Home, or the lack of it

what is required

homeI have long had this peculiar ambivalence about the idea of home. It started as a kid. Our dwelling seemed so small, the first floor of a two-story house.

I seldom had my friends over, though I’d go to several of their homes. My bedroom was carved out of the dining room with two walls my father built. When we visited my mother’s first cousins in St. Albans, Queens, NYC, their house seemed like a mansion.

But that wasn’t it, really. My grandma Williams house was hardly roomy. Yet it was the headquarters where her family would congregate. Based on photographs, this was the case for a number of generations.

It may be that my father and mother didn’t own our house, grandma Williams did. And while this didn’t faze me, I think it ate at my father. Why didn’t he buy a house? Was it that he was shut out of the GI Bill’s provisions, as many black veterans were? Could he not find a house to buy in Binghamton?

I have since found out my parents were barred from renting some places there because they were (incorrectly) perceived to be an interracial couple. Or was his upbringing such that he never thought of himself in that role?


Two things brought this to mind. One piece in my brain is this Boston Globe article, “Claiming land and water on Martha’s Vineyard. Inkwell, a historically Black beach in Oak Bluffs, is a resistance.” It’s about a young black woman who bought a home with her brother. And one of the things she wondered about was whether she was worthy to own a house. And not just for her, but for future generations.

Since I never owned a house before my current address – and I lived in 30+ apartments before that – I totally get that vibe. Add to that all of those stories of people who lose their homes, often to fire or flood. I see them on TV. They almost always say, bravely, “At least everyone’s safe,” if that’s true. “We can always buy more stuff.” Except that the loss of a homestead is more than “stuff.”

Or maybe not. Several years ago, there was a young woman on JEOPARDY who noted that she lost her possessions in a fire. She felt liberated. Alex Trebek appeared aghast.


Another stream in my consciousness was a lectionary reading from December 20.2 Samuel 7:1-11. In part: “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”

In our Bible study, we kicked around the idea of what is required in a physical structure, whether in a home or a church. Someone commented, “There is something to be said about the church as ‘home.’ To strike the balance of Church as a welcoming architecture of physical materials, comforting relationship, sense of belonging, and vessel for the holy, is I believe the challenge we face.”

Of course, we haven’t been IN our church building for over nine months. The early church was in people’s homes. So do we need a fancy structure? Surely we mourned when Notre Dame burned in Paris. Or when racists torch black churches. These are not just buildings, but symbols of something greater. My previous church burned down twice in a 30-year period, and they rebuilt the current cathedral-like structure in the midst of the Depression.

In conclusion… well, I have no conclusion. I just have musings about the importance and impermanence of place.

Unbridled joy at church, as it were

readings, prayers, and conversation

First Presbyterian Church. windowMy church had been working toward resuming in-person worship beginning Sunday, November 29. However, based on the upswing of COVID 19 virus cases in the area, the Session (correctly, IMO) doesn’t feel it is safe to restart.

Since we’re talking about Presbyterians, naturally there is an ad hoc group known as the Reopening Coordinating Committee. The group voted to put in-person worship on hold at least until mid-January. I suspect it’ll be later than that.

Now, we have had worship live-streamed on Facebook every Sunday at 10 a.m. since way back on March 22, after the services were canceled on March 15. It is actually a quite decent production, thanks to the technological prowess of a number of folks. But of course, it’s not the same.

There is a team in the church to check-in and connect with every member via phone or email. I’m one of those team members. But it ain’t the same either.

We did a new thing

On November 22, we had an all-church meeting to discuss the nominations for the new Session members. So it was on the church’s ZOOM account. I had seen most of the people present, from meetings of the choir and adult Sunday school and the Bible guys.

But it occurred to me that some of the members had viewed few or none of the rest of us. What I saw were, in some cases, experiences of unbridled joy. It was very exciting.

Then on Thanksgiving at 11 am, we had a Zoom gathering time of readings, prayers, and conversation. ESPECIALLY conversation.

Now, our church is working on trying to do a carol sing close to Christmas. Of course, we’d all be muted save for the performers. It’d be cacophony otherwise. Still, we could at least SEE each other making a joyful noise.

As our pastors like to say, “We may not gather at the church, but we still gather as the church.”

