Sunday, January 22, 2006

It seems that here in New York, at Trinity Lutheran Church 100th Street, my most meaningful moments occur on park benches. Maybe it’s a side effect of city life, when respite can be found in a place to sit after a day of walking and trying to catch up with the world around me. Balmy or freezing, the kids of the Creative Learning Center after-school program manage to convince me to take them to the park almost every day.

This particular day found me on a bench next to Mara. Mara has been mostly quiet at the program, and a bit separated from the other children. Until two new children joined a few days ago, she was the only student who was learning English as a second language. Each day she came in a diligently started her homework with no extra prodding. I help her to muddle her way through the formation of ten sentences using her assigned vocabulary words, which leads us to some interesting conversations, as she tries to explain what each word means. Mara now sought me out at the park bench and finally started to open up.

We connected over food. Mara’s favorites are made by her mother, a native Mexican, and all have names in Spanish which Mara pronounced to be too difficult for me, so she carefully explained the ingredients and preparation methods for each. I shared my experience of learning how to make lefsa from my grandfather this winter. Her reaction to my explanation? “Sounds like tortilla!” Maybe we don’t have so many differences after all.

Mara is the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants. Her father worked alone in the US until she was five, when he sent for his family. Later he left the family, and Mara is still uncertain of his whereabouts. Mara is seven. She rides the bus by herself to one of her various aunties’ apartments when her mother has to work at the laundry. One auntie works at another laundry ten blocks away. One auntie sells tamales on Saturdays on the street. Since arriving in Manhattan, Mara has left twice—once to the Bronx for her cousin’s birthday party, and once to Brooklyn to visit Coney Island. Her world is much, much smaller than mine, but no less complex. When she is finished telling me everything, she notes that it has been hard to “switch” all of the words, meaning her translation of things usually spoken of only in Spanish. She finishes with a nonchalant, “Church is the only spot where we can talk about it, right.” Trinity is a sanctuary for her family in a way that no other place in America has been or can be. Mara’s family is welcomed, unapologetically and unconditionally. Mara loves school, and from her glowing recounting, has very dedicated ESL teachers.

ESL and immigration, two more pressing urban issues that I had never really considered seriously before. People in my area of Wisconsin are concerned about the influx of Hmong and Somoli immigrants in some smaller Scandinavian towns, upsetting an old balance. But consider. When the Norwegians, the Germans, the Poles, the Swedes moved to Wisconsin, they too were interlopers. They too invaded someone else’s territory. They too were sojourners in a land that confused them, overwhelmed them, and shut doors in their faces. It also made them scared. They too faced language barriers. Brooklyn at one point was a major settlement area for Scandinavian immigrants. There is a Leif Erikson park and every year, an Olaf alumna organizes a gala Sytennde Mai parade through the borough. But since then, new ethic groups have come and gone, constantly in flux.

I think that the connection I am making here is remembrance of my own roots, of the roots of those Americans who have let a few generations cloud the memory of our predecessors who needed community, welcome, and care. Is it not a disservice to the memory of my own great-grandparents’ perseverance and work ethic to not welcome those who are attempting the same dream? I know that immigration is a more complicated issue than simply welcome. I look forward to someday understanding these complexities. For now, it suffices for me to have, after one week, realized that it is not an option to not deal with this issue, to push it aside, cover it up, or try to make it go away.

Sojourners in a strange land. At a service celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Call to Common Mission which we had the opportunity to attend, ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson remarked that all of the most influential people of the Bible would all qualify as sojourners in a strange land. How do we treat the sojourner? New Yorkers get a bad rap, but I cannot even count the amount of times that frightened and confused tourists have been patiently given directions. More often than not, this is done through a significant language barrier. How do I treat the sojourner? How I am treated by those whose territory I sometimes invade? There is responsibility for both parties. I cannot walk into a strange place and expect to be completely comfortable and catered too. Conversely, how can I expect that a sojourner to my own space will not make an impact of some sort? In junior high, I remember the skepticism with which the thirty or so female classmates of mine would treat a “new ”. What if she ruined the delicate social balance of our lives? What if she took our friends from us? I never stopped to consider how horrid it must be to be dropped into the hallways of a school in a village of 1,000, in a class of 65, 60 of which had probably been there, together, in the same classes, since the age of five. I cannot imagine a worse situation for a new student. And I do not want to imagine a Christianity that honestly can consider an option of turning away.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Today, I sat at a small city park with Pastor Heidi Neumark, watching the 30 kids from the Creative Learning Center, Trinity Lutheran’s after-school program, enjoy the unseasonably warm January weather. They stripped off their down parkas and hats and sprinted enthusiastically towards the slides and basketball hoops, ready to expend the energy pent up during the past hour of homework with the high school volunteer tutors back at the church. The park’s lone bit of green consists of a small square of grass, brown and shriveled, tucked away in the corner of the basketball court. Adjacent to the patch of grass, separated by an iron fence, is a small alley filled with garbage and overturned plastic garbage cans, about seven feet wide. This alley stands between the church and a one-story building that has recently been evicted. Jonathan, I believe, coined the small stretch of asphalt the “Million-Dollar Alley” because if it was obtained by the church, the would be able to sell their air rights to the new development soon to replace the evicted building, thereby earning millions of dollars to not only pay off the church’s expenses, but to set up an endowment fund to secure the church’s future. You see, air rights can only be sold to DIRECTLY adjacent property to your own, thus the alley is preventing the only thing standing between Trinity and a lucrative air sale. You should look up air rights in Manhattan, it's a bizarre concept that is completely foreign to a who grew up in an area with more space than we know what to do with (my North Dakotan friends would probably have an even harder time than I grasping the concept of selling not only your land, but your air!).

