Thursday, October 31, 2013

It works

The new angelito

In the chapel, voices are raised.  There is an argument, to say the least, in process. A is demanding that B go to Harlem and buy drugs. A is saying  that B had kept A high for 4 to 5days running and now has cut off the supply. That B knows what A needs just to taper off.  That this is deliberate, intentional action on B’s part to hurt, to control, to have power over. A is increasingly agitated. B is stoic, or perhaps just numb. There is disagreement over who made the purchase of drugs they both have been using. How could B do this to A after
all A has done for B? How could B claim to love A and not give just a hit to taper down?

In the midst of this, Angelo the artist walks in. With a woman. Ella esta una artista muy famosa de Argentina, says Angelo. Bienvenidos,  I  say. The artista has picked up on the vibe in the chaole. So she asks, Hay una reunion aqui? And I respond, No hay una reunion aqui. Por favor a mirar las pinturas. They are measurably short in their visit. On their way out, Angelo gives me a new angelito, this time on a key chain, to watch over me.

This negotiation will continue throughout the afternoon. I leave to host  a meeting of the executive committee of the Interfaith Assembly  on Housing and Homelessness. Like every other group I’m involved with, the Assembly has its back against the wall financially, as it has for its whole existence. Only now is worse. The population of homeless has increased by 20,000 in the last year alone. We can no longer depend on denominational hierarchies for support. The answer, for all of us, is old school community organizing, grass roots up. Build strong local networks that are not dependent on outside funding. As IAF says, serious money locally raised.

The meeting has ended. Meanwhile, stakes are being raised. A and B are now in the sanctuary. A is arguing that if B will not buy drugs, then A will need to go drinking, just to take edge off. Just to be able  to make it to work tomorrow. A has not slept in 4 days. A offers to jump B’s bones if B will only buy the drugs. Or at least turn over a phone number. (How does this relate to the contentions  about who bought the drugs? If A knew how to get them why is A asking only for  a phone  number? Why not just go buy the drugs?) The pleading, the desperation is painful. Never experienced anything quite like this before. I have no idea what to do. I can’t condone sending B out to but drugs. Can’t tell A to go drinking. I suggest the emergency room. A rejects that out of hand.  They’ll put me in triage. Say this is drug procuring behavior. I only want to just taper off, you know

Yes, that will work, I think. Sardonically.

A ready to walk out. No idea what to do. I ask A to come onto my office. A needs a guarantee that I won’t contact 9-11. I agree. A says its either/or. I say, I don’t know anything about this. Why not just choose not to? Like day by day? A says, you just don’t understand.

So if you go out drinking, I’ll be very sad, I say. So now I can’t disappoint you says  
NO , I say, I will be sad. But you will always be welcome here.

The sense of what I do has been growing in me for awhile. I remind A that I am not a psychiatrist or a psych farm.  I’m  only a minister. And I ask if we can pray.

I start and A says that A is just not able to focus. So I take A by the hands and start again.  Say aloud all I believe is good about A. Invoke A’s favorite saints. Ask for strength. Comfort. Protection. I take out my water from the River Jordan. Make the sign of the cross on A’s forehead. Take the angelito I carry with me daily out of my wallet and give it to A.

And I look. The tension is gone from A’s face. The anxiety relaxed to almost nothing. The manic behavior stilled. Desperation quieted. A asks to sit alone awhile.

In the middle of all this, I get a text from Amanda. I respond,  Can’t right now. Am casting out demons. No. Seriously.

I go visit with a friend. Tell the story of my day. The friend asks what I did. I say, I used my holy water. The laying on of hands. And I prayed. 

My friend says, You’re putting me on.
I say, no I’m not. Seriously. And you know what? It works.
My friend  looks at me. Laughs. Says, that’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said to me. Of course it does. It works. Ha!

When I g back, A is sound asleep. First time in days.
And I think, it works.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

An apology


First an apology. It's been over a week since I posted. Consumed by unnecessary church politics. Lives spinning out of control. Out of town friends visit. House guests. And then the coup de grace last Friday. I got up early. Typed for two hours, trying to catch up. Forgot to save. And it's all gone. Seriously disheartened. Longest gap in the blog yet. I'll try and come up with a creative way to catch up. Meantime, I've just posted my entries from the UWS Food Justice blog. The story of trying to liveon food stamps for a week. Check it out. More to come.....

