Archive for March, 2010


March 28, 2010
Upper West Side Church Offers Homeless a Home, and More
Crystal Chatwood and Eugene Thomas had hitchhiked from Georgia to Florida in search of work, and finding none, had taken a ride north to New York with another couple. The couple dropped them off in Central Park, promising to return in a few hours.

That was last summer.

Mr. Thomas, who said he had left his last $87 with the vanished couple, and Ms. Chatwood slept on a park bench that night. Rousted by the police, they moved to Riverside Park and then took refuge on the steps of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, a United Methodist congregation on West 86th Street at West End Avenue.

They returned every night for the next few months. “We used cardboard and blankets,” said Ms. Chatwood, 39. As the days became shorter and grayer and the nights colder, she finally decided “it was time to get my life together,” and she went into the church to ask for help.

It turned out that she and Mr. Thomas, 50, could have done that much sooner, because the church has long considered improving the physical, material and spiritual well-being of homeless people a crucial part of its mission, and some of the 200 or so congregants started out sleeping on the steps.

The church has operated a pantry for more than 30 years and a women’s shelter — where Ms. Chatwood found refuge — for more than 20 years, and it offers counseling and other programs.

The senior pastor, the Rev. K Karpen, had noticed Mr. Thomas and Ms. Chatwood outside for some time.

“With fall coming on, we were interested in finding them some other place to live,” Mr. Karpen said. “We convinced them to talk to social workers.” On any given night, from 2 to 10 people sleep outside the church, and though Mr. Karpen said that “no one should live on the steps of the church,” he said he always hoped that anyone who needed assistance would eventually seek it.

“We try to get to know the people and encourage them to help us find them other options,” he added. “We try to be a bridge to the next thing in their lives.”

After Ms. Chatwood moved to the women’s shelter, Mr. Thomas continued to sleep outside the church, and he began doing odd jobs around the building.

One Sunday she asked the congregation to help them pay for a marriage license.

Someone gave them the money — it costs $35 — and Mr. Karpen performed the ceremony in the chapel on the first floor. Others chipped in for flowers and a cake decorated with yellow roses. The receptionist wrote a song.

“It was awesome,” Ms. Chatwood said. “If not for the church, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Their best man was Joseph Branch, 61, a church member who in his 40s had found himself on the streets after losing his wife and his job. He, too, had ended up on the steps of St. Paul and St. Andrew.

When he asked a woman for spare change, he said, she asked him to help set up a bazaar in the church’s basement. He became a volunteer in the food pantry, which now helps about 250 families a day, and an usher on Sundays.

Eventually he was hired as the church’s security guard.

“I like to say, I came to church and never left,” said Mr. Branch, who successfully sought to have Mr. Thomas hired as a custodian after he saw him picking up trash each morning.

“I used to sleep out in front of the church. I got a break. So I tried to do it for him,” Mr. Branch said. Ms. Chatwood and Mr. Thomas now live in a family shelter, and they are saving money to rent an apartment.

Chris Gill, 49, a veteran who has used a wheelchair after losing most of his toes to gangrene, arrives at 5 a.m. most days to manage the pantry.

“I know what struggling is about,” said Mr. Gill, who was homeless himself and tries to nudge those who still are to seek something better. “I listen to them and let them rant. I can see the anger. I say, ‘You need more, try this place.’ ”

Five social workers are on hand at the church every day, meals are delivered by volunteers while other volunteers tutor children, and retired accountants help prepare tax forms.

Volunteers aside, the services cost money. “We get funds from here, there and everywhere,” said Mr. Karpen, who first came to the church in 1984 as a student at Union Theological Seminary.

That includes government aid and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as donations from congregants.

But he said, “The food pantry was started when the church was broke and few in number.”

Mr. Karpen often digs into his own pockets to help. “Every month he buy me a MetroCard,” said a 39-year-old immigrant from Ghana, who because of her immigration status gave only a first name, Elizabeth.

Tucked away in a tiny room, she patched a quilt with a sewing machine that had been lent to help her start a seamstress business.

The room smelled of the roast chicken that a church member had dropped off for her and her 4-year-old son. As she told how she and her son had been left homeless after a fire in their Bronx apartment, Elizabeth began to cry and said, “My situation is too much.”

She now lives in a temporary shelter, but her immigration status disqualified her from permanent housing.

“He helped me a lot,” she said of Mr. Karpen.

When a brother of hers in Ghana recently died, the church put together a memorial service.

“Here,” she said, a smile lifting the corners of her mouth, “it feel like home.”

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I’ve never been a huge fan of Tom Petty, although friends have always said that he and his band the Heartbreakers have to be seen live to be appreciated. They are on my bucket list of bands to catch some day.

