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Sunday, July 24, 2016

God, Gays & Guns All Collide in a New Play

St. Mary Magdalene - First Witness to the Resurrection

My father's observation of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was that the viewer squirms in hir seat, feeling as if s/he's witnessing a private conversation of which s/he should not be part. And that is precisely the point.  Two couples embark on a visit having no idea what intimate secrets are to be revealed, and leave the encounter permanently changed.

By contrast, the characters in Dewey Moss's new play The Crusade of Connor Stephens gather all knowing, by varying degrees, what to expect from one another.  Two families joined by the common tragedy of a child's murder are connected only by the parents, a same-gender couple in whose home the story unfolds. They come from different towns and vastly different world-views, a fact that becomes wrenchingly clear as each character in turn unpacks the baggage that the sudden loss of a little girl has forced into the light.  When the play was selected as part of the Midtown International Film Festival, the mass shooting at a gay bar in Orlando had not yet occurred, but that tragedy, coupled with the rhetoric coming from the presidential campaign, served only to make it more timely, and all performances of the limited run were sold out.

As the curtain rises, Jim Jr., broodingly portrayed by Ben Curtis (yes, the Dell spokesman... he's done quite a bit since then including starring opposite Richard Chamberlain in We Are the Hartmans), wants to drown his sorrows alone. His husband Kris (James Padric) is asleep, numbed physically and emotionally by medication; he was also struck by a bullet trying to save his daughter Tess. Kris's sister Kimmie (Julie Mitchell) fusses over preparations for any post-funeral callers.  Her husband Bobby (Jacques Mitchell) arrives with Jim's mother Marianne (Katherine Leask) and grandmother Vivi'n (Kathleen Huber) in tow; the latter in a wheelchair.  Marianne reveals news Jim wasn't hoping for: his father "Big Jim" (James Kiberd) also plans to come by.

Big Jim would be a caricature of the blowhard southern evangelical preacher you love to hate if it wasn't so rapidly clear how thin a veneer his confident persona really is. Before he even arrives, his wife--ignoring whatever needs her grieving son and his husband might have--wants special tea made for him.  When he finally does bluster in, he immediately tries to establish control of everybody, ordering his mother to return to her wheelchair for no other reason than because that's what he wants. Moss quickly establishes the familiar pattern of an abuser; Big Jim manages to put down everybody in the room and anchor himself as the superior man of God.

Focusing on the handsome and athletic Bobby, the preacher wants badly to impress this newcomer with his ever-expanding church campus and involve him in it somehow. In doing so, he reveals his disappointment in Jim Jr. right in front of him with no regard for his feelings, causing everybody else to wince, but we can tell by the weary near-lack of reaction that his son is quite aware of his father's disdain.

Kris emerges, wild-eyed and disoriented. Who are these people in my house?  Jim and Kimmy hurry to settle him and it becomes clear that his fragile state buys him no free pass from his husband's family.  As the the story unfolds we learn that both Big Jim and Marianne have long blamed Kris for their son's same-gender attraction.
Jim Jr. (BEN CURTIS) comforts his husband Chris (JAMES PADRIC)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss.  Used with permission.

As they prepare to leave for the funeral, Dean, an associate from Big Jim's church, arrives visibly distraught and detains the pastor with some urgent news. He received a letter sent by the killer Connor Stephens, prior to the murder and his own death (at his own hand?). Connor was a member of the church, a troubled youth who had been "saved" along with his mother by the charity of the organization.  In the letter he makes his motive for the killing clear, and--as the first act ends--the preacher is left alone to contemplate his own role in his son's daughter's death.

During the intermission, my cynical mind went back to how Big Jim tried to court Bobby, and I thought of the countless stories of vulnerable young men taken in and exploited by those they should have been able to trust. Cynical me wondered if we were going to learn there was something unseemly going on between Connor and either Dean or Big Jim himself. As the action resumes after the funeral, the whole story is painfully revealed as each character engages in some soul-baring.  Deep-seated resentments come to light, and alliances shift at least somewhat... the grip Big Jim has on his his family may be weakened if not failing completely.  After Jim Jr. learns Connor's motive (sorry, no spoilers. I'm hoping this play "has legs" and you get a chance to see it!), his father, fearing he'll be ruined if the truth gets out, tries to enlist everybody in downplaying the matter in the hope the story will slip from public attention.  Kris and his family are incensed, and we hope that Big Jim is going to get the take-down he so desperately deserves. Bobby or Jim, Jr. could slug him, his wife or mother could verbally eviscerate him, but ultimately he's already done the worst damage to himself.
Big Jim (JAMES KIBERD) verbally spars with Bobby (JACQUES MITCHELL)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss. Used with permission.

The real hero of the story ends up being Grandma Vivi'n.  Without raising her voice, she orchestrates conversations that need to happen to keep the painful revelations coming.  She challenges her daughter-in-law to stand up to her husband and finally be a mother to her son after failing him for so long. And--when the time is right--she shares a long-secret truth that nobody is prepared to hear.

Grandma Vivi'n (KATHLEEN HUBER)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss. Used with permission.

