Friday, July 18, 2014

Further reflections on the state of the church


Time for a visit from our Presbytery Executive, Bob Foltz- Morrison. First, an update on how things are going at West-Park. His support for what we are doing, from his first day on the job, has helped us to completely turn around our relationship with the  institutional church. For years, we had to contend with an old narrative. Accepted wisdom about who we were. That our story was, essentially, over. Bob took the position that it was time for a new narrative. And let the past be the past, regardless of what was true or not true. He was essential to helping our story be told and finally winning approval of our plan last November.

It's still hard to get used to the idea that I can go to a Presbytery meeting without having to worry about another challenge. For years, our existence was on a month to month basis, always a threat of hostile take over dismissal. Now that's over. I can't imagine what that must have felt like, he says, how you stuck it out.What set Bob apart was, well, a humility by which he didn't assume he knew what was best for us. Treating us (and me) with dignity and respect. Not a touch of condescension. It makes a difference.

So far, he's had no direct push back from the organized Jewish community regarding our divestment. Not surprisingly, the push back has come from tall steeple liberal churches and allied institutions. We're agreed that this is a struggle that will best be carried out at the grassroots, neighborhood level among those who work with each other on our shared community life. 

I talk about the difference between my experiences in Tulsa and Pittsburgh, the diaspora, so to speak, where the Jewish community seeks out allies in the Christian community out of their own vulnerable minority status and self-interest. In a neighborhood, city, like ours, they simply don't need us. No need for dialogue just to promote understanding. In a neighborhood like ours, understanding comes from working together, like in our shared work, model work, in the area of food justice. 
He has spent most of his time working to strengthen our own vulnerable community, not riding the ecumenical circuit. 

He passionately hopes for a day where our congregations will reach out and connect with our communities. Our need for more leaders. Like Patrick O' Connor, from Jamaica, Queens, who has become a major spokesman against gun violence in the Metro New York Industrial Areas Foundation. Or my now retired friend (and another Pittsburgh guy) David Dyson from Brooklyn who would say to me, It's time to get arrested. We can sit in jail and talk about the Steelers. I thank Bob for taking on the tough job of transforming the structure from gatekeeping to that of facilitating mission. Ending the absurdity of trying to tightly guard a door that no one's trying to break into anyways. Like the more we decline, the more we try and control, As Sharon Welch says, we need an ethic of risk.

He also agrees with me that the old liberal/conservative paradigm is over. The emerging struggle around race and class, big and small, the impact of emerging immigrant communities with their different cultural assumptions. The withholding of funds by the big monied churches has stripped the presbytery of its traditional mission creating role. So it's got to be grass roots up now. Neighborhoods. Ecumenical. And interfaith.  We talk about our late colleague, Annie Rawlings, embodiment of old school organizing. Her memorial service was a witness to interfaith as a way of life, not a strategy or tactic. What we can learn from Presbyterian Welcome which was created to bridge those divisions in the lgbtq inclusion struggle. And Bob is insistent that there be no dialogue around issues like Israel and Palestine without the direct involvement  the Muslim community. 

And we talk about Harlem. About the courage of churches who struggle on when only one of our churches has a full-time pastor. The need for a neighborhood strategy. How the best role of our larger church should be linking peers and sharing resources. Like who out there can help me with integrating people who have serious mental illness into a small faith community? To be open without being overwhelmed?
I tell him that I appreciate the partnership he's created with our new Stared Clerk, for so many yearsa conflictual   relationship exploited by thoe with other agendas.   The rest of the church is headed to where New York City already is. We have the opportunity to create and model new paradigms. Or wither and die with the old.

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Lily and Samantha stop by. One of the softball league umpires has just lost his wife. They're headed downtown to the funeral home to bring condolences on our behalf. 

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