The Troubles: Leaving Trinity in 2000

a loyalty oath

TrinityPer my promise to my friend Lori, why I ended up leaving Trinity United Methodist Church in 2000.

The story really started in 1997 or 1998. The UM hierarchy had allowed churches to change its governance to something more compact than the Administrative Board we had. Our congregation had a meeting. Some folks, notably the late Bob Pennock, noted that he couldn’t see the checks and balances in the proposed new structure. But others argued, “Give it a chance.” The motion passed. Notably opposing the action were several members of the choir, including me.

In 1999, the church got a new choir director. His name now escapes me, but I know he was from Brazil. It became clear early on that he just DID NOT want to be there. Albany was too parochial, and as fall turned to winter, too damn cold.

The Brazilian wasn’t stupid, though. He needed a way to get out of his contract. So he claimed that a member of the choir had said an ethnically offensive comment to him. (I wasn’t present, so my information is second-hand.)

As a result of his allegation, the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee (PPRC) – which had no authority to do so – nevertheless suspended the choir in January 2000. The choir was so angry that some of us at least considered populating the choir loft in defiance. But we opted against that.

Then suddenly

Meanwhile, our church had a Spanish-language congregation that met in the chapel, slightly earlier on Sundays than the English-language folks met in the sanctuary. The Anglo church had voted overwhelmingly in November 1999 to continue the relationship.

Yet, later in January 2000, while I was attending the Spanish-language service, the pastor, Mariana, circulated a letter to her flock. It was from the District Superintendent saying that they would be moved to Emmaus UMC in Albany the following week! The group was stunned. But I was furious! I took copies of the letter and started handing them out to the Anglo congregants who were sitting near the back of the church, who would otherwise have had no idea this displacement was going on.

For the next two weeks, I attended the Spanish-language service in the basement of Emmaus. The facility had two distinct disadvantages. It was not accessible, which involved some of us carrying a man in his wheelchair downstairs. And it was cold, damn cold, with my feet getting numb.

Mao would be proud

As I noted, I started singing at First Presbyterian. But my wife was still going to Trinity, so I’d walk over to meet her after services. One time, a Trinity member asked me, “What IS it with the Gang of Six?” I knew that the PPRC had dubbed Bob Pennock and his wife, plus two other couples with this moniker. But the gossip mill must have been at work for HER to have heard the term.

In March, there was a meeting called by the chair of the PPRC. Judy was also the woman who coordinated Carol and my wedding at Trinity only months earlier. The gathering was billed as an opportunity for the choir to have its say. Alas, untrue. Judy did most of the talking, which included the idea that the choir members sign a loyalty oath to the pastor. Ultimately, only one person eventually signed it.

At the end of the meeting, Judy was looking all self-satisfied. She took the tears of some choir members as a sign of their remorse. Instead, they were the tears of the unheard. As we walked out of the church, I said to a smiling Judy, “That was B###S###.” She was both crestfallen and confused.

And the sign said…

I did attend a congregational meeting in May at Trinity. The cabal around the pastor wanted to have a sign that read: “Trinity: A Multicultural Congregation.” Seriously, after chasing away the SECOND of two Spanish-language groups in about four years? After some machinations, we were able to defeat the motion. But did I want to spend all my energy at Trinity trying to STOP things from happening? I did not.

Ultimately, I didn’t leave Trinity because the choir was suspended, or because of the ouster of the Spanish-language group. It was because there was no vehicle for recourse. The old Administrative Board was gone; these issues would certainly have been addressed there.

The pastor’s cabal allowed a meeting on a specific topic only with a petition signed by 10% of the membership. Since there were plenty of older members on the rolls but not attending services, this would have been a daunting task, not just on these issues but any future conflicts.

I had avoided talking about this topic, just referring to them as The Troubles. So now you know.

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.

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.