An Urban Immersion: Signs of Hope

In the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people…to fulfill the promise of being one people, necessary to abolish any government that becomes destructive of these ends, necessary to dissolve the political bans that keep us from speaking to each other, necessary to avow our interdependence, to look straight into each other’s eyes the way we behold the moon, and declare to one another: I see you. I see you. I see you.

           (An excerpt from: Declaration of Inter-dependence, Poem by Richard Blanco)

On January 12, 2017, Center Church Hartford, UCC and The First Church in Simsbury, UCC, embarked on an Urban Immersion in the City of Hartford. Together we were in search of Signs of Hope. About Twenty-Five participants from both churches and Charter Oak Cultural Center, boarded a bus, united by the belief that, now more than ever, in the words of Richard Blanco,  we needed to “declare to one another: I see you. I see you. I see you.”

Our journey began at the Center Church’s Warburton Resource Center. Our next stop,   Imma-Care. There we visited the no-freeze shelter.

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No-Freeze Shelter

We walked two blocks from Imma-Care to the Hartford Public Library, Park Street Branch and we concluded with lunch at Hands on Hartford, followed by a presentation from the Christian Activities Council. It was a comprehensive immersion. We examined  homelessness, education and community organizing in the context of the city. All of the organizations visited provide us with opportunities to link these three most important issues.

Our visit to the Park Street Branch of the Hartford Public Library, left many of our participants wondering, Why are the children and the poor so often forgotten? Why in the words of Dr. King, are they made to “quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait?”  The Park Street library branch, is not much larger than my minister study at Center Church, yet, it serves over 10,000 residents. It is clean and well organized. However, there is not enough space to have a comprehensive collection. There are no separate areas for the many activities that take place and, evidently, it is too small for the demand of the population it serves–everything happens in one room.We were most impressed, however, by the extraordinary work that the staff is doing.  They have managed to, not only be a library, but also a community center.  The residents in the Frog Hollow neighborhood visit this library branch, to study, check out books and materials, and to find community–to be in community. I had visited the library prior to the immersion, and was able to observe the commitment of the staff in making sure the children and youth are served appropriately.  They are all-hands-on-deck after 2:00pm tutoring when mothers/parents are unable, because of language barriers or academic limitations. They are also attentive to the needs of the adults, guiding them in their, often, new neighborhood, in this foreign land. Wilderness means different things for all of us. Leaving a beautiful island or the country that witnessed our birth–la tierra que nos vio nacer–in an effort to  find a better life in an unknown country, in an unfamiliar city,  often feels like being lost in the wilderness.

In my mind, Leticia Cotto is one of the most influential people in the City of Hartford. Ms. Cotto is, all day, every day, working to change lives and providing educational opportunities, with very little resources. She attends to the needs of a community that has been disregarded and often forgotten. She provides a space for learning and also belonging.

For over twenty years, the Frog Hollow community has been promised an adequate location for the library. For over twenty years, many reasons have been offered as to why it cannot happen. For over twenty years, a community has been asked to “quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait.” Most recently, we learned that the City of Hartford is moving forward with plans to provide a new space for the library. This time, we are told it will finally happen. Nonetheless, promises have been made before.  Plans had been drafted before. I invite you to join me in supporting the Hartford Public Library, Park Street Branch.  The education of our children cannot wait. Persistence is in order.

Finally, it is prophetic that one of the murals in the library, has this message: “estamos a la orilla del mundo…trabajemos juntos para sobrevivir.”

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“We are at the edge of the world, let us work together to survive.” Certainly, the Frog Hollow community  knows first hand what it is to be “en la orilla” at the edge–in the margins. It is time for us to say to them: “I see you. I see you. I see you.”

The Place of Compassion

This summer as part of my studies abroad I took a class on compassion.  Waiting at JFK for my plane to London, I used the time to review some my reading. Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to Compassion was one of the texts.  Karen writes,

Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world to put another there…To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody and to incite hatred by denigrating others – even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity.”

My reading was interrupted by a speech of one our presidential candidates, broadcasted through a television in the waiting area. “Build that Wall” the crowed chanted. In the same speech, we heard how a Muslim family was dehumanized. All eyes were on the TV screen. It seemed as the waiting area at JFK had stopped in time.

At that moment, I felt grateful I was leaving to get some respite from the rhetoric of hate that has been tormenting me during this election season.

