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.