Wednesday, January 30, 2013

If only...


It’s a day long Presbytery meeting. What’s worse, a day in court or Presbytery? I leave just after the vote on gracious dismissal... ie, how to let congregations leave and keep their property...such mixed feelings...I tell Hope I’ve got to go back and meet Nancy to talk real estate.

As I’m approaching the church door, I see her. Invite her in. Stephen is practicing the piano. Nancy sits and listens. I ask Steve,Was Danielle in?  And he repliesYes, she  left about half an hour ago. He continues to play. Nancy and I head to the B.


Mariola is in the Noche office working. Nancy drops in to pick up keys.  Hope comes to meet me an dtravel down to Centre Street and Civil Court.

Long hours later. Drag into the office at the end of a long day in court. Glad that Hope was there too. To testify. Dumb case, really. Someone who’s proposal didn’t get chosen for our project suing to get the proposal preparation fees refunded. As Nancy said,that would set  a horrible precedent. The part  I feared the most, the testimony of old friends, wasn’t so bad. Questions  answered honestly. With integrity. And even making  a good witness to our way of doing things. Democratic vote, majority rule. As my friend said, win some, lose some, but don’t break community...

In the hands of the judge now. And the whole process draining. Even when it was my attorney asking questions of the plaintiff’s witnesses, my stomach got in ever tighter knots. Later Hope said to me, remember, we didn’t set this in motion... Doesn’t help. Much.

We take the long, slow walk up to the subway station and the down two long flights to get to the Q. At Times Square, a long walk to the end of the platform to get to the elevator. We have both missed doctor’s appointments long ago. 

And now Danielle tells me of her day. The young man Ben, working for Bill from Portland, comes to check out the tower. He covered his feet, put on a mask and went in and up,forgetting for the moment his vertigo and fear of pigeons. Made it pretty far up.

The director of Hudson Warehouse stops by again. Something here has captured his imagination...Leila is back. Berik welcoming artists for yet another show.  If only...

Zeljko’s gift to Colonel Zelko finally on its way ti the Colonel in New Hampshire.  Rachelle came in concerned about Cara. Anna has already expressed her concern and solidarity. Danielle is moved by this circle, a West-Park circle. 

RL stops in on his way to his studio. Still hoping that logic, common sense and self-interest might convince a landlord of an appropriate plan of action. One can hope. 

Time to walk down the street for dinner with Mim and Kimberley. Make plans for the coming semester and her internship. I pull myself out of my exhausted funk to think creatively. For awhile. Showing  Mim how we could reframe. Still make it work. Her support, her caring, a true gift. Here is the real example of the word gracious. 

Walking toward the bus stop, I’m thinking now if only I can let go. If only I can believe...if only....

You've got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em, know when to walk away and know when to run....


The day went back and forth between snow and rain. At the end of a long cold day, I’m sitting in the office with Stephen and Danielle, reviewing a day in court. It’s bad enough getting sued. And realize its not just the church but me, personally. But then I saw a former employee, close friend, there to testify against me and the bottom dropped out of my heart. I told them how I waited all  morning and then was told we’d go to trial later that afternoon.

Told them how over the lunch break, I wandered through an ever more disorienting Chinatown. How you go down certain side streets, so crowded you can hardly move, no one speaking English, even all the signs in  Chinese only and people in the shops looking at you as if you’ve entered somewhere you don’t belong. Find a hole in the wall Vietnamese shop. Times article on the window says it’s what would happen if you crammed a whole Walmart into 200 square feet. Women’s underwear, black bras, a wall of Vietnamese DVD’s and CD’s and even a bargain bin of mix tapes. Real mix tapes. 
And a deli serving those amazing Vietnamese sandwiches on French bread, that classic colonial mixture of Asian and French. I’m saving room so I settled for Vietnamese meatballs on a stick.