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During our class, we wrestled with the concepts of compassion, altruism and empathy. We reflected on questions such as, Can compassion be learned? Can we “make people” be compassionate by providing them with opportunities to exercise compassion? And, how do we, as pastors, create spaces where compassion can flourish?

We discussed compassion and empathy through the reflection on many works of arts. One that particularly resonated with me was Jacob Lawrence’s painting “Ordeal of Alice”.  This, of course, is a painting of Ruby–the first African American girl to attend a segregated school in the South.

 

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Jacob Lawrence: “Ordeal of Alice”

While in reflection and discussion of this painting, I raised the question:  Are we able to feel compassion for the negative forces surrounding the girl? Do we feel “pity” because, in the words of Karen Armstrong, in denying the humanity to “Alice” they lost their own humanity?

Some of my classmates said they did not feel any compassion for the oppressing characters in the painting. Others said, they are compelled to be compassionate because of their faith.

While this is a painting, we all know who they were. We know who were those who committed unspeakable acts of hate.  Further, we know that today that hate is still alive and well.

I am reminded of Senator Cory Booker’s words “I am going to love on you.” But there are wounds that are too deep. There are injuries that have been perpetrated for too long. There are wounds that cannot be dismissed with sweet words, for they that have cut us to the core. We feel them throbbing every day of our lives.  Yet, we are confronted with the need to be compassionate. And, we too, might be in need of it.  C.S. Lewis, who taught at Magdalen College in Oxford, once said:

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

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Chapel at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, England

The question stands, should we extend compassion to those who have inflicted pain and suffering in our lives? Should we, as a society, be compassionate toward those who, in our view, have lost their humanity, because they have allowed their hate and ignorance to win the argument? And,  if so, what does look like?

 

CHELMSFORD and HARTFORD

It has been said, “Never forget the importance of history. To know nothing of what happened before you took your place on earth, is to remain a child for ever and ever.” (Author Unknown)
During the weekend between the first and second week of my studies in Oxford, I visited Chelmsford, Essex. The reason for my visit: Thomas J. Hooker, who was the first pastor of the First Church of Christ in Hartford (where I currently serve) in 1633, also served at Chelmsford Cathedral as minister prior to leaving to America. Hooker is known as one the fathers of Hartford and American Democracy.
My trip to England would have been incomplete, if I did not visit the Cathedral. I will share with you that it was not an easy trip–three hours one-way from Oxford and five transfers in between. I have very little complaints, despite the long journey, because it provided me with a great opportunity see beautiful countryside.


At Chelmsford Cathedral I worshiped, shared in Communion, witnessed a baptism and visited an exhibition featuring “The Dissenters” curated by the Cathedral’s historian, Linda Brown Easton. She entitled the exhibit “Striking out.” Linda makes this note about Hooker:
“[The] Great Migration (1620-1642) changed the fabric of institutional and practical life on both sides of the Atlantic. Thomas and Susannah Hooker and their children made this dangerous voyage in 1633 aboard the Griffin. Hooker’s contributions to theological and political thought form part of this exhibition and underscore his identity today. Variously viewed by his contemporaries, Hooker’s fame was built upon his uninhibited views and his desire to express them. Not afraid of striking out again authorities, he soon encountered similar contests of will in Massachusetts, leading him to venture further afield—into Connecticut.”

 


The Cathedral today stands tall in the midst the very modest City of Chelmsford. Chelmsford recently became officially a “city,” nonetheless,  it is a town by many standards. A complete contrast to Oxford, I may add, mainly because it demolished many of its historic buildings in the 1960s and erected modern style structures.

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Chelmsford, England. City Center depicting one of the few remaining historic buildings

There are some signs of Hooker’s legacy in the Cathedral, but not many. For instance, a plaque which is displayed next to one of the gates  commemorates him as “the father of American Democracy.” Unfortunately,  its location is so high it is easy to miss. It certainly was missed by me upon my arrival.


