20 years at the new church

water under the bridge

new churchIt suddenly occurred to me that I have now been attending my new church for 20 years. I suppose “new church” might not be quite how I should label it.

As I may have mentioned, the Troubles were taking place at my old church. I need not dwell upon them presently. One element, though, was that the choir was not allowed to sing.

I called Laura, a woman who had left my old church. I was wondering if I could sing at her church until The Troubles were resolved. After all, it WAS Lent. Two minutes later, Victor, the choir director, said “stay as long as you want.”

As it turned out, the Troubles were not really resolved. A couple from my old church joined me at the “new” church that fall. And it’s been fine.

What’s interesting, though, is my evolution in dealing with the old church. Both churches belong to the FOCUS churches. This means that there would be joint services rotating among them once a month during the summer and also the first Sunday in February. For the first five years, when the service was at the old church, I just didn’t go there.

Then I would generally attend. It could be awkward, with some very nice people asking when I was coming back. The choir folks, only one of whom I knew from my time there, noted that my name still showed up in pencil on some of the music. I DID sing there for about 17 years.

Duane Smith, R.I.P.

Now, it’s mostly water under the bridge, I realized when I sang there in early February. The feeling was codified, I suppose, when I went to the funeral of a young man named Duane Smith, who died of cancer at the age of 45. Among other things, he was an extremely talented artist. His mom was a choir member with me at the old church, and she was a tenant of my wife’s for a time.

Duane’s friends who grew up with him in the church – the kids I saw growing up there – all seemed happy to see me. Jeff and Dan and Jessica and David and Eddie, plus a couple of their moms, who I also used to sing with.

I must say that there was a time at the old church when we had an excellent choir, especially when Eric was our director in the early 1990s. I’m in an excellent choir now, but I’ll own up to some nostalgia, even now.

Some stuff can be rather painful at the time. Yet sometimes, it dissipates. Time has a way of doing that under the right circumstances.

Tim Ryan-Pepper (1954-2019)

We named ourselves, alternately, TAR Moving, ART Moving or RAT Moving, depending on who we wanted to give top billing.

Tim Ryan-PepperThe fifth funeral I’ll attend in the calendar year 2019 will be that of my friend Tim Ryan-Pepper, who died unexpectedly on Valentine’s Day at the age of 64.

He started attending Trinity United Methodist Church in 1985, only a couple of years after I did. He sang in the choir – he was a tenor – for a bunch of years until he had to give up the crutches for a walker. The choir loft was hardly accessible.

Tim eventually did the broadcast announcing for the church, which was even more physically challenging, because it involved crawling/pulling himself up to the second floor. He had no apparent ego about this; he did what was necessary to do what he loved. In fact, he could be goofy about his situation, and I mean that in a good way.

He was adept at a mixing board. He really loved music of all sorts, and that was our bond. We talked about it for hours at his various apartments. Frankly, I don’t really remember any of his places particularly well, as he moved a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s; I count six different relocations. He packed, but the cerebral palsy precluded heavy lifting. Most of the schlepping was done by his wife of 34 years Alberta, their late friend Tom, and me. We named ourselves, alternately, TAR Moving, ART Moving or RAT Moving, depending on who we wanted to give top billing.

He was a loving father to his children Jeff and Katie.

While I saw Alberta now and then, at the laundromat or waiting for the bus, I saw Tim far too infrequently, especially after he retired from his job at New York State Taxation and Finance. The memorial service for Tim Ryan-Pepper will be held on Sunday, February 24 at 2:00 pm. at Trinity UMC, my second funeral of a former Trinity choir member in eight days.

Rev. Robert Pennock (1926 – 2019)

The funeral of Robert Pennock will be on Saturday, February 16 at our old stomping grounds, Trinity UMC.

Bob PennockThe third funeral I will sing at this calendar year is for the Rev. Robert Pennock.

At the FOCUS churches service in early February, I happened to be sitting behind Nancy, an alto at Trinity United Methodist Church in Albany. I used to sing with Nancy there until 2000 and “the troubles.”

Nancy enjoyed my familiar voice behind her. It prompted me to say that back in the 1990s, that Trinity choir was really good. And Bob Pennock was a large part of that.

I generally sat near Bob in the choir loft. When I joined the ensemble in early 1983, my choir singing skills were rusty. As the bass soloist and section leader, he was quite helpful in getting me on track.

He and his wife Holly often hosted choir functions at their home. I watched his younger kids, David and Jessica, grow up in the church.

There was a move at Trinity in 1997 or early 1998 to consider changing the organizational structure of Trinity. It was allowed by the United Methodist governing body. But it was Bob who rightly said, “Where are the checks and balances?” The proposed plan, it seemed, gave too much power to the pastor.

