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Striving for ‘The Kingdom on Earth:’ From Minority Issues to United Humanity

On Sunday after the service at Middle Collegiate Church we walked with Reverend Sekou, the pastor of Social Justice, to help distribute food with the ‘Butterfly Project,” a feeding program for homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. As we handed out bagged lunches to people sitting on benches in the park, a young man approached the reverend and said that he needed to talk. He had just turned 18 and was living in the park with his uncle, he said. He was of Latino decent with a sad expression and condoms sticking out of his pocket. The ‘uncle,’ wearing brand new sneakers and a slick look, could possibly have been his pimp.  Sekou walked back to Middle to talk with Heather Juby, pastor of care and psychologist who offers free counselling and connects people to services. Soon Sekou returned to Tompkins's Square and took the kid to the church to see Heather. 

A hot meal, some new clothes, and 60 minutes later he left the church again. Middle could take him to a youth shelter, but as the kid had been beaten up and abused in several shelters he blatantly refused any talk about going back. 

“We lost today... We lost that kid today” Sekou concluded with great sadness in his eyes. The kid chose the street, even though he had the courage to reach out for help. The help society could provide for him had treated him worse than the street. This is just one story of the victims of social injustice living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the community in which Middle Church seeks to create community and nurture social justice. It is a challenge to seek justice when being part of an imperfect society. The kid we met on Sunday is back in the park doing whatever he can to survive. 

“In Middle you are welcome just as you are from the moment you walk in the door.”

So the saying goes at Middle Colligate Church on 7th and 2nd.  Their commitment to inclusiveness strikes you from the moment you take your first step up the stairs to the door. A mix of genders, classes, races and ideologies merge under one banner at Middle. You don't even have to be of a Christian denomination. Middle’s members identify as Atheist, Buddhist, Jewish, and spiritual as well as Christian. Racially they are Caucasian, Afro-American, Latino, Asian and various mixtures of all of the above. Homeless people sit beside professors from Columbia University and transsexual and gay women and men find a safe place to worship. All together they sing in the gospel choir. If you come Sunday morning you will witness a diverse but unified congregation. 

Behind Middle’s inclusive approach to theology and community is his strive towards a “Heaven on Earth.” It is believed that Heaven will not be segregated but rather a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic celebration. Middle strives to achieve this diversity here on earth, in preparation for heaven to come, through their active engagement in creating a diverse and multi cultural community, and at the same time also attempting to pursue social action, fighting for social justice. 

One could call Middle a church of exiles, since many of its members have experienced rejection from the traditional church. Their doors are open for those who have not been included or well treated elsewhere. But the church is not content to create a separate society for these exiles, but seeks to bring them to a place of wholeness in their own identity through the community of this congregation.

Community is taken seriously at Middle, where groups like the gospel choir, become almost familial. Equally significant is the call Middle feels to engage in social action. Yes, you are accepted as you are from the moment you walk through the door. Now the focus must turn outward, as the church seeks to become a force for social change and an advocate for minority rights in the lower East Village.
Fostering Diversity
The continuation of diversity is an important consideration for Middle. The United States of America appreciates diversity and even assumes that it is part of her national identity. However, accepting diversity as a fact is very different from actively fostering diversity in the most intimate spheres of life. The reality is that while America may be a diverse society, the most intimate circles of acquaintance are still largely of our own race and class.

Dr. Martin Luther King once labelled Sunday morning as the most racially segregated hour of the week. He asserted that segregation in churches is an un-Christian idea because ‘in God’s eyes, we are all equal’. In 2002, Sociologist Michael Emerson estimated that the racial, not to mention sexual segregation had barely changed. Only 5.4% of US churches can be characterized as racially integrated, meaning that no one group constitutes more than 80% of the congregation. All of this despite the call of leaders like King for integration. "If you go back historically, the leaders of denominations have been denouncing racism and separation for at least 100 years, and the people in the pews have been ignoring those pronouncements for at least 100 years,” he wrote. 