The SNAP challenge: one week on a food stamp budget

The SNAP Food Challenge

from the Upper West Food Justice blog:

Day one

Does my daily morning coffee I had at my usual place count? Two dollars gone already?
Choices: do I limit myself to five dollars a day or try to economize by buying supplies? This of course is complicated by the fact that Food City, where all the middle class people, especially the elderly, closed after all these years because of astronomical rent increases. Even our City Council member Gale Brewer couldn't save it. Whole Foods is out of the question. And the further complication is like so many others on Food Stamps, I am currently without cooking facilities. So I go to my local corner grocer, Mani. And buy five yogurts, a bottle of orange juice and bananas. That will be breakfast. Eleven dollars.

And if someone offers to buy me a beer, then what?

Day two

Okay. A dollar at the coffee stand across the street. Every time I go into a bodega or CVS and consider a candy bar or snack, I have to say no. I realize, as I have during fasts, how many times I buy a food item on impulse. Mindless consumption. That is a luxury.  At least this forces a mindfulness about choices around eating.

Day three

Walk into a Starbucks. Think. That Salted Caramel Frappucino, that grande Pumpkin Spice Latte, either one would more than wipe out a day's budget. I turn and walk away.

Day four

Broke down. Bought a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

Day five

Glad this is finally over.  At the end of the day, I ordered a wonderful large salad with chicken.  And that broke my budget for the week by a dollar. One what I consider normal dinner over a five day work week. And this is the budget before the food cliff cut backs.

Reminded me of times that I fasted for religious reasons. During the Vietnam War. On Yom Kippur in solidarity with friends and later family. Almost easier to fast than trying to manage on $5 a day. As I mentioned before, the most important experience is always the realization and awareness of the unconscious consumption we participate in every day. A mindfulness of choices regarding what we consume is a good thing to experience. (In the end, that’s one of the main values of Halal, Kosher, other religious food laws, mindfulness.)

And yes there is the artificiality of the fact that this was a voluntary experience, I chose this. For many in my congregation, there is no choice. With food stamps, your choices are seriously limited. And there is of course, in addition to nutrition, just plain boredom.

The fact is,it can’t be done. Not without supplemental supplies from food pantries. Free food wherever it can be found. Meals bought by friends.

We chose food justice for our congregations to share in as an experience because you can enter it at so many levels, production, distribution, consumption.

We began with a chosen experience of consumption limited by public policy.
I’m looking forward to sharing in theological reflection on this experience.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.


The holy man with the pork pie hat is mumbling. I ask him to speak more directly and he says,  He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

I ask him where that’s from. And he says, the 91st Psalm of King  David. I tell him I’ll look it up and memorize it. He looks at me, eyes wide. Look it up? memorize it? You must know it.....

Sean wheels up. Needs a charge again. For some reason, I almost feel happy to see him. I drag the extension cord out and get him hooked up again. I consider this the first liturgical act of the day.

Dion (the comedian) is first to arrive and helps helps me sweep up an get everything else set up. Stephen gets the candles set up and lit. John distributes the bulletins and hymnbooks. We’re ready.

The first lesson to explore is Jeremiah 31: 27-24. There’s a generational issue to look at here with all the sour grapes. Parents eat the grapes, children’s teeth set on edge. We talk about responsibility. I’m not guilty for slavery. I am responsible for dealing with its aftermath.

We see that the prophet is calling for a day when each generation will answer only for its own acts. And the first prophecy of the new covenant. Not a law written on stone, but one written on the heart. When God's will will be so well known, it won’t be, as someone says, imposed from outside but will flow from the deepest inside.

It’s about teaching your children so that you know they will do the right thing.

We see in 2 Timothy 3:13-4:15 a clear job description. 
 All scripture is inspired by God and is[a] useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
What we are called to do is to equip people. My mentor Ray Swartzbach (of blessed memory) always used to say that far more important than any church sponsored program is to equip people to live out the faith in a day to day basis.
And we know all too well the day we live in.
For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
People seeking to get the advice,the teaching they want to hear, not the teaching they need to hear. We seek out those who confirm what we already believe. 
Finally, the Gospel, Luke 18: 1-8. The story of the unjust judge. Or the one who finally relents and grants justice, not on principle but because the widow is persistent. Just keeps coming back.
I tell the story of  back in Tulsa, I had assigned to my board Judge Ray Graham, the classic Oklahoma hanging judge. I objected to his coming onto my board. His pastor told me I might be surprised.
When I met Judge Graham, he told me he had just had a near fatal heart attack. Had decided he was spending his life putting the wrong people behind bars. And would spend whatever time he had left trying to correct that. And how he created, with our help, the first alternative to incarceration program in the state of Oklahoma. 
We talk about persistence. How presbytery people get tired of us but we need to keep coming back. And then how Jesus flips it at the end and asks will the son of man find faith when he comes? And Marsha, as always questions, if he is already  here,  what does he ask that? Who, after all, is the son of man? Or as we now translate it, the human one?
I explain t apocalyptic references in Daniel and Ezekiel. and Marsha says we each face our own apocalypse, we all die. And Hugo says that our soul lives on.
I talk about the hospice nurses I worked with back in Pittsburgh. Their sacred work of helping people pass over, pass through to the other side. It’s been a good sharing. The service comes to an end.
Session meets to review whole strategy related to upcoming  Presbytery votes. we can win. Can we do whats necessary? Again, the answer lies in old school community organizing. You do it, or you don’t. No magic. Just hard work.
Outside, as I’m leaving, I see Elle. She says, quite an article that, referring to the Westside Spirit article about landmarking. I tell her about  my disappointment with the presentation. The writer, Megan, did well, but the photo and the headline  implied we were still at odds with the  community. I explain to her how much we want to collaborate, work together. She drags her oxygen tank behind her. I tell her how much I admire her. How much I always love how she looks, former fashion designer that she is.And how she inspires me. You look good, That always makes me feel good. She smiles, drags her oxygen behind her. 
Sean unplugs. Wants to be gone before Sanctuary NYC arrives. 