How I noticed that Little Italy has shrunk to maybe three blocks and as gentrifying real estate dealers push deeper into Chinatown, Chinatown begins to spread into Soho. How what I thought were leftover Christmas street lights are actually there for Asian lunar new year. How you walk down some side streets and feel like you could disappear and never be seen again and not even care. And finally, after an hour of searching, find the pork bun stand you were looking for. Then duck into a Starbucks to catch your breath and get grounded for just a moment before heading back to court. And then being confronted with the fact that someone who was one of your very closest friends has just arrived to be a witness against you. Yeah, disoriented.

And how even though objectively we’re doing fine in the csse, emotionally it’s devastating on top of everything else. Have to come back Wednesday, and now Hope has to testify too. 

Danielle tells me that the Prophet was there most of the day. Actually spoke to her. She showed him the clothing collection, but all he wanted was a blanket. he asked for scissors. Turned the blanket  into one of his poncho like outer garment. Went into a ritual of prayer and thanksgiving in his own tradition and then took off. Yes, he actually spoke. 

I want to prepare for tonight’s Bible  study but decide to see if RL is in his office at the Gate and compare to figure out who had the worse day.

Tonight’s Bible study moves into Mark 13. Where Mark gets seriously apocalyptic. Talking about wars and rumors of wars. And the instructions that see to say head to the hills... Anna wants to know how this relates to the fact that the temple had already been destroyed when this was written. 

I explain that when I went to seminary, that was the scholarly  concensus but now, they’re not so sure. More recent scholarship seems to indicate that Mark was written before the Temple fell. As the rebel forces were gathering up and Rome was preparing the siege of Jerusalem. Jesus is saying go, now,yes, do head for the hills. Like Stokeley Carmichael once said, put your guns away, they’ve got more. I think about how in backgammon,sometimes you  will  strategically give up on single  games in hoping to make  the points up later. Or as Kenny Rogers once sang in a simple country song,

Yoi’ve got to know when to hold em
Know when to fold em
Know when to walk away 
And know when to run

In short, the message is to walk away from the defense of Jerusalem to live to fight another day. I explained that some archeological   records showed that some groups had fled Jerusalem to land in Pella in Jordan. 

The Pinkerton barge attacks Homestead, 1892
For the first time Marsha sees that this is not just unrelenting bad news. There’s a clear message here. But when do you know? John mentions the Warsaw ghetto. Anna talks of wartime Japan. I talk about the Homestead strike of 1892. How Carnegie and Frick sent   the Pinkertons and then the National Guard after the union men. The union men held out for 9 days. As my organizer friend Barney once said, They held out for nine days. It was only awhile. But sometimes awhile means a lot. To this day, there are fresh flowers daily on the memorial to the fallen workers on the Homestead side of the river. 

Discernment is not easy. What are we called to in our present moment? What Jesus makes very clear is that simply rotating one power for another isn't enough. His call to watch, is a call to see the signs that are around you. My mentor Philip used to say, if God wants something to happen in this world, it is already happening. It’s our job to see it and gather all the support we can. Watch. It’s about creating a whole new way of life. And that’s the most radical idea yet. If heaven shakes as earth shakes, as it did for slave holders, as it did for those who hold out against women or gays, as it did for us when 9-11 toppled the towers, what is shaken on earth is  shaken in heaven.Our cosmology, our whole way of looking at life. Even very understanding of God. It’s all up for grabs. on the table,

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Building Babel


Sharif and David

Tonight we are screening David Osit’s (son of Sanctuary NYC's cofounder Karen Osit) documentary, Building Babel. ( David’s original idea was to enter into the world of the controversy surrounding the efforts to build the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, the Park 51 project.   Get to know the characters, explore both sides of the issue. But he ultimately decided the best thing he could do was to focus in on developer Sharif el Gamel and show in detail the life of one America Muslim family, in its warmth, intimacy, and normalcy. That alone would be radical enough.