A flimsy surrogate; and yet…

faith and the Census

and yetWhen the singer/songwriter/actress Sara Bareilles was on some morning show recently, she was asked how she was faring in the era of COVID-19. She noted that while she was staying connected via ZOOM, et al., it wasn’t at all the same thing. Each substitute was a “flimsy surrogate” for the real thing.

This resonated with me greatly. I’ve discovered that there are actually MORE chances for hearing music, seeing productions, and interacting with performers. It’s actually a bit overwhelming, truth to tell. Broadway World alone has tons of video opportunities, more than I can avail myself of. Search YouTube for COVID music or coronavirus music and you’ll find a wealth of clever items. The OUTKAST parody Hey-Ya “Ro-Na is a current favorite.

But I miss hugging. I am told that I’m a very good hugger. How one measures that, I have no idea.

I miss going to the movies. Will there be movie theaters next year? Yeah, there are lots of films available on my TV, computer, and even phone. Nah, I’m NOT watching a movie on my phone.

Not the Lone Ranger

The problem with masks is that people don’t recognize me. I was at a Farmers Market and I said hello to one of my state legislators. They said, “Hello to you, whoever you are.” If I wanted to begin my life of crime, maybe now would be a good time.

And I don’t recognize others. At the one Black Lives Matter events my daughter allowed me to attend with her – it WAS Juneteenth – some nice young man brought us water. It wasn’t until he pulled down his mask that I recognized him as the son of great friends of mine; I’ve known him his whole life.

Ordering food is an adventure. Which one of the seven online websites should I order from? GrubHub or EatStreet or AllMenus or MealO or something else? There are places, fine sit-down restaurants where I’ve eaten, whose menus just don’t translate well to take-out. And yet: the sushi place I ordered from for my wife’s birthday was quite fine.

Having nothing to do with WGBH in Boston

The problem of ZOOM meetings there seems to be so many of them. And yet: the Olin family reunion – my mother-in-law’s people – wouldn’t have met at all without it. And they’ve gathered for over three-quarters of a century. While some of the regulars didn’t make it, others who had moved away were able to “attend.”

My choir meets every two or three weeks. On the one hand, we miss the singing. Getting details about the music we’re not performing is sad. And yet: one of the choir members suggested we share our joys and concerns. That’s something we’d do at the end of every rehearsal. The addition was profoundly meaningful.

I’ve had the chance to go to the Adult Education class, which I could rarely attend in the past because it conflicted with the choir. I’ve even gotten to facilitate it once, about my Martin Luther King references on the blog. And I’m doing another one on July 26 at 8:45 a.m. EDT about faith and the Census. (If you’re that much of a Census junkie, I’ll email/IM you the ZOOM link.)

My Tuesday morning Bible study group stopped meeting for the summer. And yet: the Thursday morning group, which I began attending, continues on. I’ve even led the discussion once and I’ll do it again next month.

The church service is actually on Facebook. We do communion with, as instructed, with whatever is available. That might mean Wheat Thins and shot glasses of Blueberry Peach Cobbler from our local cidery.

Advances in technology

The opportunity to go into my bank has been diminished. And yet: the ATM at my bank, which had dispensed only twenty-dollar bills since forever is now allowing customers to get tens and fives. So if I need $100, I could get 3 $20s, 2 $10s, and 4 $5s, or whatever combination I want.

I understand my former colleagues are now more productive working from home.

My wife is now enamored with Google Classroom, which she barely used five months ago.

There are some innovations, such as no-touch door openers.

So we continue to adapt.

FTC Disclaimer: I noted links to a couple of products/services positively, but I received no remuneration for doing so.

Trinity UMC, my first Albany church

chair of the Council on Ministries

Trinity UMCIn the telephone contact thing I’ve been doing, I re-established my friendship with Lori, who I haven’t seen since 2004. And it had been at least a decade, and an interstate move on her part since we last connected.

She asked me if I had ever written about how I departed from my first church in Albany, Trinity United Methodist. I had not. In the blog, and in conversation, I usually deflected the topic, referring to it as The Troubles. But it’s been two decades and perhaps I should explain.

Before that, however, I reckon I ought to talk about the better times at Trinity UMC. It is a cathedral, really, an imposing structure on the corner of Lark and Lancaster Streets. Before I stepped into the building, I used to live at 223 Lancaster Street, so I would pass by it every day when I worked at FantaCo.