The play was staged as the Workshop Theater, a tiny space.  It deserves more eyes, particularly as the topic could not be more relevant during this troubled summer.  However, being so close to the players, close enough to see them twitch at one another's words, brings that uncomfortable intimacy that might be lost in too large a house. Curtis's Jim Jr. in particular, speaks very little but says so much with grimace and gesture that--for me, anyway--I felt like I knew him intimately and understood his pain.

You wish you weren't so close at times, right in the room hearing the things these people have been carrying around for so long, but we need to be there. Lost behind the aggregate statistic and sensational headlines, every gun-related incident wounds many more victims than the ones the bullets actually hit. Every sweeping condemnation flung from a pulpit causes collateral damage to people who never graced the pews. The day we stop seeing those affected as people like us, worthy of our sympathetic tears, is the day all hope is lost.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Say Their Names / Digan Sus Nombres

I woke up to one of those emails you aren't really prepared for in the pre-caffeine haze; the "I'm going to need for you to act like a grown-up today" kind of request that always manages to come when you're feeling least equipped to do so.

My initial reaction was, "Oh no, I couldn't possibly." I had been on an emotional skating rink ever since we learned on Sunday that 49 revelers at Orlando's Pulse nightclub had been mercilessly gunned down.  The idea of getting up in front of a church full of strangers and honoring them by reading their names aloud without going completely to pieces felt far beyond me.  I replied, vaguely, to my friend and frequent spiritual guide, indicating my concern and looking for tips on how to hold it together.

She should know: in her role as priest and rector of a congregation as well as chaplain at a nearby university, she is called upon repeatedly to be strong; to put her own emotions carefully aside and be a steadying force for families grieving a loved one, communities facing adversity, and myriad other human challenges that pockmark the territory of pastoral care.

Part of me hoped she would share some trade secrets on how to partition your own feelings, at least long enough to get through the service. Part of me hoped she might reply, "Oh, it's okay; if you don't feel comfortable I'll ask someone else."

Instead, she said nothing. I knew she had plenty on her plate without coddling me right now.

Not knowing what else to do, I "vaguebooked" that I had been challenged to do something difficult but important, and asked for prayers. The response was overwhelming: Over the course of the day, over 1/10 of my fairly substantial "friends list" chimed in with encouragement and promises of supplication. People I hadn't heard from in ages, whom I was pretty sure had long since "unfollowed" my endless string of arcane cyber-babbling, cheered me on. An actual celebrity I follow, whom I wasn't even sure manages his own feed said "You got this."

I did tell a handful of folks what I had been asked to do, and my fears. A few gave me permission to go with whatever emotion I felt at the time, one saying "If you go to pieces, it will be an honorable and truthful tribute to them."  Another suggested "Let the Lord do the work with you tonight. It's not about performing, it's about witnessing. You can be a witness tonight."

At eleven a.m., the draft program was sent over. I scrolled to the list of names and studied it. Were I to do this, I wanted to be ready to pronounce each one respectfully. The vast majority of victims were Hispanic. How could I, in my raised-in-the-woods Euro-ness, possibly do right by them? I only sort of speak Spanish, and I didn't want to sound like Peggy Hill up there, so I got some guidance from native speakers and looked up some names I didn't know how to say, but I still felt inadequate.

To my disgust, in the research process I discovered there are already "truthers" making videos claiming the massacre was staged (as was, apparently, Newtown). Yes, because this is what we do: we fake mass murders, and get the cops, first responders, doctors and nurses to help us. I'm not sure how these people would explain where the victims are now, or where the dozens of corpses came from. In the wake of this attack, jetBlue gave away free tickets to family members needing to get to Orlando. I wonder if we should round up the "truthers" and bring them there, too, so they could explain themselves to the survivors.

Part of me wanted to spend more time on each person... connect their name to their picture and understand who they were. But I was afraid to: not yet. I knew getting to "know them" was not going to help me to remain intelligible thorough this; it would likely do the opposite. But I will do that now that the service is done.

Various friends suggested--with varying degrees of seriousness--herbal tea, a nap, a joint. I had work to do, so none of that was going to happen, and in the end I just stayed distracted until it was time.

The woman reading the other half of the names is a "P-FLAG Mom", a colleague from my activist days. (Oh, that's the other thing. I was listed as "an activist" in the leaflet. I've been shamefully inactive these past few years.)  We strategized briefly about how we would walk, where we would stand, and who would read what. Having her there was comforting: I know she was ready to jump in for me if I needed her to, and vice-versa.

The service was well-planned and well-attended. We heard from an imam, a rabbi and several Christian pastors. There were songs and prayers, and then it was time. Stepping into the aisle, I waited for my P-FLAG Mom and we walked to the front. Looking over the room from the pulpit, I took a deep breath, and started reading.

And it was fine. I was a little shaky for the first group of seven, but I thought about all my cyber-cheerleaders, and hunkered down. I said seven names, she said seven, a bell rang, and we kept going. It was over quickly, and we took our seats.

