Saturday, March 1, 2014

A cold day and a conversation with Helen


Westside Clergy meets with Helen Rosenthal

The weather has turned cold again. I wake up Joe and La Toya and ask him to stop in my office before he leaves. I’ve been talking with contacts at the Interfaith Assembly. Even though the latest life skills program started last week, Joe could still get in if he shows up today. The program involves what you might call employment readiness plus the kind of basic planning and organizing skills it takes to manage a life. Everyone in the program gets a mentor to walk with them usually there’s an employment internship at the end of the program. And there’s a tie in with housing with Valley Lodge, one of our Westside Federation for Supportive and Senior Housing facilities. We were going to host the program but it wound up at our friend the West End church instead due to some unresolved building issues.  Joe promises to check it out. Later in the day, he tells Danielle there’s a conflict with his GED program and he may not make it.  OK then.
Two guys, one  with Otis on his shirt, are in to look at the elevator. After five years, we’re ready to get it going again. I show them the engine room in the basement and they prepare to open it up and check it out.
Karen comes in to play the piano and Cara is happy for the music as she works.
John H comes by to return  the keys from his Dark Lady Players rehearsal, talk about his upcoming immersive event in Brooklyn and a four day festival he’s planning. As radical as his Shakespeare authorship theories are (, John is getting better and better at presenting his ideas in ways that entertain and engage and not just weigh you down with academic argument. He’s still got a long way to go pushing that dramaturgical stone up hill, but it’s a start.
Outside, Marty is sitting in the freezing cold, hand outstretched.
Marty its freezing cold.
It’s cold every winter.
But this is the coldest in years.
Listen, if you’re going to play Broadway, you have to play Fargo, North Dakota first. Without an overcoat. JFK walked down Pennsylvania Avenue without an overcoat. Harry Truman walked down Pennslvania Avenue without an overcoat. Where’s Oral Roberts from? Iowa? Kansas?
No, Tulsa, Oklahoma, I lived there ten years.
He took all the money he made from broadcasts and built a hospital. Who else is from Tulsa, Joel Osteen?
I don’t think so. He’s somewhere else.
I listen to him every week. He knows that if you want to get people to listen to your sermon, you have to start with a good story. Just like my father. Remember that, Reverend.
Marty, stay warm.

                                                      * * * *

Cara, Danielle and I have been scrambling around getting ready for our meeting with our new City Council member Helen Rosenthal. Our neighborhood clergy are gathering to meet with her. She’s been held up by a budget committee meeting. Her first. So we have time to review our agenda before she arrives. Which she does, soon enough, breathless and in need of a little food after a day of no breaks since breakfast.
Here are the issues we raise:
Helen makes a point
* Food justice. Especially the Lunch4Learning campaign to secure universal free school lunch in the city.  Also support for the ongoing work to create a sweatshop free Upper Westside.  We talk about ways to visibly identify the small businesses who have pledged to obey the law and honor fair labor practices. Still strikes us as strange that simply obeying the law is still a fight…She wants to work with us on this and take part in our worker solidarity day in May. And we talk about the overwhelming demand on our food pantries and programs since the draconian cuts last November.
* Homelessness. We’re all experiencing the effects of the doubling of homeless people during the Bloomberg years. And the warehousing of people . And the inefficiency and irrationality of the privatization of homeless services. She writes down those phrases, warehousing, privatization of homelessness. Father Duffel points out that as chair of the contracts committee, Helen has power over who gets these contracts. It’s time to get them away from slumlords and work with successful community based programs like WSSFSH. Helen takes careful notes.
* Finally, landmarking. There are a variety of issues here. It affects many of our congregations. There is the basic church state issue: our buildings were left to us not as ends in themselves but as means to mission. That needs to be primary with no imposition from outside. On the other hand, we are aware of the work done in the UK (sadly not US) in the area of theology of built environment. That is what we build, where we build and how we build, and conversely, what we preserve or tear down, has profound theological and spiritual consequences for the communities we live in. We do believe, however, that if a community deems a particular building as an integral part of its cultural heritage, there is an accompanying responsibility to help preserve that building as part of our common shared legacy. You can’t impose state restrictions on the one hand and then use separation theory to avoid support. Helen admits as to not having known what to do when the West-Park designation came before Community Board 7 while she was chair. And that the community and politicians had left promises unfulfilled. We agree to have one meeting focusing just on this.
Pastors Elise and Bob, Councilmember Helen Rosenthal and Marc Greenberg of the Interfaith Assembly
We’ve reached the end of our agreed upon time.  The Dzieci folks are anxious to begin their  Sacred Harp singing. Elise is anxious to get to Advent and prepare for tonight’s Palestine Film Series movie. Mark G of the Interfaith Assembly, Helen and I retreat to my office to wrap up. She is interested in a regular meeting with our clergy group as a sounding board, values check. I encourage to continue to create her own office, that is be herself and not try and live up to any other images of what a Councilmember is. She is already doing that. An engaging combination of policy wonk, numbers cruncher and boundless enthusiasm for political engagement.  This should be good.

                                                      * * * *
While I’m meeting with Helen and Marc, a friend of my friend Jack, Mark P, drops by a DVD of Jack’s living memorial. When I’m alone later, I watch it and am happy to see that I was there. And that I too was a reader and part of this living tribute. I study the pictures. Remember the day. He left a collection  of 10 poems as well.

Dzieci enters the sanctuary. Lloyd and the Workcenter contingent are in the gym for Open Choir. Martin and Noche still in rehearsal. I’m on my way to join Elise at Advent for the Attack, another in our Palestine series. Raises questions about the complexity of relationships under occupation. And we struggle with insights into what pushes people into terrorism, the limits of liberal tolerance without attention to power dynamics.  Elise asks me to lead the discussion. As always, it’s hard. Very hard. Emotions run deep. We stay at it. (

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