Sanctuary: A Why to and a How to

The Moral and Political Costs and Benefits

 of Sanctuary as a Strategy



(Published on website, December 2016)

During very hard times, people often shelter – provide sanctuary for - each other.

·      I think of the amazing work of Raoul Wallenberg, during the 1940s.  He set up 31 safe houses to shelter Jews from the Nazis in and around Budapest.

·      Or the brave family in Amsterdam who hid Anne Frank during World War II.

·      I think of Jewish and German immigrants in old New York City, where I now live and work.  They slept in three shifts.  “Hurry up and eat, honey, we need the tablecloth for a sheet,” is a famous Yiddish expression.  It would be hard to say who was providing sanctuary for whom – but surely they were mutually sheltering each other in a cost- effective way.

·      Or more recently, in the 1970’s and 80’s in this country, when political refugees poured across the border from Nicaragua and Guatemala during the U.S.-supported wars there, and churches and synagogues hid some of them to protect them from deportation, in the first so-named US “Sanctuary Movement.”

·      Less dramatic situations develop now in many of our families, where a 26-year-old adult-child can’t find work and comes home to live in the basement.  We take each other in, especially if we have the space and others don’t.

“Sanctuary” in the 21st century has often been defined as larger than providing housing.  In the New York City New Sanctuary Coalition, for the last ten years of our existence, we have defined “sanctuary” as moral, spiritual, psychological, financial, legal – and sometimes physical – support for people who are about to be detained or deported.  Why the broad definition?  Because often the first five adjectives protect more people than the last one.  Physical Sanctuary could only serve as mostly a publicity attempt to raise the larger issues – but actually benefitting only one person.  There are simply too many immigrants to pick out one or two for help.

The NYC New Sanctuary Coalition’s Accompaniment Project has trained hundreds of volunteers to accompany hundreds of people facing deportation  to their required periodic “check-ins” with the local ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office.  ICE doesn’t like to have citizens paying attention to what they are doing.  Showing ICE that immigrants have citizens watching and supporting them helps ICE to realize that these people are not the ones that they need to deport right now.  Accompaniment is as good a supportive strategy as physical sanctuary, helps more immigrants, and can be a gateway to providing physical sanctuary if it becomes necessary.

We also broadened the definition of sanctuary as a strategy because we in the faith community thought it more spiritual and moral and theological in its core, than simply the important human, constitutional, and civil rights cores espoused by our marvelous secular partners in immigration protection. 

When Congress failed so royally to pass immigration reform of laws we perceived to be unjust, for all eight years of the last administration, we found ourselves playing much more defense than offense.  We surely tried to change the unjust laws and we surely failed. 

A most egregious part of the unfair laws against immigrants is one that goes against the heart of multiple religious points of view.  Under current immigration law, if any non-citizens have a prior felony conviction - even if they have served their time, lived a law-abiding life ever since, married a US citizen or had US citizen children – they must be immediately deported, removed from the country, exiled from their American families!  That law violates the heart of the principle of fairness and the principle of forgiveness.  Religious people may be able to look the other way at some kinds of assaults on our wisdom.  We cannot abandon the notions of repentance and forgiveness.  They cut to the core. If we cannot believe in forgiveness, what can we believe?  If we cannot show that God is gracious, what can we show?

Since the election, there has been a profound renewal of interest in the strategy of sanctuary.  The President-elect joins the Mayor of our great city in using the word loosely and often.  Sanctuary cities are very important; they exemplify the right to refuse certain legal interventions against their residents.

Here I tell you why religious sanctuary is a good strategy, if not a great strategy, and also how to do it, if you are so inclined.

Physical Sanctuary is NOT a great strategy because there aren’t enough congregations who are capable of doing it, compared to the number of immigrants who need and want it. It IS a good, not great strategy, because it shows we are serious about the need for real change in immigration law.  And under the new administration, it might pose some possible legal risk to a congregation that offers it.


The greatest moral difficulty in providing Physical Sanctuary is the way it may sometimes require breaking the law, when it involves a level of stealth and quiet, even secrecy. 

In ordinary forms of civil disobedience, we like to be open and clear about why we would break a law.  We break one law on behalf of a higher law. 

Current immigration law provides that

“any person who….knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien has…remained in the United States in violation of law, conceals, harbors, or shields from detection, or attempts to [do so], is…in violation of law”

and may be punished by a fine and up to five years in prison.

         8 USC 1181 section 1234(a)(1), (A)(iii) & (B)(ii).

There is case law in some federal courts that merely housing an immigrant - without concealing or shielding them from detection by ICE - does not constitute the kind of “harboring” that violates this law.  This provision has not been tested in the Supreme Court and nobody knows how other courts might interpret it if a case were to be brought today.  So far, the government has not tried to sue or otherwise harass any congregation for providing Physical Sanctuary, but whether that policy will continue under a new administration is not known.

The New Sanctuary Movement that began in 2007, primarily to try to bring about reform of the immigration laws, relied on that permissive  interpretation of “harboring” when it took a few immigrants into Physical Sanctuary[GG1]  in cities around the US.  In those cases, and in cases where possible today, the congregations make sure that the local ICE offices know exactly where that immigrant is – no concealing or hiding - but instead, make an attempt to get the widest possible publicity to inform the public about the terrible inequities in the current immigration laws that need immediate reform.

At the moment, we know of 11 congregations in New York City who are providing some kind of physical sanctuary.  There are surely more, as many congregations made up primarily of immigrants have long quietly providedsanctuary, broadly conceived and physically conceived, on a regular basis. You will not hear of this sacrificial work for obvious reasons: they are hiding and sheltering and protecting people who, if found, will be deported. 