Writing this, I know I probably made a lot more of it than I should have. But it was incredibly important to me that I get it right; that my reaction not detract from what anybody else needed from the service. I knew that--at something like this--one person falling apart could trigger a chain reaction, which I guess would be okay if it was meant to happen. But I didn't want to be the one to cause it.

For the last part of the service, we gathered on the labyrinth in the back of the church, around a giant sculpture, a stylized swan. We were directed to use Post-It notes to share our feelings and reactions to the event.  Holding candles we joined in a few verses of Holly Near's "Fighting For Our Lives".

And then we went home.

Say their names:
Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Amanda Alvear, 25
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Antonio Davon Brown, 29
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Luis Daniel Conde, 39
Cory James Connell, 21
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Paul Terrell Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30
Anthony Luis Laureano-Disla, 25
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25
Kimberly Morris, 37
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

Monday, June 13, 2016

I've Learned to Live With a Very Flexibile Definition of 'Okay'

"Are you okay?"

I've been asked that a lot in the past 24 hours. I may have a bit of a reputation for emotional fragility, I'm afraid. I've been in a "thin place" for a very long time, and it doesn't take much to move me.

"Abrazo" by Hermán Marina
Neon, 2012
I'm not really sorry for that, though. We saw Steel Magnolias (yes, again!) recently and this production strangely omitted one of my favorite lines: "I have a strict policy that nobody cries alone in my presence." I subscribe to that philosophy without shame, because the alternative--being unable to respond to others' pain--sounds like prison. I know men in this culture are supposed to be stoic (the two acceptable expressions appear to be "winning" and "rage") but I've been told most of my life that I'm not a normal man and I've made my peace with that long ago.

So friends have been checking in, cautiously, like I might re-enact Sally Field's hysterical graveyard scene at the slightest provocation. The sweetest was the co-worker who offered to lend me her puppy.

"Are you okay?"

And the truth is, I don't know. I'm not even sure if I know what that is anymore.The world has been so crazy for so long that, as Sister Lily Tomlin's character on Grace and Frankie described it, "I've learned to live with a very flexible definition of okay."

"Okay" as in "Not in immediate danger to self or others?" Yes, I can go that far. I have a support system, I am not neglecting my basic needs. I eat and sleep (a lot). I made myself exercise and buy food. I know I am loved.

But isn't there more to "okay" than that? Aren't I entitled to feel safe? Shouldn't the people in charge be doing more to end the scourge of bloodshed than making hollow promises of "thoughts and prayers" (especially ironic when coming from some of the same public voices who keep reinforcing the notion that people like me are somehow "less than")?

So if you're queer in America in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Sixteen in the Month of Pride, all the world is not at peace, and "okay" is relative. You're okay because you woke up this morning and found yourself alive, you have a job and a place to stay, and a family that accepts you. But you still have to second-guess any action that might draw attention to yourself, weighing whether some man (it's seemingly always a man, have you noticed?) will have a problem with it, and whether he might have a gun.

49 people were killed by one man with one gun, which he bought in a store despite multiple queries by the FBI into his behavior. 49 people. How many is too many? 100? 200? "It was just one small town"? Sadly I despair that the will even exists to make it stop. Horrible as it is, I agree with the person who tweeted that the gun debate ended at Newtown: If 'murica wasn't heartbroken enough by the deaths of toddlers, I doubt that the slaughter of LGBT folks will be the tipping point. There are already tweets out there saying they deserved what they got.

And that, my friends, is Not Okay.

Pulse Nightclub Victims Fund

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Community Stations of the Cross in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge


"These fourteen steps that you are about to walk you do not take alone. I am with you. We are truly one. And therefore my way of the Cross two thousand years ago and your own "way" now are also one. Yet there is a difference, my life was incomplete until I crowned it with my death. Your fourteen steps will not complete until you crown them with your life."

Today I had the privilege of accompanying folks from Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge on their annual Community Stations of the Cross. This service is moving both emotionally and physically, as participants travel to 14 "stations" to remember milestones in the condemnation and death of Christ. The traditional locations of these events are marked in the old city of Jerusalem, concluding within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the site where it is believed Christ died and was buried

In a congregational setting, the service normally takes place around the perimeter of a church, but--in a tradition that began several years ago as a witness to gun violence--Christ Church transformed this into an outdoor experience. This year's quest was to visit places of sorrow as well as places of hope in the area surrounding the church, which includes the downtown areas of Bloomfield and Glen Ridge townships.

The service was created by Christ Church's Rector, the Rev. Diana Wilcox, with some elements from the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services and the Book of Common Prayer, and the text at each station is a blend of what she shared and my thoughts at the time.  At the conclusion of each station, we prayed together:

Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Transform me
That I might transform the world.

We gathered in the church to prepare ourselves for the journey.  As part of the Maundy (Holy) Thursday service the night before, the altar is stripped of the trappings of liturgy: candles, fabric, books, etc., are removed, leaving wood and stone.

God you created me and call me to be in this world, part of your creative force. In Christ you teach me the way of salvation. Help me to be transformed, utterly and completely changed, that I may live radically to transform myself and this broken world. Send your Spirit upon me that I might be an instrument of your peace. Amen.

