A Funeral Last Month

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by Bruce Main

I witnessed a funeral last month.

Fortunately it was not the untimely death of a teenager, another victim of a senseless shooting in our neighborhood. Those are always difficult: distraught parents, pastoral care to younger brothers and sisters, expressions of anger, and emotional services full of real tears.

Nor did the neighborhood matriarch "Mother" Brown slip away in her sleep to be with her Lord. I am glad. She monitors the activities of the children playing between 30th and 32nd streets. Her eagle eyes and drill-sergeant-like command keep the drug dealers off the corner and the potential of any chaos at bay. The day when the wicker chair at 3142 will sit empty is not something I like to ponder.

No, this was another kind of funeral – sadly overlooked or unnoticed by many of our neighbors and city officials.

Its absence from the obituary section of the local newspaper did not help, and seems a little odd for someone who fed more hungry people and hosted more potlucks, baptisms, baby dedications, prayer meetings, weddings, and funerals than anyone else in the neighborhood. Sure, a few of the faithful gathered to say their farewells, but those who had most benefited from her generosity should have showed up to pay their last respects.

I wish this dying saint could have spoken in her final days. Sadly, like so many in their waning years, articulating the past was difficult – plus there were not too many who wanted to listen. But the stories she could have told! After all, not many in the neighborhood survived the great depression, weathered the race riots of '68, fought the temptation to leave the neighborhood when the working class pulled up their stakes, housed protestors of the Vietnam War, hosted strategy sessions for school board reforms, and watched numerous generations of families come and go. This saint had been around the block more than once.

The pastor leading the sparsely attended service decided, inappropriately, to eulogize with the language of denial – you know, a sermon about resurrection and new life. "She's led a long life," he said, trying to convince the aged listeners not to be fearful about their own mortality, "We all know that death must come before new life. God is going to do something new in this community!" I agreed with the premise: old carcasses do need to be shucked so new life can be birthed. But the message was a stretch in this context. He should have just called it for what it was: A damn tragedy! An irreplaceable loss!

The good Reverend Rawley, the denominational bureaucrat from the head office, had been called in to conduct the last rites. ANY emotion – sadness, anger, frustration – would have been welcomed, but none was displayed. I can not blame him. One cannot allow oneself to become too emotionally involved in these situations. However, something a little more personal would have been more meaningful. Her former pastor could have provided this slant – a eulogy peppered with personal anecdotes, a quivering voice, and a deeper appreciation for her contribution in the community. This would have appeased our aching hearts. Unfortunately, the good Reverend retired a few years ago. Funding difficulties prohibited the church from replacing him. After Pastor Tom's departure it was all downhill. She never recovered.

Her health deteriorated…until last month. That is when Westminster Presbyterian Church, corner of 36th and Merriel (est. 1922), took its last breath and was declared dead.

Now all that stands on the corner is the granite shell of grander days – days when stained-glass windows illumined oak-trimmed sanctuaries, quarried stone blocks sheltered activities of spiritual growth and learning, heavy red doors welcomed those who passed by, and iron bells called community families to worship. But the bells have been sold, the stained glass removed. No doubt her organ is being auctioned on eBay.

I wish the death of Westminster was an isolated case – atypical, an aberration. But within the last few years, there have been other funerals in our city. Church of the Savior Episcopal shut its doors in January. The priest held a de-consecration service on the last Sunday. Can one extract the "holiness" from something after a hundred years of faithful service? But I guess it is in the prayer book.

Rosedale Baptist is up for sale. The denomination washed its hands of the building a few years ago, but it lived on as an independent. Even that brief resurrection has now run its course. Around the corner on 40th, Bethel United Methodist is on life support, hanging on by an endowment-fueled respirator whose principle is slowly eroding. More funerals are on the horizon.

Besides the grief of losing these neighborhood friends – friends who have served families faithfully in Word and deed – these deaths have created another, irreplaceable loss. The bridge between our poor communities and our centers for theological learning are becoming disconnected. That pipeline between the theological wealth and pastoral training of the Princeton Seminaries, the Asburys, the Unions, the Fullers, and the Yales is slowly drying up. Putting theological differences aside for a minute, I think most church leaders would agree that this disconnection will have tragic, long-term implications for both our poor neighborhoods and our seminaries.

Graduates from these seminaries once filled these pastoral posts, bringing with them the idealism, theological training and vision to meet the rapidly changing social and spiritual dynamics impacting a community in the throes of change. Interns from these seminaries performed their field education exercises in our parishes. Along with these young leaders came their ever-evolving ideas and their new-found theological influences – influences that had been discussed in their classrooms. John Howard Yoder, Jurgen Moltmann, Paul Tillich, Stringfellow, Rauschenbusch, Barth, Brunner, Gustavo Gutierrez, Jacque Ellul, and James Fowler were all authors I retrieved from the library before they were boxed and sent to Village Thrift. No doubt their ideas influenced decades of ministry. Whether it was new paradigms for community organizing, concerns for environmental issues, creative changes for Sunday morning liturgy, a commitment to expressing the earthly dimensions of God?s reign, or the impact of the social sciences on pastoral counseling, ideas from our seminaries found their way to the street through these neighborhood churches. These ideas may not have saved our churches, but the residual of these influences have impacted issues and institutions and programs within our city that, I believe, continue to positively impact the quality of life for our residents. Whether it was affordable housing programs or community organizing, neighborhoods have benefited from these theologically trained graduates over the years.

But the bridge is traveled in both directions. In addition to poor, urban communities benefiting from seminaries, our seminaries have benefited from having their graduates and students in under-resourced communities. Those Princeton interns took their struggles and questions back to the classroom – questions about corporate responsibilities, welfare reform, institutional racism, environmental issues, suburban/urban relationships – and challenged the theories and exegesis of their professors, providing a form of intellectual accountability.

Beyond the growing disconnection between these two institutions, there is a greater tragedy to note – the tragedy that these centers of theological training and inquiry will never educate kids from my neighborhood in their classroom. This notion should grieve those denominational leaders whose commitment to raising up leaders from poor communities goes beyond a few "minority" scholarships. This reality should trouble our seminaries who produce books about racial reconciliation, economic injustice, the urbanization of the world and uphold the words "a commitment to social justice" in their mission statement. Being concerned about percentages of people of color on campus is a misguided concern. A more relevant concern: Are there kids from our poor communities like Camden; North Philadelphia, Chester, East Saint Louis, and Flint in our classrooms? If not, why not? Somebody must start asking the question.

Perhaps naively, I have always imagined the local church as a sort of "recruitment center" for future pastoral leadership. I assumed that within the context of the local church young people meet ordinary folk who bear witness to the Good News of the gospel as their vocation. In turn, these relationships inspire young people to consider the pastorate as a viable and potential career. I am sure that most of us seminary graduates can probably point to a local pastor, a youth minister, or a Sunday school teacher who, at some point in our lives, influenced our vocational choice. At least that is my story.

But now the kids of East Camden walk past another ecclesiastical tombstone on their way to school. Sadly, our young people will never again walk through those big red doors and be greeted by men and women who have undergone the rigors of academic training for ministry and, in some way, bridge the gap between our city streets and our schools of theological training.

Another funeral indeed. A loss to our little corner of the world. A loss to the church of tomorrow.

Bruce Main is the executive director of UrbanPromise Ministries Inc. in Camden, NJ [www.urbanpromiseusa.org]. UrbanPromise is a non-profit organization that seeks to equip inner-city children and teens with the skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, spiritual growth and Christian leadership.

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