Wednesday, December 07, 2011

God, Rocks, and Souls

This is an introduction to John McLarty’s book in progress, GOD, ROCKS, AND SOULS, a memoir of an “old, white, liberal Adventist pastor”.

What follows is a “chapter…not in its final form” from that book in progress.

Chapter 50. The German New York Seventh-day Adventist Church

I called Elder Roehn a couple of days after my appointment with the president.

“Hi Elder Roehn. How are you? Elder Kretschmar talked to me the other day and asked if I would come and work with you. I was wondering if we could get together and talk about what you expect of me.”

“Yes, John, I think we can get together some time. This week I’m pretty busy, maybe next week sometime.”

“Okay, I’ll give you a call next Sunday.”

I hung up the phone laughing. Elder Roehn did not sound surprised by the news I was coming as his assistant. Neither did he sound eager to talk with me. This was going to be interesting.

Sometime during the previous year, maybe as much as six months earlier, I have been asked by the Gardeners, principle English-speaking couple at the German Church, to help lead a Bible study at the church on Sabbath afternoons. Marilyn Gardner would cook a big pot of soup and invite English-speaking people who attended church in the morning to stay for lunch and a Bible study. I would finish preaching at Babylon, visit briefly in the lobby, then most Sabbaths race off for Manhattan, arriving about 2:00 p.m. for the Bible study.

Elder Roehn never attended. I never saw him.

The Sabbath after my conversation with the conference president, Karin and I drove into Manhattan as usual. Besides the four or five regulars, Kurt and Gertrude Paulien were there. Kurt was the head elder. Before getting into the Bible study, we visited a bit about my coming as Elder Roehn’s assistant. Kurt wanted me to take over preaching as soon as possible. What had been happening was Elder Roehn would preach three Sabbaths a month. Kurt would sit in the back and attempt simultaneous translation for the hand full of non-Germans present. And Dr. Gardner preached in English one a month. Kurt was eager to see the language of worship move from German to English and Herb not was a particularly compelling speaker even if German was your native language.

Kurt did have one complaint. Why, he wanted to know, when I had been at the church before, did I never attend board meetings? I was surprised by his complaint. No one had ever invited me to board meetings. I knew they happened once a month, but I had no idea I was welcome, much less expected to attend.

Marilyn Gardner, especially, was warm in her expression of happiness at the prospect of my coming to the church in a pastoral role. I began to dream about ministry in the city again. Much as I loved Long Island, it could never be more than comfortable. Dreaming of ministry in Manhattan was exciting.

I called Elder Roehn on Sunday. His week was really full, but finally he agreed for me to come by his house on Tuesday. Herb and Eva lived on a quiet, tree-lined street in Queens. He welcomed me into the curtained living room. It was dark and immaculate. We talked.

“So how long have you been at the German Church?”

“I came in 1968. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve watched conference presidents come and go, and projects and campaigns. I’ve seen a lot, John. I don’t get very excited any more when the conference announces some new program that’s going to finish the work and save the city. I’ve been here too long for that.”

“Does Eva like it here?”

“Yes. We built this house, practically. You should have seen it when we bought it. It was a dump. So every year for about five years, I spent my two weeks of vacation working on the house. I completely gutted the upstairs all the way down to the bare studs. Pulled off all the old plaster and lath. Pulled out the old bathroom. Everything. After we finished the upstairs, we started on the downstairs. We like it now. It’s ours. We know the neighbors. I think we’ll stay right here after I retire.”

I asked about his daughters. One was doing well. The other had been a constant source of concern, in and out of relationships with wild guys. A grandchild. He talked about the church. Described some of the work he had done on the physical plant and work that needed doing in the near future. At one point he complained about Elder Kretschmar sending me without properly introducing me. I brushed off his comment, and fortunately he didn’t pursue it…

The neighborhood around the church had changed during the seventeen years he had been pastor there. When he first arrived, he said, the stores along 86th Street were mostly German. You heard German spoken on the street. But not now. You were more likely to hear Spanish than German. The longer we visited, the more comfortable he became. He didn’t mind talking. I practiced listening.

