Sunday, November 11, 2012

A life to be honored


Sis Gcobs

I’m in the Village at the Indie Film Center for a film premier when I get a call from Danielle. We’ve got a memorial service going on and there are issues with the lights.

On the train to West-Park, I’m thinking about the film, Building Babel. It’s about my downstairs neighbor, Sharif El-Gamal, a real estate developer and driving force behind park 51, the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. The film is by David Osit, son of Karen, co-founder (with Jane) of Sanctuary NYC.

I remember the day Fox News  invaded our apartment building trying to comer Sharif. Our gathering of neighbors in the sukkah dinner where the Park 51 issue dominated our discussion, sometimes tense.  And participating in an interfaith event at Park 51, surrounded by security and chanting protesters. The police shut down the street. He was happy to greet me as a neighbor, glad that I was there. 

And I remember the day, a few weeks ago, while Sharif was on Hajj, Rebekah his wife just stopped in West-Park to see what the church was like inside. Raised Catholic and converted to Islam, she is a quietly strong and deeply spiritual woman. As I explained the history of the sanctuary, she said,  I was raised a Christian. This has brought me closer to God. And it is the same God. She said she would like to come back sometime. 

Park 51 was not at Ground Zero and was not a mosque. The dream continues. We have worked with others who want to make it a reality. The vitriolic, threatening response to that vision is itself why such a center, collaborating with other faiths is needed. OK, we need to bring the film to the Center and I need to get Sharif to come with it. 

At the church, Danielle is struggling with balcony lights that won’t come on. The people from the memorial service are also expecting a projector to show a DVD. Luckily Marc shows up and piece by piece things come into place.

 I stay to make sure everything is OK and slowly begin to understand the service that is taking place. It is in honor of Nomgcobo Beatrice Sangweni, or Sis Gcobs, as she was known. I learn of an amazing woman who had been a member of the African  National Congress in South Africa fighting apartheid and  forced into exile in the US. Although a college graduate, she worked as a house cleaner in New York City until she could save enough money to get another degree at CUNY and then a masters in Urban Planning. She eventually became the Director of Research Services and Development for the New York City Department of Health. But when democracy triumphed and apartheid came to an end, she returned to South Africa championing womens’ issues and health education and care for her people.

There was a South African choir from Harlem. The South Africa ambassador Baso Sangqu spoke. Musicians played traditional and popular South African music. I looked around the sanctuary. At the people. The sounds. The large South African flags draped on the altar. And reflected on a life I had not known about, a story of compassion, commitment and courage. 

Honored that the spirit of this event, too, would become part of West-Park. 

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