The First Station - Jesus is Condemned

Bloomfield & Park Avenues

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, and the whole council, held a consultation; and they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate. And they all condemned him and said, “He deserves to die.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called the Pavement, Hebrew, Gabbatha. Then he handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.

Christ Church sits at the busy corner of Park Ave & Bloomfield Ave on the Bloomfield-Glen Ridge border.  At that intersection, which is also a bus stop, pedestrians cross the street at their peril due to impatient and distracted drivers.  On Monday, a pedestrian was struck by a hit-and-run driver just feet from where we stood, and three others lost their lives in recent years.

Eternal One, open the minds and hearts of those who pass this way, that they may slow down and see their brother or sister who travels this same road, and stop as the Samaritan did, to offer help whenever it is needed. We pray for healing of the families of those who have died, and for the one still clinging to life. Amen.

The Second Station - Jesus Takes Up His Cross

Essex Animal Hospital  

Jesus went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. Like a lamb he was led to the slaughter; and like a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he opened not his mouth. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.
Essex Animal Hospital has been serving the veterinary needs of Bloomfield and surrounding communities for more than 25 years. Every year, thousands of animals are abused or neglected. Animals bred to feed us are kept in harsh living conditions. This hospital served as a symbol of our need to care for all of God’s creation, especially those who cannot speak for themselves, and to respect the dignity of all life, including those animals we raise for food.
God our Creator, in giving us dominion over things on earth, you made us co-workers in your creation. Help us to love and nurture the animals, and care for their habitats, that in doing so, we may remember that it is all your handiwork. Amen.


We made our way, twelve of us or so, down Bloomfield Avenue, taking turns carrying the cross, helping each other. Drivers glanced over, perhaps confused by the sight. Several pedestrians unabashedly took pictures.

The Third Station - Jesus Falls the First Time

Vermeer Park

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped; but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and was born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name. 
Our next stop was the small park at the corner of State Street.  Here we remembered the victims of violence, hatred and abuse. Although crime is reportedly down in Bloomfield, there is still so much work to be done.

Loving God, although we find ourselves in a broken world – a world in which hurting people hurt other people, it is no mystery that you are a God capable of healing us through justice and fairness. May we be empowered by your Spirit to reverse the conditions that produce young men and women who are driven to resort to violence and destructive behavior, that our towns and cities may one day be places of love and peace. Amen.

The Fourth Station - Jesus Meets His Mother

Farm Boy 

To what can I liken you, to what can I compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem? What likeness can I use to comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion? For vast as the sea is your ruin. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be days of mourning shall be ended. 
 Empty shops are a sign of despair and loss. This storefront was one we stopped at last year because it was empty, then was restored as the Farm Boy produce market, and is now empty again, representing a sign of loss for the neighborhood. We hope for renewal in the neighborhood, and that our eyes need to be open to the new life that can grow out of death.

O God, whose love knows no bounds, help us to love one another as Christ commanded. Give strength and courage to those who face difficult circumstances, knowing that there is no darkness which Your light cannot overcome. Amen.

The Fifth Station - Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus

Block 243 Luxury Rental Development

As they led Jesus away, they came upon a man of Cyrene, Simon by name, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross to carry it behind Jesus. “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We stop here to remember embrace the diversity of life that is Bloomfield, and to bear witness to the importance of continuing to be a place where everyone is welcome – people of all cultures, races, languages, gender identities, faiths, and sexual orientations. It is this great diversity in all of creation that is God’s blessing to us all. In this most Holy Week, we look boldly at signs of death as well as new life. In this new building across the street, we are witness to the changing community. May it be that new life in this neighborhood is one that celebrates the diversity of this community, adding to the fabric of life here, and serving as a sign of the re-building of our neighborhoods as places of inclusion and peace.

As we walked, several people voiced concern that--with all the new high-end construction--the changed neighborhood would not become one where long-time residents, many of whom are economically vulnerable, are unable or unwelcome to remain.

Holy One, we move so quickly in life that we often rush past those who have been pushed aside by our own greed. Help us to not only see them in our midst, but seek them out on the margins, knowing that in the web of life, all of creation is connected, and what happens to the lost and the least of these is the concern of all of us. Amen.

The Sixth Station - A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus

Presbyterian Church Bell

His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.
A bell from one of Bloomfield's first churches is on display at the southern end of The Green, a long rectangular park where Revolutionary War troops once drilled. Originally meeting on Liberty Street in in 1858, Christ Church spawned four mission congregations in Montclair and Bloomfield, two of which have now folded back into the mother parish. The diverse and welcoming community has grown by a third in the past few years.

We remembered our own church ancestors and the other Christians who brought the Gospel to our area, and prayed for faith leaders and a healing to divisions among them, as well as all those whose belief calls them to work in the wider world.

