Category Archives: religion

MLK

This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.”

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

What Would Martin Do?

Looking for a way to honor Martin Luther King?

Excited — or frightened — about the presidential inauguration?

Westport’s 11th annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration fills both bills.

This Sunday (January 15, 3 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse), check out an intriguing talk. It’s called “WWMD: What Would Martin Do in the Era of Post-Race Racism?”

Professor Tricia Rose

Professor Tricia Rose

The keynote speaker is Dr. Tricia Rose. She’s a Brown University professor of Africana studies, director of its Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, and a well-respected scholar of post-civil rights and black US culture.

Rose — who has been featured on PBS, CNN, NPR and many other media outlets — will talk about race in the current political environment, from the perspective of King’s philosophy. A Q-and-A session follows.

There’s also music from the Men’s Community Gospel Chorus of Norwalk; a spoken word piece based on King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” presented by students from Trumbull’s Regional Center for the Arts, and refreshments.

The event — co-sponsored by the Playhouse, Westport/Weston Interfaith Council and TEAM Westport — is free. The Westport Weston Family YMCA will provide childcare and activities.

For more information on “WWMD: What Would Martin Do?” click here. For highlights of last year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration, click the video below.

 

Friday Flashback #23

Alert “06880” reader Dana Pronti emailed this photo. It’s a 1930s view — looking east on Newtown Turnpike — at what is now the Country Store on Wilton Road. The photo was taken from where the Three Bears restaurant once stood.

wilton-road-lookingi-from-3-bears

Click on or hover over to enlarge.

That’s now the site of Chabad Lubavitch.

Here’s today’s view, from the same spot:

(Photo courtesy of Google Earth)

Has it changed much? You be the judge.

Remembering Glenn Hightower

Glenn Hightower — a longtime Westport Public Schools administrator and community volunteer — died over New Year’s weekend. He was 76.

Glenn Hightower

Glenn Hightower

Hightower came from Oklahoma, as principal of Bedford Junior High School. In his several decades in the district, he also served as director of continuing education.

He spent an enormous amount of time in activities ranging from Little League softball to the United Methodist Church.

He and his wife Beverly — who died in 2015, at 72 — raised 3 daughters here: Holly, Julie and Heather.

A full obituary, and information on services, will follow soon.

Photo Challenge #105

I said last week — on Christmas — that that day’s photo challenge was my holiday gift to my readers.

I wasn’t kidding.

A record 26 of you nailed my slam-dunk shot: the lancet windows at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Only 3 readers guessed incorrectly. One said Assumption Church; another thought the photo showed the old Fairfield Furniture Store (now National Hall), and a 3rd said (I hope as a joke) Chartres Cathedral.

Congratulations to Jack Harder, Tom Ryan, Fred Cantor, Nancy Lopresti, Jane Sherman, Shirlee Gordon, Cathy Jones, Roz Koether, Linda Amos, John F. Wandres, Mary (Cookman) Schmerker, Sarah Neilly, Andrew Colabella, Brandon Malin, Mary Ann Batsell, Sue Ryan, Scott Kuhner, Susan Huppi, Linda Parker, Bobbie Herman, Roger Perry, Kathleen Fassman, Rob Feakins, Jessica Branson,  Ginny Clark and Dorothy Fincher. (NOTE: It would have been pretty bad if Sue Ryan and Jessica Branson missed this one! Click here for the photo.)

Today’s photo challenge is tougher. If you think you know where it is, click “Comments” below.

And no, there is absolutely no “New Year’s” tie-in whatsoever. You’re on your own.

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

 

Westport’s Syrian Saga

Last year, Indiana Governor Mike Pence ordered all state agencies to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy countered by inviting them here.

Since then, a number of other Syrian families have arrived in our state. They’ve been welcomed, even embraced. And the folks helping them say they’ve gained as much as they’ve given.

Very quietly — but energetically and lovingly — a large group of Westporters has helped provide a new home for one Syrian family. They’ve kept a low profile. But now that Mohamed, Nour, Hala and Yahya feel comfortable, safe and more assimilated, they’re okay that their tale can be told.