A recent article in the US edition of the British-based newspaper The Guardian reports that up to 400 churches and synagogues are now willing to offer physical sanctuary:

Five Reasons to Do Sanctuary

1.    Every religion advises protection of the stranger.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is clear (Matthew 25: 34–36) when he says,


Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ 


The scriptures also tell us in Hebrews 13:2:

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.


The First Testament also reminds us that we once were strangers in a strange land and therefore must welcome the stranger as ourselves[GG2] , as an expression of covenant faithfulness (Leviticus 19:33-34).


2.    Many of us call ourselves Beatitudes Christians or people who sense great wisdom in the Beatitudes, even if we don’t understand the rest of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  We see the work of Jesus in attending those on the edge, in the margins, those in trouble.  We find our life and our way in aiding them in their life and their way. 


Further, in the New Sanctuary Movement, we find a profound mutuality of stranger and guest.  We lose the sense of a citizen and alien invader, or living in a fort and instead live in a port , just because we sense our humanity in the humanities of each other. 


In human rights terms, we often mention the great economic benefit of hard-working immigrants.  For those in the New Sanctuary Movement, we see also the great spiritual benefit of human connection.  We see ourselves enriched by touching and connecting with each other.


3.    If Biblical and spiritual basis and benefit are not enough for you, then consider the theological possibility of sin or missing the mark of our humanity.  To look the other way as millions of people are threatened is hardly a good thing.  It constitutes a great definition of privilege – why do you look away? because you can – and such privilege is sin.  For those of us who are golden rule Christians, at a minimum we know we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to love God above all.  No one is a stranger or a foreigner to God.  If we think so, our God is too small.  This more theological principle may be the right way to explain why we would offer sanctuary to another.


4.    You may not need spiritual or theological reasons to protect another.  You may want to protect your babysitter, your mother’s caretaker, your father’s physical therapist, your restaurant’s dishwasher, or your local strawberry picker.  You may know someone who needs help – and I’ll bet you know more than one.


5.    Finally, you may be a patriotic American, one who loves the land and its Constitution and its great histories so much that you want the chance to be faithful to it.  The laws now harming immigrants are hardly our best laws.  They rest on the flimsiest of self-protections of those already here against those just coming.  Many of us are descendants of people who entered freely, before immigration laws existed. Many of us love the stories of how close our houses are to an Underground Railroad site.  Patriotism, oddly, is one of the strongest reasons to disobey laws that need to be changed and will be changed when we come to our senses.  I choose a sanctuary strategy out of patriotism and my belief in Jesus.


I love my country and I love the gospel even more.  I couldn’t possibly allow the State to tell me or my people how to follow Jesus, and thus feel a need to test the “law” about the government intruding into religious spaces.




1.    Pay more attention to the whys than to the hows.  One of the most vexing matters so far in this early stage of sanctuary’s second stage in this new century is here:  we say we don’t know how.  Maybe our church building doesn’t have a shower.  Or we are worried no one will help out.  Or we are afraid of more work when we are already overworked.  These are important matters.  They also matter much less than the stakes in the why.  We make the road by walking.  Resources are available to walk you through the planning; e.g., this tool-kit:

[insert link[GG3] ]

        /justice page[GG4] 


2.    Get Congregational support.  Even if there is a division in the congregation about whether and why to do sanctuary (at any level, accompaniment or physical or all ways) the conversation is important.  Take it one step at a time.  You can come closer together.  Your congregation will define its next chapter by whether or not it makes its way through in this historic and kairotic moment.  Fight well.  Fight beautifully.  Fight lovingly.  Do what you can to help those who are in a lot more trouble than the emotional anguish of a congregational fight.


3.    If possible, get an official statement of why you are doing what you do, to use when you get questions – from congregants, from the hierarchy, from the media…as you surely will.


At my church, Judson Memorial in New York City, our Board, after extensive discussion, passed a resolution, which you can find at


4.    Work on multiple levels.  DO NOT do anything without first consulting with the immigrants who are impacted by your actions – they are your essential partners, in handling the planning as well as the doing, the difficulties as well as the successes.  Once you have found the person or people who will be with you, work with them to decide what to do.  You are not a host and they a guest; you are partners.  Beware paternalizing. 


5.    Pray often and make your objective as humble as possible.  Think, “we are doing this little thing,” along with many others who are doing a little thing.  Spend as much time getting your denomination to help you as you do internalizing how to do it.  Spend as much time getting others to do sanctuary strategies as you do on doing them yourself.  Don’t count on publicity so much as word of mouth.  The best thing about sanctuary as a strategy is that it is genuine and down to earth instead of “messaged” and “manipulated” and “organizationally opportunistic.” Beware the instrumental. Indeed you will find partners and even “church growth,” but those are not the reasons you are providing sanctuary.


6.    Finally, be prepared for lots of surprises and the need for a strong, internal team of a half dozen or so who will work closely with those in sanctuary, day by day, month by month, possibly even year by year.  Think of sanctuary as bringing your beloved adult child into the spare room and not knowing what is going to happen next.



Is this really work?

Rogues, Renegades and Religious Work

I don’t believe they pay me to do my work.  They do, and I am grateful for the money.  But my work is so much like play that I am in a full tilt boogie quarrel with retirement.  I don’t want to retire.  How can you retire when you haven’t really been working?  Play is what you want to do; work, many say, is what you have to do. I want to do my work.