As a minister ordained the year I was born, he immediately recognized the potential for usurpation of congregational authority. He voiced what I, who had served as chair of the Administrative Board, had only been thinking.

Someone said, “Give [the new structure] a chance,” and it was passed. Just as predicted by Bob, the pastor achieved more control without accountability, which led to my departure and that of others less than three years later.

I would see Bob only sporadically after that, including at least twice at a small rural church he served as pastor in the early 2000s.

The funeral of Robert Pennock will be on Saturday, February 16 at our old stomping grounds, Trinity UMC. We will sing two John Rutter pieces, The Lord is My Shepherd from the Requiem, and The Lord Bless You and Keep You, music I first learned while I was singing with Bob and Holly.

Church choirs, Stacy Wilburn (and Chuck Miller?)

It’s nearly impossible to explain how tightly-knit a choir can be.

Did you ever do something and only later realize that there was a subtext that was totally unrelated? This would apply to my advocacy in favor of my buddy Chuck Miller, whose April 1 blog post on the Times Union site had gotten his post removed and his ability to post there suspended.

Somewhere during the various writing I did for la causa, I realized this wasn’t just about Chuck, or the misrepresentation of Chuck’s article by the newspaper’s editor as “fake news” rather than satire. It was that sense of powerlessness, being left in the dark, that resonated, rather like the events leading to leaving my old church.

Since I joined another FOCUS congregation, I have had opportunity to worship back at Trinity, the first church I joined in Albany. The former pastor has been gone for more than a decade.

The first couple times I returned there was really weird and uncomfortable, with church members cajoling and pleading me to come back. Enough time has passed – I’ve now attended First Presbyterian as long as I had attended Trinity – that it’s no longer an issue. Still, old members there greet me fondly.

I’m going to sing in the choir there again – today, actually – because one of my old choir compatriots, Quentin Stacy Wilburn, died on July 9. He usually went by Stacy, or Q. He was 91.

It’s nearly impossible to explain how tightly-knit a choir can be. I still recall that we were all together at a choir member’s house on Christmas Eve 1989 or 1990, before we were to sing, when we got the word that our tenor soloist, Sandy Cohen, had had another heart attack and died. (He’d had one before, IN CHURCH, during the service, but wouldn’t leave until he “finished the gig.”)

Until the choir director recruited more tenors, I sang tenor with Stacy for a few months, high in my range, and not as instinctive to me as the bass line.

So now we’re going to come together, Trinity folks and former Trinity folks and FOCUS church folks and friends and sing for Stacy, because that’s what choir people do.

Why I left my previous church

They had NO idea this was going down, which was the whole idea.

I started looking for a church to attend in Albany shortly after I had sung in the church choir back in my hometown of Binghamton, NY (Trinity AME Zion) in May of 1982 for my maternal grandmother’s funeral. I used to attend there regularly, but for over a decade after high school, I fell away for all sorts of reasons.

The first visit to Trinity United Methodist was June 13, which I remember because the pastor, Stan Moore, spoke positively of the anti-nuke demonstration in Manhattan I had attended the day before.

Not only did I join the choir that December, but eventually became president of the Administrative Board (think Congress) and the Council on Ministries (think the US Cabinet) at different times, not to mention leading a social group called the Ogden Fellowship and participating in a book club for well over a decade. I even put together the church’s community page online.

But the subsequent pastor was pushing for a more “efficient” form of church governance, one that was allowed by the United Methodist Church. I specifically remember one church member, one of the choir folks, ask, reasonably, “Where are the checks and balances?” More than one person shouted him down; “give it a chance.”

So the church was then run my the pastor and his small cabal. There were no regular church meetings unless called by said group or by 10% of the membership, and the latter meeting could only be done about that stated topic. That 10%, BTW, included shut-ins and members who were away, so it was a difficult threshold.

So when the SECOND Spanish-speaking congregation was forced out in January 2000 by the pastor, with the ascent the District Superintendent, less than two months after the English-speaking congregation overwhelmingly agreed that they should stay, I was furious. Extra copies of the letter to the Hispanic congregation from the DS I was passing out to the “Anglo” congregation, because they had NO idea this was going down, which was the whole idea.

I was attending the Hispanic service only because the choir for the Anglo service had been suspended by the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, which had no authority to do so – long story, but it was basically bogus. And the meeting in March to try to “reconcile” the situation was one-sided and terribly handled.

But I didn’t leave over the choir suspension or the Hispanic congregation getting the boot. I left because the church, in ceding its power to essentially one person, provided no way to respond to the injustices. No Administrative Board to appeal to.

The new system WAS more efficient. Efficiency in church governance is HIGHLY overrated.

I brought this up now for a specific reason, which I’ll write about soon.