Most gracious God, Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Creator of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Seventh Station - Jesus Falls the Second Time

Bloomfield Green

Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to their own way; and God has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. He wasoppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. For the transgression of my people was he stricken.
Continuing north on Broad Street, we passed a bus stop where a man stood respectfully when he saw the cross approaching, and wished us a happy Easter. Further along the Green, we paused in the shade of budding trees. Birds chirped, there is a break in the traffic, and for a moment we could take in the beauty of the spring day.


O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our time to renew or minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation. Help us God to see your Spirit alive in all of the earth, forgive us our neglect of creation, and enliven in us the will to protect and care for all you have entrusted to us. Amen.

The Eighth Station - Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem

Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green & Food Pantry

There followed after Jesus a great multitude of the people, and among them were women who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”
Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green, which gave the town its name is named, for Joseph Bloomfield, Revolutionary War officer, governor, lawyer, judge and abolitionist. The Food Pantry has been providing food on an emergency basis to families in Bloomfield and surrounding communities in Essex County. They currently serve an average of 40 families per month, which ranges between 75 and 165 individuals. Assisting the food pantry is also a primary ministry of outreach at Christ Church.

God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it is easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to love them as you loved us. Amen.

The Ninth Station - Jesus Falls the Third Time

Bloomfield High School

I am the one who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light. He has besieged me and enveloped me with bitterness and
tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. Though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower ashes. “Remember, O Lord, my affliction and bitterness, the wormwood and the gall!”
Crossing Broad Street, we paused again in front of the High School. Mother Diana told us that--two years ago, the American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey found that millennials, aged 18-33, were the country's most-stressed generation. Now, the title belongs to an even younger demographic: American teenagers. I thought of PARCC testing and SATs, bullying and the relentless pressure to be cool, college acceptance and student loans.

Eternal God, bless all the students, staff and faculty of all schools, colleges and universities, especially Bloomfield High School, Glen Ridge High School, Bloomfield College, and Montclair State University. May they be lively centers for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom, where all students are free of fear of bullying, drugs, and violence. Grant also that those who teach and those learn may find You to be the source of all truth. Amen.

The Tenth Station - Jesus is Stripped

Bloomfield Cemetery

When they came to a place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull), they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And they divided his garments among them by casting lots. This was to fulfill the scripture divided my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing.”
Bloomfield Cemetery, once called the Old Bloomfield Burying Ground, is the resting place of 32 Revolutionary War soldiers, as well as William Batchelder Bradbury, who wrote the popular hymns "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know" and "Just As I Am".

Most gracious God, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace and let light perpetual shine upon them. Grant also to all who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing as those without hope, but in remembrance of your great goodness, and the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love. Amen.

The Eleventh Station - Jesus is Crucified

Glen Ridge War Memorial (at Ridgewood Avenue School)

When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him; and with him they crucified two criminals, one on the right, the other on the left, and Jesus between them. And the scripture was fulfilled which says, “He was numbered with the transgressors.”
The Glen Ridge memorials to fallen veterans on either side of Ridgewood Avenue honor those who fought and died in WW I&II, Korea, and Vietnam. As a ship fan, I noticed the reference to the USS Leviathan, a German-built war prize that saw service as a troop carrier before becoming the flagship of the United States Lines.

Most Holy God, stand with those who bravely serve their country, protecting them from all harm, physical, emotional and spiritual, and granting them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be, including those whose whereabouts are no longer known to us. Guide those who lead them, and those who govern, that they may be wise in their decisions, and mindful of the lives that they hold in their hands. And we pray that you bring into your heavenly home all those lost to us. Let light perpetual shine upon them, and grant that we never forget their sacrifice, nor the pain and horror of war. Amen.

The Twelfth Station - Jesus Dies on the Cross

Glen Ridge Municipal Building

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And when Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished!” And then, crying with a loud voice, he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And he bowed his head, and handed over his spirit.

O God, send down upon those who hold office, or serve as first responders, in Glen Ridge and Bloomfield, the spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice; that with steadfast purpose they may faithfully serve in their roles to promote the well being of all people. And, teach us all to rely on your strength and to accept our own responsibility to our fellow citizens, that we may elect trustworthy leaders, and may step forward ourselves to serve our neighbors as you have taught us to do. Amen.

The Thirteenth Station - Mary Receives the Body of Jesus

Glen Ridge 9-11 Memorial (at Train Station)

All you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people. “Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
The men and women whose names adorn this marker likely began their day on September 11, 2001 by walking down the adjacent steps to the train station, thinking (or taking for granted) that they would return ten hours later via the ones across the bridge, weary perhaps, but safe.

We thought of our brothers and sisters in Bruxelles, Paris, the Cote D'Ivoire, Syria, Iraq, and everywhere that has been touched by terror and violence.

Most merciful God, let us hear the words of Jesus to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who abuse us, expecting nothing in return. In a world torn apart by terror and violence, may we be merciful, just as You are merciful, that peace may be brought to a broken and hurting world. Amen.

The Fourteenth Station - Jesus is Buried

Nursery School at Christ Church

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb.
In 1967, when most people thought a mother’s place was in the home, Christ Church chose to be forward-looking, providing innovative half- and full-day nursery school programs. The Nursery School now serves the needs of over 100 children. April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and the Nursery School displays pinwheels in remembrance of child abuse victims everywhere.

