower of Babel painting on his easel, sketching a child. In the near foreground, an anachronistic biplane.  Off in the far distance is the Tower itself. As if it were there, in Renaissance Belgium. 

That painting of the Tower serves as the cover art for the book Come Out my People, by Wes Howard-Brook. You keep hearing me refer to it because it’s central to a lot of my thinking right now. Two theologies in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation. One of Creation (and Covenant) and one of Empire. In his confrontation with Pilate, Jesus is making it clear...his is not an empire, will not be won or defended by military might and violence, his followers (a word meaning armed defenders) will not use weapons.

That is what he means by his kingdom is not of this world. It’s not about a far off realm of heaven but a different way of being here. Not over there, not up there in heaven somewhere, but right here but with a different understanding of how reality works.

What does that mean for us to live in Jesus’ realm?
You can come here and be assured of acceptance. Unconditional acceptance. 
You can come here and not be talked about behind your back, in fact we’ve got your back
Where we are sustained by being together. What would it take t create that kind of community?To not just say it, but be it?

Last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I was privileged to be invited to a meeting to discuss Presbytery’s action turning back the subdivision into four parts. It wasn’t just a no. It was a yes, to affirming one church in one city. We think of ourselves as without resources. But we have been gifted by God with a amazing diversity of people from literally all over the globe. Our children grow up truly living in the world...therefore we are rich...

We have the opportunity to give to our broader church the gift of a church that is willing to engage the powers, the empire, the issues of race and class while seeking to discern what it means to follow the path of Jesus, the way of the cross...It’s not about what we don’t have, but about what we do have...

We have so much to be thankful for. As I’ve said before, doxology is the beginning of resistance. (Brueggeman) 

It begins with thanks....

And Andre sings He is Lord of Lord, he is King of Kings, Jesus Christ the first and last, no man works like him....and we sing Eres digno....(you are worthy)....and we gather in a circle and sing Amen.

At the  end of the service, Marc has us stay and sing together Any day now, any way now...I shall be add as a chorus behind his recording of Shannon Beck at her house concert. 

Our Session stays after. To get the details of a tough week. To hear how we’re still alive and with hope. Thankfully, Jamie is there to fill in the details, explain the strategy. And we talk about making our Sandy relief deliveries. And planning to celebrate Purisima, the Immaculate Conception, at church with Hugo and Arcadia.

I go down to Marc’s workshop to hear what he’s been working on. He;s added our just recorded chorus. And some guitar color and bass. It’s coming together. I enjoy and appreciate his work on this.

I think about the week. All that happened. This community. And I give thanks. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Still alive: Err on the side of grace, not judgment


Teddy, Greg, Robb, Stephen

Make an appearance on the new online radio show, the Dais, produced by Glen. Hosted by a Mormon and a skeptic. We cover a lot of territory...including my feelings on the current state of the mainline church and the emerging discourse of transformation.  When they asked me what questions I would have for God, as big as the old theodicy question is, what has disturbed me the most recently have been the realities of addiction and mental illness. Towards the end we get into the whole Biblical literalism deal. The issue is understanding the difference between fact and truth. Not the same thing. When that got applied to marriage equality, I summed up my principle value that if you err, it’s better to err on the side of grace than the side of judgment.  They liked that. (If you’d like to listen the show is archived at

Teddy texts me that Robb and Greg are already at the church. They have come all the way from Tulsa, Oklahoma to get married.  After 17 years together. That in itself is an achievement.  This ceremony is more significant for me because they came to me through an old Tulsa friend,Marilyn. At first she thought that due to Presbyterian polity (rules) I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I responded that West-Park has been performing these marrauges for 34 years. The connection back to a city I truly loved, and where I was truly happy, feels good as does a connection back to someone who I truly value. Another one of thise circles.

Teddy has everything ready. We need another witness, So Teddy goes to get Stephen.  I give them the official architectire, design and social history tour while we wait.  When Teddy and Stephen come back, they use my ipad to stream the ceremony back to family. The vows and ring ceremony were especially emotional for this couple who had waotd so long. And Teddy said there were tears on the other side of the ipad as well. I told them I admired their courage both in staying together and making this commitment.

I also mentioned that a publication that has decided to take on those of who do this has accused us of promoting sexual anarchy. The new More Light  Director, Patrick Evans has responded, No, no. Sexual anarchy is waht straight people do at Mardi Gras. 