The US is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and New York City one of its most diverse cities, but strangely enough the ever-increasing diversity of this nation along with its steady increase in religiosity does not seem to integrate on the Sunday mornings. 

What is the cause of this trend? “Some of it has to do with roots. Churches hope to attract the people in their communities. If the communities are segregated the neighborhoods will be segregated,” says Danita Branam, ex-chair of the board of Middle Church, now a volunteer carrying the exotic title of Middle’s ‘Vision Bearer’. “In New York, the pubs are more segregated than in England”, she continues, meaning that people still spend their leisure time with those of their own race. Even though you see all kinds of people in the subway and on the streets, most will get off at their own borough, a segregated neighbourhood with its own culture, race, or class. Separation is still a reality in this diverse nation. 

Embracing diversity theoretically is not a challenge. Creating a diverse community is. Middle seems to have found something that works. Its location on the Lower East Side certainly holds significance due to the long history of immigration and constant transition in this area, along with the diverse nature of its current community. Like every other neighbourhood struggling with gentrification, the East Village is changing. The average rent is now $2.000 a months. Still Middle's congregation houses people from every corner and class. Middle seems to have filled the need for an all-inclusive church that will make people travel from all over the city.  

But what is it that causes this church to succeed where so many have failed before? “Maybe it’s just that we’re open and welcoming”, the Vision Bearer answers with a smile. There may be some truth in that churches are not always the most accepting and open places. Often minorities get caught on the borders of two communities, shunned from churches and not accepted in the society they have come from. This has specifically been the case for sexual minorities, homeless, and the very poor, but holds true for other minorities trying to integrate into segregated churches as well. 

Middle, in contrast, is strongly characterized by ‘misfits’ in what the Pastor of Social Justice calls: ‘A church of exiles’.  There is a strong gay population represented, recovering alcoholics, and many others who have struggled on the margins of society. Significantly, Middle speaks to all. One doesn’t have to be of a minority group to be accepted but these groups have found in Middle safe space that is more the exception than the rule, even in a city as diverse as New York. 

However, difference is not ignored. As Danita says, “The fact that Brad [Motta our education pastor] is open about his gayness helps. The fact that Jacqui [Lewis, our senior pastor,] is able to say, “I’m black.” To say there are cultural characteristics. Let’s not deny that. Let’s work with that.” When a conflict arises in the church, it is addressed. Jacqui will push the issue until the deepest conflict comes to the surface. Often it may be an issue of race or difference. With that on the table, those involved can deal with the struggle of being an integrated church without shame.
Lived Theology
Although Middle is a haven for the marginalized this church has something bigger in mind: a community where everyone is on an equal playing field, where true conversation can begin, and where people can be seen as human beings before they are seen for their sexuality or ethnicity. Senior pastor Jacqui Lewis seeks to achieve this equality through what she calls “Border Theology.” Every person, she says, lives on the borders of several identities. From the homeless black teen to the rich white man on Wall Street, everyone is an outcast on some level because no one is simple enough to fit into a stereotyped box. Therefore, everyone experiences the pain of being an outsider on some level and the conversation, then becomes one of shared humanity, common struggle, and a quest for justice for all. “We are advocating for justice by bringing down the walls that divide us. Middle speaks to wounded people with no class, race, etcetera,” says communications pastor Scott Cocker.  

Unlike many churches in which theology becomes an ideology divorced from the actual practice of the church, Middle constantly strives to achieve a theology that is lived out. Middle’s goal, Cocking says, is to integrate theology into the everyday so it is lived out rather than spoken about. “Our theology is in our action.” He says. “We do not theorize, we act.” 

Through this lived theology the walls of difference and bias that separate people to achieve true equality within the church. It harkens to the passage in the Christian bible in which says, “Among you there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28).”

