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Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Christians and the Pagans

Clement - Bishop of Rome (100)

St. Anne's Morrisania
Photo by Chesley Kennedy
This past weekend, a handful of us journeyed northward at (for me) a crazy-early hour for a Saturday, to St. Anne's Episcopal Church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx.   The church is well over 100 years old, and -- as the name and suggests -- was the home and is now the resting place of Lewis Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and his half-brother Gouverneur Morris, who is credited with writing its preamble.

Today the church's ample property is literally an oasis.  Surrounded by low-rise apartments and bodegas, the lumbering hill peppered with trees and ancient gravestones is one of the few green places for neighborhood kids to play.  The Mott Haven section of the Bronx is one of the nation's poorest, although it has enjoyed a significant drop in crime in recent decades.  The church's website speaks of the success of its after-school program, and the sprawling building was alive with activity for much of the day we were there.

The purpose of our visit was a workshop for congregations more seeking to be more welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who might come in seeking a spiritual home.  As part of the Believe Out Loud program, The OASIS and Integrity are trying to encourage all area churches to learn about LGBT people's "issues" with the church and how to be sure everyone feels safe and included.

St. Anne's Morrisania
Photo by Chesley Kennedy
The turnout began with two panels of people from various backgrounds speaking about their faith journey and how they came to be involved in this work.  Being in an urban setting, some of these were not the same stories we hear in the suburbs.  We heard from both a mentor and a graduate of "The Church," a Saturday night outreach program for LGBT youth, many of them homeless or otherwise at-risk, who congregate in the West Village. This program offers workshops in art and dance, as well as access to health care and social workers, and a hot meal coordinated by a professional chef.  For many of them, being "out" in their families or neighborhoods is simply not an option for reasons of their actual safety.  The same day we were meeting, there was a rally and march in protest of recent gang-related violence in another part of the Bronx.  The brutal attack against a local man and two teenagers, which has been ruled an anti-gay bias crime, was yet another reminder that we were a long, long way from Christopher Street and the relative safety we take for granted.  Its organizer was another of our speakers:  Dirk McCall is the director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, which provides myriad services and activities for the region.

Then, on Monday night, I joined some local friends at the 20th Annual Pagan Thanksgiving, held this year at Halcyon in Montclair.  This tradition has grown from a rather haphazard gathering of friends (plenty of turkey and beer, not so much napkins or forks) at an Upper Mountain Avenue residence known as the Home for Wayward Garden Tools into a pretty lavish event.  The hosts provide turkey and ham; everybody else brings homemade side dishes (although I can report there was a run on the deli case at Whole Foods by folks toting their own Corningware to be filled.  Did we all suddenly become eco-friendly?).  A collection of both cash and non-perishables benefited the Human Needs Food Pantry.

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