Friday, May 31, 2013

That was then


Ft. Scott Presbyterian Church

The youth group from Ft. Scott and their pastor Jared Witt are here waiting for me when I arrive. Jared was a colleague trying to build a start up church a few years ago. Along with a vision of a contemporary urban monastery and craft micro-brewery, like the medieval monks. I thought our basement would have made the perfect location.

I start by asking them about where they live. A small town an hour south of Kansas City. Pretty rural. Stagnant economy. Meth wars. Church small, building about the same age as ours. But larger. And not many youth.

Then I take them for an interpretive walk around the block. Showing them how to read an urban neighborhood, our neighborhood. About changes you can see and not see. What your eyes can tell you about who lives there. Income levels. Religions. What’s it meant to see exotic avian hospitals, wild bird rescue centers and check cashing places, Greek diners and yuppie restaurants, public housing and doorman buildings all around the same block?

Then we return to the church and I share our social and religious history. They’re happy to learn about how God’s Love We Deliver, began at West-Park since they’re going there to volunteer tomorrow.

I talk to them about a holistic video of ministry where there is no division between evangelism and social justice, where they are seamlessly connected. Of the connections between beauty and justice, ethics and aesthetics.

I get them set up  to do sweeping and cleaning  of the steps and outdoor policing the area before I have to run to make a noontime rally in front of the governor's office  the shameful inadequacy of his minimum wage proposal.

On my way back, I’m reflecting on my interview with the WBAI reporter. (to hear the interview on this story, go to ) Long story short: she lives across the  street in the Belnord. One of those throwbacks to the days when the city joked about the Peoples' Republic of the Upper West Side. Or that when the  Berlin wall fell, there were more communists on the Upper West side than in East Berlin. The Belnord continues to house the publisher of a long term leftist journal and the last of a generation  of activists, planners of the 1983 march against nuclear proliferation  mostly  octogenarians now. The former labor leaders who moved uptown to establish a more middle class life are increasingly replaced by young families and new wealth celebrities like Matt Damon. The nearby streets on weekends experience stroller gridlock. Such is gentrification on the Upper West Side. 

When I come back, there’s only  a short time before I need to head to 475 Riverside for  meeting and ultimately down to St. PAul’s Chapel where we’ll elevate the 25th anniversary of the 200 day occupation of City Hall Park but homeless, the so-called Kochville. The founding of the Interfaith Assembly in Housing and Homelessness by my predecessor Bob Davidson, the heroic priest and activist Daniel Berrigan and the prophet of Argentina’s dirty war, Rabbi Marshall Meyer.

Karen comes in to offer us maintenance products like those she supplies to other nearby buildings . And to play the piano and fill the walls with  her music. 

A long night is ahead.

To lean more about Kochville and the homeless occupation, see John Jiler's Sleeping with the Mayor (

Thursday, May 30, 2013

All I've got


The day after. After so much activity, the sanctuary always seems extra quiet. I’m checking out the water bottles, paper, etc. strewn around the sanctuary. So what are you up to? It’s Jeremy over in the corner getting his own music equipment back to normal. Just examining the detritus from last night, I say. Yeah, says Jeremy, looks like there was a rock concert here. 

Stephen comes in, looking appropriately exhausted. No good, I say. He agrees and will call Red Bull, as per contract to come in and clean up. He calls. And they will send a clean up person. It will take awhile.  We’ve been left, looks like, a year’s supply of Red Bull. 

Using the computer to try and locate Jay's computer and cell phone. Amazing how someone went up the backstairs during  the concert and made off with his stuff. Still shocks me when that happens. 

Eventually a Latina woman arrives. Stephen shows her where all the equipment is. Hours later, he'll check out the work. 

I step outside. The wheel chair man is asleep in the north doorway. He asks for some time. Looks like some quantity of something has spilled. I hope. 

Yesterday, Karen came in. Before the concert. Haven’t seen her for a long time. She was one of the original piano ladies, before Cara. She’s been in Hawaii. Wanted to play awhile. Clear that wasn’t going to happen. Then she asks if  Teddy’s around this afternoon. And I realize she’s missed the death, the memorial service, the whole thing. I tell her. And she’s in serious shock, disbelief.  I don’t have time to talk, with the concert coming up, so I direct her to the blog links for the stories ( ), and the link for Zeljko’s movie. )

Back outside, the man with the wheel chair is stirring. He asks for a soda. Maybe a sandwich. No soda, no sandwich, I say, but I do have Red Bull. It’s all I’ve got. 