Regrettably, the Cathedral did not preserve any of Hooker’s sermons. He is, however, remembered as a preacher that had extensive education, but that spoke “the language of the common person.” His sermons were crafted in a way that all could understand. This was indeed unique for his time and an issue of controversy.
During my visit, I reflected upon the importance of history, with its positive and/or negative content and impact. I wondered, if I was to walk the streets of Hartford, Connecticut today and ask any passer-by, “Who was Thomas J. Hooker?” They probably will point me in the direction of the Hooker’s Brewery. While there is a statute of Hooker at the Old State House, arguably, a great number of Hartford dwellers do not know much about the origins of the City.
Similarly, at Chelmsford Cathedral, I had the opportunity to speak to some of the members of the congregation and share about our connection through Thomas Hooker. Most did not know anything about him, notwithstanding the historians’ exhibition and a permanent plaque hanging in the Cathedral’s property. This begs the question, Does history matter? Most particularly, does local history matter today? And, Do we care?
Clearly, our history does not reside with only one person in a particular context—thank God!  Further, we should not clothe the past with comfortable accounts of “the truth” without checking our story against other accounts. For instance, I recognize Hooker’s contributions to America’s democracy, but it is not lost on me that he was the moderator of the Anne Hutchinson trial, denying her the right he sought for himself– freedom of expression and religious diversity of thought. Also, as many of his contemporaries, he was tortured by his own insecurities about his salvation.

Nonetheless, the point I am trying to make is:  history matters, including but not limited to, the history of one’s place. Let us, however,  consider learning  the stories from many points of view–remembering that those who left a mark in the world were also human, flawed and limited by the understanding of their context. Further, let us consider the possibility that , they too, may have  consciously committed injustices.

I am very grateful to Linda for her amazing work in highlighting The Dissenters of Essex and for her kind hospitality. I will never forget my time in Chelmsford, for obvious reasons, but also because I met an extraordinary friend.

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Linda and I saying our goodbyes at the Chelmsford Train Station

 

 

Healing The Wounded World

This summer, I traveled to Oxford, England to study. I am attending the Theology Summer School program at Christ Church College, University of Oxford. This year’s theme: Healing The Wounded World. 

It has been an exciting week. My experience has been very enriching,  albeit, the severe jet lag the first four days. Oxford is an extraordinary  city with breathtaking architecture and beautiful meadows throughout.  There are opportunities for learning and enrichment at every corner.

I arrived a day early. My accommodations for one day were at Jesus College. Jesus College is a lot smaller than Christ Church, but, it does not lack charm and beauty.

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Jesus College, University of Oxford  Quad I

Upon arrival, I came across  a sign pointing to “Habakkuk Room.” I found it to be very prophetic. It reminded me of the reason I am here. The prayer found in  Habakkuk 1:2, is one I have uttered many times in the last year. “How long, Lord, must I call for help but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence! but you do not save?”

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As I walked around the City, I visited St. Michael’s Church, which had a sign inviting all to tour their 1,000 year old tower. Immediately, I felt humility setting in. As an American minister who leads a church that is 383 years old, I am often feeling very proud about the resiliency of those who have preserved life and service, past and present,  at the First Church of Christ in Hartford, also known as Center Church. However, being here, I am reminded of how young we are, really.

Sunday morning came very quickly, and, I made my way to Christ Church College early enough to worship at Christ Church Cathedral.  It had been a while since I sat in a pew and worshiped without any responsibility in the leading of the service. The setting was absolutely breathtaking, and the liturgy was deeply moving.

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Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, England

Most special, were the prayers which included  special petitions for the Queen of England and for all ministers who are devoted to doing God’s work on earth. I admit, being at the receiving end of a prayer, was very meaningful. Being a minister means that we are the ones uttering prayers on behalf of others most of the time. In my experience, it is a rare occasion to be included and/or have our work be recognized in a public prayer. For that, I was most grateful at Christ Church.

During this first week, I am taking two classes:  The Place of Compassion and Sacraments: The Medicine of the Gospel?  I have also attended two additional lectures on campus which have been very compelling. One of them on the life of Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

My days are very full; but I am spending these weeks,  arguably, in one of the most beautiful Universities on earth. While here, I am in the company of extraordinary people from around the world, including but not limited to, Singapore, Canada, Thailand, Rome and Australia.

The theological diversity in the program is most enriching. Although many are from mainline Protestant denominations, there are also, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Jesuit Priests and, yes, even an exorcist. Often during breaks, a walk through The Meadows help me reflect on the learnings of the day as I utter a prayer or two.

 

 

 

 

 

MUJERES

This blog is dedicated to all the women of the world, specially, to those who have influenced my life in one way or another. I honor the memory of my grandmothers. I remember the sacrifice of other women in ministry who come before me, Anne Hutchinson, Antoinette Brown,  Ada Maria-Isasi Diaz and so many others who have paid a heavy price for being a woman in the world and in ministry.