I work about 60 hours a week.  I work at 5 a.m. and at midnight.  I almost never work 9 – 5 because that is when other people are working and I work when they are not, with them.  I have made a life long habit of the siesta.  I learned in my second job NOT to go to the office at 9 because there were no people who could talk to me or work with me then.  That’s when I became a writer and a gardener.  I write in the mornings, garden or play tennis or go biking in the afternoon, after my nap. I usually work at lunch time.  I like my free days – and also my committed early mornings and late nights.  Every day around 4 I start a round of appointments and meetings.  They usually go till 8 or 9.  I also work in the interstices, pretty much all day long every day.  I check my email at least twice an hour, make phone calls, sit in endless phone meetings (while double-timing them on emails or with writing.)  I am active but am not working all the time.  I am playing.

The downside of this fully flex flex time is that I work just about every day of the week, including, of course, Sundays.  Another down side is that my doctor insists that I should eat earlier in the evening, so as not to encourage my acid reflux.  I just can’t eat till I’m done work and really dislike sandwiches.  Yes, I eat a lot of sandwiches.

I am a renegade and a rogue.  I have been lucky enough to find renegade institutions that would employ me.  I think I rode a wave of affirmative action and made the wave even more interesting than it was by taking advantage of my freedom.  I’m not sure everyone has this kind of freedom.  I am sure that most of us have more freedom than we use.  There is a difference.  What I say here about being a working pastor may not apply to many other people.  Unless, of course, you want to sign up for the best non-job in the world.


The year before I was ordained, 1973, I spent every Tuesday night reading BEYOND GOD THE FATHER by Mary Daley with 5 nuns and a Presbyterian laywoman.  We read a dozen or so pages each Tuesday.  We also drank a lot of wine and ate a lot of cheese.  We were part of the great feminist religious underground, what Dan Brown popularized as the Holy Grail.  Quarterly we went on a retreat.  We stayed together as a woman’s group for many years and even published an illustrated cookbook of all the good food we had eaten together.

One of our members, Patti Smith, just died.  Another, Sister Rachel Fitzgerald, will receive the dedication of my forthcoming book, I Heart you Francis: Love Letters from a reluctant admirer.

On the day I was ordained, Reformation Sunday, October 30, 1974, I had asked if my women’s group could be a part of the laying on of hands part of the ritual.  The five nuns were not deacons but teachers.  One was a principal of a large school.  My judicatory and its Committee on the Ministry said absolutely not.  No non-ordained hands. Nothing not in the male line of Peter.  No way.  “It’s enough that we are ordaining you as a woman, we’ve never done this before.  Don’t push it.”

When the time for the laying on of hands came, all six of the women in my group arrived to lay on hands, and nobody could do anything about it at that moment.   I had no idea they were going to do this and they did it.   I was kneeling in the middle of a group of 40 or so men, feeling weird as hell, when six women nudged in and touched me.  I felt doubly ordained.  First by the United Church of Christ and then by my women’s group and Mary Daly’s God.  I am proud to be ordained, proud to be one of the “firsts” of women to be ordained, and I am simultaneously wildly concerned about the diminishment of the meaning of the sacrament of ordination.

The idea that people in the line of Peter, who both happen to be and have to be men, is absurd.  Peter was the most fallible of the disciples, denying Jesus at the drop of a rooster’s crow and making one leadership mistake after another.  Surely he was also brave and good.  But the notion that Peter was better than others – when actually he was worse than others – is absurd.  The Petrine succession argument is a thinly veiled promotion of masculine supremacy, which all by itself should and has been questioned by many, including Jesus.

Plus, any elevation of the ordained ministry or priesthood demeans the so-called laity, as if their were work were less important than the sacramental work.  The separation of powers – the holy and the profane – is dangerous and unChristlke.  You have noted,I am sure that I rarely use the word Christ.  It elevates Jesus into something he would never have wanted to be – the only savior, the ultimate savior, the best savior in the religious Olympics, the imperial savior, etc.  But there is a worthy concept in the word Christ – which is the mystery and majesty of the holy, to which Jesus was always pointing.  Let’s call it the divine human, which includes Peter and all his pettiness.

My own ordination reflected this view.  Lay women and ordained men ordained me – if by ordination we mean the holy laying on of hands.  I got a lot of rights and privileges, authority and respect, out of their action.  Its goodness derives straight from the mixture of lay and clergy attending.  Had it only been clergy, I would feel regularly ordained and diminished by the very act to being the pedestaled clergy in a world where most people are put down.  Jesus sided with the put down.  I aim so to do also.  I am irregularly ordained.

Before the ordination, we had prepared a joke when we heard the inclusive laying on of hands was going to be prohibited.  We and all of the women attending would wear pink undies.  Many did, with a kind of glee.  We had a quiet bond.  It was doubly good to have a loud bond as well as a quiet one. The judicatory and the Committee on the Ministry were apoplectic at the inclusive laying on of hands.  Most people in the room didn’t really know that women couldn’t do what my friends were doing so they just thought the mixture of genders was sweet.  I never heard from the judicatory about this rogue and renegade behavior.   Believe me, I also never asked.  And I have gone on to serve 41 years in the ordained ministry of the UCC.

I had experienced what Roman Catholic women experience now.  We could be servant leaders, “Christian education” directors but not sacramental purveyors.  I was raised in a church that still doesn’t ordain women, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.   For the first ten years of my ordination, my Lutheran mother whispered to her friends that I was going into “Christian Education,” so embarrassed was she of me doing something unusual.  She wondered if her friends would approve, which they did not.  I had put her in an awkward position.  They didn’t even approve of my ordination, much less the pink undies.  My mother did not wear pink undies to the ordination but she did read one of the lessons, with great eloquence and articulation.

