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Sentimental Journeys

Sentimental Journeys

They (see title) are the stuff of which this website is made.

Why, you have probably wondered, and if you haven't I'll do it for you, does Critical Christian spend so much time in Brooklyn? 

You have probably and correctly assumed it is because we tend to look to our beginnings for explanation of our middle and endings.  I have extolled Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church-Christ United Methodist Church as the tempering furnace for the raw seminary graduate I was, learning what it means to be "The pastor."  That explains my continued fascination. On the other end, your end, the Brooklyn graduates who continue to show interest in this old, used-up preacher, well, that's a different story. 

One that goes something like this: the church and community in which we met no longer exists.  Fifty-five years ago when I arrived at the corner of 45th and 7th the choir was filled with blue-eyed blondes.  That same space today (I am making a calculated guess) is charmed with brown-eyed brunettes whose country of origin is on the other side of the earth from the Viking children who greeted me in another century.  Gujarati is the second language now at 45th and 7th. No remnant of the congregation I served continues there. 

When Christ United Methodist Church celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004, I was invited to attend... a week before the event.  I wonder if the large photographs which lined the walls of the basement Wesley Hall remain.  They were lay patriarchs.  One name I remember: Christian Smith, father to my dentist patron, Marie Murray.  Most churches I've explored celebrate clergy in their halls of fame; but not Sunset Park, Elim, or Christ United (three names, successively used, for the same congregation).  I spent seventeen and a half years in that corner of the kingdom, long enough to marry children I baptized. I do remember thinking in those days, anticipating the demographic changes already beginning, that the church is a creature of the moment, like the creatures who find within it faith and warmth; the same creatures who will surely move on to other scenes of faith and warmth.  They did... move on.

And that, of course, is what has happened to my Brooklyn.  I may not be the only connection with that moment we shared, but I am a prominent one... to candlelight communion at Christmas; to limp sweet waffles with lingonberry jam on Thursdays with the Sunset Circle; to triumphant dinners for the victorious basketball teams; to joyful concerts with Jean; to Good Friday three hour vigils; to boiled coffee with heavy cream at every gathering; to picnics on the lawn; to confirmation "overhearings," needlessly scaring teenagers out of their wits; to Tuesday evening prowls with late teenagers through the borough in search of the perfect milk shake; to visits with shut-ins, sometimes feeding communion grape juice through a straw to an enfeebled congregant; counseling a generation of couples preparing for marriage (when I was just a novice myself!); to Easter mornings singing "Paaske Morgen"; to the whole array of human and divine interactions which intermingle in the days of a "poor parish priest."

Having been there, should you wish to return by way of memory lane: get in touch with Pastor Howard.  He's still alive, and he has a website.   

Which brings me to the second issue sometimes raised in the light of twenty-nine years spent fourteen miles to the east of Brooklyn: do you, Pastor Howard, ever think of the people among whom you preached and with whom you served in that gateway village on Long Island?

Twenty-five years ago I spent an evening at the Williams Club listening to a raconteur tell story after story from his career as the owner of a baseball team.  He shall remain nameless, lest you accuse me of name-dropping. I'll use only his first name, George.  George and I were on the track team at college, he with great success as a hurdler, I with lesser facility as, would you believe?, a shot-putter.  That evening at 39th Street and Madison as we said "Goodbye," I said to the high hurdler, "George, I'm Bob Howard."  He responded, "Sure, I know you, Bob; I think of you every day."  When I reported this benediction to one of my favorite Yankee fans, Nunzio Columbo, he smiled a knowing smile, and uttered a one word opinion, "Poppycock!"  No, Nunzio, Brooklyn boy he was, didn't really use that mild epithet.  He chose another and far more descriptive word, preferred by baseball fans and, I daresay, those who tend the prairies of mid-America where the animal inspiration for the epithet abound.

I repeat George's claim, however, as an apt answer to whether or not I miss Valley Stream and Grace Church.  I do so without any fear of hearing you say poppycock or its equivalent in less circumspect circles.

I cite numerous examples:

    Many an evening as I look through my den's front window I see a couple walking hand in hand.  He is Mark and she is Ana.  They live on the same street as we do. Mark McFaul is the late Fred Budde's nephew, the son of Fred's sister. Fred was the Lay Leader when I arrived at Grace Church in 1956.  I was interviewed in May 1973 at his and Bev's home on East Euclid.

    We spend several evenings each year at Lincoln Theatre at the University of Hartford, the alma mater of Alan Oppenheimer at whose establishment, Central Hardware, I also spent many hours in my pursuit of sprinkler heads and assorted items to make Grace Church workable.  Imagine, listening to Mozart and remembering plumbing. 

    Across the street lives a retired engineer (UTC) now working on a new, better, safer, quieter kind of wind-activated electric generator.  One of his colleagues is married to a woman who lived in her young years across the street from the Pikes and the Whites on Prince Street in Malverne.  See Mike and think of Marie and Bob, Bernie, Beulah, and Don. 

    Several times each year, Barbara and I drive twenty miles south to Easthampton for dental maintenance and repair.  Our dentist is George Mantikas, graduate of Central High, married to one of my junior highs, Beth Peterman.  Every night now, on orders from my dental hygienist, I swish a mouthful of fluoride solution inside my mouth... and think of Valley Stream.

    The third Thursday each month I gather with a crowd of retired Methodist ministers at a Denny's in Southington.  One of the regulars is George Harris, graduate of Central High, the son of Libby Saburn. It's a bigger stretch for him than for me, to reach back to the paths we both traveled each in our own time on the South Shore.  See George and think of Libby singing in the Chancel Choir.

    Half a block up the street across from our home resides a family one of whose children was the twins' classmate.  Her grandmother taught with Mary Gear (and others) at the long-gone Brooklyn Avenue/Donahue School down South Franklin Avenue from Grace Church.  See the Lewises, think of Mary.

    Last Wednesday, November 30th, Barbara and I went to the aforementioned Lincoln Theatre for a concert by Capitol Winds.  Jeff McGregor, Joyce and Stu's son, met his wife, Mary Rose, at Capitol Winds.  She was the librarian and bassoonist; he was and is a trombonist.  Jeff is another of my junior highs, now a lawyer in Southbury.  Mary Rose is a principal in Brookfield. 

    Plus, one wall by the window in front of the computer station accommodates the trophies ("I must someday lay down") of twenty-nine years of pastoring: half a handbell embedded in wood; a VSFD plaque with ladder and hydrant emblems, for the chaplain; a plate and three framed pictures of Grace Church; and an eagle in flight, from BSA Troop 109.  Walk into the living room and admire the carved wood mallard, the artistry of Brud Ike.  See the bluebirds carved by the late Wil Gamper or the clock from the confirmation class of 2002.

    Do I think of you every day?  I have ample reason, and that's not counting the email and regular mail, sent our way from the South Branch of the LIRR.

    We are all connected and I have a fondness for tracing those connections here and there and everywhere.  Tom Wolfe in You Can't Go Home Again refers repeatedly to the "web" of human relationships.  Playwright John Guare posited Six Degrees of Separation as the distance between you and me, whoever you are, wherever you are among the six billion of us on earth.  I think Guare may be a trifle pessimistic, judging by my own capacity to connect with strangers I meet along the way. 

    Yeah, I think of you all the time.  And that's no poppycock.




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