The story has its roots in 1993. A Muslim family from Bosnia came to Westport. The Methodist minister housed them, and helped the parents find jobs. An orthodontist fixed their teeth for free. When the mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, a Jewish surgeon operated on her. There was no bill for the operation, chemotherapy and radiation.

A similar effort has borne fruit in 2016. Initiated last fall by Rev. Ed Horne of the United Methodist Church as an offshoot of the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council, it includes St. Luke Parish, Temple Israel, Saugatuck and Greens Farms Congregational Churches, Society of Friends (Quakers) in Wilton, and 15 Muslim families in the Westport area.

Additional support comes from Assumption Church, Christ and Holy Trinity Church, the Center for Humanistic Judaism, Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Weston, and the Al-Madany Center in Norwalk. The coalition is led by John McGeehan of the Methodist Church, Lynn Jeffery of Temple Israel, and Sister Maureen of St. Luke.

United Methodist Church volunteers Ellyn Gelman, Janis Liu and Brenda Maggio help prepare an apartment for the Syrian family's arrival. (Photo/Eva Toft)

United Methodist Church volunteers Ellyn Gelman, Janis Liu and Brenda Maggio help prepare an apartment for the Syrian family’s arrival. (Photo/Eva Toft)

Scores of volunteers make the project work.

Among them: Samer Hiba — owner of the Mobil Self-Serve by Barnes & Noble — who arrived in the US 23 years ago, and is now an American citizen.

The family — including 2 young children — fled Syria 5 years ago. They spent much of that time in temporary housing across Egypt.

The family arrived in mid-July. They live in Norwalk, close to the children’s elementary school.

Finding a home was not easy. A couple of possibilities in Westport were rented to others during the long wait. The Norwalk rental is less expensive than here.

Plus, admitted Rev. Horne, “Norwalk is more multi-cultural. There’s a mosque there. It’s walkable, and public transportation is great.” Neighbors, teachers and many other Norwalkers have embraced the refugee family.

Westporters have flocked to help too. More than 100 help drive the family to medical and immigration appointments; assist with language training and shopping, and provide other types of support like employment, education and translation.

“The goal is self-sufficiency,” says Delores Paoli, a 25-year Westport resident active in the Muslim community. They’re getting there.

But it’s not easy. Mohamed – the father —  is a highly educated man. An Arab literature major in Syria, with experience in the import-export business, he has found work as a chef at Whole Foods in Westport.

The family attended the Interfaith Thanksgiving service, held this year at Temple Israel. Mohamed stood in front of the Torah ark, and in a beautiful voice recited a section of the Koran.

That moment was significant, says Temple Israel rabbi Michael Friedman. He’d been active in interfaith efforts at his previous synagogue, in New York. After talking with Rev. Horne about Westport’s Bosnian resettlement effort, the rabbi felt confident committing his congregation to the project.

The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast draws together many people, with a wide variety of religions.

The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast draws together many people, with a wide variety of religions.

“There is such a strong interfaith sensibility in Westport,” Rabbi Friedman says. “Our work as clergy together, and our trust, allows our congregations to do this.”

He notes, “There are clear principled reasons in Jewish texts, and our history, to care for children, widows and strangers. Vast numbers of Jews have fled persecution and bad situations, and been taken in. Now we want to provide safe refuge for others.

“We see these terrible images of a humanitarian crisis halfway around the world. We feel helpless. This effort is a way to say that while we can’t solve the entire problem, we also can’t absent ourselves from it. We have to try.

“What we’re doing is empowering. We hope it changes some lives, now and for generations in the future.”

“We saw the refugee crisis, and thought about it,” Rev. Horne adds. “As Methodists we welcome all, without restrictions. This is a chance to put that value into practice, with people who are fleeing for their lives.”

After fleeing Syria, Mohamed and his family spent nearly 5 years in different parts of Egypt.

After fleeing Syria, Mohamed and his family spent nearly 5 years in different parts of Egypt.

Both Rabbi Friedman and Rev. Horne say they and their fellow clergy members have heard “nothing but positive things” from congregants.

“Our families who help may be getting more out of this than Mohamed’s family,” Dolores Paoli says. “As we all work together, we realize how much we can do.”

