Loving Thy Neighborhood as Thyself

A banner at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Manhattan says: “Love your neighborhood as yourself,” a sly variation on a biblical mandate that guides Pastor Heidi Neumark’s life.

In the changing neighborhoods of a changing America, it’s not an easy or frictionless task. It takes creativity and intentionality to bring old members and new immigrants together across language, culture, and class and still thrive as “one church.”

Under Neumark’s guidance, it’s working at Trinity church, 164 West 100th St., a small congregation that is 40 per cent white, 30 percent African American, 30 percent Hispanic.

“Any time you try to nurture a multicultural congregation, people imagine it will bring more problems – but in fact it is revitalizing,” she says. “The church finds ways to go deeper into its common life.”

Neumark is a pastor, writer, speaker, wife, mother, and advocate. Her empathy and imagination move to the rhythms of struggling people, vulnerable immigrants, and bible heroes who point a way forward through the uncertainty. She spent nearly 20 years as pastor of a South Bronx church, bringing it back from near-extinction, healing a community of abused women, drug abusers, gang members, and people with AIDS. In her 2003 memoir, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx (beacon Press), she writes: “When Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic and reformer, was seeking a structure for her treatise on prayer, she turned to the realm of architecture. Her book, The Interior Castle, traces a spiritual journey described as a progression through a series of mansions or rooms of a castle. When I first encountered this book in college, I aspired to follow Teresa’s path, but to this day have never reached the inner- most mansion of ecstatic rapture that seems as remote as some fairy-tale room of spun gold. Here in the South Bronx, I have traveled a different path. The only castle in the vicinity sells small, cheap hamburgers and onion rings. Nevertheless, like Teresa, we have engaged in an architecture of the spirit which has included construction with brick and mortar along with heart and soul.”

For the last five years Neumark has been minister at Trinity church, which has its own dramatic neighborhood dynamics – public housing on one side, plush apartments off to the south, and scattered, cramped housing nearby for undocumented immigrants.

The church, founded by German immigrants in 1889, has known turbulent periods of adjustment to the city’s changing demographics, but it has found ways to shape an identity of hospitality over the decades.

Today, the church is a welcoming congregation on many fronts (including its designation as a Reconciling in Christ congregation, extending a welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and couples as fully participating members).

But a challenge is to create unity despite language

barriers under its own roof. It has launched several initiatives to underscore that unity practically and theologically.

The church hosts separate weekly services in English and in Spanish, but nine times a year sponsors a single multilanguage service for everyone to attend. Over time, the congregation has learned a repertoire of bilingual liturgical songs, music that includes both English and Spanish lyrics. At special congregational dinners, translators are posted at tables so that English-only and Spanish-only speakers can converse. The church hosts occasions that match members one-on-one, with a translator, to get to know each other better.

Throwing in some fun doesn’t hurt. The church sponsors games like bible charades, which is played not with words but gestures, uniting people in the biblical stories they know together whatever the language barrier. by now the neighborhood is well acquainted with Trinity’s Palm Sunday outdoor processional, led by a mariachi band, and its mid-December Guadalupe celebration, which floods the sanctuary with blooming roses.

Neumark’s advice to other congregations learning to be more welcoming in an altered cultural landscape: “Help individuals get to know each other. Help them get over stereotypes. Get to know people in the neighborhood. Listen to what they have to say. Instead of telling people to come to church, tell them you’re there to learn about them.”

Neumark grew up in New Jersey in a Lutheran family of German Lutheran heritage. She eventually came to see the Jesus of the Gospels as a figure who fearlessly crossed borders to offer radical hospitality. She went to seminary at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, spending a year of study in Latin America. There, she encountered base communities in Argentina and a theological mentor in Peru, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez.

for decades now, Neumark has framed her work by looking for resurrection and hope in the experiences of poor people, and nudging churches to become emotional- ly open to the stories of people on the periphery. She takes inspiration from the immigrants and “resident aliens” in the bible itself – Abraham and Sarah leaving their land for a future guided only by faith; Moses the child stranger in Midian: Ruth a field-working migrant grateful for the gleanings left on the ground; Jesus and his family seeking haven and hospitality on foreign frontiers.

In Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (edited by Peter Laarman and published in 2006 by beacon Press), she reflects on her journey as a witness to the turbulence of these days and the bible’s unblinking clarity: “We don’t label our biblical ancestors as suspect strangers or terrorists; we honor them and love them as foremothers and forefathers of our faith. We regularly welcome them into our churches and homes. We hail their stories as holy and introduce them to our children and our grandchildren. but what if they appeared today? What would happen to Moses and his band at the Arizona border? Would Joseph have remained in detention until he was deported to perish with his family in the famine?”

–Ray Waddle