After the UCC received me, I left the Lutherans.   Actually the Lutherans left me. Then the next year the Lutherans decided to ordain women.  The Lutherans paid for me to go to six years of seminary while they lolly-gagged on the topic of women’s ordination.  They just didn’t know how to say no so they waffled.  When I had one of my endless exams, they actually asked me if I had “gender issues.”  My Strong Vocational Interest Bank, then designed for men only, like the priesthood, had come back saying I would be best as an army general.  I assured the committee, one after another, that I had incredible gender issues.  Most of them had to do with being put down by men.

Rejection is big for me.  Acceptance and welcome is also big for me, as being taken in when you have been thrown out means a lot to a person.  But what means the most to me is the rogue behavior, the civil disobedience that marked my own ordination into the church.  My women friends showed a genuine sacramental sensibility.  They say only priests like me can perform the sacraments of vocation and ordination.  I think not.  I think all work is holy and in need of rogues and renegades.


So-Called Lay People

There are lots of ways people outside the ordination “track” can show up for themselves at whatever job there is.  You may know the secret codes at your work better than I ever will.  Often it is the lowest person on the so-called totem pole who is the only one who knows how to fix the AC when it goes out.  Or how to phone the person who’s been sacked at home that night and express a feeling, even though that kind of human behavior is against the rules.   Or how to clean out the office refrigerator.  Or fly just enough under the radar to get something done in the system.

My friend works at a university.  He has worked there for 37 years.  He calls himself vice-president in charge of what nobody else wants to do.  He chaired the first sexual harassment committee, and now they have a whole department working on that matter.  He chaired the first disability committee, the first GLBTQ committee, the committee that eventually got the university to recognize religion.  Why, I asked him.  Because I could.  Plus “I just love prayer.” There are now 69 chaplains of all faiths at this university.

If you don’t think medical people have a holy call, then be on the table while the cardiologist is doing open heart surgery and the electricity goes out in the hospital.  My tennis partner just told me this story.  The night before our area had a huge electrical storm.  We are in the hottest summer on human record in the Hudson Valley.  All the freezers are overworking and the air conditions are overworking.  Many are collapsing in the heat.

While my doctor friend was performing the surgery, the power went out.  He then had to pump the machine with his own hands, stabilize the patient, and keep the electricity going by hand.  The next day he had to convince the hospital that all hospitals during this time of accelerated heat waves in the North East need to have back up electrical systems.  If they couldn’t get them, he would no longer do surgery – and he would have his photo removed from their advertising.  He was the best doctor they had.  He prevailed.  If that is not vocation – from the actual healing to the systemic healing to the prophetic behavior to the refusal to work in absurd conditions – I don’t know what is.  It is not just rogue or renegade to behave like this.  It is common sense. It is operating from a sacramental sensibility first and not from fear or losing a job first.  When we have a sacramental common sense, we don’t work for a paycheck or for approval or against rejection.  We work for God.  We are free from the diminishment of vocation on behalf of common sense which is also sacramental.

My tennis partner reminds me of Quentin Young, a famous physician in Miami.  His memoir is titled, Rebel without a Pause.  Vocational meaning or meaning at work is not a given.  Many of us have to fight for good work.  Why not?  It’s a great fight.

Aimee Semple McPherson, the famous Los Angeles evangelist founded a prayer line that was among the first of its kind.  She also did another remarkable thing, right near her temple on Echo Lake in L.A.  She ordered Chinese lotus for the lake.  She wanted the people she was ministering to, the new immigrants, to feel at home.  The lotus grows in a beautiful mud.  Last Easter I preached a sermon called “No mud, no lotus,” which comes from a Buddhist slogan, meaning exactly what it says.  What allowed McPherson to be interested in the vocation, the call, and the essence of her Buddhist congregants?  Respect for them is the answer.  When we respect each other magical things happen. The lotus now take over half of Echo Lake and bloom a magnificent yellow.  The people who shipped them are to be thanked.  The people who grew them are to be thanked.  The people who tend them are to be thanked.  The people who wade in the mud to get out the litter in the lake are to be thanked. Work is so holy that it requires our respect.  All work is holy, not just the “ordained.”

By the way, Catholics join Protestants in enjoying a doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers.  By that we mean something very similar to what I am arguing here, that all people have vocation and are to be respected for and in it.  I might lose the word believers and just say the Priesthood of All.  I would follow the Shaker frame, “Make it simple.  Make it simpler still.  And when you cannot make it simpler.  Make it beautiful.”

What drives me to my knees more often than not is an overwhelming appreciation for all that God made, the thistles and the thermonuclear scientists, the columbine and the caretakers, the mandrake and the musician, the lightning and the lightning bug.  What drives me to my heartbreak more often than not does know that some people are not only unemployed but also under appreciated in their employment.  How any human being could be kept unemployed is beyond me.  There is so much to do and so much to give.

I would argue that the economic system does not tell you whether you have vocation or not. It only tells you whether you have a job.  Of course not having a job is brutally difficult on multiple levels.  Sacramental sensibility allows us to think rogue thoughts and enjoy renegade behavior.  We are valued by God and not our paychecks.  We can stop and start there.  We all have holy orders.  Mine happen to be word and sacrament, which is my job description. Others have other job descriptions. One does not outrank the other but instead circles the divine in magnificent ways.

