Category Archives: Richard’s Posts

The Missionary as Change Agent

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

by Richard Poethig

A recent Wall Street Journal item caught my attention.

The title “Christian Missionaries Against Colonialism” set my mind in motion. Part of my life had been dedicated to work overseas within the context of what had been called Christian mission. The WSJ article writer David A. Hollinger was making the case that the old image of missionary as a carrier of colonial imperialism had taken a sharp turn in the 20th century.

His recent book “Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America” tells the story of the changes in the mission experience which brought a new brand of missionary into being.

I respond to Hollinger’s thesis from within our family’s overseas experience. We served in the church overseas in the mid-20th century when the post-World War II period was bringing dramatic global changes. The global conflict was a challenge to the colonialism which had dominated the history of the previous four centuries. Our family spent fifteen years in the Philippines, a nation which had been within the Spanish orbit since 1517. The United States began its own colonial experience in its victory over Spain in 1898 and its colonial administration of the Philippines in the 20th century.

The change in mission thinking came with the political and social upheaval at the end of the war in the Asian arena. The global conflict, especially in Asia, challenged the Western presence in former colonial nations. Mission churches had become national churches. Nationals had become leaders in the churches and in the schools, hospitals and other structures begun during the missionary presence. National leadership within the churches in Asia was called to deal with the post-war rebuilding in their nations.

The churches in Asia renewed their relationship with the counterpart Western church bodies. The leadership in the Asian church bodies chose the fields in which they needed special help. The leadership in the Presbyterian Church, USA was especially aware of the new day in its overseas mission. Charles Leber, the leader in the Board of Foreign Missions, was the initiator for change in the 1950s.

In twenty three years from 1936 to 1959, Charles Leber visited 58 churches in fifty-eight countries. Dr. Andrew Thakur Das memoralized the work of Leber in changing church thinking: “Of these 18 journies, perhaps the eleventh in 1953, was the most significant. On this trip he visited Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaya, Indonesia, Philippines and Germany. Somewhere on his way to Bangkok, he wrote to his colleagues at “156.”

“Let us change the name of the Board; let us eliminate the term ‘home base’; let us change the name ‘missionary’ into ‘fraternal worker’; let us invite fraternal workers from other lands into the United States of America.”

Thus began the reality of the new day which had come to mission. Action was taken by the PCUSA for a name change from “foreign missions” to The Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations, A person in overseas work was no longer a missionary but a fraternal worker. A person was no longer sent, but was called by the overseas church to a special work which that church saw as their need. The fraternal worker was linked with a national who was the primary partner and the supervisor.

As a case in point, my work to which I was called by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines was in the field of industrial evangelism. Across Asia and in other “so called” developing countries, the emphasis was upon the growth in urban centers and in the industrialization process. The term ultimately developed for the field of work was urban-industrial mission. Our minds were on the social changes taking place in the developing world. The emphasis was on justice ministries.

Cross cultural friendships developed out of this cooperative work. This brought changes in the way the work was carried out and the way this change was communicated to the those in the congregations in the United States. It is here that Hollinger’s thesis carries weight. The message and the engagement in the overseas work changed the thinking on mission within the U.S. churches. It dramatically changed the “colonial” view which had been part of the mission message in previous generations.

These changes in the Western churches overseas mission took on a global meaning with the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The representation of the churches in one global organization opened the door for the leadership of the former overseas mission churches on the world scene.

Within the Asian region the ecumenical process had been underway with the creation of the East Asia Conference of Churches in 1956, later renamed the Christian Council of Asia. The organization of regional council of churches had a direct impact on how work among the regional churches was to be organized and supported. One case in point was the immediate recognition within the churches in the region of the growth of urban centers and the force of industrial development upon the people and culture of their nations.

The changes in urban and industrial development hastened the cooperation of the churches globally in the field of urban-industrial mission. The regional councils in Asia, Africa and Latin America each had their counterparts in this area of social change. At the global level a desk was created at the World Council of Churches in the 1960s in Geneva, Switzerland which gathered the stories, the work and the issues of urban-industrial in these global regions. Those who worked in these regions became change agents both in the work of urban industrial mission and in the consciousness of the countries in which they were citizens. In his writing Hollinger touches upon the ecumenical churches reconsideration of the meaning of mission in this current age and how it strengthened the sense of globalization within the congregations in the United States.

