Monday, February 28, 2011

Redeemer part 2

So much happened this past weekend, that I am splitting it into 3 parts. Saturday morning, I was off to see Karin, an old roommate who's relocated to far northwest Houston. I got back to the church in time for the closing moments of a "walk through" where people visited the Church of the Redeemer and went through the rooms, remembering the things that had happened in each one and giving thanks. Like the choir room, which was also where we on the dance team used to practice. That sure brought back memories. Here is the segment KHOU-TV ran on the closing.
Todd Woodruff - an old friend - and I were wandering about the church and he showed me an area underneath the front part of the nave that I'd never seen before. Then we segued toward the back of the basement where we ran into the old downstairs chapel, now stripped of its pews. A guitarist was in the chapel playing worship music and a few people were standing there singing. Todd and I stood by the door and the music drew us all in as we sang harmonies for 20-25 minutes; just lost in space and time, as it were. So many spiritual breakthroughs happened in that chapel over the decades and it was sad to see only some flowers on the altar left.
That evening there were a few of the old community houses open for people to visit and see where some of the households used to be. I'd planned to visit several but I only got to two: the Broussards and Maria Devlin's new place which used to be inhabited by the Schiffmayers and then the Wilsons. Maria had done an unbelievable job of remodeling this home on McKinney at Fashion in dark-stained cedar woodwork and I'm guessing she easily added $100K to its value by doing so.
As I walked about talking with folks, I picked up quite a bit of bewilderment and anger among people as to how the local Episcopal diocese had pulled a fast one on Redeemer by deciding to shut down the place. The surface reasons were somewhat believable: the congregation was down to about 70 persons; they could not afford a priest much less afford several million dollars to repair the wiring, broken AC and so on. But to literally demolish the church just because no one could lay their hands on $10K or so? Hadn't Christ Church Cathedral downtown cost far more 20 years ago to upgrade?
What came out in conversations was that the church was in a marginal, quasi-industrial area that the diocese didn't want to sink any more money or staff into. Redeemer was seen as a liability and a money drain. Clergy had come and gone in recent years and more and more of the congregation had drifted off. It didn't help that Redeemer was charismatic; a spirituality no one in diocesan leadership identified with nor cared to nurture.
I was told that last fall, Redeemer had approached the diocese about getting help to repair the facility to the point where members could meet in one of the classrooms, as they could not afford the AC - which is broken - for the giant nave. (There was a huge fan this weekend blowing air into the nave. Fortunately it was February, not July, else everyone would have perished from the heat). The congregation never dreamed the diocese would order a feasibility study, then decide to bring the wrecking ball in.
People wondered if the sad condition of the physical plant had provided an excuse for the diocese to do what it had wanted to do for age: raze the place and send the congregation packing to guest quarters where it will be a superhuman feat to retain members. There was talk of how or whether the Tellepsens - the Norwegian family of builders whose grandfather built the church in 1932 - had offered to foot some of the repair bill had the diocese agreed to save the church. There are rumors to that effect but I was not able to linger in Houston long enough to look into them. (I will say members of the Tellepsen family bought 3 of my books so maybe I'll be hearing from them).
One person I talked with kept asking if anyone had presented to the bishop a case for keeping the church and organizing a capital campaign. Redeemer has a large enough diaspora that surely people would have contributed. Did anyone ask Bishop Andy Doyle what he intends to do with Redeemer's property once the land is cleared? The thought is that sooner or later the diocese will sell the land if the East End ever looks like it might revive but there's no possibility the diocese will ever allow another church to be built there.
Was the diocese actively working against Redeemer, slowly doing things here and there over the years to undermine the place? One priest I talked with thought so and gave me two major examples as to how that was done. It seems like the leaders of Redeemer, who were severely weakened by not having a rector to fight for them, just weren't able to fight off the seemingly inexorable conclusions of the feasibility study which concluded that the church was too dangerous to operate in. In fact, the diocese had built two porch-like coverings for 2 of the church entrances, supposedly to protect parishioners from falling concrete. Lots of jokes were made about those structures over the weekend, in that everyone knew the vision of chunks of concrete falling through the air was a farce. The place looked incredibly sturdy to those of us who spent the weekend there, yet the diocese acted as though it were condemned property. The very locks were supposed to be changed today even though the vast majority of the congregation's belongings are still sitting inside.
And so, did the diocese finally find a hole in Redeemer's shield and drive a truck through it? Or was closing the church a severe mercy for a congregation that for years had existed in a time warp dating back 30-40 years and could not draw even 100 people while at the same time the Catholic Charismatic Center one mile away brings in large crowds every week?
What was most haunting were the people who still lived in the Houston area who showed up for services this past weekend. Many still lived close enough to Eastwood but had long since gone to other churches. Had this large group stuck around, Redeemer would be chock full of leaders and far from being closed down. During my era there, however, the visionaries and the prophetic types - whose presence is vital to keeping a church healthy - were largely run off by a ruling junta at Redeemer that I too found nearly impossible to crack. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, there were layers of gifted people drawn to Redeemer. So many were stymied and ended up drifting off while the leadership did nothing.
And 20 years later, there we were, closing the church.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Redeemer part 1