Bring your own God and here’s mine

 In these days when many reduce Christianity to its right wing version, Judson Memorial Church, my employer, is an increasingly visible and alive alternative.  Judson is an “early” church. It is a post denominational church, with many Jews as members and dually affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches. It is a traditional church – in the sense that it follows the Jesus of the bible who privileged the poor and outcast, the sinner and not the saint.  When Italians first came to the lower East Side, and many said that they smelled, Judson opened a health clinic for them.  The Judson fountain brought the first clean water to the lower East Side.   Before many other churches affirmed homosexuality, Judson did.    When others thought ordaining women was unbiblical, Judson did it out of a conviction for open interpretation of scripture.  When others spoke of addiction as though it were a sin, Judson members gathered on Wednesday nights to create bleach kits to reduce the harm of drugs.  When others poured concrete over scripture, Judson kept its meaning alive in jazz, making Al Carmine’s art sing here.  When others threw the word “sacrilege” around, Judson used its meeting space to talk of drama, sex, suicide, Aids, needles and prostitution.   

Judson’s former minister, Howard Moody, founded Clergy Consultation, which helped women get safe abortions.  In that same period, a health van circulated in the village to help prostitutes and others get health care.  Judson was early in affirming what main stream Christianity is just now getting around to noticing.  While issues of homosexuality and poverty rock the churches, Judson relies on its history and tradition.  These are traditions of innovation and of “firsts”; they are also in the classic Judson style of incubations and midwifery.  Judson continues its mission of doing what others won’t do.  It follows its other famous pastor, Al Carmines, in an ongoing support of emerging artists. Bailout Theater and Magic time, as well as the gym at Judson, express the best of Judson’s fusion of the arts, politics and spirituality, all based in a self-governing congregation of real people who provide mutual care for each other.   We say we are the perfect church for imperfect people.  We also taught Italian immigrants not to use garlic in cooking.  “Un-american,” we said, in a weaker moment.

I keep these pots well stirred as my main job.  I also visit with people about life and death, sickness and health, jobs, jobs, jobs.  I do a couple funerals and a couple weddings a month.  I preach a sermon almost every Sunday.  I build teams of leadership and manage a staff of 7.  I always have something really useful to do.  I love my work.  I love my people.  And I can’t believe I get paid as well!

My work is advocacy of the rogue and the renegade.  I work at it seven days a week in a rogue and renegade way.



Shopping as a Moral and Environmental Complexity.  

It is possible that not shopping is the most environmentally moral thing to do, which is to say not to do. It is also possible that most of us spend a good bit of time shopping. Shopping is the exchange of money for goods. Sometimes, though, shopping is just the exchange of money for things, some of which are good and others of which are less good. A good or a thing is not good in and of itself. It is good according to the amount of distance it had to travel to get to you and you had to travel to get to it.


That tent I bought at the last minute at Wal-Mart’s on a rainy Memorial Day weekend was surely good when the rain poured down on the 32 people I had invited to my back yard for my husband’s 65th birthday party. I realized that Friday afternoon that rain was forecast for the Saturday of Memorial Day at nearly the exact time that my guests were arriving. I went “on line” and tried to rent a tent. I was too late for a rental. Duh. I went “on line” again and discovered that the kind of tent I could have rented for 125.00 (had I been better organized weather wise speaking) was on sale for $99.00 at Wal-Mart in Fishkill. The location, as many of you know, is on the dreaded Route 9, which not only involves driving but also involves traffic, especially on a Friday on a holiday weekend. Thus I added my car’s idle to my not idle pursuit of protection for my party from the rain. It took me two hours to make the trip from Hopewell to Wal-Mart’s, in and out, including the idle. At Wal-Mart’s I found the tent quickly enough but did not find an attendant to help me carry it out quickly. When I finally did, the gentleman was most helpful. I wondered how he could be so cheerful making the lowest possible hourly wage at a big box store. But he was both cheerful and helpful.


I had never been to a Wal-Mart’s before. I have my reasons. They have to do with whole cost accounting, an environmental concept that comes from the Pope’s assertion that the economy and the environment are nested and from a Canadian named Hazel Henderson, who insists that we look at the whole journey of a thing to us. Wal-Mart’s pays people too little, giving me a non-bargain. I am a part of them. There is indeed no them, economically or ecologically. There is only a we. Whole cost accounting also addresses our carbon footprint. I don’t know where that tent was made or who made it. I don’t know if they were paid well or not. I do know that the tent came in a big truck and was probably assembled in China or somewhere equally far away from Route 9 on Fishkill. It had a big carbon footprint, in the same way that I increased mine by driving to purchase it.


In order of ascendancy, shopping is probably best done infrequently. Then again we can only grow so much of our own food. When done, though, shopping bargains are not necessarily bargains. Sometimes the more expensive and delicious strawberry yogurt at Hawthorne Valley Farm is better than the Greek kind that comes from far away. Why? Because you can see the cows and the people who milk them at Hawthorne Valley Farms. There are no trucks involved, unless you drive all the way to Ghent and turn right.


Shopping is also well done when you attend the fourth annual Summer market June 25 and 26 in Hudson. You can find out more about all the beautiful things that are going to aggregate there under a tent at HUDSONRIVEREXCHANGE.COM for more information. Of course, the closer you live to Hudson, or the more stops you make on your way, the better. Yard Sales join thrift stores in being morally excellent forms of shopping. You can also pick your own strawberries on the way, unless you get too diverted by too many yard sales. What’s good about a yard sale? The goods you buy are more good, meaning better, because they already paid their carbon footprint and somebody carried them physically out of the garage or cellar. In terms of whole cost accounting, they excel at being low priced forms of personal entertainment. Yes, sometimes we shop for entertainment too. Fun is a part of shopping’s moral quotient.