Still later, the Sanctuary choir is arriving for rehearsal.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A circle of bells


The day begins with Brian to catch up on his life in California.
And the day at the church is devoted to getting  ready for tonight’s concert. Brian drops by around noon and helps us load in some of our supplies. Red Bull has their own union production staff.

sound check
Around noon comes the full sound check with wall trembling bass. (We could bring that down a little...) and the inevitable visit from the neighbors. The hours draw nearer and the place has been transformed in to a real concert venue.

At 5:45, Stephen and Cynthia pull  us all together for crew assignments. Cynthia’s worried about  homeless man setting up camp, but it’s simply a man with his cart full of cans and bottles, an independent recycling entrepreneur, as I put it. But a few minutes alter, I  find a sleeping body and am shocked to discover its Keith. I tell him he can’t be there during the show and he seems in bad shape. Understanding but not well. 

Our folks are covering our bases. #OWS social worker Jessica is helping Leila at the industrial cool Red Bull bar. And at 6:30 the doors open and seats begin to fill. Good to see so many of our friends from Dzieci, Noche, Sky Orchestra and others heading towards our VIP section.  Jeremy and Priska are working  the balcony, I greet Beppe and Liljana and Carman Moore. And happily, soon Nate will get off work and join me. 

RL looks in to wish us all well just before it begins.

An earnest and sincere young singer songwriter from New Zealand with a soulful voice and fluid
Louie Baker
electric guitar to match, Louie Baker, opens. It’s his first American performance and he’s well received. 

Kazakh born Anya Kuts, part of the Russian duo Love Cult, follows with a moody shadowy set of electronica and vocal. Her first visit  as well and her music entrances with shades of darkness.

Then the main performer, Pantha du Prince (Hendrik Weber) and the Bell Laboratory come out dressed in la  coats and aprons. They begin with an English hand bell circle, then move into extended bell, marimba, xylophone, gong flourishes above, behind and with a steady driving drum beat and underflowing electronic bass. This is the American premiere (and only American performance)  of  their collaboration, Elements of Light. 

Bell Laboratory at work
In the middle of the piece, they come together in the center with rectangular tube hand chimes, the bell’s plainer incarnation, then back to their other percussion instruments then quietly finishing with the handbells again circling through the audience and then back to their final circle ending with a whisper of bells. Minimalism, repetition and the counter-intuitive idea of electronica played with real instruments. 

A rousing applause, one more song. And that’s it. Leaving the light guys non-plussed with a bag of tricks still to pull out. The strobes and lights behind the organ pipes and the Tiffany never came into play.

Beppe wanted more fluidity, more freedom with the gongs, instruments he loves. Jeremy noted that the whole group played with a click track in their headpieces. Impressive showmanship, presentation, classic German discipline. But a little short on soul.

Upstairs, we talk with Hendrik. Learn how he was in Oslo. Wanted to compose a piece for their town hall carillon. Was directed to the Bell Laboratory and finally recorded on a five ton mobile carillon.  The travelling collection of instruments is to mimic that sound.
Jeremy and Priska  beside Pantha du Prince (Hendrik Weber)

A few words about bells. In Junior and Senior High School I played in a church bell choir. The thought that these hand bells could ever be cool never occurred to me. The bells were Schulmerich from the foundry in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. Schulmerich also made the long vanished West-Park carillon. The bells disappeared sometime in the 70’s or ‘80s, no one remembers how or why.  But the keyboard to play them and the pain roll for automatic timed playing are still in the music room. After Hurricane Sandy, Schulmerich contacted us to find out if we’d suffered any carillon damage. They had a special fund for that purpose. I pondered asking for a full replacement, but thought better of it.  Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory play Schulmerich bells. A circle begins in my teenage years, flows through the West-Park tower and is completed in the Sanctuary, the final peal of the bells hanging in the air. 

As we’re wrapping up it appears that Jay’s lap top and cell were stolen from his room. Sigh.

Our part, we handled well.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Memorial Day: Red Bull moves in


from the New Yorker

Memorial Day. 

Red Bull move in day. The house is a bee hive of activity. Trucks pulling up. Lights. Sets. instruments...transformation underway...

My friend Elise walks up Amsterdam...a perfect sunny day... with me after a matinee of the Great Gatsby...florid 3D Baz Lahrman floating swirling deco version...and stops in to see what’s going on. She is predictably amazed. I give her one of Angelo’s angelitos.

