Today is a special day for me: today I start the Fourth Quarter of my life. It’s been an adventure … Altoona, Boston, Chestnut Hill, Hatboro, Paterson, Somerville, Grand Rapids, Holland, the South Bronx, Milwaukee, Littleton, Thousand Oaks, Ventura, Boquete … hundreds of cruises including two times around the world … lots of interesting people … ups and downs … far too many funerals, mostly of kids … the adventure of a growing, maturing, much more accepting faith … an interesting retirement … and a fantastic family, now with two great grandsons to boot. It’s been good!
My world and life view … God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life and its a plan for good. And that’s exactly what it has been.
One of my mother’s favorite verses was from Psalm 37:
The Lord makes firm the steps
of the one who delights in him;
though he may stumble, he will not fall,
for the Lord upholds him with his hand.
I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
They are always generous and lend freely;
their children will be a blessing.
Turn from evil and do good;
then you will dwell in the land forever.
For the Lord loves the just
and will not forsake his faithful ones.
Two birthday hymns … both Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and both recorded from a performance in a prison.
In many ways if you are a minister your first church really defines who you are as a minister and in many ways as a person. I went from the lily-white suburbs of Grand Rapids to my first church in the South Bronx in the late 60s. It was a black congregation in a heavily Puerto Rican area. [So why don’t I speak Spanish? Well, the Puerto Rican New York street Spanglish I learned doesn’t serve me well, although if you really piss me off I can get quite fluent describing your mother’s and your sexual habits.] So here I was, this young white boy in an all-black church at the height of the black power movement. It wasn’t always smooth or easy, but it was one of the best times of my life, if you forget the 21 funerals I did in six years for kids who died violently. But I learned to love gospel music. The church actually had an old Wurlitzer organ with huge speakers and that thingy that twirled around inside that gave it that gospel-like whine and vibration. We also had the old pipe organ, and a fantastic organist and music director who were very traditional church musicians and strictly limited the amount of gospel music we could do – go figure! But we ended up with a choir that toured the country and could sing from Masterpieces of the Russian Liturgy one moment and gospel the next.
So that’s why I like gospel.
And I’ve spent a lot of time in prison, well a lot for a guy who has never been convicted of anything.
Starting in the South Bronx I did a lot of work with street kids and was involved in several drug rehabilitation programs. After the Attica Prison Riot in 1971 a lot of clergy got together and decided that prisons not only walled people in, but walled out the community. And so we began a Clergy Volunteer Program where we would go inside the prisons on the cell blocks and in the dormitories just to bridge the wall and provide a point of contact for prisoners inside and their families outside, and listen, and try and help keep things cool. So I spent lots of time in the Bronx House of Detention for Men, and since I also directed a drug rehabilitation program, lots of guys wanted to talk to me about getting into the program. I’d go to court and get guys who I thought might make it paroled into my program. The first guy was Henry Massa, who became not only a great friend, but also program director for my drug program and a staff member of my church.
After the Bronx I pretty much stayed out of prison. In Littleton we did have a Christmas cookie program that made up thousands of boxes that we delivered to the county jail on Christmas Eve. Each box contained toiletries, homemade cookies, and a hand-made card from one of the kids in the church. All the boxes, and we’re talking about thousands, we hand decorated. It was an amazing project and aside from the tremendous commitment of the church members, what astounds me when I look back is that the jail let us do this. Think of all the security and legal ramifications! But it was a different time.
Then I was out of jail for a long time until a prayer request stuck in the offering plate of a church where I worked in Westlake Village which led to my meeting and becoming a good friend of Brandon Hein. I followed Brandon around from one California maximum security prison to another visiting all the armpit towns of California who survival depends on California’s prison warehouse industry. Unfortunately, now 20 years [20 YEARS!] later, Brandon is still in prison for a crime nobody says he committed.
So that’s why I like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir in this environment and not their typical church-theater stage setting.