Hollinger makes the case that in the 20th century the attitudes of the missionary community, by their commitment to the people and the work in overseas communities, had opened a cross-cultural understanding. The acceptance of the traditions and the history of the nations in which they lived and worked provided a new framework for their own lives. It was this view which they brought back to their own country. The missionary and especially their children became among the strongest opponents of racism and the colonialism formerly associated with Christian mission.

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Out A Hospital Window

by Richard Poethig

Photo of mural Ang Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu (The Descendants of Lapu Lapu) by Johanna Poethig


Ang Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu (The Descendants of Lapu Lapu), mural by Johanna Poethig

My thoughts were on the health of my wife this afternoon as she lay asleep in a Weiss hospital bed in Uptown Chicago. My eyes wandered from her face to the scene outside her 3rd floor window. Through the branches of a tree I caught the sight of a bronze statue and behind that two flags hanging at half-mast. The massacre in Las Vegas was being remembered by the Stars and Stripes and the flag of the Philippines. The Philippine flag suddenly awoke me to the fact that the statue was of the Filipino revolutionary hero Jose Rizal.

Many images came to mind as I remembered our family’s fifteen years’ residence in the Philippines. We learned much Philippine history in those years, both past and present. In fact our growing children learned more Philippine history than U.S. history. They learned of Jose Rizal, a Philippine patriot, and his execution by the Spanish colonial government, which saw him as a threat to their presence in the Philippines. We became aware of the fact that the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war in 1898 was met with opposition from a Philippine revolutionary army, which wanted Philippine independence. The victory of U.S. forces brought the Philippines into the American orbit and, along with the U.S. presence, an effort to build a democratic form of government. Our presence in the Philippines over the next half-century provided a road for the immigration of many Filipinos to the United States for study, work, and, ultimately, citizenship.

Cover of book titled Empire of Care.

“Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History” by Catherine Ceniza Choy

As I thought of our family’s good years in the Philippines, and of our learning experience, I found this reality coming to fruition in our presence at Weiss Hospital. Among the Filipinos who had joined the stream of immigrants coming to the United States, many had provided their skills in the health system of their newfound home. This was apparent as my wife received dedicated care from nurses and hospital attendants of Filipino background. Currently, as a resident of a Chicago retirement community, there is evidence that those of Philippine heritage provide a strong contribution to the U.S. health support system. We found in our health care experience that the presence and the skills upon which our medical system depends has brought peoples of many different overseas regions to the U.S.—from Asia, from Africa, from the Middle East, from Eastern Europe, and from Central and South America. A recent article in the New York Times, “Why America Needs Foreign Medical Graduates,” explains that almost a quarter of all doctors and residents across all fields, and more than a third of residents in subspecialist programs, are foreign medical graduates.

This fact our daughter Margaret responded to with this comment: “I can’t stop thinking about the fact that about 98% of the doctors, residents, therapists, medical students, nurses, patient care technicians, caregivers and housekeeping staff at my mom’s hospital were people of color and 70-80% were immigrants. And they were awesome. When are the Republicans going to wake up to this reality?” The New York Times article confirms Margaret’s observation, pointing to recent studies showing that “patients with congestive heart failure or myocardial infarction had lower mortality rates when treated by doctors who were foreign medical graduates….and that older patients who were treated by foreign medical graduates had lower mortality as well, even though they seemed to be sicker in general.”

Postcard of Johanna Poethig's mural, "Ang Lipi ni Lapu Lapu."

Postcard of Johanna Poethig’s mural, “Ang Lipi ni Lapu Lapu.”

Daughter Johanna, a visual artist, captured the reality of the Philippine immigrant experience in a mural in San Francisco that depicted the history of the Philippines and the Philippine immigrant impact upon the United States. The mural is on a 90-foot wall of Dimasalang House, a Filipino retirement community located behind the Moscone Convention Center.

The upper section of the mural tells the story of those who participated in the struggle to bring independence from colonial control. In the middle section are the Filipinos who immigrated to the U.S. and added their various professional and work roles to the history of the United States. In the lower corner of the mural is seated Lapu-Lapu, the Malay chieftain who thwarted the earliest attempt to colonize the Islands by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. The title of the mural “Ang Lipi ni Lapu-Lapu” tells the story of the descendants of Lapu-Lapu.