Late in the day, Jay and Jason are back from ribs and wings at brother Jimmy’s and ready to get to work. Guards will be in a truck all night long keeping watch....

Here’s what the New Yorker wrote about the concert:

May 28: Hendrik Weber’s unclassifiable avant-electronic project PANTHA DU PRINCE enlists the percussion ensemble the BELL LABORATORY to present the U.S. première of “Elements of Light,” which was first recorded with a three-ton carillon of fifty bronze bells. It is an instrument that’s normally found in a church’s bell tower (some carillons are over a hundred tons), so this is not a concert to be taken lightly. (For more information, visit

May 28 – May 28
165 W. 86th St., N.Y.

Trinity Sunday reflections


Trinity Sunday. The only day of the liturgical calendar devoted to a theological concept and not an event in the life of Jesus.

I know from the start it’s going to be a short Sunday. Holiday weekend. People gone. People sick. Anna is at the bus stop with puppy, waiting. I’m pleasantly surprised to have Brian, one of my bicoastal members arrive. Anna comes in, picks up the broom and pan to take her turn at sweeping.

I gather chairs in a circle. Invite everyone down and begin. It’s also Memorial Day weekend. Not a day to celebrate the military..why does major league baseball have to go GI Joe with all the camouflage this weekend? But a day to remember our loss...

My father always tried to place flowers on his father’s grave on this day. I can’t be there to do that fro my father. But I  can see where he is buried. Imagine myself at the grave side, placing  flowers there.  The feel of the wind, the smell of the place, there in my hometown.  Imagine myself there.

After we read the scriptures for the day( Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8, Romans 5: 1-5, John 16: 12-15), we begin our conversation. John of course begins with a reference to the father, son and holy ghost. Nirka focuses on the person of Jesus. Anna recalls her upbringing as a Catholic and all the different religions and their threes...Brian recalls his being Santa Claus at West-Park, his story about the candy cane and its  stripes. For the big three again. And if you turn a candy cane upside down, it’s a J for Jesus, the reason for the season, as he puts it. Also a shepherd’s crook, say, and the red and white, blood and purity....

There are conventional approaches to explanation, like I can be my parents’ child, my wife’s husband and my children’s father all at the same time. Also the idea that key to understanding is relationship.

That’s what the father language is all about, not masculinity, but intimacy, relationship. And strange that the Wisdom lesson, Proverbs, is about, well,  wisdom. The  language makes John think of Jesus, but it’s really wisdom, and feminine.

Wisdom, too, comes from experience, relationship. Wisdom is not knowledge like facts are not truth. It’s deeper than that. An inner knowledge of whats right. 

Likewise, the Paul passage refers to Jesus as the human one.  The suffering/endurance/hope sequence doesn’t always work in real life. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger sounds  good but doesn’t always work fro everyone.  Sometimes what we experience, endure, doesn’t make us stronger, just messes us up. I’ve got a lost patrol of marines  on my steps with PTSD to attest  to that reality.

But as one of my colleagues said, suffering  is a given, misery optional.  In the end, suffering is  not a punishment, it simply is. And although few of us are truly innocent victims, there is simply a function of grace, or at least mystery at work here. 

Hope does not disappoint. Being what we WILL be begins now. And as Sharon Welch has said, cynicism remains the  prerogative of the privileged. Hope is not optimism, as I’ve said here so many times. As Jim Wallis has said, hope is believing despite the evidence and having the courage to work to make the evidence change. And the reality is, hope works. 

It’s about resilience. And hope is the one thing that can counter depression. Like Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Believing that in the end God’s will will be done. 

Finally, the Holy Spirit. What sustains us, keeps us going. Jesus says he’s got more to say, but we won’t understand it. Mystery again. Again, truth is relational. Again, facts and truth not the same .Jesus did not say he was the facts, he says he is the truth. 

So as I say in my Spanish benediction every Sunday, con el amor  del Dios, nuestro creador;  la gracia de Jesucristo, nuestro hermano, companero y salvador; y el poder sustenando del espiritu santo....

(With the love of God our creator, the grace of Jesus Christ our brother, companion and savior and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit....)

For today: 
Father and Wisdom
Son:  being, living...compassion....suffering....and the Spirit that sustains.

Don’t worry about doctrine or theology. Live. Be. Relationships...know the Trinity by experiencing it.

