A Star in the East

The times they are a, well, you know—nobody wants to violate copyright.  In any case, nothing stays the same for long.  New York, for example, is a city in a constant state of transformation.  Fully grown buildings now stand where there were literally holes in the ground when I began working there.  One building near Times Square recently had a facelift that revealed the steel girders beneath.  On the I-beam were the words “Bethlehem Steel.”  And it’s not just New York.  Our cultural transformation has been taking place over the last few centuries as populations have moved to urban areas, abandoning farming to the few who remember how.  Being from western Pennsylvania, I pretty much thought the eastern part of the state was Philadelphia.  I’d heard of other urban regions, of course, such as Scranton and Allentown, but they were well outside my experience.  We didn’t get out much.

Now that I’m here in the eastern part of the state, I’m begun to explore the ever-changing micropolitan area of Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton.  The three cities blend at the edges, and this region is the third largest population zone in the state, after Philly and Pittsburgh.  It’s also the fastest growing region in the commonwealth.  I suppose we might’ve helped with that statistic.  The other day I had to run an errand in Bethlehem.  I pulled over to marvel at the hulk of what had once been Bethlehem Steel.  Now, I grew up in a town with an active steel mill, and Pittsburgh grew to fame for the same metal, but this was a behemoth of a plant.  Subdivided and open to development, it now houses a casino, in part, and an arts center.  And still there’s more space.

Bethlehem was founded on Christmas Eve by the Moravians.  Perhaps appropriate for a town trying to resurrect itself, Bethlehem calls itself the Christmas City.  Star imagery abounds, and many businesses name themselves with this Christian symbol.  The image is quite different from that of a steel city with hard-working men on the shift.  The grime and din of industry.  Bethlehem, like many places in the state, was named for its biblical forebear.  On my visit to the original Bethlehem many years ago I was, like many tourists, disappointed that it isn’t “O little town of” anymore.  There were people everywhere and it was difficult to imagine a quiet stable inside a noisy stone church thronging with the faithful.  Clearly things don’t remain unchanged for long, even in towns famous for their remoteness.  Although far from New York, they share a common heritage of people everywhere, and that heritage could bring us peace if only we would allow it.  The answer, it seems, is blowin’ in the, well, you know.

Jericho

Those who think walls actually keep people out have never ridden the train through North Philadelphia. Or into Newark. I have to admit that I’ve always found rail-side graffiti aesthetically pleasing. Some of these vandals are real artists on a scale that is truly impressive. Speeding trains are, of course, dangerous. And in urban areas they are fenced off to keep people out. Thing is, walls don’t work. Riding to Washington DC for the Women’s March a couple weekends ago, I was watching the graffiti on the way into Philly. Vast, colorful, and with a flair for design, it makes the usual visual fare for railway riders much more interesting. Buildings, we know, have facades to be public facing. If you go around to the back of the strip mall, things look a lot more spartan indeed. I’ve spent my fair share of time in employee break rooms. Executive washrooms they’re not.

The thing about facades is that they’re fake. Like in those old westerns where we see them jutting up higher than the actual roof of the store or saloon, making them look bigger than they really are. Or even a small town boy who works in Manhattan can see it. Walk down the avenues of Midtown and the glitz is never-ending. Once you get to the minor cross-streets you see the service entrances and smelly trash bags stacked in the alleys. Would you want to enter that store if you knew what was coming out the back? We prefer our self-deception. We prefer to call our lies alternative facts. We can sleep better at night that way, knowing that our heads of state are so so brutally honest. Just don’t wander behind the cameraman. Things aren’t what they seem.

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To get to New York City from where I live, you have to change trains in Newark. The graffiti along the way is intense. Long ago I noticed a signal hidden in the noise. “Paint the Revolution” it reads. Or read. I don’t know if it’s still there. Graffiti’s often the bare truth. The thing is, it’s difficult to photograph. Trains move fast and phones focus slowly. Things look blurry and those in power can tell us the words of hoi polloi are ugly and defacement of property. Have they ever walked behind the building to where the workers come out? It’s easy to find. If you smell the piles of garbage you’re getting close. Executive washrooms they’re not. But the back door is far more honest than any facade.

Can I Get a

Public restrooms have always made me uncomfortable. This has nothing to do with North Carolina. It’s more an issue of being raised to be ashamed of bodily functions and then trying to shift, as it were, in mid-stream. Coming back from the Women’s March on Washington (we have to keep talking about this to give us momentum to move forward) we had an hour layover in Philadelphia. I can’t walk into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station without thinking of Witness. Indeed, they were announcing the train to Lancaster on our layover. Then I realized coffee before a somewhat long train ride isn’t a great idea. As I headed to the men’s room I remembered what happened there in 1985. After all, with Trump in charge all kinds of carnage can be expected.