The film follows Sharif in intimate detail. Listening to obscene threatening messages on his answering machine. Facing angry chanting mobs. Facing down the powerful New York City Landmarks Commission. Challenging the thought that the fact that landing gear from one of the planes fell on the roof of what was once the Burlington Coat factory was not enough to warrant landmarking. As one commissioner said, we can’t landmark the sky, though I wish we could. 

Sharif is seen  as he is. Driven. Single minded. Passionate. Seeking to be faithful as a Muslim. A loving father. And husband. And neighbor. My neighbor,living two floors down in my apartment building. 

The most ugly face of Islamophobia is revealed in the film from activists to Fox News, who even tried to corner Sharif in our own apartment building  garden.The images of fear and intolerance are disturbing. I am very happy that Sharif has come to join us this evening for questions and answers. He’s been doing his best to stay out of the spotlight and not speak on the record. He receives a warm ovation as he’s introduced.

Bob, Sharif, David Osit, Karen Osit
But even here, in this liberal environment, the anxiety comes through. Far too many questions along the lines of well, you’re obviously a good Muslim,but..., liberals fearing the loss of social gains, as in the fear of eurostanization and the imposition of sharia law. Somehow forgetting the more draconian tenants of Torah, the history of witch hunts and Inquisitions in Christianity, the blood stained history of most religious traditions.  

What I always find most ironic is what people don’t see. That Sharif is, in his own words,  a typical New Yorker, an American, a Capitalist.. I remember my friend Maher in Pittsburgh. A graduate of Texas A&M. If it weren’t for his status as a Palestinian exile, he would have been considered a classic, conservative believer in the American dream. But what he represented as a living testimony of the reality of American supported Israeli policy made him an outsider, marginalized. 

I remember out building sukkot shabbat dinner in the sukkah during the height of the controversy. Invited as a neighbor, even here among people who share a building, the questions for Sharif  turned into challenges. A warm and pleasant evening turned uncomfortable until the conversation was guided in another direction. 

Tonight, Sharif does his best. Defending himself. And sometimes Islam itself. We have so far to go. David’s film has given us a start.

When the film is over, Sharif wants to see the whole building. I give him the full tour. He wants to have breakfast next week. I’m open....

Monday, January 28, 2013

From Haydn to Marley


The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)
The heavens are telling....

This morning I begin the service with a little Haydn, The Heavens are Telling, from the Creation.  
I look back and see a man asleep in the back of the church...
As we get into the scriptures, I explain that Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 is about a community regathering itself around the Law of God. Weeping, moved by the power of it’s centrality to its identity. Mention how Christianity created this bogus stereotype of Jews and Judaism bound and burdened by the Law. Anyone who’s ever experienced Simchat Torah (Joy of the Law) at the end of the Jewish High Holy Days, when the last word of the Torah is read and you go back to the beginning again, an endless cycle, with music an dancing in  the streets cab only realize that the law is experienced as a freeing gift, not a binding burden. Never justify your own tradition by a false comparison with someone else’s. 
Jimmy Cliff sings Marley

Of course Haydn chose Psalm19 for his creation, it is a veritable celebration of creation. But it also inspired the ending of Bob Marley’s Rivers of Babylon  Anyway you get from Haydn to Bob Marley, got to be good material.
Our last two scriptures, Luke 4:14-21 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a give us a mission statement and an action plan.
Let’s start with the mission statement. It’s Oscar season. And I have to get one more song here, 

Do you hear the people sing?

When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes
Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance
The blood of the martyrs
Will water the meadows of France
Do you hear the people sing
Singing the song of angry men
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes

Les Miz also has these words:

Red - the blood of angry men! 
Black - the dark of ages past! 
Red - a world about to dawn! 
Black - the night that ends at last! 

Red and black, the traditional colors of revolution. Like the colors o the Sandinista flag. Or the Spanish Civil War.And of course, French Revolution.And in this case, the ill fated June Rebellion of 1832....