We gather in our circle. Say our benediction. Sing amen. Worship is over. The service continues...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A few words about flamenco


Back from breakfast with Hugo and Arcadia. Stephen is working on editing the recording of Cara’s music. Martin and I step out for conversation. Numbers, numbers, working on numbers. I talk about yesterday afternoon’s epiphany moment.

Yeah, I know, he says. Antonio came up for dinner. He was still crying.
Beauty, I say, exquisite beauty
You have to tell him, says Martin, he’s actually pretty shy.

As if on cue, Antonio walks by. He’s teaching his Saturday morning class. Ayer, I say, que belleza. Un momento de belleza. Un momento...
and we say together, magico puro....and he smiles in a gentle, semi-embarrassed way. 

I say to Martin, it’s not just numbers, it’s this...these understand...

He looks at me like, of course I understand...

Somehow this must be  part of the equation...

We talk. I say that yesterday, Stephen said, everyone has their price. And I responded, but apparently not me...

And I tell Martin, but on reflection, maybe I do....the right flamenco dancer, the right gitana,  and I’d follow that caravan anywhere...

                  * * * * 

This flamenco thing. Not new. Back in 1977, I went to my first artists’ workshop at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico. Where Georgia O’ Keefe lived and painted. It’s rocks and mesas her subjects. There were poets, painters, sculptors...and Eva Encinias teaching dance. At the end of the week, she brought her  troupe up from Albuquerque for a performance. Including her mother, still a powerful singer.  I was blown away. Even wrote a poem about watching Eva dance flamenco. 

I learned that its roots went from beyond Andalusia to the Indian subcontinent. That it could be loosely translated peasants in flight. And in the flashing feet and facial expressions of the  women I could see a narrative of flight, of determination  of passion. Dances, songs around camp fires. Feet almost bursting into flame. As if they could chase away the devil or drive all the way through  to the center of the earth. 

Every summer I would wait for Eva’s performance. As a whitebread boy from Pittsburgh it was a world that was vibrant and alive with pure passion. A world I wanted. 

Needless to say, I love flamenco in my house....

                                       * * * * 

Excitement: the New Yorker magazine has a feature in the Pantha du Prince concert...that's a first...( )

Another day of sweeping. And its a rubber gloves day. Lots of wet newspaper, cardboard. I get to where the army guy with  the sign was sleeping. Pick up his cardboard. Out falls 2-3 dozen condoms. What? Seriously?

I go down to visit with RL, Katie and Poet Tim at the Gate. On the way back, I see the Sergeant. Tell him what a mess it was this morning. Unacceptable. And then I tell him about the condoms. He is sad and angry. All right, pastor, I got it.

And we talk about housing. How I learned from Reachout he still has a place. Not the way he understands it. Could be a bureaucratic foul up where his case got closed and housing no longer in place. I tell him we’ll check it out next week. Stephen is adding him to our crew for the concert. 

This day is done. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why we're here


See Anna on the bench in front of Genarro, one of the only destination restaurants on th Upper West Side. Haven’t seen her in a few days, so I sit and talk awhile. She reminds me that the project across 93rd is called Little Vietnam. That tells you how long its been around.  Haven’t heard that for awhile, I say. And I remember how when I first moved here, we’d hear gunfire coming from there. Back when the Mexicans first moved in the and Caribbeans moved out  and a battle took place for control of the drug trade. I recall that. Haven’t heard guns in a long time, I say. They’re  still there, she says, but now the projects are all next door to rich people. 

When we were planning our candidates' forum questions, someone suggested stop and frisk as an issue. Not in our neighborhood, most responded. With projects just three blocks away. I’ve had members  stopped and frisked. But in the gentrified Upper West Side, some things, some people, are invisible.

Stephen and Danielle and I going over the Red Bull contract one more time. I help Stephen move the movie screen. We’ll need Marc to help move out all his sound equipment so that Red Bull’s people can move their equipment in. 

Bread and Puppet tech people are in to do preliminary work for their fall celebration. Contingency plans and all. And a contractor comes in to work up estimates on what it will take to bring  the building up to code. 

In addition to the new exposed lath Stephen  showed me last night during the storm, we hear water dripping  and find there’s water coming in through the tower into the theatre. The bathrooms are flooded. And the drainage hole at the end of the stygian darkness passage is filled again. 

Danielle emerges from the tower  looking like Ash Wednesday.

Rudolfo wanders in, with that sad ready to ask for help look on his face. My look tells him not now. 

See Gregory out on the street. This time he just greets me. A random man comes by with a story and an ask. Anna tells him I’m almost as broke as he is, which is pretty close to true.  

