Sunday, December 13, 2020

Repairing the Devastation | Third Sunday of Advent

About a week ago, Middle Collegiate Church lost its physical home to a 6-alarm blaze. It took 8 hours to extinguish the fire, and the 128 year old building was left completely gutted. My first encounter with Middle Church was through Pub Theology. Within a year of moving back to the United States from Brazil in 2015, have ascended out of theism in late 2013, I was missing not so much the deity as the context of Christianity. Jim Keat was on the ministerial staff of Middle Church at that time, and he was running a Pub Theology group in a bar near the sanctuary. After work, once a month, I joined that little merry band of mildly inebriated lay theologians. That served as a point of entry to some visits now and then to Middle Church, including for their annual Revolutionary Love conference. In 2018 my teenage son and I marched with them in the Pride Parade. Such lovely people. The destruction of their beloved meeting place has been on my mind as I've reflected on the readings for the third Sunday of Advent.

"They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations." — Isaiah 61:4 NRSV

There were settlements in the area where modern-day Jerusalem stands as early as 3000 BCE. Despite famine, disease, and countless wars over the many centuries, human habitation of this place has been essentially continuous. Every time destruction came to the city, people rebuilt on top of the old. As a result Jerusalem is regularly giving up secrets to archaeologists. You practically can't put a spade in the ground without hitting history. There's a tenacity revealed in this long history that I think reveals how much this place has always meant to people. They found worth in the location, the history, and perhaps also the idea of Jerusalem. In this I think there could be a lesson for us today.

The Lenape Native Americans held Manhattan and environs for unknown generations before Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano became the first documented European to visit the area that would become New York City in 1524. It was primarily the Munsee branch of the Lenape present at that time, part of the Algonquian ethnic and linguistic family. They hunted, fished, and gathered in the area, benefited by the presence of about 150 species of edible wild plants, abundant wildlife, oysters, and fishing, and also engaged in agriculture, raising such plants as squash, maize, and beans. There's evidence of human habitation in the area goes back around 9000 years, and it's not known how long the Lenape were in the region before European colonizers arrived.

While the area was mapped for the Europeans with Henry Hudson's arrival in 1609, it wasn't until 1624 that a permanent European settlement was established by the Dutch on Governors Island. A year later Fort Amsterdam was built on what was then the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Counting from then, that makes for about 395 years of European settlement in New York. 

When I started working in New York over a decade ago I was struck by the diversity of architecture, and by how people inhabit the spaces built in times past.  The city is history layered on history, and while fixed settlement here doesn't date back as far as it does in Jerusalem, it's not uncommon for construction workers to uncover some history. 

Workers digging near New York’s iconic Washington Square Park have uncovered two burial chambers. The crypts house coffins and human bones thought to be about 200 years old.

So far the team has identified more than a dozen coffins in the vaults, which could have been part of the burial grounds of one of two now-defunct Presbyterian churches, according to archaeologist Alyssa Loorya, owner of Chrysalis, the company tasked with investigating the site. 
(Powell, 2015) 

There's one even more intriguing in recent history.

On the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2011, a backhoe dug into an excavation pit in Elmhurst, Queens, and struck iron. Construction workers assumed they had hit a pipe. But when the claws of the backhoe emerged from the ground, it was dragging a body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.

Scott Warnasch, then a New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner forensic archaeologist, initially viewed the finding as a recent homicide. “It was recorded as a crime scene,” Warnasch, 52, told The Post. “A buried body on an abandoned lot sounds pretty straightforward.”

It turned out to be anything but. The almost perfectly preserved body was actually that of a woman born decades before the Civil War. She had been buried in what was once the grounds of a church founded in 1830 by the first generation of free African-Americans. (Kaplan, 2018)

What's true of our cities is true of many other areas of human life. The United States was founded by white colonizers who engaged in genocide and ethnocide, relying significantly on the labor of enslaved people. It is easy and convenient for white folks to say 'we should let the past be the past,' but not so simple when we are still living within the systems of oppression that were constructed long before we were born. In fact, this way of living is so ingrained that those privileged by it originally can't see it until it's been thoroughly explained to them. 

It isn't ghosts from the past that haunt us. It's the systems the long-dead built and which have been maintained through generations that cause so much harm. Society as a whole suffers, while the harm is counted in human lives wasted through violence and exploitation. It's nakedly visible in the existing criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex. 

Bringing this even closer, we each inhabit the reality of to whom and where we were born, where we were raised, our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and more. Even in matters where we can change, like our religion, there are often consequences through the rejection experienced in families for such a move. I was fortunate to have a mother who believed in me, and trusted that I needed to make my own decisions in life. This is so often not the case. 

Several years ago I was chatting with a childhood friend, catching up on old times. Our conversation turned to the difficulties faced growing up. My friend's home life was quite troubled, and now he has a beautiful family of his own. He talked about learning from his experiences, unpacking the trauma (my summary of his words), and moving forward. I simply observed that we seem to spend a good part of our adult lives trying to sort out what happened when we were kids.  

In 2015, world leaders agreed to 17 Global Goals (officially known as the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs). It's now five years on, and we have more work than ever to do. These goals have the power to create a better world by 2030, by ending poverty, fighting inequality and addressing the urgency of climate change. Guided by the goals, it is now up to all of us, governments, businesses, civil society and the general public to work together to build a better future for everyone. (The Global Goals)

Those goals and the proposed timeline look mighty optimistic, and frankly unrealistic, to me. And yet if we don't set goals and timebox ourselves, how will we ever build urgency to make the changes needed? Right now people are living in squalid poverty, and I'll emphasize here that it's almost never truly and solely 'their fault.' Quality education and appropriate healthcare are beyond the reach of people from Somalia to the United States of America. Climate change is already destroying livelihoods and spurring migration, which leads to conflicts over resources and stokes the flames of nationalism. All over the world, in places like Eritrea, Papua New Guinea, and Flint, Michigan, obtaining safe drinking water is not easily accomplished. We can and must do better with this world that we have inherited.

Certainly progress has been made. There's no way that over 7 billion people could have been kept alive on this planet with the agricultural methods, technology, and logistics of pre-20th century times. We understand germ theory, have developed vaccines, and manage to move food and other resources around the world. The basic capacity is there, but we lack the collective will to put our know-how into practice. Ideologies divide us, including those that call for us to look only to our own interests, and which demand more of under-resourced people than ever was asked of us. 

This whole world is a work in progress, attempting to heal from the past, live in the present, and build for the future. Like an individual sorting out a troubled childhood, we as a species are hindered by old traumas, and bounded by lingering prejudices that keep us from seeking our very best. We build on the bones and ruins of the past, like one of our cities, and we are shocked when what we have held sacred is burned by the catastrophes of life. We must carry on, having faith that the progress made can be extended. Clearing out the still-smoldering cinders of our losses, we can join hands and hearts to repair the devastation of many generations.


Kaplan, M. (2018, October 03). Secret identity of 150-year-old body found in NYC revealed. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from

Powell, D. (2015, November 06). Construction Workers Find 200-Year-Old Bodies Buried Just a Few Feet Below Greenwich Village. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from

The Global Goals. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2020, from