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.