O God, in little children we are given a glimpse of what is possible – of innocence and joy, of love and light, most especially when we are in our darkest moments. Grant that we may look upon the children as Christ did – the ones closest to Your heart, and see in them the new life that awaits us when we open our hearts to you; and, work through us to protect, educate, nurture, and love them. Amen.


The service concluded in the church, with additional prayers, and the tolling of the bell, 33 times to mark the years of Jesus' life, and we departed in silence. I left profoundly moved and grateful for the experience to mark the death of Jesus in this very concrete way.

This is the altar in St. Mary's Chapel, where consecrated bread and wine were held in reserve for the evening's service. Good Friday is the only day of the church year when the Eucharist, the blessing of bread and wine, does not occur.


I told you at the start, My other self,
        My life was not complete
        Until I crowned it by My death.
        Your “way” is not complete
        Unless you crown it by your life.

        Accept each moment as it comes to you,
        With faith and trust
        That all that happens has My mark on it.
        A simple fiat, that is all it takes;
        A breathing in your heart,
        “I will it, Lord.”

        So seek Me not in far-off places.
        I am close at hand.
        Your workbench, office, kitchen,
        These are altars
        Where you offer love,
        And I am with you there.

        Go now!  Take up your cross
        And with your life
        Complete your way.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Fear is Poison, and Someone's Left the Cap Off the Bottle


Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
JOHN 13: 33-35

Holy week again and--much like our Gospel ancestors--we find ourselves gathering at the table in fear.

In the past week, a European city has been struck by terrorist violence, triggering the usual wave of "Will it happen here?" Our "leaders" have sprung into "action" with South Carolina's Senate passed a bill to create a "refugee registry" the contents of which will, of course, only be available to our trusty law enforcement friends, because that won't cause any problems.  Just like it didn't in 1930s Germany. One of the (God help us)presidential candidates stated that under his watch, we would "patrol Muslim neighborhoods" to stamp out any hint of suspicious activity.

But one bogeyman isn't enough, you know, so two adjoining states in the same part of the country (and one elsewhere lest we think there's something in the water), no doubt still smarting from the Supreme Court telling them "Yes you WILL let same-gender couples marry" are cobbling together what restrictions they can still impose on LGBT folk to make sure they still feel oppressed.  Georgia's governor is considering a "religious liberty" bill that allows one to discriminate based on one's so-called beliefs, and North Carolina up-ended non-discrimination bills in several cities by passing its own that specifically excludes orientation and gender identity, and also forbids lower jurisdictions from enacting broader protections. It ordered government buildings to assign a single gender to bathrooms and ensure the anatomy of those using them matches the sign. In the latter case, they clearly did exhaustive study first, since the entire thing went down--from proposal to signature by the governor--in under twelve hours.

Kansas went even further, encouraging vigilantism by offering a $2,500 reward to anyone who "catches" someone whose "plumbing doesn't match" using the "wrong" bathroom. Really? How is that not creepy and invasive? Who is going to check, and on what grounds? The sad irony is that this law, which states its purpose is to prevent violent, traumatic encounters, will pretty much require the same in order to be enforced.

Fear is at the root of all of this; fear we attempt to assuage with reactive window-dressing.  The truth none of us wants to face about violence is that it is--by definition--random. While vigilance and keen observation of our surroundings are doubtless important, the idea that we will plug all the holes is delusional. And following people around based on religion or identity will neither prevent violence nor do anything to de-escalate the tension that leads to it.  The vast majority of Muslim people in the world are horrified by the acts perpetrated by DAISH and other extremist groups, just (I hope) as most Christians would be horrified by the violence the church has perpetrated on Muslims and others throughout its history, and is perpetrating now on LGBT people in Russia, Africa, and the good old US of A.

Which brings it back to us, here in a crazy and uncertain world, where seemingly endless bad news and a 24-hour ticker of threats seems bent on making us a bunch of suspicious insomniacs peeking under bathroom stalls. The goal of "religious freedom" as described by people who would likely also describe our country (right or wrong) as a "Christian nation" should, one would assume, free us to act as our savior would.  The same savior, who--knowing one of those he called his friends would imminently perpetrate violence upon him--nonetheless greeted each of them with a kiss, and sat with them to eat and drink.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Plans for SS United States More Questions than Answers

On Thursday, February 4th, the SS United States Conservancy stunned the preservationist community by announcing that the much-ballyhooed plans for the ship were not to redevelop it as a static public attraction in New York as rumored, but in fact that a cruise line was interested in purchasing it for return to revenue service!

The liner, which holds the transatlantic speed record, was laid up in 1969 and has been idle ever since, her mid-century interiors long since stripped away and sold at auction.  For the past 20 years, she has been berthed in south Philadelphia, where drivers on I-95 and the Walt Whitman Bridge glimpse at her fading red-white-and blue smokestacks.