There is much history for us to learn from all of those who have made their way to our shores. We should cherish this history and add it to our own national heritage.

 

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Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr in the Era of Trump

by Richard Poethig

This past season a PBS documentary titled “An American Conscience” lifted up the life and work of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is remembered for the crucial role that he played in mid-20th century international affairs. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, who saw the dimension of Niebuhr’s understanding of power in politics, have kept his influence alive in their own political thinking through these latter years.

This week as James Comey, former director of the FBI, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his conversations with President Trump, the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in his thinking will come to bear. A June 4, 2017, article in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, relates Comey’s attention to Niebuhr’s theology of power. The Guardian quotes Karen Greenberg, of Fordham University, on how Niebuhr’s influence on Comey will play out in the upcoming Congressional inquiry: “If you think of moral man caught in an immoral society, for someone who truly understands Niebuhr and the inherent conflicts between power and justice, this all has an aura of destiny to it.”

Niebuhr’s strength was in his ability to speak an incisive and prophetic word to the power politics of his day. I was fortunate to have sat under Niebuhr when he was a professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My years at Union—1949 to 1952—coincided with a crucial period in Niebuhr’s teaching and political influence.

It was the period of the Cold War. Niebuhr was invited by George Kennan, the U.S. Secretary of State, to participate in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.   Out of these policy discussions was borne the Cold War policy of containment. In this period Niebuhr wrote one of his most influential works on international politics, “The Irony of American History,” which showcases the maintenance of the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States in a nuclear age.

Niebuhr’s understanding of the way power is used in society was the strength of one of his first books: “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” It was written in the depths of the Depression in 1932 and after a ministry in Detroit, in which he faced off against Henry Ford and his domination of the automotive industry and the workers under his control. “Power,” Niebuhr wrote, “has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power. It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.”

Niebuhr wrote this in 1932 at the depths of the Depression. It has a ring for us today when we realize that what is happening to us is a replay of the economic power, in the hands of political power, which is calling the shots, rewarding itself, and telling us this is all in the cause of “making America great again.” Niebuhr’s words ring true today and we hope that there will be those who will give leadership in bringing justice to the work of our government agencies, in the deliberations of our courts, in the freedom of our media in support of the truth, in the health of our unions on behalf of worker rights and in the voice of our people to be heard in the preservation our democratic processes and pursuit of human rights.

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Parks I Have Known

Aerial photo of the Highline Park in New York City

The Highline Park in New York City

A recent PBS/TV documentary on the impact of parks on life in U.S. cities opened a page in my growing up in New York City. The documentary showed the importance which the natural world had on the lives of urban dwellers. City life, it said in a loud voice, cannot survive without providing the blessings of the green and open environment which the natural world provides.

The images of the parks which the urban planners set in motion within expanding American cities often put immigrant urban settlers in touch with the countryside of the lands they left behind. For young people being born into these cities the only touch of green they might see was in the parks which planners like Frederick Olmsted and Daniel Burnham envisioned and planned for New York City and Chicago. Having lived in both cities, my life has been touched by the inheritance they left us.

The New York old law five story tenement where I spent my first nine years was a closed-in experience. The earliest pictures I had of green space were trips with my mother to Central Park and Carl Schurz Park on the East River. My next ten years I lived in a railroad flat where 83rd Street between First and York Avenues was my improvised ball park. Our gang played four varieties of ball games with our “spaldeen” in the street and off the walls of Yorkville tenements. (You can listen to the tale of these games in chapter four of www.onthesidewalksofnewyork.com.) Our one venture away from 83rd Street was a trip to Carl Schurz Park to play stick ball in a long and open space set up for volley ball. Our Carl Schurz excursion ended dramatically when I ran into a pole set up for volley ball trying to catch a long fly ball. My friends hustled me to Misericordia Hospital on 86th Street and York Avenue where the doctor marveled, after stitching my forehead, that no glass from my shattered eyeglasses had entered my eye.

My other park venture was the journey five high school mates made from Yorkville on the East Side to the High School of Commerce on the West Side through Central Park. We entered the Park every morning at 79th Street on the East Side and exited at the Tavern on the Green on West Central Park. The five of us made this round trip every school day morning for three years, even in the snows of New York. We only took the cross town bus to high school in torrential rains. The journey through Central Park was our touch with the epic work of Frederick Olmsted who had brought green life to Manhattan.