Then in 1982, my maternal grandmother died in Charlotte, NC. The family held a service at Trinity AME Zion Church in Binghamton. I decided to go church shopping in Albany with my then-girlfriend. The very first day we attended was June 13. I remember this well because the minister, Stan Moore, spoke positively about the anti-nuke rally we had attended the day before in New York City.

What sealed the deal, though, was when Gray Taylor, one of the tenors, came down from the choir loft and invited people to come to rehearsals and perhaps join the choir. A basic “Ask and ye shall be given” moment. Early in 1983, I joined the singers. In December 1984, under the leadership of an interim pastor, I joined the church.

The folks

Choirs are fascinating organisms. As I’ve written, Arlene Mahigian had “adopted” me, treating me like a son. Art Pitts was a bass who helped acclimate me to choral singing again. Steber and Jean Kerr had me over for Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years. Helen and Bob Pratt drove me to and from church for a time. Jeannette and I share a birthday. A bunch of us would go out to a local tavern before choir for dinner.

While some folks came and went, there was a core of people who were present for most of my tenure there,. As a result of that, and some good directors, we made “a joyful noise to the Lord,” as they say. One particular member was the tenor soloist in the 1980s, Sandy Cohen, a colorful character. One day he had one of his heart attacks during the service. But he refused to leave until he “finished the gig.” He died on December 24, 1990, right before that service. We never sounded worse as a choir, singing through tears.

I was very involved in the governance at Trinity UMC. At different times, I was chair of the Council on Ministries and the Administrative Board. COM was comprised of committee chairs for the various missions and ministries of the church. The Admin Board was the entity, comprised of a large percentage of the active congregants, which passed measures to implement policy decisions.

On May 15, 1999, my wife and I were married there. The following year, we were gone. What happened? That’s a story for another day.

Open up houses of worship?

some church music

open the church doorsCatbird asked me a question:

I just saw da prez say he’d overrule governors if they didn’t open up houses of worship this weekend. A legal analyst in the same BBC broadcast said he had no constitutional or legal authority to do this.

I suppose said houses of worship will decide for themselves.

I know you’re actively involved in your church, so I’m interested in your opinion on whether God cares WHERE people pray.

My understanding is that even in the strictest of interpretations it doesn’t matter more THAT one prays than where one does it.

What do you think?

My first response, I’m afraid, was lacking in Christian charity.

I will say that whoever has been advising “da prez” on these things has picked the confluence of several religious traditions. Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost in the Jewish tradition, is May 28-30. The Christian iteration of Pentecost is May 31. Ramadan ended the evening of May 23 for Muslims. And of course, Memorial Day begins the secular religion of the barbecue.

But, of course, it is false piety on his part. He can’t mandate it, but that’s not the point. He’s stirred up the base. “These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. “The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque,” he said.

Sure you can theoretically bring churches/synagogues/mosques back, with 10 people, socially distant, masks. Maybe more people in cathedrals and larger structures. No way you safely have a traditional choir. At my church, online services even offer the opportunity for communion.

Connecting remotely

I found this posted by a choir director of mine from a quarter-century ago. He quoted Tom Trenney, Minister of Music at First-Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, NE. “Our church is open. Open to patience and wisdom. Open to science and common sense. Open to discovering new ways to connect when it is unsafe to ‘do it the way we’ve always done it.’

“Open to saving lives by giving up some of the traditions and sacraments we hold dear. Open to wearing masks to show we love our neighbor. Open to keeping the sanctuary closed so more of us can come back together safely when it is time. Our church is open to following Jesus who, himself, spent time in the wilderness. We will remain open, and someday, by the grace of God, we will be able to worship together again.”

Or, as someone else noted recently, “If the only place you can worship your god is in a building specially built for it, you have a very small god.”

Obviously, we need some church music:

Date to Church – the Replacements
I Met Her In Church – the Box Tops
Church – Lyle Lovett

And some more religion tunes:

Have a Talk with God – Stevie Wonder
Down to the River to Pray – Alison Krauss
Wayfaring Stranger – Rhiannon Giddens
Personal Jesus – Depeche Mode
(What If God Was) One of Us? – Joan Osborne

Maybe a service:
Zoom Church – Saturday Night Live