Friday, June 30, 2017

Being there for Mohamed Bah


Mohamed Bah was a 28 year old immigrant from Guinea. A cab driver. A student. A  devout Muslim. A Harlem neighbor. And a son. His smother was concerned about him and called for emergency medical assistance. She got police instead. And Mohamed was shot dead. The story the police told was simple enough. As usual, they were quickly exonerated 

But aa the case has been examined and studied, stories have unravelled, key pieces of evidence “disappeared” and a critical gun shot, when Mohamed was already incapacitated, came not from below, as in defense, but from above as an execution. Finally, five years later, hearings have begun. In Federal court. 

Part of the tragedy is that these events have become so common, details of any individual case are hard to keep track of. There are almost too many to protest. But there is a more personal connection here. One of our colleagues, Imam Konate, was the leader of Mohamed’s spirit home. And has stood beside his mother, Hawa, throughout the long ordeal. He came to the interfaith circle of the Micah Faith Leaders Table seeking our presence.  And we have joined him in support for Mama Bah. 

To walk the streets of Harlem’s Little Africa with Imam Konate is like walking a neighborhood with my favorite Irish parish priest friend. Imam Konate nods a greeting to all he passes on the street, In the Shabazz Market, he seems to know every vendor by name. During midday prayers, the cab drivers park in a long double line in front of his mosque. Though constantly on the verge of being pushed out by the rising tide of gentrification, the Imam is part of the glue that holds this diaspora of francophone Africa together. 

The Patrick Moynihgan Federal Court House

The Federal Court building looms imposingly over Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. After passing through the airport like security check, I’m surprised to have to surrender my phones well. It makes me feel very anxious to give it up.

I go to the 11th floor and discover the courtroom is already filled to overflowing. They are directing people to an overflow room three floors up where the proceedings are on closed circuit television. I look around the room….there are African Muslims in long flowing robes. And Imam Talib, the dean of African-American Muslim clergy. Women like Debra Almontraser, founder of the Kahlil Gibran Arab culture focus public school until hounded, harassed and harangued by the Post and its allies until the Board of Ed buckled and removed her. Leaders like housing activist Marc Greenberg and Micah’s Peter Heltzel. Other clergy of various denominations. Rev.Dr. Caryn Di Carlo, a former police officer, the passionate Bishop Ray Blanchette.

At the break time, I will see Labor-Religion’s Rabbi Michael Feinberg. And current Muslim lightning rod Linda Sarsour, Palestinian American, organizer of the Women’s march, our go between with the Justice League and the grassroots leadership of Black Lives Matter. Under unrelenting attack by FOX news and the mainstream Jewish establishment. And, sadly, death threats to herself and family. And Muslim women in their robes. The reason for their  presence here is obvious. 

And there are the ubiquitous Revolutionary Communists in their black t-shirts. Leaving aside my puzzlement around the whole “BA”(Bob Avakian) devotion deal, I am fascinated by the Rev Coms.They are always there. Always present. Perhaps that’s why Cornell West will appear with, work with, them. They are disciplined. Committed. And always there. I wish there were a progressive Christian community, not just the usual cadre of progressive clergy, but an identifiable and visible community of witness and presence that like the Rev Coms was always there. In the name of Jesus. Muslims. The progressive clergy cohort collective. And the Rev Coms. Presente. Important for the judge to know we are watching. This case will be watched. 

The wheels of justice grind slow. The day drags on, through the minute details of how the evidence came to be lost and/or damaged and/or…..Well, there was Super Storm Sandy, you know? Well, the officer in charge? Well, retired….

Will there be justice for Mohamed Bah? Even proximate justice? That remains to be seen. We will continue to bear witness. At the least, the Department of Justice has to respond to how people with mental illness are dealt with. A special investigation by the Washington Post showed at least 125 people with symptoms of mental illness killed by police in the first half of 2015. 

And so we watch. And listen. And wait……

Friday, June 16, 2017

Update: So... what's up with West Park? This blog?


Pastor Robert Brashear


The West Park Press began seven years ago as a way to track the daily progress of the project of bringing an (essentially) abandoned building and exiled congregation back to life. For at least five years we tracked the daily ins and outs of a classic urban ministry and an ever shifting cast of characters. From Occupy Wall Street to performances of music and theater of awesome creativity and beauty (cf. Woodshed Theatre Collective, Noche Flamenca....) to the struggles of a small community and all the crazy and wonderful people who came up the steps and into the church.  Over the last year or so, we’ve gone more weekly and focused on theological reflections. It has been the story of one church…one building…as seen through the eyes of one pastor.

Close readers may have noticed another shift. On March 1st, I officially retired from West Park as pastor and my 22 years of ministry there were celebrated on March 23rd. I continue to lead Bible Study on Monday nights and continue to advise the program committee of the Center at West Park, a center that grew out of my vision. (And the inspiration and work of Amanda…and Katherine who brought Mim and Ted and Asya….and so many others…). And of course continue to play at the Open Mic. 