It is to the ever present in any age reality of oppression of the poor and marginalized that Jesus is speaking. He picks up the scroll of Isaiah and reads:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
So that’s it, his job description: in short, he is calling for the jubilee. Announcing freedom from the 4 d’s:  disease, debt, demons and death. The jubilee comes from te heart of the Torah. every 7 time 7 years plus one was to be a reboot. A restart. Forgiveness of debts. Return of property. So that no family, no part of tje community would be perpetually marginalized and no one perpetually privileged. Did it ever really happen? We don’t know. But it was at the center of Jesus’ self-understanding, right there in the sermon on the Mount...not a romantic vision...but a commitment to make the jubilee real...
Today, he said, this is fulfilled in your hearing? How? Nothing had changed.But everything had changed. Announcing it made it Tutu’s we have already won... the liberation joy of African American worship, the existential living out of the Magnificat by Latin American base communities...
we have to see it before we can  live it...As they say in Spanish, ver/hacer...

OK, so how to live? That’s where 1 Corinthians 12 come in. An action plan. The analogy of the body. So of you asked yourself, which part are you? All are important. All essential. For Paul, 
apostles, prophets, deeds of power, healing, forms of assistance, leadership, tongues
What is your gift? What are we missing? The bottom line is if one suffers, all suffer...if one honored, all honored...

Having said that, strive for the greater gifts? What could that mean? 

If we took Jesus at his word and interpreted everything else in the scripture in that light, how would things be different?

I notice that the Prophet has come in and joined our service. That's never happened before. First inside, now a service.

We end our service. Make our circle, sing our Amens.  Back into the world again.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Where's the shell?


RL once told me the difference between being crazy and being nuts. If you’re crazy, he said, you don’t know it. But if you’re nuts, you know where the shell is. And how to use it to protect yourself if need be. I’m not even sure what that means, but somehow it seems to make sense.

A Saturday facing down serious blues. 

Cara has come in to help me with Sunday preparations. We go out side, I’ve got the broom, she the dustpan. And we do a thorough sweeping of the steps, the sidewalk, getting our entrance clean. We throw away all the stashed cardboard to dissuade any prospective steps sleepers in this weather. 

Inside, we move the meeting table out of the way. Fold up all the folding chairs and get the out of the way. While she sweeps the sanctuary, I get out the green paraments and place them on the communion table. Get out the candles and place the around. Get out the Spanish Bible. My green Jerusalem stole. 

We’re trying to locate all the necessary pieces to a vacuum cleaner. She asks if there’s budget to buy a new vacuum or even a dust buster and I say, what budget? We’re checking out the cleaning closet. Marc has now joined the search when RL appears.

RL needs to have confirmed the availability of a quality keyboard for the after concert for Teddy’s memorial service. Marc begins to describe his Korg. Cara begins to describe her electric piano in her crib in Queens. That of course would require a pick up. Marc has plenty of electric pick ups. No, she needs a pick up truck. Soon everyone is excitedly talking at once, all well intentioned. And wanting to help. What I want to do is just vanish, disappear. (It’s my problem, okay? It’s just their eagerness to help...) But I play teacher and ask everyone to speak one at a time.

RL winks and says and you thought you had to import all these theatre people to bring drama to this place. And I wink back and say, longest running performance art piece on the Upper West Side. I’m still expecting Andy Kaufman at any time. And he sings, Here I come to save the day...and I get it if no one else does. He’s soon describing his Dusty Withers (Famous sidekick!) radio cowboy show recreations. And his wonder mule Mr. Blithers!And Marc is onto Lone Ranger reruns on TV and RL responds with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Cara looks intrigued but puzzled. She wants to give RL a big hug, but I can see it gets him flustered. She is energy.

OK. She will clean some more and then play piano. I promise to ask Jeremy about the keyboard issue. Tomorrow. Right now, I need to head up Amsterdam. And home. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

If you only get it if you don't want it, then what good is it when you get it?


