Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Marissa Provenza: just people she loved...


Thanks to my cousin Suzanne and her son Gordon, we are able to quickly replace the stolen computer. Family, extended communities, that keeps us going.

The police come to interview me about the old one, the one that’s gone. Two uniformed police. Male and female. Friendly. I tell the story again. Slowly. For the third or fourth time. And yes, we are working on the security cameras.  Saturday, I visited the precinct detective squad and spent an hour going through mug shots on a computer. Pretty depressing. Went through nearly 500 photos. All looking, angry, anxious, depressed, defiant, broken or….Only 3 or 4 were maybes, the other hundreds clearly no. But the faces haunted me.  RL, of course asked me, what did I expect? Smiles?

Geoffrey is asking for a blanket. It’s getting cold out.

Jeremy and Anthony are the first to arrive to start putting things together for Marissa’s memorial service. Marc has quickly agreed to do the sound on short notice...

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Marissa Provenza was a  member of the Seed Group. She came every Monday to sing with the Work Center Seed Group singers. They gathered to sing the African -American and southern white songs that are the roots of spirituals and gospel. They said she didn’t want to sing out too much, but everyone heard her voice, felt her presence. She died last week, suddenly. Unexpectedly. Tragically.

Jeremy G contacted me about the group coming together to plan a memorial service for her. Could they use the sanctuary? 
Of course. That’s why we’re here. 
The Seed Group is part of the family.  They’ve asked me to open and close the service. As people enter, they plan on people being greeted with a eucharist of  popcorn and prosecco. There will be a slide show. Music. Later, a video. And a potluck following.

As we are preparing, the parents arrive. From Florida. They tell me they were raised Catholics but became Christians in the ‘90’s. Today they are more spiritual than religious, but they assure me that Marissa knew Jesus.  More an affirmation of who she is than any thought that I needed to know that.

The people keep coming in, the pews keep filling.  The numbers are moving to me. Most from that 25-40 age group. Many from the circle of communal community houses in Bed-Stuy where she lived.

I’m paying attention to details. The altar.
The altar
Photos. Flowers, Remembrances. Poems. A small Mexican craneo. A San Lazaro candle from Latino popular culture. Votives.

Time to begin. I share some traditional words. ….my peace I leave with you…not as the world gives…blessed are those who mourn…for they shall be comforted.. Welcome them all, say that as her voice sang in these walls, it is still here. As theirs will be. And I quote the Dead:

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp 
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken 
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care 
Let there be songs to fill the air

And said may your songs, your words, your prayers, fill this air…

I listen closely over the next two hours. To the original songs. The deep, probing spiritual questions they ask, affirmations they make. The poems, spoken word offerings.  One of her favorites, Don Mc Lean’s Castles in the Air.  A singer breaking down, unable to finish Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire. ... and I swear by this song, and by all.... A rousing group sing of another of her favorites, the praise song, Our God is an Awesome God:

Our God(our God) is an awesome God
He reigns(He reigns) from heaven above
With wisdom(with wisdom) pow'r and love
our God is an awesome God…

Testimony after testimony to a woman who embodied unconditional love. No acquaintances, they said, just people she loved. Who drew the bitter and cynical in from the edges. People who knew they had been loved.

The parents were amazed by the number of people. The life of their daughter given witness to.

I been changed...
The Seed Group gathers in a circle, takes off their shoes…starts to sing, I been changed….and the circle grows and the dance goes round and hands clap in rhythm, voices raised in harmony…

And then it’s my turn again. I begin with the  23rd psalm. The Lord is my shepherd... I was expecting a lot of why to be in the air, so I spoke of how my good friend Father John says it remains a mystery. And that at moments like these, God is shocked, surprised. But that he is equally sure that God is there on the other side, waiting with open arms to say, Welcome home with a warm embrace…I say the traditional words of commendation, …ashes to ashes, dust to dust…yet even at the grave…alleluia, alleluia, alleluia….

The chanters come forward, including some who sang Awesome God with one hand upraised, kneel before the altar, Nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo…until a bell is rung…

Anthony, who has been painting throughout the memorial, shares his finished work with Marissa's father.
Anthony's painting

And then, as people move to embrace each other, a lone harmonica plays Amazing grace….

People join together in the breaking of bread. Sharing of food from vegan to barbecue ribs.

Hold your life dear. Live your life. Love your life...
In the name of the living one who created us, Jesus the human one who walks with us as brother,companion and guide, and the wild and untamed holy spirit that sustains us, Amen…

I was moved by what they had woven together from who they are. From their souls. Uncensored. Unfiltered. Unmediated. I was ready for why, but not so much of that. Yes, profound sadness. For some unspeakable grief. And the inevitable anger. But more acceptance than why. With all that accepting that means.

These 200 or so young people were for this night a true spiritual community. And my question of course, is who am I? Who are we, as church, in relation to this reality? Do we have any other role than that of a chaplaincy of accompaniment? Do they need anything from us other than a space to be together? Why was it important to be in a holy space? A church? What do we have to offer? All I know is it begins with presence….

After Mario and the Grotowski Work Center brought the Seed group into being, and Mario returned to Italy, I challenged Jeremy
and the group to see if there was a true community in formation. They have done that, rooted in song and spirit. My challenge has been to see where that can go..

I’m thinking of my conversation with Kristen Leigh…so why do we need church? And her answer, It comes down to what’s there when the shit hits the fan…what can I count on….The Seed Group met that challenge.

Again, what is the call here? All I know is that it begins with presence…

Interfaith Assembly pin

Uh, thanks for Ripple, someone says, that blew me away...
Pretty close to perfect lines, I say. Outside on the steps, a neighbor is talking to one of the friends. He’d seen an open door, walked in to
see what was going on. Another I’ve lived here for years, never been inside before's….The friend says, This place is coming back…he points to my Interfaith Assembly pin with the four quadrants, cross, crescent, Buddha, star of David…that’s it, he says….

I’m concerned about the clean up, the remains of the potluck. I see Jeremy. He says, I was worried too, but Marissa believed strongly in recycling, in respecting the environment. Her friends got this covered…

Pat O has stopped by. He looks on, intrigued. 


  1. I just moved to the Dunedin area I got so much comfort from the bench in Marissa's memory. Ripple is one of my favorite tunes. Marissa inspires even though she is no longer physically here. Her spirit is.

  2. Catherine...thanks for the's a good message about how our spirits can continue to touch others' lives..peace