A a press conference held on Pier 88 in New York (long home of the storied Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (French Line)), Crystal Cruises, a luxury brand owned by Hong Kong-based Genting Group, announced they had agreed to front the ship’s $60,000-per-month dockage fees until the end of the year whilst they determine if renovating her further use is even feasible. A new propulsion system would have to be provided ( Crystal’s president asserted she would still be the fastest out there) and there is concern about contaminants lurking in her Cold-War-era bowels.

The renovated ship would carry about 800 passengers, far fewer than she was designed to accommodate. Her interiors are a veritable clean slate: all non-structural materials were gutted in the 1980s in the Ukraine.  Her designer’s preoccupation with fire meant asbestos and other hazardous substances were used in abundance.  A promotional video by the cruise line indicated her superstructure would be expanded to accommodate modern passenger expectations like stateroom balconies. Certain features like the enclosed promenade decks and the cozy Navajo Lounge would be maintained or recreated, and one would assume that a nod to her history would be evident throughout.
Screen shot of artist's rendering of the SS United States as proposed Crystal Cruise Lines vessel from Feb. 2016 press conference
Screen shot of artist’s rendering of the SS United States as proposed Crystal Cruise Lines vessel from Feb. 2016 press conference
My feelings are mixed:  While of course a ship is built to go to sea, this vessel was designed and laid down for a specific route and market that was lost to the jet airplane many  years ago.  To make her “work” as a modern cruise vessel, she will have to be modified almost beyond recognition, and will still be a compromise at best.  There is precedent, the SS France, of similar vintage, enjoyed 20 additional years of life as the cruise ship Norway, but not without two additional decks and much updating.

Which brings up my second concern: Genting also owns Norwegian Cruise Line which operated the Norway. After a boiler explosion rendered her inoperable, her owners claimed she was being brought to Asia for repairs, but in fact were accused of duping the German government when their real intention was to scrap her.  Under the Basel Convention, she would not be permitted to leave the EU without a plan in place to remove the asbestos and other hazards present throughout her interiors.  NCL actually purchased the United States once before with very similar intentions to the ones being proposed now, but determined it was not feasible.  It remains to be explained what is different this time.

Even if they are successful, I and the others who paid to keep her alive these recent years are still likely to be short-changed.  As a hotel and museum, she would have been accessible to millions of people including those who appreciate her history.  Instead she will become a playground for the super-rich, and the rest of us will be left waving from the shore.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Memories from the Hringvegur

In June of 1998, my dad and I went to Iceland, just the two of us. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing. We rented a 4WD car and purchased a package from Icelandic Farm Holidays that allowed you to pick any participating property from a book for four nights' accommodation. The only catch was you couldn't book it more than 24 hours ahead. So we looked at the Hringvegur, the road that encircles the island, and broke it into near-equal pieces. Our first and last night were spent in hotels in Reykjavik.

So on day two, we set out, counter-clockwise along the coast. Everything seemed great, until about 100 miles from the city, when the pavement ended. After that, it was like driving up someone's farm driveway for the next ten hours. Where the volcano had come through, they graded the lava, put new reflectors up, and that was the road. Where there were hills, they salted the dirt in an attempt to keep it from freezing. Only problem with that was that sheep would come lick the road because they liked the salt. Sheep wander free throughout a district during growing season; and by law if you hit one it's on you to find the owner and compensate hir. I had no intention of hitting any sheep. That would be cruel, and messy. I had no idea what kind of insurance we had, but I suspected disentangling sheep innards from the radiator wasn't covered. Thus, slow going.

Plus, the landscape was profoundly beautiful in a way that no-place we'd been before could have prepared us for. My dad commented "I've never doubted that the space program was real, but--seeing this place--I understand how someone might think the moon footage was faked."

Periodically you would see a sign saying something like "Kirkjubæjarklaustur 249". That's a real place. I've been, but I can't pronounce it, and I don't know what it means. Kirk means "church" so it's least possible that it translates to "The Church of the Poison Mind," but I doubt it. However, knowing how many kilometers away it is doesn't help much when you don't what the road is going to be like. It would be better measured in hours. Or sheep.

It was quite late by the time we arrived at our first farm, outside a town called Höfn (but pronounced "hop"). Höfn means "harbor" ... one great thing about Iceland is that place names are generally descriptive. So anyplace that ends in "höfn" is likely to have boats. There is generally an adjective attached (i.e., Reykjavik means "smoky bay") but not so in this case. We later visited a lake called Myvatn that was invested with gnats, and I later found out the name means "gnat lake". See? Easy!

We slept well, and when we got up the next morning we headed into Höfn proper for some gas and snacks, only to hear a rhythmic thumping from the front right tire as soon as we hit the paved town streets. I pulled over to check it out, and discovered a hex bolt had embedded itself in the tire sometime the day before. Luckily, the tire had held, but we didn't want to chance driving on it any further.

Luckily, according to the map from the rental car company, they had an agent right in Höfn! We located it on the map and headed there, only to discover the address in question was a house on a residential street with nobody around. Not sure what else to do, we stopped at a business (a propane merchant as it happened) to ask for guidance.

