Those who have only the reports in the newspapers to go on think of Brooklyn as a place where menace lurks at every corner. Time and again when I have explained to people curious about my personal history that I spent seventeen plus years in the "borough of churches," they raise their eyebrows in silent wonder as to just how I was able to do it, live there.
Time was when the mere mention of the word "Brooklyn" brought forth applause and knowing laughter from radio audiences. Time was when the Brooklyn Dodgers were the team cursed by the Yankees (and more lovable for it!) and the plaintive chorus was raised after every lost World Series, "Wait'll next year!" Time was when the Brooklyn accent was imitated by Hollywood actors to endear themselves to moviegoers. Time was when just about everyone in these United States claimed to have come from that southernmost corner of Long Island boasting its hill of highest elevation.
Which is where Barbara and I spent the beginning years of our marriage and, for our three daughters, their lives: on top of that place of highest elevation, known as Sunset Park... where the terminal moraine of the last Ice Age piled up a great mound of sand and stone from New England.
Brooklyn has been much in my mind these past several days. I've been working on a PowerPoint presentation for our 50th wedding anniversary, looking over old photographs, trying to capture a moment or two from "way back when" with which to regale family celebrants on June 17th at The Silvermine Tavern. Coincident with this gathering of photos, Brooklyn, and the years spent there shepherding souls, rose to my attention, like the Williamsburgh Bank on the other shore's skyline when looking east from Manhattan.
Sunday early we drove down Rte 8 to Seymour CT to attend the 9:30 AM service of worship. As we entered the United Methodist Church we faced the pastor, to whom I said, "Good morning, Joan." She and her sisters grew up in the Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church in Brooklyn during my pastorate. Joan, the eldest, had pretty much departed by the time I arrived, in protest over the preceding pastor's treatment by the congregation. Another graduate of that church, also a pastor, with whom I have had a continuing connection, nourished frequently in recent years over coffee at a nearby diner, reported that Joan Kikel Krawchuk had found her way into the ordained ministry after years in the business world. She is now breathing life into a poor post-industrial town congregation where during World War II Barbara's father preached and also worked for the war effort in a brass factory.
Say this for my Brooklyn: many, many of the children who grew up there, played stickball or Kings or hopscotch on the sidewalks have prospered, if financially, then also spiritually (I sought and could not find a better word than "spiritually," which, to my mind is fraught with pietistic overtones; but I use it here to convey human, psychological, and cultural development too).
By way of illustration, I report communications of the past week.
In February 1956 when I arrived at Sunset Park Church the president of the MYF was an eighteen year old named Kenny Hansen. His wife phoned me a few days ago to report the sad news of his death following a heart attack. Kenny was Brooklyn all the way, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense, direct fellow who could spot a phony a mile away. When he lived in Franklin MA and supervised a youth fellowship there in the Baptist Church, he arranged for overnight accommodations for my Long Island Junior Highs taking the Freedom Walk in Boston. We had occasional contact beyond that visit, after he moved to Atlanta. He prospered as an insurance inspector, once convincing me the Valley Stream church should install a center railing on its wide front stairs. Now Jackie was telling me Ken had died... at the tender age, to me at least, of 68.
So I emailed the sad news to his good friend from Brooklyn years, Richie Wiger, in Oslo, Norway, where he, a graduate biologist and his wife work for a national health institute. Talk about prospering in every way: Dr. Wiger replies the same day, laments Kenny's passing, and sends me a couple of photos of the Wiger's recent visit to Kerala, India, where he assists with a dental mission twice a year.
On May 22nd I shall be presiding at a wedding for the daughter of a Hudson Valley veterinarian. I officated at Dadand Mom's wedding and baptized their children, including this one, Barbara, who will wed Shawn on the lawn of the family estate in Coxsackie. Dad grew up in a four room apartment with three sisters. His father, a recovering alcoholic, befriended me and took me to AA meetings throughout Greater New York, not because I had a problem, but because he wanted me to be well-acquainted with AA lore, the better to combat the biggest social ill among the Vikings of Brooklyn. Sonny, Barbara's Dad, painted his way through Farmingdale State College and Cornell University's Vet School, established a thriving practice in Suffolk County, sold it, retired at 40 years of age, got restless, returned to the repair of small animals in Upstate New York, eventually bought another practice, and is now looking to retire a second time. Needless to say his home, a super-insulated mansion, built largely with his own hands, has ample room for a very large family.
Present at that May 22nd wedding will be Sonny's close friend, Tommy Moon, whose mother operated a hand laundry around the corner from the Sunset Park Church. She singlehandedly reared two boys and three girls. Her shop was the neighborhood playground for all the children including ours. Tommy was her elder son. He several times consulted with me about being the man of the house, how he was encountering major resistance from his siblings. He and his brother and sisters went on all the church youth fellowship trips and retreats. Tommy worked as a camera technician. He married a New York City schoolteacher. They have now retired and divide their time between their house in California and the one in Brooklyn. On August 30th Barbara and I shall be attending son Warren's wedding in (would you believe?... talk about coming full circle) Stamford CT. We were invited because, I suspect, Tommy regards the old pastor as something of a surrogate dad.
And I could tell you about a phone call from John Naley, Columbia University graduate, engineer, star of the church's basketball team, second generation Norwegian-American, a great athlete and an even more outstanding human being who, when my mother died, penned a touching and uplifting letter to me.
Or Jean and Sonja and Gary and Turid, people from our Brooklyn years who are still a part of our lives fifty years later.
Just before we moved fourteen miles east of Brooklyn to Valley Stream, I wrote a column in the church newsletter in which I tried to measure what could and could not be my relationship to those people for whom I had been a pastor for nearly eighteen years. I wrote something to the effect that the pastor-parishioner relationship is different from ordinary friendships, hinting, though never quite saying it, that the one may exclude the other. But what did I know?! I was a child of forty-one. From the perspective of another thirty years and considering the durability of those relationships formed at Sunset Park, I now understand that the pastoral connection adds strength and longevity to friendships.
Why? Because the most direct route to another's soul lies through the mind and heart of God.