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Witness has a redemptive message. And maybe it’s a parable too. Anabaptists, such as the Amish, take their Bible seriously. Not being conformed to the world, but separating out from it is a kind of Protestant monasticism. Even those who can’t understand their lifestyle choices (so Republican in so many ways) admire their industry and care (so unlike Republicans in so many ways). The problem is, we can’t separate ourselves from the world any longer. We’re all Samuel staring out of that toilet stall. We have seen the truth and we feel vulnerable and violated and unsure of where to turn. When someone’s hurt they reach out to others for help. The others are the world. A community may be self-sufficient, but it shares the planet with aggressive others. You can never truly be alone.

The lifestyle of the mean and corrupt erupts into the calm, peaceful, and contemplative life of those who want to live simply and unmolested. Some mentalities—particularly capitalist ones—see the non-aggressive as chattels. Women, children, men who don’t fight, any minority—these can be exploited for one’s own grandiosity. We’ve seen that already in the regressive and repressive policies an illegally elected president has already started to enact. John Book is not going to come save us this time. We need to take the initiative to protect the way of life we simply wish to lead, without interfering with those who sadly believe money really means something. You and I, my readers, are witnesses. And like witnesses we have the responsibility to make certain that the world knows the truth of what we’ve seen.

Pope-ulation

My brother, who art near Philadelphia, recently told me that the City of Brotherly Love began towing cars from the no park zone a week before the Pope’s anticipated arrival. There are those apocalyptic concerns for the commute into New York City this week as well. Papal visits are always big news, but Pope Francis has captured the hearts of many, Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian alike, because of his obvious and sincere care for people. Mercy, kindness, sympathy, and empathy have long been overlooked in many organized religions, and to have the head of the largest Christian body in the world emphasizing just those things has been a breath of well, spirit. As our world has turned increasingly towards materialism fueled by a rationalism that says this physical world is all there is, a hunger has been growing. People need to be assured that there is some meaning in being people.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Theological purity is all fine and good, but it is only, literally academic. We send our clergy to seminaries to teach them to understand the rational part of faith. Many laity may not realize that a Master of Divinity is a three-year degree because it has to allow time for spiritual development. I was unlike most seminarians, having majored in religious studies. Coming into ministry from all areas of life—science, medicine, politics, business—many seminarians aren’t accustomed to taking school time to get in touch with their souls. It is a foreign concept in a world where we’re daily told we have no souls. Pope Francis is a pontiff with a soul. And the world has noticed.

We need those to whom we can look up. We need heroes not only of the action movie variety, but those of more human dimensions as well. Two of the most populous cities in the country are preparing for a kind of epiphany. America has long been a country of laissez faire ethics. Leave it alone and it will all take care of itself. We can all see through that. The northeast coast is bracing for a different kind of hurricane this season. It will mean traffic headaches, for sure, and no doubt many will be chagrined at all the fuss. Still, I have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a hopeful sign. Perhaps we have a need for religious heroes still, after all.

Year of Poe

Apart from sharing a “middle” name, I would never dare compare myself to Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, I dabble in the literary arts, but every acolyte recognizes a true priest when he sees one. So as my train pulled into Boston, a city that has deep emotional resonances for me, I decided to stop and see where Edgar Allan Poe was born. The actual site is now a parking structure, an unexpected parallel between our emerging universes. All of my childhood homes, with one exception, are now parking lots. Standing at the foot of the memorial plaque near Emerson College, I reflected on my Poe year. I visited his college room at the University of Virginia in February, his one-time apartment in Philadelphia in March, his burial site in Baltimore in August, and now his birthplace. Not in any chronological order, but a voyage of discovery nevertheless.

This is the essence of pilgrimage. It is not rational and not really practical, but it is something people do. With religious intensity. I am in Boston as part of my secular job, but the city has sacred associations for me. I met my wife here, and that single event has changed my entire life. Boston will always be the place where something extraordinary happened to me. Poe did not like Boston, but for me it is the eternal city. Even the places with negative associations stake claims upon us. Over the weekend a friend posted a picture online taken before combat forced his evacuation from Vietnam many years ago. I kept coming back to that picture throughout the day. Lingering. Staring. Even though I’d never been there, it was like place had the ability to haunt those who’d even dared to look.