The madness is also beginning  to get to me. Looking out at the world through so many eyes that see plots and plans and threats at every turn. Harder to pull myself out of that place. 

I tell Danielle, in my world, most of us are doing our best juts to get by. None of us perfect. All of us mixed motives. Few of us truly evil. Takes most of our time and energy just to hang on. Not much left over for plots and plans....Tiring. 

I open my computer to look at financial statements. And feel an increasing depression setting in. More than  one kind of leak has sprung. The sound of steady dripping has me almost to the what’s the point place. Why do we keep trying? Really feeling it. RL comes in. It’s cold enough that he’s got his winter cowboy hat out again. He here’s me utter what could be heard as a prayer. OK, when I hear a man of the cloth looking at his computer screen, calling for Jesus, it’s time to git...

Even sweeping the steps doesn’t help.

Jeremy is in the sanctuary recording Cara’s music. She’s been playing about an hour. Then Danielle hears a voice.
Who’s that?
Jeremy? I suggest.
No, someone different.

So we look. It’s Antonio. One of the foremost flamenco dancer/singers in the world. Here for a week of composing and choreography with Martin. And conducting workshops.  
Antonio Rodriguez

We watch. And listen. He is flamenco riffing off of Cara’s playing. That plaintive flamenco style with echoes of Muslim muezzin, Jewish cantor, Andalusian gitano. Wavering, near ululation, filled with longing, anguish, determination, passion. They are improvising. Gypsy jamming. We are mesmerized. Transfixed. They continue the dance of piano and voice, back and forth, rising and falling. Then Antonio begins clapping his hands, palmas, and next thing  I know he has flown into dance, his feet pounding the floor in relentless rhythm until a final explosion of sound. They look at each other. Collapse into laughter. And hugs. Danielle and I look at each other. Amazing. Just amazing.

Maybe because it’s because I’m already on the verge of emotional exhaustion, but I feel tears welling up. And I know. I know why we’re here. That unexpected intersection of unlikely people. The moment of magic transcendence that happens here. 

We walk into the sanctuary. Stephen looks up. Did you hear that? Incredible, I say, just incredible. Cara is beaming. I have never been happier, she says, I am so rich. I am going to be somebody (Cara, you already are somebody.) I know her story. Her journey. I’m watching rebirth as she claims all her gifts.  And I know.

This is so right. So what is supposed to be. So why     is     it    so    hard? So    damn   hard?

And after this performance, Cara goes out to sweep. This is why we are here.

                * * * * 

When I go to leave, the door won’t open. Los Rodriguez are there. They tell me the other doorways are full. I see a young white guy asleep in the south door. He’s got a sign that says: 

You can’t do that here, I say. He nods. Takes down the sign.

It’s the shit and champagne story again. The  exquisite beauty and madness.

I know why we’re here.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Almost midnight


Stephen  and Mitchell and I move the big screen and begin to prepare the space for the Red Bull load in. 

I look up and see Jason from #ows in front of me. He’s back from Atlanta, where he’s been living. Back for an action. And fro planning a reoccupation of Zucotti. Feels like something from the ancient past, not just last year. Stephen quickly hooks him up for working the Red Bull concert while he’s in town. I share with Jason his portrait from Elizabeth Herman ( and those of his #ows colleagues. He’s impressed. 

I come back late in the day. Angelo’s opening was impressive. he’s got an agent who wants to take his work to a higher level. His agent used to work for wssfsh with Hugo. and is connected with a dentist and a program that uses art sales to provide free dental care for uninsured children and other like the Bowery Mission and Wssfsh. ( Yet another program birthed at West-Park. 

As the sun is fading, I listen to Dzieci in the sanctuary. Tonight in the semi-dark, I hear what sounds like Gregorian or medieval church chant filling the walls. 

Beppe drops in and we go to the Gate to review the Carman Moore concert and organic urban gardening and shamans...When we return, Stephen is playing the piano.  Marc reminds  me that the garbage  has to go out. It’s late . Who can do it? Sergeant Keith and the lost patrol to the rescue. Job finished in a blink of an eye. 

Still a moral  dilemma for me. I know from Reachout  that Keith has housing he can return to. The steps are not a solution for Keith and his platoon. Still it's not bad to have a patrol of loyal Marines at your command, even with post-Afghan PTSD.

I love this, says Beppe. A church, almost midnight. A guy playing  piano, a homeless crew of marines  hard at work. Life. I love this...