We are now in a new place. The building has, for all intents and purposes, been saved from threatened demolition. Over half a million dollars of internal repairs, mainly of water damage, have been accomplished. No longer do we have the feeling of being somewhere between Berlin and Brooklyn, or even Havana. That is both an accomplishment and also an occasion for some sadness because as the renewal continues some of the funkiness and openness goes away. The more there is to protect, the more important money becomes. And voices of caution grow louder. There is still much to be done on the exterior and that still requires the active  involvement of the community. An ownership of its preservation as an integral part of the community’s cultural heritage as a collective responsibility is necessary. 

The Center at West Park is now up and running. It exists to inspire the transformation of the individual and society through arts and culture, social action, intergenerational education and spiritual exploration. Community preservation of the building is also part of its mission. And the center has an Executive and Artistic Director, Zach Tomlinson, whose wedding I will be doing next week,. Zach was ataracted by my vision. He’s marrying Sarah Zapiler (who authored the all time most read post on this blog). And who created and curated our 100th anniversary celebration and taught us to Dream.Real. Hard.  The Center is in good hands.

The congregation of West Park is still seeking its future. It does intend to be small but fierce. In light of the current reality of old mainline denominations,  it also seeks to find a sense of stability and sustainability independent of a professional pastor. It desires to be a community that would covenant to:
  1. Be there for each other. Especially when it hits the fan.
  2. Engage in disciplined study together.
  3. Worship together, without regard to where or when but with regard to real sharing of one with another.
  4. Act together for justice.   

The ideas are right. Making them real will be the challenge.

I come to this time with a sense of accomplishment. But also regret at what hasn’t happened. The missed opportunities, lost chances. Some don’t return. The times I  failed to follow my inner voice and listened instead to experts. 

As for me, I will  continue to explore the world of urban ministry, especially along the intersection of beauty and justice and ethics and esthetics with a special commitment to exploring creation as resistance.  Based in New York City but other places as well. I will continue to tell the West Park story but other stories as well.  Therefore the name will inevitably, sooner than later, change. Keep watching the space for more updates. And there will be forwarding in the meantime. 

This has been an intriguing venture. Sometimes our readership has reached over 19000 a month. We’ve had readers from around the world, with large numbers from France and Russia and China, but many other countries as well.  I have always wondered who you are and why you check in. As I move forward, I would sincerely appreciate hearing from you about what drew you to this site, what has kept you coming and what would ket you reading in the future. I would lobe for this  to be an ongojng conversation.

Over the next few weeks, I will do several articles wrapping up my “official” West Park time and also continuing some other explorations we have already begun.  I look forward to your being with us on the journey.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Break the Walls


The Wall

So what can I do? is a question artists often ask themselves related to the difficult social issues of our time. Especially with a seemingly intractable issue like the Israel-Palestine conflict, or more appropriately, the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice. Last night at the Lark Theatre Center in New York, the Break the Wall Theatre Project provided one valuable answer to that question. 

Inspired by the controversy around Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children (, and Churchill’s making the play available for free for performance by anyone (you can read the whole text here:, Ismail Khalidi and David Zellnik have conceived and produced their own project, Break the Wall.

Conceptually, BTW refers both to the wall of separation built by Israel but also the fourth wall between stage and audience. BTW  intends to break through these walls. 

It’s first stage, celebrated by the launch, invited a variety of playwrights to write short plays on the struggle. All the resulting plays will be made available in an online archive for any who would like to perform them. The goal is to gather 50 plays within a year.

The plays presented Monday night were illustrative of the values that drive the project. There were common threads that run through all the plays. Among these is  the importance of approaching the issue through interpersonal relationships. Each play  (with one exception, Yussef El Guindi’s the Monologuist), is essentially a painful conversation about the issue between people who care about each other. The plays suggest that it is in the intensity of these conversations, as opposed to dialectical debate, that some understanding might come. 

That of course, is another recurring theme. The ongoing struggle of Palestinians to even be heard, let alone understood, even by people who are emotionally involved with each other at one level or another flowed through the plays.

Perhaps most importantly, the plays demand that we give up a balanced view. That in a situation with such an overwhelming imbalance of power …military, economic and political….a balanced view is morally untenable. It is to the credit of these artists that this point is made through the art, not through didactic moralism. You understand by being drawn into the relationships. 

While all the plays are of comparable quality, I went because of a long relationship with playwright Stan Richardson (co-founder of the Representatives .. Several of Stan’s plays have been produced at West Park, including the recent Edinburgh Fringe festival bound production of Private Manning goes to Washington.) Stan’s contribution, the Montagues, uses his typical command of relational conversation and the connections and gaps between us ending in his two characters’ passionate plea for help. In other words, exactly where we are. And  he doesn’t tell us what help means. We’ve got to figure that out. 

(It was also good to see longtime West Park friend Lynne Marie Rosenberg in several plays. She was a key cast member of the Woodshed Collective’s ground breaking immersive production of the Tenant that helped reopen West Park.

Thanks to BTW for this demonstration of what artists can do in the struggle for justice while staying true to their art. The plays are there to read…and perform…in the theatre, in homes, in church, in the street…

For information about Break the Wall...and scripts...go to