Was up at 2:45 a.m. to catch a flight to Houston - no problem getting there but then a late breakfast with Stevie Sawyer was a comedy of errors as we kept on missing each other at whatever Denny's we were supposed to meet at on I-45. Then my cell phone was buzzing with emails about the possible resignation (which turned out not to be true) of Metropolitan Jonah, someone I had JUST finished doing a huge profile on for the Washington Post Sunday magazine. So here I was having deep conversations with Stevie while trying to follow breaking news.
After that ran by one of the only classical Catholic schools in the country - cool place in Sugarland just SW of Houston - was gathering info for yet another WaPo Sunday mag piece. Then found out that I was quoted in a Houston Chronicle article that came out Friday about Redeemer's closing. Dropped off my things at the Hornbostels and caught up with Margaret - old friend and former community buddy - then off to potluck at the church where I met lots of old legends wandering the hallways such as Bob Eckert and of course Jerry and Alison Barker - those 2 men being 2 of the original 5 elders.
A cool worship service followed - the highlight being Wiley Beveridge (that wonderful voice is as golden as ever) playing "A Larger Place" on the piano while Max Dyer did cello. You could just see the faces of all the people going back 40 years to another era when all was young and fresh and hopeful. People slowly stood and lifted their hands and worshipped as we melted into one chorus after another. Max called the crowd "a river of people who've come through this place" and then Wiley did "Great and Wonderful" as an encore. Then the 8-fold Alleluia as many of wondered HOW could the diocese be tearing this building down? Sure the congregation can meet elsewhere but buildings have meaning. Worship is different in a cathedral than in a box. The new place they are going to won't have the expansive aisles, soaring mural of Jesus - the majestic interior that can't be copied. It feels like a bitter slap from the diocese which has slated - believe it or not - a deconsecration service Sunday right after the closing words of the main service. Great timing.
Near the end, we all sang "Jesus, How Lovely You Are," that old 70s chestnut, in parts. We had such better music back then. All is bitter-sweet; Jerry Barker is 86 now and he has decided not to do kidney dialysis which, barring a miracle, means his days are quite numbered. "I've had a good run," he told me. "I have no regrets." Would that we could all end like that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Going to Houston