One New York park experience which came late in life was a return trip to Manhattan with two friends from my Yorkville days. Now in our eighties, we agreed to journey to New York with our wives to visit our old haunts. We returned in the Fall of 2009 and found lodging at The Leo House on West 23rd Street, a former 19th century convent of a German Roman Catholic women’s order which now was a Hotel and Guesthouse.

The Leo House was conveniently located for our jaunts around New York and back to our old Yorkville neighborhood. The location of the House was a short walk to 11th Avenue where we discovered the rehabilitation of the High Line. The work on the High Line was a plan to turn a 1934 built elevated line into a 21st century urban park. For strong urban environmentalists, we were encouraged to witness the conversion of a 20th century remnant of city transportation into an imaginative pedestrian experiment. The exceptional urban renewal character of the High Line was in its grass roots origins. A community based group, Friends of the High Line, were the initiators and promoters in carrying out a campaign to save the 11th Avenue elevated line from destruction to see to its resurrection into a pedestrian friendly and attractive example of the new urban spirit. The three old New Yorkers left their city inspired to the urban park experience in a 21st century version.

Richard P. Poethig

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Restoring Justice in U.S. Cities

Painting of Early Morning City by Aline Feldman, 1988

Early Morning City by Aline Feldman, 1988

Over forty years ago, while living in Manila in the Philippines, I wrote a pamphlet titled “Cities Are For Living” on the growth of Manila as a city. Like all Southeast Asian port cities, Manila was the center of the nation and the nation’s political future. Southeast Asian port cities were trade centers and drew people from the provinces and from overseas nations to make them the principal city of their particular nation. 

The central role of a region’s principal cities was called to my attention by the April 21st article in The Nation on “Power to the City.” Michelle Goldberg aptly points out the importance that cities have come to play in progressive movements as a balance to the gridlock that has become the nature of national politics in Washington, D.C. The gridlock has unfortunately given an upper hand to conservative voices in Congress who have blocked any move toward more economically equitable solutions to the nation’s issues.

The redistricting that ensued after the 2010 U.S. Census set in motion a right wing shift that has deadlocked any forward motion in Congress.  Although the popular vote nationally represented a shifting toward Democratic policies, the larger representation within the House of Representative from the nation’s rural and redistricted areas outweighed the more Democratic urban centers.  Unfortunately, this imbalance remains as we enter the 2014 electoral season.  Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest action taking restrictions off the political contributions encouraged by Citizens United, a larger amount of money flowing into Republican candidates’ campaigns threatens the Democratic majority in the Senate. 

This situation raises the question:  “What hope is there for any progressive movement toward social and cultural advancement and toward economic justice for the 99 percent in the nation?”  It is here that Michelle Goldberg makes her case for the role of urban centers as a counter force to the debilitating climate in our national politics.  Urban centers, which by their nature are cross cultural and are more representative of a society’s economic classes, have a greater tendency and wider possibilities to engage in more progressive policies. The recent election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City is a case in point. Against the background of former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s moves to beautify New York and draw larger numbers of professionals and the elite to the city’s environs, de Blasio was elected in a counter effort to provide more space and opportunity to the lower classes in New York society. 

Goldberg points beyond New York for examples of the victories of progressive mayors: Betsy Hodges elected on the new Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minneapolis, former construction laborer Marty Walsh to head the city of Boston, and Ed Murray elected as Seattle’s mayor on a proposal to raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 an hour.  Even in Republican Texas, the State’s largest city of Houston is run by Annise Parker, a lesbian who is a third term mayor on the Democratic ticket.

When it comes to progressive policy, San Francisco, with its countless professionals who live in the city but take arranged transportation to work in Silicon Valley, the policies of a progressive administration are a harbinger of the future. Goldberg cites the research of Michael Reich, Ken Jacobs, and Miranda Dietz, who have enumerated in their studies the decade-long progressive movement in San Francisco. In 2003, San Francisco had established $8. 50 as a minimum wage and by 2013 it had increased to $10.55. In 2006, the city was first in the nation to require employers to provide paid sick leave.  Moving on from there, the city passed the San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance, which “mandated minimum health spending requirements for businesses with twenty or more workers, and created Healthy San Francisco, which provides comprehensive healthcare to uninsured city residents.”