Pastor Heidi and I strolled over towards the alley and she calmly told me about her morning’s work speaking with the park department, which owns the land. She discussed various problems laying the path of obtaining the land, and other aspects of the surrounding community, such as sub-standard housing and the eviction of discount stores which serviced the nearby Frederick Douglass housing projects, at one point the largest projects in all of New York City. Pastor Heidi’s list of causes seems to multiply every time that I speak with her. The church is addressing issues of GLBT rights, homelessness, poverty, commercialization, housing costs, education, church finances, and an endless list of needed maintenance on the church building itself.

I find myself continually surprised by two things when speaking with Heidi. The first is her incredible calm, matter-of-fact demeanor. She is speaking about issues which she cares deeply about, justice concerns to which she has devoted much of her life. Her passion comes through, but in a way which is not disarming, doesn’t make me want to shy away from sharing her ideas. She gets her points across without alienating her audience. In short, she makes me want to listen to her even more.

The second surprise is the nature of urban congregational needs. I work each day with children who come from diverse backgrounds and a variety of needs. Sometimes their parents cannot speak English, and I have to rely on a series of gestures and Spanish nouns in order to communicate when they drop off or pick up their children. Some children are in ESL programs, some struggle with anger problems, and other are clearly lacking physical and emotional nurturing. I adore my job so far, and it feels great to be needed. However, this program is only a tiny part of what happens at Trinity each week.

At St. Olaf, I coordinate volunteers for services and plan one twenty minute Vespers service per week, and sometimes I feel as though there is never enough time to prepare. Heidi does thirty times this much work. In all of my conversations with her, I have yet to hear a reference to choosing worship music, liturgy, readings, findings musicians, settling worship styles, or organizing ushers. She also has yet to even begin to delve into pastoral care needs, though I see a constant parade of parishioners show up at her office, asking for assistance. Heidi’s life is far busier and more complicated than I can imagine right now. She is a true example of how ministry adapts itself to meet the needs of the surrounding community. Heidi always has fourteen plans and twenty more in the back of her head, ready to be shared. I am continually taken aback at her ability to juggle the needs of her congregation while maintaining a primary concern for her own family. This week has taught me that truly effective congregational ministry requires compassion, organization, tenacity, brains, and incredible stamina.

Monday, January 09, 2006

New York has been fantastic thus far, but first we'll back up a bit and gloss over our first week, which began with some classes at St. Olaf. We were given some talks from various faculty (professors, pastors, etc.) about their own vocational journies. The stories were incredibly diverse and twisting. Paths to social work, graduate school, ministry, academia-- there was no connecting factor that arched over each story except that each person seemed to be following their own particular gifts and interests and passions. In the end, it's easier to look back and realize why things worked out the way that they did, but it's increasingly difficult for me to project my future in front of me like a blueprint. Hopefully, this experience will give me some guidance, but I'll just have to trust that it works out in the end.

One exciting bonus of the week was our classwork on community organizing. Pastor Paul Block, an Olaf alum and current pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, came to spend the week with us and led some sessions based around the work done by the IAF, an organization which grew out of the labor movement in the Chicago yards with the help of Saul Alinsky. Community organizing has always fascinated me, but there were some new aspects that I had never considered. We read the book Going Public by Michael Gacon, about the IAF community organization East Brooklyn Congregations. The initial stages of creating the group, before it took a single action, spanned over 18 months. This sort of patience pays dividends later when a united front can be prepared to battle for community issues. IAF organizations also require each member to show their committment by paying a membership fee.

After classes at St. Olaf, it was off to New York. We are staying in single rooms at the Seafarer's International House, which is a Lutheran-run center which originally existed as a ministry for sailors who were in between jobs and needed a stable place to stay in the city. It's very comfortable, despite a frightening sllllloooooowwwwwwww elevator ride up to our 10th floor rooms in what we have dubbed the "penthouse". Technically, the highest floor is the 11th, where only Nate's room is, but we like to call that the "attic".

Our first night left us with no subway passes yet, so after dinner we all decided to just start walking and see where we ended up. Sixty blocks later, we had walked to Times Square and back from our abode near Union Square. Times Square is as bright as morning even at 10pm, which really frightened me, to be honest. I much prefer our East Village neighborhood, with tiny restaurants and shops all on top of each other in the narrow streets.

Last Sunday was spent at two churches in the South Bronx, where Paul and his wife Teddy are pastor and priest, respectively. Paul's service was bilingual, and hearing the transitions from English to Spanish was a great experience. Both congregations were very warm and welcoming.

Today we met with Brenda, a woman who was one of the first in the New York City Fire Department and is now a captain. In fact, she is currently one of about only 30 women that are currently serving the NYFD, out of a total force of over 10,000. She was part of the response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and she shared her incredible story with us. We also met some volunteers from St. Paul's Chapel, a small church directly facing the WTC site that provided astounding ministries during the clean-up procdure. It was nice to finally hear first-hand accounts instead of relying on reports filtered through the media. Brenda especially was honest about her frustrations with media coverage and the slants that resulted. Her opinions were honest and informed, and she really helped me to begin to have a small idea of the scale of the tragedy. It is hard to imagine, when looking at the huge hole in lower Manhattan where the buildings used to stand, the amount of work that it took to ardously sift through over nine stories of debris. I was pleased to hear Brenda's accounts of the care that was taken to honor those whose remains were able to be recovered from the debris.

Tomorrow morning is our first day in our individual congregations. It will be nice to get an idea of what we each will be doing. My congregation is Trinity Lutheran 100th Street in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The pastor is Rev. Heidi Neumark, the author of Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.