See this photo of me (kind of blurry in a black sweater) speaking in front of an enormous mural of Jesus and His modern-day apostles? That was at Church of the Redeemer in Houston where I spoke a year ago about my "Days of Fire and Glory" book. Well...this Sunday the 27th, hundreds of people will pour into Redeemer for what will be the last service in that 90-something-year-old church.
Funds have been sparse at Redeemer for a long time and when their rector left last fall, there was not the funds to replace her. The church was costing tons in utility bills. The congregation when I visited was about 60 people. Then the diocese did some sort of study of the physical plant and concluded that it was no longer safe to occupy. Below is an explanation I am cutting and pasting from a letter from the senior warden:
The need to vacate the building comes from the fact that the building is no longer safe to occupy. According to Tellepsen Construction and Studio Red Architects, the existing condition of the electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems, the chunks of concrete separating and falling from our buildings (“spalling”), the lack of a fire alarm system, and the inadequacy of emergency exit signs and lights is more than enough to revoke our Certificate of Occupancy, if the Fire Marshall inspected the buildings. The cost of addressing just these issues would be $5 – 7 million. Neither our congregation nor our Diocese can afford that; and even if all those things were repaired, our congregation can no longer afford to maintain the building. Nevertheless, the Bishop told us that “the temptation you must resist is to say that it’s all over now.” It’s not all over now, unless we choose that, and we have the freedom to choose otherwise.
I've heard of churches being closed but....being demolished?? This is enormous news for a church that was considered architecturally quite radical when it was built. Why? Because it had no windows when it was built around the time of the Depression (I believe there was an earlier church in that spot before the present one was built but I gave away all my newspaper clips about this back to the folks at Redeemer so can't check the exact facts). The windowless part was to conserve on air-conditioning (which was a much newer invention back then) and to draw attention to the stunning mural of the Ascension painted by John Orth. That's the mural that everyone hopes to save when the demo crews arrive.
And so the congregation (and it's not a large one) is having this huge good-bye party this weekend for the diaspora (all the folks who passed through Redeemer in the past 50-some years) to visit and say good-bye. I got a call this afternoon from a Houston Chronicle reporter who wanted to interview me and she told me 400 guests were expected. That's just the ones who've RSVP'ed, I assume, so who knows how many will really show. There are events Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
I have been wondering for 2 weeks whether to fly down or not. Being unemployed for nearly 9 months kind of puts a crimp in one's ability to travel about. Fortunately I had enough frequent flier miles for a direct flight on United; sitters for the kitties and for Veeka were free this weekend so I figured the doors were open. And it appears I made the right choice. An added bonus: while there's snow on the ground here, it is in the mid-70s down there.
The photo, by the way, was taken by Eric Sawyer.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The ides of February

I wanted to include a photo of the lovely pink blooms on my epiphyllum orchid cactus - actually it's Veeka's that I gave her as a birthday present 2 Aprils ago. The idea is that it'd always bloom on or near her birthday; well, the blooms are coming out NOW during the ides of February. Winter is not my favorite time as all sorts of nasty things happen, such as the awful cold-flu-whatever combo I came down with Jan. 31 after visiting the health club. I think I picked it up there. It lasted two weeks and then Veeka got sick in the middle of it so both of us were down. Meanwhile, other crises (most of which I am not going to go into) were erupting and it was beyond difficult trying to deal with life-as-hell outside the home while feeling like Godzilla. I'm still on antibiotics trying to get well.
One of many difficulties was Veeka was not doing well at her new school so I had to pull her out at the end of January and send her back to her old school. She's happy there and doing much better but it was traumatic (at least for me) to go through all the parent-teacher conferences that went into my decision. Also in January, I decided I needed to learn how to build a web site so I signed up for a class at the local community college. It took many, many hours of sitting in lines to register, talk to a counselor, etc., and then when I started reading the syllabus online, I quickly learned the class was structured only for PCs, not Macs. I could not believe a computer class at a college would have such a gap but it did (there were no warnings posted on any of the registration materials) so I withdrew. So many hours wasted there.
Writing for the WaPo blog went well but ate up way many more hours than I had budgeted. Meanwhile, several freelance assignments (including one for an Icelandic magazine) came in so it was a war trying to find the time to write. And then I got sick. Sigh.
Because of these and other things, I've been driven to seeking the Guy Upstairs for help and one day I noticed Veeka (see photo) spreading out a blanket on the floor and gathering a notebook and pencils and various books beside her. What was she doing, I asked. Well, she answered, she wanted to pray like Mommy. Well...guess there are a lot worse things the kid could imitate.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

February blues

We're both home sick today; Veeka with a sore throat that doesn't go away (she was tested for strep Friday but it came out negative) and me with a cold that has dragged on nearly a week. I had slated a quickie out-of-town trip to Pittsburgh for some R&R but had to cancel Friday morning when Veeka sounded especially awful. And so the steam machine in puffing away in her room.
I have four (!) collections of cold sores on my lips so I am not venturing out in public much. Am guessing I picked this little gem up at the health club because I was fine when I went in last Monday morning but by Monday night I was feeling awful. I washed my hands after touching various surfaces there but something must have latched onto me.
Things are about the same here. Have had this Post gig four weeks now and the site seems to be getting a decent amount of hits. As for the rest of the month, January was (for reasons I won't go into here) a month of false starts, cancellations and start-overs on several fronts. And the weather was awful. But at least I was not stuck on the Beltway (as was my brother Rob) during the Mother of All Traffic Jams on Jan. 26.
I did get a camera for Christmas but am still trying to figure out how to use it so until then, here's a stock photo of Miss Veeka singing in the rain.