Gunars Binde photography

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John McCain’s in for the re-election race of his life, and it’s just astounding the things he’s said and done lately.

None is more astounding that a misstatement–some call it a bald-face political lie– he made about veterans earlier this month (see report below), and a lot of vets and families of those killed and wounded are just now realizing this and getting upset about it. And we’re just now learning that other politicians have repeated McCain’s claims that the killing and wounding in Iraq of American troops is over. It’s simply not true. For sure, we don’t see casualties there of the numbers we used to, and there have been a number of the so-called “noncombat-related” deaths and wounds. But one reason war is hell is that the potential for getting killed or wounded even in noncombat situations runs extremely high–that’s why the numbers are included as war casualties.

I don’t think for a minute that John McCain intentionally asserted on the campaign trail (apparently more than the one time) that he was filmed saying it that the casualty count in Iraq for the three-month period in question was zero.

But then, what’s frustrating to so many is that he hasn’t acknowledged his mistake, or apologized to the families of those who lost loved ones. Not yet, anyway.

And his old friend Sarah Palin, of course, has happily repeated the claim about the zero casualties over three months, and considering her record, there will never be an acknowledgment that she was wrong. These people disgust me sometimes. If there’s one thing that a politician should get right it’s war.

And you have to wonder why these people so casually claim no casualties for political purposes anyway. If there were zero casualties since Obama became President over any sustained period of time, he would be the first to tell us, I’m sure. YOu can bet that he’ll be taking credit for the sharply lower casualty numbers at some point since he took over management of two wars, as any President would do.

From Thinkprogress.com
At a town hall meeting on March 13 in Nashua, NH, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talked about the war in Iraq, celebrating the fact that “there has not been a single American service member killed or wounded in Iraq”:

There’s a lot of other issues that I (in audible on video), but I’d just wanted to say again because our veterans are here, that I’m happy to tell you that elections in Iraq went okay. Look, democracy is a hard thing, but it was a contested election and there’s no other country in the Middle East besides Israel where there’s a contested election. And the most importantly than that, now for three months, there has not been a single American servicemember killed or wounded in Iraq.

Fact is, 12 U.S. service members had died in Iraq in 2010 as of March 13–and at least 93 had been wounded.

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Paul said in one of the most significant scriptures he ever wrote about Jesus Christ that even though Christ was in the form of God, he “emptied” himself, became a slave (rather than a master or dictator; see yesterday’s Noon Wine), humbled himself, and served his Father with obedience all the way to death on a cross.

Read on, dear reader . . . .

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:6-11

What do you suppose it means that Jesus “emptied himself?”

I think that when we “empty” ourselves of all our stuff that gets between us and the neighbor in front of us or the neighbors around us–when we empty ourselves of prejudice and bias of the kind that cause us to make snap judgments about other people that we are constantly meeting or encountering or living with–only then are we able to love others as we love ourselves.

And of course Jesus said there’s only two commandments we’ll ever need–to love God entirely and to love others as much as we love ourselves.

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How in the world could Louis Armstrong begin to disguise that gravely voice?
BTW, if you grew up with this great TV show—you probably subscribe to AARP magazine.


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“If religion was a thing that money could buy . . . the rich would live, the poor would die . . .”

But Mahalia Jackson points out in the soulful spiritual that she’s not worried about a thing, yaw. . . .

Your longtime jitterbuggers know that yer Jitterbugger loves him some Mahalia and some Louie Armstrong too. And can’t sing enough hosannas about the biography of Louis, Pops, at your local bookstores.

In keeping with Holy Week . . . a couple of hopeful songs from two greats:

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I see God as a loving humanitarian, not a tyrant and dictator who enslaves people with harsh law and justice. My theology of God has nothing to do with slave mentality that makes me a “slave” to God, and negative servitude and fear of the sort that the German philosopher Nietzsche criticized so hard and so well–he who famously declared God dead. My idea of fearing God is being found unworthy to serve a God so loving and full of grace and tender mercies.

Read on for more on this thought, jitterbuggers, and I hope you’re having a blessed Holy Week. . . .
— Paul

GERMAN PHILOSOPHER NIETZSCHE: An enduring and influential critic of God and Christian faith

The other night when I was making patient rounds at the hospital I had a nice talk with a very interesting gentleman–a businessman who has been in the bicycle business, of all things, in China, of all places, for going on 15 years now. Actually, that’s just one of his many business ventures but the one that certainly struck me as most interesting.

We talked business and lots of things before we got around to talking religion, and it turned out he has quite a jaundiced view of it. He told me he grew up in one of those fire and brimstone churches where the image of God planted in his mind was that of a big and power-happy old man with a long flowing beard. He fled the church as fast as he could when he came of the age where he could do so.