Middle church is looking outside of its walls to make itself a relevant force within its community. The staff of Middle spends their days on the street in front of the church, patronizing various sidewalk cafes and talking to people who walk past. This physical being with the community is the basis for a theology and a church that grows out of the community of the East Village. Rather than imposing a form onto the community the church has responded to the needs of its neighbors. This is a continuing challenge that forces the church to continue to shift and change. As the neighborhood gentrifies, the members of this church are coming from greater distances and the community surrounding the church begins to be a population with different needs. 
The Gospel Choir: Living the Good News
Time and again in our interviews, Middle’s staff reflected on their gospel choir as a microcosm of Middle’s diversity. Choir members are homeless, upper middle class, HIV positive, gay, straight, Black, Asian, White, artists and unskilled workers. At their head is John Del Cuarto, a charismatic choir leader with a powerful voice and a deep love for his singers. John pastors his small community, requiring much of them musically and personally. The result is a diverse and dynamic group of “feisty” singers who, as John says, “overcome.”

Always at the forefront of the conversation is that the choir is inherently a ministry, both to its members and to its audience. The choir is full of hurting people, yet they sing with a spirit of liberation, healing, self-expression, unconditional love and joy. Healing is a focus of the choir, but John also hopes the choir offers a challenge and a chance to move beyond healing into the world again. Many people do move on. Some may always struggle, but the wounded that come to sing find something powerful at work. The choir becomes more than therapy. It becomes a ministry.  

As John himself says, “Some people come for therapy, yeah. You can come in for therapeutic reasons, but you’re also stepping into my picture of the ministry. You must make the choice to become a partner in this ministry. I will bring you across that line. I will work with you. I need people who will be accountable and invested in this ministry. With all of the commitment required from being in the choir it will become more than therapy or you won’t be here.”

John’s vision for the choir is lofty – a world-class ministry. In his one year with the choir they have begun to tour, make appearances on television, and rehearse as a professional choir. We watched them record a spot for Good Morning America. As their media exposure increases, he hopes that they will be able to control their image in the media. He wants them to be represented as the diverse, open, tolerant group that they are. As he says, the gospel music genre is full of closeted gay men, because homosexuality is not appropriate in the gospel music industry. The Middle Gospel Choir is full of openly gay men, who are able to speak out about their full identity. Gospel music, John says, is about self-expression, and it is extremely powerful for these gay men to express this part of themselves through song. 

While choir members may not be the most technically trained or have the greatest talent, whatever they have they give to the fullest extent of their abilities. Because of the Church's strong community and unity, their choir sings with a unique power, passion and a vulnerability that is rare to behold. Their openness gives their audience the freedom to be themselves, to see themselves. The choir sings always in the context of ministry and service. Through their music they see themselves always as serving others.
Gene's Story
You can’t help but notice 48 year old Gene Maupin if you spend much time around Middle Church. With a large smile, gregarious personality and edgy sense of humor, he is one of the many characters that fill Middle’s Gospel Choir.  Like many at Middle, his story is marked by more pain and rejection than joy. 

“Sometimes I’m at a loss for words. I think I’m still a little brain-dead from all of this. I live in a fairy tale world. The movies I like to watch are fairy tales because I don’t want to see real life.

I had my first gay experience at the age of 7. When I was 11 my mom realized I was gay. She was beating me, telling me it was wrong. She hated me because I looked like my father. She died when I was 12.

My sister’s a gospel singer. She had a life and her boyfriend didn’t want me in the house because I was gay. I was living in an old apartment alone. I didn’t eat for 5 days. I hid in my bunk bed with no food, in my own feces and urine hoping God would take me now. She finally put her husband in jail for abuse and came and got me. 

After a few months I ran away, took my sister’s dress and wigs and stuff, and I dressed up and went to 41st street and 2nd Ave and started selling my body. Even on my off days I wore fake bras and wigs, so no one knew I was a man. I started struggling with depression at a young age. I was learning the tricks of the trade, but I was still dumb. One of my runs out on the street I got busted for prostitution. They sent me to Jennings Hall, a boy’s shelter. The counsellor there raped me in front of all the kids. After that, all the kids started raping me. I told another counsellor and they sent me to Seana House in Brooklyn. I was kinda hurting, but I learned how to deal with pain. That’s my life. 

Eventually my father came and got me. Living with my father I wasn’t a tramp. I was still a prostitute but a high-class prostitute. I called myself Gina.