A couple of hours later I left and drove into the city. Driving into the city never failed to thrill me. It didn’t matter which route I took, but the Fifty-Ninth Street bridge was the best. You got onto the bridge through a cobweb of steel that carried the train overhead. The bridge carried you high above the East River, giving you views of the skyline before dropping you onto the congested streets of Manhattan.

I drove up to the church, found a parking place a couple of blocks from the church, parked and walked the neighborhood. It did not have the earthy vitality of Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side. It didn’t have the glitz of Times Square or Rockafeller Center. But it was Manhattan. The sidewalks were full of people. Nanny’s pushing baby carriages. Seventy-year-old women made up with the care of a twenty-year old headed to a dance. Men in suits, walking with brisk determination. Everywhere the streets were constricted with the double-parked service vans of plumbers, carpenters, delivery men, electricians, elevator repairmen and dry cleaners. Yellow taxis threaded their way through and blared their horns. It felt like home.

I walked the couple of blocks west from the church to Central Park. The trees were fresh with the new leaves of summer. People were everywhere. Joggers filled the path around the reservoir. Ten blocks north I left the park at 96th Street. Ninety-sixth street on the east side was one of the most jarring boundaries in New York. South of 96th was my neighborhood, York Town, the Upper East Side, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York. Little, old white women walked the sidewalks, dressed and made up or pulling little grocery carts. The only people of color were maids and nannies and uniformed doormen.

North of 96th was Harlem. There were no fences separating the two neighborhoods, no physical barriers, but the might as well have been the an international boundary. The contrast between north of 96th and south of 96th was easily as stark as the difference between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez or San Diego and Tijuana. I couldn’t help wondering if Jesus would have preferred working north of the border.

My first Sabbath morning in New York three weeks later, the congregation looked pretty much the same as it had five years earlier. About forty people in a building that could seat 400. Eighty percent of them Germans over sixty-five. There were a couple of younger Germans. A Romanian woman and her three children who lived in the tiny apartment at the back of the church. She served as sexton. The Gardeners. John Benedetto.

Emily was there, parked in a chair by the front door after church, waiting for the Pauliens to fetch their car to take her home. She was as ebullient as ever, loudly greeting everyone. And Edith. A retired fashion designer. Elegant and gracious.

Coming out of seminary, my opinions about how to achieve optimal church function were sharply defined. I had read the books and fed off the zeal of other dreamers. I was going to be God’s spokesman, God’s designated leader, moving people toward high ideals. I had mastered the entire complex of Adventist theology, both the formal statements of belief and the vast library of traditional prophetic scenarios, biblical interpretation, behavioral and liturgical mores. I was eager to teach my version of classic Adventism. I knew what to do and what to say to revolutionize the life of the church.

But it didn’t take long in Babylon to reduce me to a student again, learning from people without titles. The saints in Babylon never challenged my theological ideas, they simply modeled effective Christian spirituality in the context of their prosaic suburban lives (though, of course, they never used the word, “spirituality”). They weren’t perfect Adventists. Rachel hardly ever attended church. Sam drank coffee. The Jeffersons went to movies. Mabel ate meat. Hans’ temper made life difficult for his wife. Wilson was having anonymous sex with men at a rest area on the Long Island Expressway. Mr. Smith was blatantly racist. The fat couple with the bulldog were eating themselves to death. But the sum of their life together was greater than their individual characters. Together they had created a generous, gentle community that was largely color-blind, hopeful, forgiving, gracious. Their lives together reduced many traditional theological certainties to merely curious addenda to the truth of community.

Now I was in Manhattan, a place where preaching would be the big deal. New York preachers had influenced the world–Harry Emerson Fosdick, George Buttrick, Dave Wilkerson. Finally, I was going to be a preacher. My words were going to matter.

Delusions of grandeur die hard.


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