My tent needs a moral check-up. Now that I have it, and it is safely put away in my garage, I guess I’ll just have to throw more parties on rainy days. Or give somebody a real bargain at a yard sale in a decade or so.

Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust: September 21 People's Climate Hopes

Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust


The Climate Change March on September 21 intends to be the largest one in American History. I have so many hopes for the march that I hope I won’t sink it! I hope for a huge new investment in renewable energies and a cessation of investment in the dead ways. I hope for a resacralization of the desacralized, which includes the shale and the seeds, the water and the air and you and me. I hope Americans will come to see our place in nature as much as now see our place in history. And I also hope for a renewal of the way we die, right down to the words we use.


Consider one example of change that comprehends the entire agenda above. I’ve been saying “Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust” at funerals I officiate for the last year or so. I have been astonished at the response. It is pervasively positive. The language just slipped out of me after I watched Carl Sagan’s show Cosmos light up the night sky. Cosmos reminds us that everybody who ever was is already up there overhead, blinking. When we die, we become a star. Why use the word “dust” when “stardust” binds our genome to a biological evolving eternity? Why frack when we can use sun or wind? Why stop when you can continue, even if in another form or way?


A renewable and renewing imagination need not start with the material, although God knows we have to do something about how gassy we have become. It can also start with spiritual practice and spiritual language. Spiritual practices are more like solar energy than anything else. They shine. They are an energy that creates more energy. Like solar, many people think they can’t afford the long-term investment. Thus we stick to electricity or Lent or Sundays or candles. And of course, these spiritual surrogates are terribly, dangerously fragile. They are lightweights in a time when we need weight bearing spiritual practices. Those who can’t pray or renew or see will find somehow that they wish they had thanked or relaxed or seen. Those who think they die as dust will soon realize how much more fun it is to die as stardust. Plus, dying is one of the greenest activities of all. We recycle and compost our very selves


Prayer and meditation are emphatically renewable energy. They change us. They also change the Way of us, our habitat, our soil, our environment, our cosmos. Similarly, changing the language of a memorial is a spiritual practice. In changing the spiritual, we give the material a way to change. Spiritual practices are things that people use to be spiritual. They practice, as in rehearse, the way we want to be and reflect the best way that we are. The words “Best practices” don’t apply only to the workplace.


A spiritual practice is a deepening of the always and the everyday. It is washing the dishes as though you liked to or flossing your teeth as though you loved your teeth, rather than just keeping the dentist from guilt tripping you. A spiritual practice is also pretty much anything that tussles with the pragmatic and takes pragmatism into something deeper than its obvious and worthy utility.  Watch out dust. You are on your way out.


Practice is not the opposite of pragmatic so much as its underwear, what you wear close to your skin. Spiritual practice knows what ashes to ashes, stardust-to-stardust means.


Lots of people turn spiritual practices into confections. They are not confections. They are defections, when we disrupt the normal absurdities on behalf of the deeper absurdities. In those deeper absurdities, truth is lurking, with a patch on its eye. Or a star’s twinkle, high above us.


Maybe my hopes for September 21 are too small, not too big, especially if the energy we need is right here in prayer and in the stardust.

A Prayer of Thanks for Grand Central Station on its Centenary

Olive Ayhens' ONTIME / Grand Central Great Designer, we give you thanks for the Beaux in the Arts, the clock in the center, the station grand and central by design, the tick of the clock rushing us to track 19, leaving no time to buy a Zabar’s or an oyster or a slush.  We give you thanks for large visas in crowded places, for the way Apple has snuck its logo into a logo free place, causing us to admire that massive energy that made way for trains.

For the 100 years of the grand centralizing station, and all the people we have met under its clock, we give you thanks.  So often our prayers are pastel with nature.  Today we thank you for the black and grey of industry within industry within industry, for the lanyard of it  and the way we coil to make our train and uncoil when we have made it.  So many things are made small by what they exclude and separate.  Thank you for letting the grand and central Includer continue to gather and connect.  Thank you for the grand in the grand. And get us to our next train with time to spare. Amen.

Aging and Seeding and Seasons

  Aging and Seeding and Seasons

As I age, I want to notice what I think I have already seen.  As the planet ages, I want us all to notice what we think we have already seen.  Otherwise, we go to seed without seeding.

Once, I saw the deep blue wine berries of fall differently than I had seen them before.  Often considered a weed, they are blousy and fat, dominating and unplanted.  They look like those shelves in antique stores where blue glasses and vases and pitchers cling together for color.  They have a way of getting whatever nourishment they need wherever they are.  More leaf than berry, you have to sleuth the blues.  They self-plant and self-seed, the way Vandana Sheva says Indian women did before Monsanto tried to criminalize their sustainable skills.  The same weekend I had seen fall watercress in the market.   I hadn’t seen watercress for years, not since one Pennsylvania dawn when the green challenged the white snow on the ground. I realized that I know joy in the morning and the watercress, the weeds and the blues.  When I give myself the time to to notice what I have already seen, I often get to the refreshment stand, where I can drink gladness without paying for it.  The green of watercress and the blue of wine berries may be all I need to remember.  That plus my time and place, my here and now, my then and again.