Trying to hold on.  Anna comes in with puppy. I share the  line from Psalm 36: save humans and animals alike...the way I see it, that’s Puppy...and Toto...and Tony...all our West-Park our pets go to heaven? apparently so...we will protect her insurance and other important papers...keep what’s important to her safe...she also has her latest insider’s report on tenant abuse in the neighborhood...I’ve got to get out and check these things out..

Jeremy drops in with a keyboard on his back. Fresh from a memorial service at ABC.  An unexpected tragedy of the kind that leaves people grasping for meaning, gasping for breath....when the universe seems unhinged...So we’ve got details for the film to work out... and Teddy’s memorial and....we need Piano Dan to tune the piano...

Poet Tim and RL come by We’ve got to get a good keyboard for McAlpin if we want Piano Dan and KT and perform....

Details keeping me grounded as I wonder what’s left, what’s still possible...

The coldness continues. 

I keep asking myself if you only get it when you stop wanting it, what good is getting something you no longer care about? All the  spiritual language about needing to let go in order to receive , as if somehow your wanting it to happen prevents it, or...seems to add up to another way to blame the victim...if only you had been more positive, less worried, more attract what your energy is etc...only adds to the guilt and regret when it doesn’t happen...if I only had enough faith...if....Let go and let God...easier said than done... thy will, not mine....I can say it....but feel it, truly feel it? Not there yet....under all the aphorisms there is still real pain...

On my way to Chelsea to see a couple...and it’s still cold....

Friday, January 25, 2013

And colder still


A cold walk from the Occupy Faith meeting back to West-Park. Current agenda focused on debt, collecting stories and holding hearings; Occupy Sandy, new opportunities opened up by the creative response to the hurricane; the fight for a higher minimum wage in New York and exploring what kind of direct action campaigns/events could create energy around this agenda.

Deacon James stops i for the first time in along time. He’s felt considerably weakened. Got word that he needs to go see  his brother in the hospital. Wondering how serious it is. He asks for the broom and dustpan, I can’t do much but I can do the steps...I show him where they are. His dedication amazes me. 

Leila is excited that the Latino artists from her last show want to create one of their own. 
Stephen and I are talking about the door. How keeping the big outside doors open considerably lowers the church’s temperature. Makes it colder and increases the heating bill. What can we do to keep the sense of openness and keep warm?

As I'm walking out to get coffee with Jane, I notice out of the corner of my eye, the Prophet in a far back corner of the church. All these years on the steps and he has never set foot inside the church. The cold has drawn him in. 

Jane walks me aback after coffee at Starbucks discussing the upcoming film Building Babel  about the conflict around so-called Ground Zero Mosque. We also talk about how sometimes you have to be able to let go insider for what is  supposed to happen to happen. Waiting for Stephen to get the film posters up.

Matt and Isis of Dzieci stop by on the way to rehearsal. They’ve had a lot of good response to their Maraton. We’re exploring what creating a Passion Play, kind of based on their Fools’ Mass, might look like.  How we might do that with the congregation. And those who are part of the building on a day to day basis. We talk about this current crisis. About the theories of letting go, etc. And Matt says, but if you stop focusing on what you want, you may bring on what you don’t want by default.  There are always these thin lines between spiritual truth, pop psychology and magical thinking.  Where am I in all that except for trying to stay faithful?

RL looks in twice. Says thanks for the conversation with a dry humor.  Cara looks in too om her way to help out cleaning and playing some piano.

The Center Board meets. At times the feeling is one of frustration, even defeat. Almost resignation at times. We tried our best.... Options are shrinking. Jamies’s going to do her best at the negotiating table. Everything’s a negotiation, she says. (We’ll  have to talk about that.) There’s a sense of hope. Guarded. But hope none the less as we close.  