There is a growing movement to reverse the prevailing  antagonist conservative spirit.  The obvious conservative goal is to block any move that reverses the growing economic divide in the nation. For the conservative mind any federal program that seeks to ameliorate human distress and dislocation is anathema. On the other side of the equation are  progressive efforts at the local base to  advance and strengthen programs  that serve lower income and middle class persons and families. This message of social justice being acted out in our cities cannot be contained.  They have won to their support the new generations who recognize the need for a society in which all people, no matter their race, ethnic or gender background, have an opportunity to participate  in a more open and equitable society.

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Remembering May Day – 125th Anniversary – Haymarket Square

416px-Haymarket_FlierWorking people still struggle to win their rights in workplaces around the world.  One hundred and twenty-five years ago at Haymarket Square in Chicago, the struggle for the eight-hour day in 1886 led to an event that forever memorialized the rights of working people as an international holiday.  The Haymarket Square gathering began as a peaceful demonstration on May 4th for the eight-hour day.  As police moved into to disperse the participants, a bomb was thrown which ended in the death of seven police officers and a number of the demonstrators.  Eight of the organizers were convicted of conspiracy and four were hanged in 1887.  In 1893,  newly elected Governor Peter Altgeld, who criticized the original trial, pardoned those still remaining in prison.  May 1st  was chosen to represent working peoples’ struggle for justice and became a holiday around the world.  In the United States,  those in the economy and the government distanced themselves from May 1st celebrations and instead chose the first Monday in September to memorialize Labor Day.  In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated as the end of Summer and the beginning of the Fall season.  The underplaying of this holiday that celebrates the rights of working people is even starker today against the backdrop of increasing economic and social distance between the oligarchs and those who are the primary producers in our society.

Even those who are on-the-line or over-the-counter workers sometimes lose sight of their democratic rights in the functioning of our economy.  The recent negative vote for a union to represent the workers in the newly built Volkswagon factory in Tennessee is a case in point.  The Volkswagon management, growing out of a history of German labor-management cooperation, favors working directly with democratically elected unions within their plants.  Within Germany since the 1950s the policy of mitbestimmung has been part of the German economic environment.  Mitbestimmung guarantees the rights of workers to elect a worker’s council that deals directly with management in those areas that concern the rights and conditions of workers.  In the Tennessee case, the anti-union stance of local politicians and “the right to work” climate in the South worked against a favorable vote for a union.  Too bad the workers at Volkswagen didn’t look to the Harley-Davidson Company as an example of  labor-management cooperation. Harley-Davidson management moved to a labor-management cooperation model in the 1980s.  In the process the  Harley-Davidson workers won fairer equity and greater work security and  the company saw higher productivity and better quality in their products.

This year on May 1st, the  labor community in Chicago will not forget the long tradition it has in the Haymarket event.  The Illinois Labor History Society and the Chicago Federation of Labor will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket struggle, also called The International Workers’ Day, at 3 p.m. in Haymarket Square at Randolph and Desplaines Streets.  To lift  up the global character of May 1st, representatives of the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) will place an international commemorative plaque on the Haymarket Memorial.  One would hope our U.S. government would recognize and accept our own dramatic part in this global event and celebrate May 1st as a national holiday.

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What Would the Ashcan Artists Paint Today?

Ashcan Artist Everett Shinn Painted "Eviction" in 1904

Ashcan Artist Everett Shinn painted “Eviction” in 1904

 The Ashcan Artists who inhabited the physical realms of New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were renown for their depictions of a city in motion.  The sheer power of their representations of human life against the background of a transforming New York made them prominent as prophets of 20th century modernization.

As a born-and-bred New Yorker, I was deeply moved by a review of their works in a Smithsonian volume titled “Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York,” which my sister presented to me on my 80th birthday.  We grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side during the Depression years and were aware of some of the scenes painted at the turn of the century.  Some of those scenarios still existed in our neighborhood.  We knew that our father, who was in this late teens at the turn of the century, had lived through the events depicted by the Ashcan artists.  He might have been in the crowds of the city scenes. So the paintings were very real to us.

But as I read the stories of current New York dramas today—for example, the explosion and collapse of the tenement buildings in Harlem—the thought occurred to me, “If the Ashcan artists were to return to New York today, what would they paint?”  Several of them had come from journalism backgrounds and had sketched for their newspapers the urban disasters that made news headlines in their time.  They brought these skills to painting the events that were shaping people’s lives in a changing New York.  