I was still singing gospel.  I went to church to sing. I had a chance to be in a choir in a Manhattan church and go to a church in Brooklyn. Then the pastor of my church in Brooklyn asked me to come to his house and help him move boxes. When we got to his house he tried to tear my clothes off, telling me how much he loved me. That really messed me up and I couldn’t go back to church. After that I didn’t go to church. I tried once or twice, but the same thing happened. Once the pastor was telling me to lift my head up and praise God. I looked down and he had his hard on and was rubbing against my leg. That set me off again.

My father died when I was 30. I got busted for prostituting and drugs 2 times in a row and they sent me to Sing Sing. There a guy cut me across the face because he said I’d given him HIV. I was working in the kitchen. My friends made me supervisor, the other inmates were jealous. I walked into the kitchen and 5 guys jumped me, knocked my head and raped me. I was already in protective custody. They put me in different protective custody. I started breaking out with bumps so I went to the Doctor. He told me I had the disease.”

“I was coming to Momentum at all these churches because I was HIV+. One of the girls, Devora, asked if I’d had singing experience. I said yes, and my sister’s cousin is Marvin Gay. When I first came they didn’t like me. Or I thought they didn’t’ like me. I’m very sensitive, and I don’t want to be around people who don’t like me. I told John and he told me to stick it out. “Gene, don’t run. Stick it out,” he said. It was hard to be here. Then people started hugging me, telling me how much they liked me. I went into the bathroom and cried for 20 minutes. I’ve always wanted them to like me.

This is an equal opportunity choir and I’m glad it is. I want everyone to sing. There’s an Indian guy in the choir and that’s very important because we’re an international choir. It’s our job to make him feel welcome. 

When people do something bad to you, you can be that person, or you can love them and you can be different. If you’ve been hurt you want everyone to like you but you don’t want other people to be liked. You’ll do anything to be liked, including excluding other people. 
When people do something bad to you, you can be that person, or you can love them and you can be different. “
Community and Social Action
“People don’t care what color you are when you’re playing an instrument.  It’s a good way to bring down those walls.” -Danita Branam.

Art continues to play a fundamental role in Middle's outreach and social interaction with the community. The church houses a great number of exhibitions and musical events. Among these is the gallery in the social hall, a scene that provides local artists an opportunity to show off their exhibitions. Sunday night is “Jazz on High,” free jazz at the church, and of course there is the multi-ethnic-sexual-cultural gospel choir and a beautiful classical choir. 

This Easter 'Jesus Christ Superstar' was a part of the service. A John Coltrane memorial concert is coming up and Middle's young (atheist) organ pianist, Cameron Carpenter, who designed the extraordinary electronic organ of Middle, will be giving concerts and exhibiting his creation.   

On a daily basis Middle reaches out into its community. Monday, it hosts the Momentum project – Celebration of Life, where food, a metro card and clothes are provided for HIV-positive people. Wednesday morning the Church gives out bags of food to primarily poor and elder Asian folks from Chinatown. Wednesday night is 'Soul Care,' a more intimate service for those with deeper spiritual and emotional needs.

Every Sunday after service the pastor of Social Justice and his volunteers walk Tompkins Square Park distributing sandwiches to the homeless, inviting them to church, and lending an ear to whatever might be needed. They call this “The Butterfly Project.” For ongoing needs the ministry of Care is available, providing free counselling with an onsite psychologist. 
Richard's Story
Momentum is a program for HIV positives that provide them a hot meal, a grocery bag, and a metro card, hosted by Middle every Monday evening. Every day they serve from 60-110 people, at a different borough in NY. 
The site at Middle was closed 4 months after 9/11 due to budget
restrictions. It was reopened in 2007 and we talked to Richard Graham on his perspective of Momentum.

“I think that this church is great. All the things they do are most needed. I lost my health insurance when I was fired from my work due to illness. I later found out that I was HIV positive. I was traumatized and for the first time in my life I did not know what to do. I had lost my job, insurance and my pension so my first thought was: Where is my next meal going to come from. You see I have always taken care of myself. That was how I was brought up. You don't ask for help.
You know, when I went to the social office, my social worker told me that I was too healthy to receive health care. Ha ha. I'm too healthy? Ha ha. Just because I can sit and walk.