He did say, though, that while he’s not religious, “I’m spiritual.” His problem with religion, he told me, is that there’s no getting around the image of that fearsome God who demands respect and fear–or else. That God is right there in black and white in the Bible, he asserted.

We had a very lively and interesting discussion and respected each other, and when I asked him if he wanted me to pray for him–he did. “It can’t hurt anything,” he said. So while he’s “not much of a believer,” I did appreciate that he didn’t throw me out of the room on my ear as soon as I identified myself as a chaplain and asked if I could come in. And, at the risk of sounding a trifle full of myself, I could see by the time I left the room that he was thinking about God in quite a different way–thinking a new image and broader understanding of God. Or at least I hope he was and do believe he was.

I can understand how people come to see God as such a domineering and rather scary control freak and iron-fisted disciplinarian. There certainly are commands to “fear” just such a God as that, and images that would lead one to actually live in fear of God as such a holy dictator rather than a loving humanitarian.

But that’s why we have thousands of years of theology–an academic discipline that explores all those pesky “nuances” and subtleties and symbols and winks and perspectives and contexts that the writers of the Bible brilliantly weaved together in a vast mosaic of God. As I told this patient, to get stuck on one image of God–especially that of the sort of tyrannical God presented in much of the Old Testament–causes one to miss the image of the whole God. Unfortunately, teachers and preachers and churches throughout the ages, too many of them, got stuck on the image of God as that patriarchal tyrant who demanded respect or else. And a patriarchal tyrant is, well . . . patriarchal.

It’s never pretty when men have total control over faith and religion, is it.

Nietzsche the philosopher, who in 1882 famously proclaimed the death of God, presented a tough-minded challenge to Christianity, seizing on the Bible’s call for this sort of “servile” fear of the Lord. Nietzsche gave us the alternative of a sort of Superman who was strong enough to stand on his own and didn’t need a “higher power.”

The fact is that we find in the Bible — in the whole of the Bible and even in the Old Testament — a God whose will is for peace on earth and good will toward all, whose will is for mercy and justice and taking care of one another and lifting up each other when we fall, whose will is for love. The will for justice includes some rough justice in that Old-time Testament, for sure, but we always have to remember that the Bible has to be interpreted in the context of the very primitive times in which God was inspiring those who wrote it. Times are always changing and were changing over the hundreds of years it took for the Bible to be drafted, edited and finally canonized for all time, which means that we get radically different images of God in the Old and New Testaments just as we get radically different images of God through the centuries in theological study.

Slavery, don’t forget, was biblically justified for quite a while, and could be biblically justified now without theological perspective and context. The same could be said for women in servitude to men, a servitude of the sort that few women today tolerate.

Anyway, the fact remains that we must fear God, but not in the sense of Nietzsche’s servile fear, a fear that makes us “enslaved” to this crazed God. Rather, fear in the sense of being in awe of a God so great, so awesome as to have provided us all we need for this love and justice that God wills. Being in awe of all this grace of the sort that I and the aforementioned gentleman found in our quick discussion about this God.

As I told my friend the patient, it’s my belief that authentic religion is not about the certainty of God, but the magnificent mystery of God. Whenever I see a Christian or any kind of believer who has no doubts whatsoever–that’s the God I fear in the worse sense coming through, but not the true God. Doubt is the good cop that keeps the bad cop under control. Those who have no doubts whatsoever–those who can’t appreciate the beauty of the mystery of the God who can be known, while hardly being known at all, are of the sort who smash airplanes into buildings or band together in weird and very misguided “Christian warrior” militias. (See the headlines today.)

God is way too big to be stuffed into the sort of little boxes we try so hard to stuff. God is love. And that means God gives us the ways and means to carry on the divine will for mercy and love and grace and peace and justice.

My theology of God has nothing to do with slave mentality and negative servitude of the sort that the German philosopher rapped, but rather the fear of being unworthy to serve a God so great in the ultimate of the best sense of greatness.

Just a few scattered thoughts there for you, jitterbuggers, on this Holiest of Holy Christian weeks. And with that–a prayer for you from the late and the great spiritual writer and teacher Mr. Nouwen:

I hope that I will always be for each person
what he or she needs me to be.
I hope that each person’s death will diminish me,
but that fear of my own will never diminish my joy of life.
I hope that my love for those whom I like will never lessen
my love for those whom I do not.
I hope that another person’s love for me will never
be a measure of my love for him or her.
I hope that everybody will accept me as I am,
but that I never will.
I hope that I will always ask for forgiveness from others,
but will never need to be asked for my own . . .
I hope that I will always recognize my limitations,
but that I will construct none.
I hope that loving will always be my goal,
but that love will never be my idol.
I hope that everyone will always have hope.

-Henri Nouwen

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