What the Westside Spirit wrote about West-Park and landmarking...

The Congregation Versus the Community


Churches and synagogues throughout Manhattan facing economic hardship may find their financial plans thwarted by preservation efforts
The side not often heard above the rallying cries of well-meaning preservationists, however, is that of the actual church or synagogue members. The landmark process, meant to protect and preserve historical assets that theoretically belong to everyone, can sometimes end up displacing the very people who hold the actual deeds to these properties and destroying the community that resides within the building in order to preserve its facade.
On the Upper East Side, this battle is playing out over Park Avenue Christian Church, a well-regarded local institution with a popular day school (which has also been the subject of some controversy after it was abruptly moved to the Upper West Side this fall) and a congregation of about 150 regular worshippers. The church recently presented plans to the community board, showing the result of a partnership with Extell Development Company to demolish part of the church’s property and build a condominium tower adjacent to it – one that cantilevered over the church’s spire and cast it into shadow. The community response was swift and harsh – they did not like it at all.
“We’re on the same street as the church, I’ve always known the church, I’m interested in architecture,” said neighbor Eron Roland in an interview. “Any tower that they would build would be enormously out of scale. It would block all the light that would go into the windows. [The parish house] is a crucial part of gothic architecture that goes into the church.”
At the meeting, other residents raised concerns about blocking light into the church and onto the street, about dwarfing the church with the oversized structure, and about preserving the historic architecture of the church.
Park Avenue Christian Church
Park Avenue Christian Church
In a letter he sent to be read at the meeting, Ralph Adams Cram, an architect from Cram Good Hue and Ferguson – a firm that worked on restoring the church previously – wrote of the church’s parish house: “This seemingly subordinate structure is not superficial. The 70 foot spire on top of the annex is a masterwork. If built up, the structural stability of the church itself will be undermined.”
Church representatives disagreed.
“The annex is not the same as the sanctuary,” said Richard Sturm, a member of the church’s board of elders. “If we save it, it will kill the church. If we develop it, the church will live.”
Senior Pastor Alvin Jackson (who declined to be interviewed for this story) reiterated at the meeting what he claims is the church’s dire circumstances, the reason they have turned to development as an option, even as he pleaded with the board to wait for a vote until he came back with an improved design.
“We are not a wealthy congregation but we are committed,” Jackson said. “It’s all about the survival of faith in this city.”
Spokesperson George Arzt said, in an email in response to a reporter’s questions, that the church has been considering “many different options to ensure [its] survival. In 2011, the Church made the decision to devote its energies and funds on mission and service to the community, but since they are a relatively small Church the fundraising capacity is limited. The proposed transaction with Extell allows them to keep the Sanctuary, preserve it, and keep it beautiful for future generations, while at the same time carry out their mission.”
Arzt said that the church would use the funds it would receive from a deal with Extell – in the multiple millions – for major repairs and its continued community service projects. He said that the church doesn’t object to the potential landmark designation of the sanctuary, just the annex that they intend to knock down.
Now Park Avenue Christian Church finds itself caught between trying to appease the community while staving off a landmarks hearing that could potentially halt any development plans in their tracks. The Landmarks Preservation Commission confirms that they have tabled the prospect of calendaring a hearing while they give the church a chance to respond to community feedback. But the force of Upper East Side preservation activists is not to be underestimated, and the church could very well find its entire structure protected – or impeded, depending on your point of view – by a stamp of historical relevance from the LPC. It’s happened before.
Reverend Bob Brashear, the pastor of West-Park Presbyterian Church on the corner West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, finds himself and his congregation on the other side of the landmarking battle, having lost the fight against designation in 2010. At the time, the church was facing over $10 million in repair costs, including the need for a new roof, major exterior repairs, a new furnace and a fix of a plumbing system that had burst, and had hoped to find a development partner to tear down the building behind their sanctuary and construct new residential housing that would bring in the revenue stream they needed. After local preservation groups, neighbors and elected officials put up a fight and brought the 19th century church before the LPC, the church became a landmark, despite Brashear’s continued and strident objections, warning that the church could become an empty shell of itself if the congregation could not afford to keep up a landmarked building.