Most people in Iceland know at least some English, but the further you get from Reykjavik, their fluency diminishes. And we knew about as much Icelandic as I shared above. Everybody whom we met was glad to communicate with us, though, and this woman was no exception. She listened to my sad tale and laughed when I got to the point about the deserted house.

"He is also police chief," she told me. "First you go to coffee shop. If he is not in coffee shop, try police station!" That sounded about right! She explained how to find it on a town map, which she handed me. I took out my wallet to pay for the map, and she said "Oh no, is free; you take!"

Grateful for her advice, I wanted to buy something. I saw she had a coffee machine, and asked if I could have a cup. She nodded and disappeared, and came back bearing a tray with a cloth napkin, china cup and saucer, matching pitcher of milk and bowl with sugar cubes wrapped in paper. It looked more like something you'd get from room service in a nice hotel (for $12 plus tip) than a gas station waiting room; I pictured the grungy Mr. Coffee with Styrofoam cups and can of powdered "milk" that a place like this would have at home.

I took my wallet out, ready to pay for the coffee, and she waved me away. "Is free; you take!" Seriously, lady? You're not making this easy on me. I wondered if I was going to head back to the car with one of the backyard grills they were selling and tell my dad, "Don't ask questions!"

We followed the propane lady's instructions and found the coffee shop. Our man wasn't there, so we tried the police station. He wasn't there, either, but they got him on the radio and told them our problem. We were directed to a nearby garage, where they quickly changed the tire. No money was exchanged there, either; apparently the chief was good for it.

All of this was in such stark contrast to what we were used to, and a pleasant surprise given some of our previous travel adventures. We returned eleven years later with my mom and a family friend and had a similarly positive experience. As Iceland gets "discovered" by Westerners, some of whom have already been causing problems in heavy tourist areas, I hope this is one aspect of it that doesn't change.
  Sunset on Hofn harbour, Iceland
"Sunset on Höfn Harbor" by Emmanuel Milou
Used by Creative Commons License. Some Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I Will Not Forget

Nicholas Ferrar - Deacon (1637)
[Charles de Foucauld - Hermit & Servant of the Poor (1916)]
World AIDS Day

“There's a sadness, written on her pretty face
A sadness all her own, 
from which no man can keep Candy safe”


Jimmy loved junk food.

He could put away whole boxes of Hostess cakes, although you wouldn't know it to look at him. I don't remember why I know that; he must have told me at some point.  I used to flirt with him at our local bar, where we were both regulars.  He was a cutey, after all, but he always had a little bit of a sad edge to his smile. I wish I had a picture of him. We had no interaction outside of the bar, and I just stopped seeing him there at some point.

Jimmy died 20 years ago. He couldn't have been more than 30 or so, maybe younger. I can't find any record of his funeral, but I see his parents and his only brother all died since then and his death is noted in their obituaries.  I know where they were buried so maybe I'll go sometime and see if he's there, too.

Gaston had no such sadness about him: he was full of energy.  A wrestler in high school, he still lifted weights and looked it. When he was not DJing at that same bar, he also helped renovate it.  My love affair with Jeep Wranglers began with him: he had a nice blue one with all kinds of mods. I got to ride in it once: he took me to a Marky Mark concert after I won the tickets on the radio. I was afraid to drive in the city then, and still don't like to.

Gaston disappeared, too, but that happens in a bar. I found out later through a friend that he was also gone. He did have a picture of him for me, though, in his graduation suit.   I still have it.

The bar used to have plaques on the wall for a bartender who kept working there long after he he'd been diagnosed with cancer, and one of the drag performers who also died a few years ago.  I asked if Gaston would ever get one, but it was so long ago, there are probably few people still there who would recognize him.

For years I have helped a dear friend of mine borrow and display some panels from the quilt.  Not enough people were coming to see it, though, and people in the place where we hung it said it made them sad to look at it, especially at Christmastime.  My friend bore the expense single-handedly, and it was a lot of work for us and another friend of his to go get the panels out of the chilly storage facility where they live most of the time, put them up and take them down, so we didn't do it this year. But we would still do it, somewhere, if people would come see.

Last year, I resolved to make, or--more accurately--commission, a quilt panel for Gaston. I know he doesn't have one, because you can check.  As it happens, a year later, I haven't gotten anywhere with that.  I feel bad about it, and I still want to do it.

I don't know enough about Jimmy to make one for him, really.  Not yet, but I'll keep trying to find someone who does. I don't think he wants to be remembered by a box of Ho-Hos, although I could always get to see that smile by teasing him about it.

A young guy told me today that World AIDS Day doesn't really speak to him "just because I'm gay" and pointed out that men like him are no longer the largest group of new infections. I know this is thanks in part to the drugs, but I wish the pharma companies didn't make it sound in their commercials like HIV was reduced to a minor inconvenience for those lucky enough to afford their products.

I didn't argue with my young friend. He didn't know guys like Gaston and Jimmy, and he didn't live with the fear that we did.  Because of them, we got tested.  Because of them, we stopped taking chances.  Because of them, we're here.

So because of them, I will not forget.