I have always worked, paid my taxes and never asked of anything by the state. And than suddenly I'm too healthy? They are greedy, who are they even there for in the first place? My social worker told me about Momentum, so I went.

Here they are not afraid of us, like some people are in other churches. People need to be educated about HIV. People are so afraid to talk to their boss about this, because they fear that they will be sacked. It is a huge dilemma for people and I think in most cases people simply do not tell. That is also why you see different kind of people coming here eating. This is a free space. The most enlightening part about coming here is to sit down share a meal and just have a normal conversation and helping each other out.

I am not religious, never have been, and probably never will be. I'm more spiritual. I recognize that this church is special and enlightened in comparison to others. But coming here, eating here does not make people religious. However people do feel the openness and warmth of the church.  
Heaven on Earth?
“Our obligation is to be fully human. It is the role of the church to hold the government accountable, to defend the weak and defenceless. Whenever poor people are catching hell we are to defend them, speak for them and allow them to speak for themselves.” Reverend Sekou, Pastor of Social Justice.

While it’s true that Middle speaks for the weak and defenceless through its Border Theology it attempts to remove the focus from ‘minorities’ towards a ‘shared humanity’. As Middle has been successful in letting the world inside, its challenge is to move outwards to work for social justice. If it cannot do this, its’ ‘heaven on earth’ will only be a little bubble on the Lower Eastside.   

However, the church still runs up against a wall when trying to pursue social justice, as it is still a subset of the greater society. Sekou’s efforts with the kid from Tomkins Square Park show the will to act, however, the solutions society could offer had harmed the boy. Middle is confronted with something bigger that they cannot change: the state of the homeless shelters in New York. The hope is that as Middle has proved itself strong in breaking down walls between members of its congregation they might succeed in breaking systemic and institutional walls down as well. They are moving into a greater focus on this mission. 

Middle is in a transition stage. Who knows what the future will bring? When asked about the future of the church Sekou replies: “I want to create a Middle-Eastern mission at the church and lead mission trips to the African Union’s Diaspora meeting to South Africa and Ghana. In the future I hope to work with worker’s rights organizations to seek justice for low wageworkers. We hope to have a Queer drop in center opening soon and a house program for ex-cons. My dream for us is to create a parish ministry on the lower East Side and a global ministry of peace making and community development on the Lower East Side, particularly in Chinatown”

The road towards creating a ‘Heaven on earth’ is long, but Middle is courageously striding down that road and we wish the church luck as it strives for social justice.

References

Interviews and special thanks to:

− Scott Cocking, communications director at Middle collegiate Church.
− Danita Brenam, Vision Bearer and former member of the Middle collegiate Church board.
− Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, Minister for Mission, Social Justice and Community Action at Middle Collegiate Church
− John Del Cueto, Director MCJJ Gospel Choir/ Director for Children and Youth.
− Adriene Thorne, Associate Minister For Congregational Life
− Richard Graham  - Volunteer at The Momentum Project
− Eugene (Gene) Maupin – Volunteer in Middel Collegiate Church Gospel Choir
− Lisa Fenger – Volunteer in Middle Collegiate Church Hurricane Katrina outreach. 

Book:

− Gutierrez, Gustavo – “A theology of liberation” – Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 1973.

Articles:

− King, Martin Luther - “For all a non-segregated society” - Speech for National Council of Churches 4 September 1956.
http://stanford.edu/group/King/publications/papers/vol4/570210.001-For_All_a_Non_segregated_Society.htm 
− Blake, John - “Why many Americans prefer their Sundays segregated”  - 
Cnn.com/living. 
http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/08/04/segregated.sundays/index.html
− Banks, Adelle - “Americas Churches still largely segregated by race” - Baptist Standard, 29 April 2002 -
http://www.baptiststandard.com/2002/4_29/pages/segregation.html

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