Now, three years later, West-Park is inching forward. They have a new boiler thanks to donations and continue to make repairs and search for funding to secure their future.
“When structures and buildings have reached a certain quality of let’s say being part of the social cultural heritage of a particular neighborhood community, there is a responsibility to seek to preserve that,” Brashear said. “Along with that comes the responsibility and obligation to work with the congregation to make sure that the mission can be preserved as well as the structure. That so far has been a disappointment.”
Brashear said that he gives a lot of credit to the work of City Council Member Gale Brewer, who fought to landmark the church but has also continued to advocate for it, and to the Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites program, which has also helped them to survive.
That program has distributed over $8 million in grants to more than 700 congregations in New York State.
“There’s a lot of hand-holding and technical help; we don’t just say ‘here’s the money, good luck,’” explained Peg Breen, president of the Conservancy. One of the reasons the program exists, she said, is that churches and houses of worship lack the resources to navigate the process of finding and securing grants and partners that can allow them to maintain their buildings and their programs.
The scarcity of prime real estate in Manhattan also makes these places particularly vulnerable. “A couple of years ago, there were developers on the Upper West Side just knocking on doors saying, can we buy your church?” she said.
“Churches can be somewhat soft targets for development because they’re volunteer organizations and they’re not always as sophisticated in knowing what their property is worth,” said Ann Friedman, director of the Sacred Sites program.
Sometimes religious institutions are aware of the value of their real estate, however, but still face opposition to selling or altering their facilities. The Town & Village Synagogue on East 14th Street has occupied a building for decades that has been technically calendared (meaning that a vote was already taken to schedule a hearing) by the LPC since 1966, though a hearing was never scheduled.
“Potential designation has arisen within the last two years,” said Cynthia Weber, a co-chairperson of the Town & Village Health Committee who is involved with the synagogue’s leadership. “We in that period have been undergoing some serious planning for the growth and future of our congregation and for the structure that we would need to contain our current programming and growth.”
That search lead to an exploratory listing with the real estate firm Massey Knakal, showing the building going for $13,950,000; that lead to coverage on the Lower East Side blog EV Grieve, which alerted the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), which alerted the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“The building has always been on our radar,” said Andrew Berman, president of the GVSHP. “We certainly had no idea that there was a possibility of plans to tear it down. As soon as we were aware, we brought it to the commission’s attention, because it’s technically been on their docket for almost 50 years now.”
But Weber stressed that the synagogue isn’t actually for sale; they are looking at all possibilities and are eager to find a way to accommodate their growing congregation. While a hearing has been scheduled for the end of October on the synagogue, they’re hoping that they can find an alternative plan that would maintain the historic elements without getting an official designation as a landmark.
“We’re trying to look in the broadest possible way at the options,” Weber said. “That is a spectrum that has to include potentially anything that ranges from selling the building to building up and out on site.”
She said that having conferred with other religious organizations that have received landmark status, the congregation hopes to avoid the additional paperwork, time and attention that working within landmark guidelines would bring.
“If this was a world with unlimited resources and we could carry out our mission and the LPC could carry out its mission, we’d all be happy,” said Weber. “We believe in the beauty and integrity and the upkeep of our building. But we have hard decisions to make.”
Berman said that he’s reached out to the synagogue to offer his organization’s assistance; the synagogue has agreed to meet in November, after the scheduled hearing date at the LPC.
Rev. Brashear at West-Park said that if he could go back, he would have included the community in the church’s plans – before the specter of landmarking ever came up.
His advice to other religious institutions facing a similar situation is to get a clear idea of the vision and mission and then go into the surrounding community and build relationships to help make that happen.
“For those who wish to see landmarking imposed, please understand that to begin the process comes with a moral obligation,” Brashear said. “From a very early point, some kind of really concentrated community partnership has to be put into play if we’re not just going to preserve empty buildings and watch them crumble.”
Additional reporting by Joanna Fantozzi
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