So many of us have spiritual Alzheimer’s. Many of us fear we are the last generation, with the last seed.  We remember when the mail came in envelopes or you had to get up to change the TV channel. We even thought of eventually writing a memoir.  Then Arianna Huffington announced she doesn’t want to write a memoir because dead people do them.  And Momofuku adds, “Memoir is written from leather armchairs with scores settled.“


When blue wine berries and green watercress can still surprise us, we aren’t dead and our scores aren’t settled. We are just saving our seed.  I may be 66 but I am an early feminist.  I may be an aging hippie but I prefer the title Senior hippie.  I was well advised to tell my grandchildren to call me Bubbe instead of Grandma. “Grandma” would make me feel old, “Bubbe” would amuse me.  You get my drift, coded in apologies for having gotten old while I wasn’t looking.  I still want to be the next Verlyn Klinkenborg.  I want his perch as a country writer to whom city people listen.  Or to be the chaplain at Google and let them know how much pastors know about privacy and confidentiality.  I want to retire without becoming retiring, age alert to blues and greens.  I want to know season as well as a fall wine berry does.  I want to emerge from the cold with the courage of the water’s cress.  I want to be able to remember without distortion and to save seeds, knowing one time and place is always yielding to the next.


Mass, Communion, Power and Nuns

Jesus at Table  

I read something about transubstantiation in the New York Review of Books. Transubstantiation is the idea that Jesus is real in the mass, substantially, and that a kind of magic happens in the mass, performed by a priest, that changes bread and wine into Jesus.   The NYR article was part of a review of Gary Wills new book, Why Priests: a Failed tradition“, A Challenge to the Church,” by William Pfaff, May 2013.   It got me to thinking.  In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it.


First of all, it is unlikely that the mainly secular readers of the New York Review are interested in Jesus.  They may be interested in food and table but not in Jesus. Second, how come we are still battling the Aristotelian notion between the substance and the accident of things and the Augustinian notion of the mass as something that originated in a leaderless communal meal?  What are these two guys doing out of their pen or with their pens? Why would we have to fight about Jesus?  Or tables?  Or meals?  Third, how come the Protestant ordination I participated in last weekend ended up with a communion meal, with the new ordinands serving up bread and wine as though it were a really big thing, now that they were truly empowered to do it.  Fourth, how come I don’t value more that power in my ordination?  For almost forty years, I have been presiding at communion tables.  I never experience Jesus and always experience the memory of Jesus and the presence of his spirit.   Why do I confuse the table with the table, the meal with the meal, the bread with the bread, the wine with the wine, Jesus with Jesus?  Am I am accident or a substance here?  Or just ordained into the “consubstantiation” tradition, the one with less magic attached to it?


How come I just can’t get into the fight about the power to preside at the table?  How come I’d rather have a holy meal, sometimes in diners and sometimes in churches?  How come I’d rather eat with nuns (those who have adamantly no power to preside) than with priests (those so adamant about their power to preside)?


I can defend my naïveté or simplicity (choose your category) by remembering the original definition of “Presider.”  It is one who literally stands in front.  “Proestos” is the word.  When a person gives a meal to someone else, of course there is power present.  The power to cook, to clean it up, to make it good, to not overdo how you cooked it, cleaned it up, made it good.  Standing in front is what priests do but seriously, why over do it?  Especially in the name of Jesus who took understatement to new heights.  Jesus, for me, refused certain kinds of power, the over against and “top” kind, on behalf of other kinds of power, the with kind and the among kind.  I like to enjoy a meal with him.



  Patterns and the Landscape


My favorite book is called A Pattern Language: Towns Buildings Construction.   Published in 1977 by Oxford University press, for architects and designers, it argues a Western version of Feng Shui.  What is around us matters.  If a house has a window seat in it, that will matter to the psychology, spirituality and freedom of the inhabitants.  If a room has windows on more than one side, energy will flow through it.  If a room has only one window, energy will get stuck there.  My friend just said she’d rather have an office with a window than a raise. I understood.  She inhabits her office, and inhabitant is a wonderful word.  She is the one who dwells there.  She is the one who habits there.  She wants the energy to flow.  She wants to be comfortable there.


Many us have become patterned to discomfort.   We imagine the commute will be rough.  Traffic, we say, what else is new?  We imagine that there will be a Starbucks and a Subway on every corner, and guess what, there is.  I often wonder what has happened to our sensibilities so stoned are they by similarity.  I wonder what happens to stuck energy in a cubicle where the air can’t find a place to inhabit or circulate.


A drive through my beloved South Carolina long ago patterned me profoundly. I went to pick up my deceased father's car and to deliver it to my son in Connecticut.  I was practically in tears the whole time; the tears were not just for my father. I had been so looking forward to getting the car.  The year was 1997.  I took the train down and was going to drive the car slowly back North.  I was on a sentimental journey, and I intended to inhabit it. I wanted something like an energy exchange, as well as a car exchange.  I wanted to inhabit the grief of losing my father, through his car, with windows on all sides.  I wanted to inhabit the way life goes on by driving South to North to give my son my father’s car.


The car still had the red soil of the red clay on it.  There was something living about my father and his last car.  For moments I could sense his smell in it.  But then as I drove up 301 and gave myself the gift of the back way, I realized I couldn't really tell where I was.  Everything was the same, even back then in 1997.  Every corner.  Every traffic light.  Every strip mall.  My eyes began to hurt.  My heart hurt.  There were no watermelon stands.  There were no silly signs, advertising "home cookin'."  The landscape had become another pattern.  It was McDonald’s, Burger King, Hess Oil, Seven-Eleven, and “Comfort” Inn, stripped into malls, stripped into mall after mall of franchises.  They frightened me.