The artists were part of the Progressive Era, which the new century had ushered in within the metropolitan centers.  Manhattan’s West Side was being dug up for the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and New York’s elevated lines were being extended into upper Manhattan.  Horse-drawn wagons were being replaced by faster motor vehicles travelling on newly covered asphalt avenues.  New department stores displaying the latest women’s fashions were vying for the attention and business of the growing population of female workers.  These same women inhabited the offices of the newly built high-rise buildings and also the sweatshops within the lofts in the garment district.  The Ashcan artists caught all this action in their timepiece paintings of New York.

Ashcan Artist William Glackens Painted " Far From the Fresh Air Farm" in 1911

Ashcan Artist William Glackens painted ” Far From the Fresh Air Farm” in 1911

It has been said that the Ashcan artists were not the social protestors of their time.  They were not making a statement.  They were painting what they saw in the life of New York.  This was the reality of a New York on its way to becoming a major metropolitan center.  In the process, the Ashcan artists were providing the evidence and giving voice to those who were protesting the widening gap in the U.S. economic system.

What would the Ashcan artists paint today if they returned to New York?  What are the realities of New York life in its contrasts today? The New York Times recently reported on the real estate market on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The scene was the perpetual hunt for a livable space among the young in the competitive housing market of New York.  Some of the apartments in which they finally settle down are in the tenement buildings, in rehabilitated form, from which poorer tenants have had to move. The rent for a one-bedroom apartment, which now runs from $ 2,500 to $2,700, would have paid all the rents in the tenements on the First Avenue block from 80th to 81st Streets where my family lived in the early 1930s.  Where do the poor move to who can’t afford to live in New York? What does poverty look like today?  What scenes would the Ashcan artists be attracted to in the new milieu of New York City life?

 

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Remembering New York in the Thirties

The  May 6th issue of  The Nation on the current state of New York City stirred up many memories of my growing up years in Manhattan.  Manhattan, or more specifically my Yorkville neighborhood, was the locus for many of the changes lifted up in the story line of The Nation.  

The name of Fiorello La Guardia raised some delightful images of my early years.   In the midst of  a newspaper strike during his mayoralty,  La Guardia took to the radio waves and read the comic strips that New York youngsters were missing.  I can still see him in a Pathe News film replay with the Sunday newspaper in hand, giving his all to the actions of our favorite comic strip characters.   His rotund figure, as he rolled into some event with his entourage –  in my case  a N. Y. Giants game at the Polo Grounds,  always brought delight to his New York  constituents.  La Guardia, as I came to realize in later years, and as The Nation so aptly points out, was one of New York’s few truly progressive mayors.  The demography and the nature of New York politics hasn’t been fertile ground for mayors who can bring off solid social change in the city.  La Guardia was fortunate to come into his political prominence during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Here The Nation points out the largesse that came to New York through the variety of New Deal programs that provided New Yorkers with jobs, housing and medical programs.  I still remember during grade school  traipsing  off to the Guggenheim Clinic for dental work with fear and trembling.  I may still have  ancient fillings provided by a neophyte dentist in the 1930s.  Part of New York’s change, however, came through the controversial power broker Robert Moses. Many of the still functioning public works were brought off by Moses.  He built the East River Drive Extension, now called FDR drive.  Moses used Works Projects Administration money for  building the Triborough Bridge, and  the Grand Central Parkway.   With the help of La Guardia, the  New York airport named for the mayor was also brought off.

As we agonize over the problems our cities face today, in our aging infrastructure, the despoiling of our  environment, the failure of our educational system,   our conservative politicians  need to recall the help their constituencies received  from the federal government in times when their backs were against the wall.

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Seeking New Light Along the Road

After attending the recent  220th Presbyterian General Assembly meeting in Pittsburgh, a question was put to me: Who is winning the battle between those with a biblical literalist view and those with a wider interpretation of Scripture?  And how is this affecting the future of the Presbyterian Church?