Everyone signs the license in turn. Robb, Teddy, Greg, Stephen, and me last of all. I am happy that they are happy and that our sanctuary has been blessed by their presence.

Robb and Greg

We head out to the street so that I can show them how to get to the downtown subway to Times Square. I say I’d love to get back to Tulsa. Ans they offer a couch. These moments make it worth it.

I have to stay in the church. Do tomorrow’s service. The tension around negotiations sort of dominated the week. I’m behind. Also calls to make, emails to respond to. Teddy brings me a paper cup of Jameson’s to celebrate the fact that we are still alive. I stop and think about that. Still alive. 

Couple and Pastor
And now its official

Saturday, November 24, 2012

He was right


Although there continues to be an underlying feeling of dread, I go to work with the abiding feeling that all will be all right by the end of the day. Maybe it was Marty, I don’t know. Spend the morning working on emails and communications to craft a solution. Head to Harlem for a meeting related to New york City Presbytery. Then take time to take my boys to a basketball game. 

When I return, new e-mails have come. Things are looking up. Another phone call. Questions. Answers. Satisfied. Solution. Only details to complete. There seems to be a feeling that I should feel elated. But I’m too tired. It’s more like the exhausted relief of Obama’s reelection. We’ve faced death once more and come out alive. But it gets wearing after awhile.

I tell Teddy it’s looking good. Then go to see Berik and Leila’s new opening...New York Realism Fine Arts: Art and Visual Concepts. This time Berik has 16 artists from 11 countries. I’m particularly taken by Nick Marci from Russia. He’s riffing off Flemish Renaissance, especially Pieter Bruegel. But with realistic figures in anachronistic juxtaposition. In talking with Berik, it doesn’t move into surreal, but is allegorical painting. The show’s card features Marci’s Bruegel painting with the Tower of Babel in the background. And I love his Flight into Egypt...another Biblical theme with a 50’s era rusting convertible in the foreground, a fantastic landscape in the background and a barely visible holy family heading towards Egypt. It’s Berik’s last opening for awhile...later in December they are heading to Moscow for an extended museum show.

Flight into Egypt by Nick Marci

I leave before Hugo arrives with the food. Love to stay but a family dinner awaits. And maybe two more e-mails to seal the deal. Marty was right. The big check is on its way.

Friday, November 23, 2012



Thanksgiving. That great American secular holiday. A day to be with your family. Not working. Always used to be my favorite. All teh family warmth and food and no Christmas present anxiety to deal with. Just being together. Our first year in Tulsa, Andrea and I had Thanksgivng dinner with a Native America family. She always thought it  was a day to thank the Indians. Family, food, football, no work.

Not this year. I meet Martin for conversation at the Bean. Teddy’s there too. He’s had a very positive contribution as no-nonsense set of ears. Common sense. And deep care for the whole project. Lay it all out again.  Possibiities. Possibiitites. There will be phone calls and e-mails and texts in between turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberries all day. A lot of work being done to find a way. 

Walking up Amsterdam, the Quebecois Christmas tree people have arrived a day early. Teddy doesn’t know about this. Come on, Teddy, you got to meet these guys. He looks at me quizzically. I tell him how 2 or 3 Quebecois Christms Tree Cartels control the whole New York market. Turf battles and all. And the same sellers come back each year.  Become our cross street neighbors for a month. Then disappear in the middle of Chirstmas Eve.  And the magic urban forest appears overnight filling the avenues with the smell of evergreen. 

Sure enough, when I look in the shelter, Dominic is there. His blonde braids and semidreads, watchcap, heavy sweater, work pants and heavy boots. Could’ve just walked in from the forest. I welcome him back. Introduce Teddy. Teddy tells them, whatever you need, just come on over. 

And I know with their arrival, this year, now too, has wound its way to its final days, the festive season keeping us from thinking too much about where we have been, another year gone. My goal is to let that go this year. Let each day be its own. Just be glad they’re back and the spruce and pine and fir filling the streets. Dominc, bienvenue encors.....

Teddy and I walk up the street. Have to bring some of Hugo’s food to the guys. 

Time for a break. For Thanksgivng. Giving thanks. Breuggeman said resistance begins in doxology....

And I am. Thankful.