Poe and my friend are both writers who’ve drawn me into their worlds. What better way is there to learn that the universe is indeed infinite? Looking out my window at a Kenmore Square I recognize only by the giant Citgo sign that shed its garish light on many an evocative student night, I realize even eternal cities change. The last time I was in South Station I was saying goodbye to the woman I hoped, but did not know, would become my wife. Almost as if on cue, ” Lola” by the Kinks spills out of a local store as the Citgo sign flickers to life over the scene of my coming of age. In Boston I will always be twenty-three, wars will be long over, and Poe will remain alive forever.

Help from the Friend

Being unconventional does carry certain risks. I first learned of the Publick Universal Friend, born Jemima Wilkinson, from Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America. There are many things, I imagine, worse in life than being labeled “occult,” but the Publick Universal Friend seems to have been more eccentric than occult. The “Friend” of her chosen moniker was a mark of her Quaker roots. The Quakers, while never among the most numerous of Christian sects, are infrequently considered occult. Two U.S. Presidents were Quakers, as is that friendly face smiling at you from your breakfast cereal box. What Jemima Wilkinson did that pushed her over the edge into the unconventional was actually the fault of her father: she was born female. In the 1770s religious leadership was nearly unanimously male. 

Wilkinson underwent a near-death experience that, like John Wesley some 70 years earlier, led her to believe that she was born to some higher purpose. Quakers, or Friends, generally eschewed excess showiness and the Publick Univeral Friend liked to make her presence known. She rode a white horse into Philadelphia and rode around in a carriage with her own logo, a kind of evangelical branding, if you will. Eventually tiring of the criticism of city folk (Publick Universal Friend was strictly platonic, advocating absolute celibacy), she moved to a region of New York that would eventually become the birthplace of several distinctive American religions. She settled near Keuka Lake and formed a community called Jerusalem.  New York and Pennsylvania would eventually harbor many utopian groups.  Both states were (and are, to a large extent) rural and it was a fairly easy matter to locate unclaimed real estate and establish a little bit of heaven here on earth. 

The message of Publick Universal Friend was peace and friendship, nothing too radical.  If preached by a male it would have been considered gospel. In fact, in a less darwinian world it might actually work.  The pull of nature on some people is too strong.  On others it is too weak. Maybe it is the legacy of having been born in a state that began as a “holy experiment” by William Penn, but I find it sad that the Publick Universal Friend has been nearly forgotten. Perhaps the Friend will have the final laugh. It seems that a young man named Joseph Smith might have been influenced by her in the days before writing up the Book of Mormon. As I’m sure Joseph Smith learned in the town of Carthage, we can all use a Friend who encourages us all to get along.

Sacred Philadelphia

What makes a space sacred? There is no agreement on that issue, but it is clear that considering a specific location numinous, holy, or just special is something that even the most secular do. We trek to the places where something happened, maybe hoping for a personal epiphany or enlightenment. So yesterday I found myself in Philadelphia on the trail of Edgar Allan Poe. Like some other famous figures of the past, Poe was essentially homeless—no place claimed him (though now many do). Several years of his short life were spent in Philadelphia, and only one of his residences still survives there. On a pleasant Saturday it was clear that many others were drawn to this sacred space on pilgrimages motivated by diverse needs and curiosities. My family has gone on literary trips for many years, visiting the places of writers—for, at the end of the day, every piece of sacred writ has a writer.

Poe's house on Spring Garden

I can’t recall a time, after I began to read, when I did not favor Poe. Like some other inspirational figures he lived a short life, frequently rejected by his peers. Sad circumstances haunted him and he expressed them so well. His was a rare gift. Standing in his Philadelphia house, I guess I might have been hoping that, on some level, he might know that his life had touched mine. We all seem to leave an intangible part of ourselves in places we have been. Even the hardest skeptic of the “paranormal” will travel countless miles to come to some location of significance. There is no logical reason to do so. It is perhaps the most human of religious impulses. I saw no specters, heard no ghostly voices. But I saw and listened and wondered.

Writing is among the canon of sacred activities. It is taking what is hidden safely inside the confines of our minds and offering the opportunity to others to read it. Frequently it is ignored, lost in the noise. Life is too busy to sit down and read unless some teacher or professor assigns a task with grade consequences. We miss, however, so many opportunities to explore the legacy bequeathed to us by great minds. Our lives are driven by economics, not enlightenment. Poe died poor and largely unmourned in Baltimore after having called many locations home. Those locations are now shrines. I suspect he may have been very surprised to learn that over a century and a half later some people would attempt to follow in his footsteps for what can only be described as religious reasons.