First, this struggle is not new to the 220th General Assembly.  Its roots go back to the late 19th century and the advent of Bibiical criticism within the larger movement of scientific inquiry. In the background was the study of Charles Darwin and his work on the origin of species. The height of the controversy erupted in the fundamentalist-modernist struggle in 1925 in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.  The accused was John Scopes, a high school science teacher, who was charged with teaching evolution in a state funded school.  The fundamentalist point of view  for creationism was presented by William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian, and three times Democratic candidate for U.S. President.   Attorney Clarence Darrow took up the defense of John Scopes and evolution as being consistent with religion.

The  fundamentalist-modernist controversy  was a central issue in the Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and surfaced in the competition for Moderator of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly in 1923 when William Jennings Bryan, defender of creationism, ran against Charles F. Wishart, President of the College of Wooster  who supported  the teaching of evolution in the college.  Wishart won the election by a vote of 451-427.

The Presbyterian Church continued to be embroiled in the controversy through the 1920s into the 1930s when New Testament professor John Gresham Machen of Princeton Theological Seminary took up conservative cudgels to fight the modernist theology being taught at the Seminary.  In 1929 Machen  led a group of conservatives out of the Presbyterian Church to form the Westminster Theological Seminary.  In 1933, his efforts to organize an Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions brought on his trial and suspension from the ministry.  In 1936 he organized the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Since 1936 we have seen many divisions and  the creation of new denominations within  the Presbyterian family.  Like the Machen exodus, the divisions are rooted in differences in Scriptural interpretation and in theological points of view.

Second, in the struggle over Biblical interpretation between conservative and liberal folk, the dissidents who leave the denomination claim that the modernists or the liberals, however you want to call them, are not true to Scripture.  The modernists or the liberals  avow that the issue is the interpretation of Scripture and the new resources that have helped  bring greater light to Scripture.  It is this new light which energizes the modernists or liberals in their viewing  issues related to race, women and gender concerns.  These are the very issues that have created the splits in the denomination.  The new light brought to Scripture has opened us to see the Creator’s concern  for the well being of  all  created life.   Scripture  and the Gospel of Christ opens the door to the rights of all people no matter what their race or gender.

The splits which have come from a Biblical literalist interpretation of Scripture have centered on these issues.  We fought a Civil War and a church split, north and south, over the issue of race.  Women have struggled for centuries to be recognized as equal partners to men.  Children born into the human family have an equal right to a life free from prejudice because of their gender orientation.

Those who leave us because of our Biblical interpretation, disavow the new light that we have found which sees the Gospel’s openness to people no matter what their race, their gender or their sexual orientation.  We have fought these battles  within the Presbyterian denomination over the last century.  They have been hard fought battles, gaining small victories of justice for racial equality, for women’s ordination and for full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church community.  But along the way those who have disagreed with this new openness have left us to create new  religious communities.

The Presbyterian Church, USA will continue on in its search for new windows on a Gospel which sheds a brighter light on the Creation into which we have been born.  Some will not agree with this venture into the future, and will leave us, but this is the road to which we have been called.

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From Tar Beach to Green Roofs

Rooftops were part of the everyday life of tenement dwellers of New York City.  For those tenants who lived on the upper floors of a tenement, rooftops were as important as the sidewalks and the streets below.  Summer heat added high temperatures to the tight living in tenement apartments.  The rooftops became a respite after the sun went down.  Blankets and newspapers on rooftops provided places to sit and enjoy the early evening breezes.  During Spring, Summer, and Fall the rooftop played its role as a place for drying the laundry or for the newborn’s bassinet.  For those who could find the time, the rooftop, or tar beach as it became known, provided the place for a summer tan.    The rooftop also provided the space for tenant gatherings for conversation and partying.

Photo of Richard and his father and baby sister, Erna, on the tar roof of their tenement building

Richard, his father, and baby sister, Erna, on the tar roof of their tenement in 1934.

Time has changed the function of New York rooftops.  Urban growth, high-rise architecture and a diet conscious populace have provoked the greening of New York rooftops.   Urban agriculture and gardening  have changed the scenery of the roofs of New York.  A more imaginative and civic-minded generation have created a multitude of happier uses for  older structures.

Photo of roof garden in Manhattan

Photo of roof garden in Manhattan from The Daily Mail Reporter.

The High Line on Manhattan’s West Side has opened the door to developing a refreshing approach to the use of an abandoned railway line.

High Line on West Side

High Line Park on Manhattan's West Side.

The photos above are from an article  in The Daily Mail Reporter about green roofs in Manhattan: Green Roofs.

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