I know many of these "fast food" places and "fast sleeping" motels are franchised.  They aren't completely owned by the Great Discomforter.  I want to try to like them.  I certainly don't want nostalgia, for my father, his car, the red clay, to get in my way of being a MODERN person.


On the other hand, I need help.  I need a window seat on the future.  I need to be comforted by the land and its pattern.  When blight blights our spirits as well as our roads, and our energy gets stuck in cubicles stripped of energy, forced into conformity, that wonderful word that means ONE FORM, something happens.  It is not good for us or for the land or for the great energy in the land.


What could be different?  We could insist on different food at each exit, in each “service” “center.”  Spanish at Exit 17, Lithuanian at Exit 18, Brazilian at Exit 19.  We could have hostels and hotels, B and B’s and camping sites.  All overnight lodging need not be in the same box or serve the same waffles.  And if we can’t find these patterns patterning us to wholeness on the main highway, we’re just going to have to go deeper into the back roads and sleep overnight in our father’s cars, while hoping for a better life for our sons.


In Praise of Renee's Garden Seeds

I hope you know Renee and her seeds.  Located at 6060 Graham Hill Road in Felton, California, or on line at, she has the best lettuces anywhere.  I highly recommend the Jade Gem container lettuces.    The sunflowers aren't bad either -- bright bandolier and cinnamon sun both worked very well in Fishkill last summer.  This year I am going to try sun Samba and sunzilla.  But I want to reserve my highest praise, my A Plus, for Mrs. Scott Elliot columbine seed.  For years I had looked to replace the columbine I had seen at the International Culinary Institute in Hyde Park.  It was tri-color and had a flirtatious nature that required me to return to steal seeds at the right moment in late August.  Those seeds didn't work much to my irritated sadness.  BUT then I ordered Renee's.  They not only took, even in my shady window in my New York office.  I nursed them along all winter with ice cubes to keep the city dryness from devastating them.  They grew  and grew and grew and now I have six plants upstate and three in containers downstate.  Our flirtation is not over but just begun.  Columbine is particularly fertile when it gets going.  I am so grateful for Renee and her profligate seeds.

Airplane Food

There is a moment that comes at 30,000 feet when your stomach requests assistance.  Usually this happens about five minutes after your back has requested the same.  You remember that you have brought frozen black bean soup from the freezer.  You thought it would thaw and be good cold, even without the Mexican cream and chopped chilis it so richly deserves.   You thought you could get it frozen through the Homeland Insecurity Department. You have also brought a spoon, and remember the time you forgot the spoon and the flight attendant allowed you to use hers.  As you fondle the spoon, you realize something else.  Plastic freezes and cracks at certain altitudes, rendering the plastic bag in which the cracked container was housed to be full of black bean soup.  The container has had its limit.  As has your back.  And your stomach.

That's when you ask for the airline "menu."  You order the roast beef sliders with the package of horseradish sauce that requires your seat mate's hands, and a pair of pliers,  to open.  There are two "sliders", slider being a word for a small sandwich.  A very small sandwich.  Both sandwiches appear wearing a "bun" that should have stayed in the freezer.  You say a small prayer of thanks for what there is, which prayer refrains from mentioning what isn't.

Ending the Year in Circles

The Japanese restaurant on the corner of 21st and Geary in San Francisco has a labyrinth at its center. By labyrinth I mean something that circles and confuses beginning and end. On the circling, revolving tray: sushi wearing designer clothes, salmon eggs wearing seaweed outfits, octopus in a variety of sartorial predicaments and much much more. Think Horn and Hardhart. If you wanted something, you grabbed it off the circling cart. Your check was made out by the collection of plates next to you at the end of the meal. A Mexican woman wearing a Japanese cloak joined a Japanese man and woman wearing same to replace whatever you took, in such a way that the circle was always full, never empty. For a new year with such convenience, such amplitude, such fusion of culture, such deliciousness of bite, I pray. For such a small check at the end of such a large meal, I also pray. For a new year that confuses its end with its beginning, likewise, I hope.

Scavenging What Others Leave Behind

I have had my eye on those five mums in Brooklyn on the street near 7th and 5th for about two months now.  One, in her prime, was golden, the other red, a third gold and red, a fourth a kind of purple and the fifth a plain old mauve, the kind I already have.  Then on Christmas Day, I realized they were still there, dead in that way that mums die after blooming: dry, all color drawn, half green and half brown.  We were coming back from the park, letting our three year old grandson lead the way home.  (He does know his way.)  I decided they were orphans and that I could take them.  Now they are in my New York backyard, ready for their Easter.  I hope the mauve surprises me enough to help me give thanks for the colors I already have. 

Funerals and Food

Yesterday at Judson, where we have a kitchen for a whole church that is smaller than most bathrooms in most houses, we fed close to 400 people.  The Rev. Howard Moody's long ministry was being remembered.  35 years is a long time to do anything!  The sandwiches were pear and turkey with a near pesto sauce as well as bacon crisps and apples.  They were a nice size, giving a near lunch to people after the 11 a.m. service.  What was remarkable was all the leftovers.  People brought other trays to pass, trays of hulled strawberries and sliced kiwis.  And they chipped and dipped, and chipped and dipped some more.  

So strange this week: a storm, an election, a memorial service.  Food, food, food.  Now all we have to do is figure out how to get rid of all of the bags of chips left behind  (I counted a dozen at last survey) and get them to the Rockaways, where some one might enjoy them, as opposed to wondering what to do with them.  Famine, feast, surplus, leftovers.......all among us now.