It’s gotten colder. OK, to the B for pea soup and strategy. Yes, colder still. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A message from the prophet


It is seriously cold outside. 

The director of New York City Opera, George Steel, has come with one of his associates. NYCO was once called the Peoples’ Opera. The popular alternative to the Met across the Lincoln Center  plaza. Beverly Sills’ baby. Former diva  home of of our old friend Lauren. Peripatetic since leaving Lincoln Center for a life as singing nomads around the city. Every space we go into, George claps his hands or sings a note or two to test the acoustics. Checking to see of West-Park might be an appropriate site for one of their productions. 

Marc and Stephen have gathered all our materials  for Hurricane Sandy relief and sorted and bagged them getting the ready for delivery. The three b's: Blankets, boots, batteries....and also warm coats...and the emergency packages made under Lily's direction. We’ve collected more than I thought we had. It’s all in Mc Alpin Hall,  ready to go.

Sandy relief bagged and ready to go

Long conversation with the director of Hudson Warehouse Theater Company. I’ve enjoyed their outdoor productions every summer in Riverside Park at the base of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. Last Sunday, I attended their Shakespeare in a bar event at the Underground. It was a 2 hour cut of Othello by our own John H of the Dark Lady Players. We met there and he’s come here  to check out West-Park as a venue.

Late in  the afternoon, I notice the Prophet sitting on a pew in our narthex. I’m getting ready to leave. Soon. He can’t be there. He's only in here because of the bitter cold. I ask him if he has a place to go. He nods yes, his straw hat bobbing. Takes out paper and a pen, begins anxiously writing. Hands me the paper and leaves. This was his message:
The Prophet's message

INdiA? CheirZAWee?
GoD? ANgeL? Moe? ZiLL?!!

I’m left pondering what this meant to him.

People are beginning to arrive for the Course on Miracles. I ask about the missing table. A woman wants to talk about mice. They freak me out too. Ever since the condo next door brought in an exterminator, they’e been giving us a hard time. She suggests peppermint oil and offers to bring some in. I’ll try anything.

A young couple has come in to plan a wedding. Italian and Noewegian by background. Catholic with one Lutheran parent. RL looks in, nods his head.

He’s headed to the Gate. I accompany him before going  to  meet my friend Elise at 84th Street to see Life of Pi. Afterwards, we stop at the church. The doors are still open. Up to me to lock them up for the night. Then out down the steps. 

And it's  colder still.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

18 degrees and going down


Two pairs of reasonably good men's pants....

Jeremy is in with David Osit to work out technical details for this Sunday’s screening of Building Babel, the story behind the ill fated so-called Ground Zero Mosque,and my downstairs neighbor Sharif El Gamel. I watch as David get a first look at his new documentary on the big screen.

I’m finishing with Jeremy when our seriously  interested person comes in for another conversation. In 24 hours, we seem to have gone from a near certain deal to all but over. I use everything I have to extend the conversation one more day. Too much is at stake. It’s frankly hard for me to think about anything else.  

As the day is ending, I call Stephen in. we can allow nobody on the steps tonight. Too cold, too dangerous. When I get back from a frustrating meeting about religion and labor,  a very frustrating meeting (and we can talk about ACORN sometime...), I find one of the Mexicans setting up in the front door. Mi hermano, no se puede dormir aqui esta noche. Hacce muy frio. No es seguro, es muy peligroso. Se necesita irse immedaimente. No se puede estar aqui.
Claro. Que donde puedo irme?
Me puedo llamar emergencia. Podemos encontrar  refugio temporario pa'usted.

I go in and find Stephen. We call 911. By the time I come back outside, there are four more Mexicans. It's 18 degrees and going down. I’m heading home. Stephen’s in charge now.  He calls to tell me later that the police came. Offered to arrest everyone for trespassing. Stephen said no. So they directed everyone to an emergency intake center a bloc over on Columbus. Everyone headed that way. I am hoping everyone made it ok.