“Human contact is so important,” Rev. Horne concludes. “We see these beautiful children, and engage with the charismatic Mohamed and his lovely wife. It’s transformative. It breaks the Westport bubble. It gives us a new look at the world.”

 

Beechwood Arts Concert Streams Into Your Home

Today — 2 weeks before Christmas — is a busy day for many of us.

We’ve got holiday parties to go to, trees to buy and trim, football games to watch. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

But if you can manage to be free for just an hour — starting at 5 p.m. — you won’t regret it.

Jeanine Esposito and Frederic Chiu, in their Weston Road home.

Jeanine Esposito and Frederic Chiu, in their Weston Road home.

Beechwood Arts and Innovation — the unique immersive salons sponsored by Frederic Chiu and Jeanine Esposito at their amazing Weston Road home — is staging another event.

But this time, on this cold day, you don’t have to leave the comfort of your home.

You don’t even have to live around here to attend.

All you need is Facebook.

The idea is to replace the “me” in social media with “we,” Chiu explains. “We hope to bring people together to inspire a sense of unity on a global scale.”

Igor Pikayzen

Igor Pikayzen

Today’s salon is a virtual one. Held on Facebook Live, it’s a stream of an actual salon to be held at the couple’s home (called Beechwood). Igor Pikayzen — a 2005 Staples High School graduate, 2007 Westport Arts Horizon winner, and internationally known violinist, will perform.

Fairfield neighbor Orin Grossman will play favorites from the Gershwin songbook on piano, and Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances” with Chiu.

Greg Wall — Westport’s unique “jazz rabbi” — will show off his rarely seen classical side.

“The goal is to create unity around the world, through the universal language of music,” Chiu says. “Facebook Live is the perfect platform, because it’s interactive.

beechwood-arts-logo“People can join us on their phone, computer, tablet or smart TV. They can communicate with each other using Facebook comments — emojis are fine!”

Hundreds of intimate gatherings of friends and families have already been planned (thanks to Facebook, of course). But individuals can join too. Everyone’s invited.

Today’s Beechwood salon is music at its finest — and most accessible.

That football game can wait.

(Click here to join the Beechwood Arts Salon Facebook Live event, or search Facebook for “Beechwood Arts and Innovation.”)

Greg Wall, the "jazz rabbi," plays classical music today.

Greg Wall, the “jazz rabbi,” plays classical music today.

 

Westport Bids Tina Goodbye

Some wore suits or dresses. Others wore jeans and wool caps.

Some were politicians, social service workers, police officers and Westporters who live in very comfortable homes. Others live at the Gillespie Center.

Ushers from Homes With Hope showed down-on-their-luck folks to their seats. Clergy from 3 different congregations conducted the service. The 1st selectman gave a reading. So did a Westport police officer, who spent much of his own youth in shelters.

Over 150 people — some from as far away as Baltimore and Brattleboro — filled Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church this afternoon, for a funeral service honoring a woman some never met.

tina-wessel-funeral-program

Tina Wessel died last month. A homeless woman with a pronounced limp, she was a longtime fixture in downtown Westport.

In her life on the streets — and in the shed near the Senior Center where her body was found — she touched many hearts.

“She gave a lot of people the finger. She dropped a lot of f-bombs,” one woman said. “But look at all these people. They saw beyond that.”

They did indeed. As one woman related in remarks after the service, Tina had another remarkable side. An hour after receiving a donation of food, Tina knocked on the agency’s door.

“Here’s what I don’t need,” she said, returning some of her goods. “Can you give it to somebody else?”

Photos of Tina Wessel, from the program today.

Photos of Tina Wessel, from the program today.

Rev. Peter Powell — who founded and served as the first CEO of Homes With Hope — delivered a powerful, challenging sermon.

“Tina touched many of us in ways that would probably surprise her,” he said.

He noted that many of the readings at the service mentioned bringing bread to the hungry, and giving homes to the homeless.

“She was a challenge to work with,” Rev. Powell acknowledged. “But Tina had a role in Westport — one that we all need to think about.”

Rev. Peter Powell before the funeral, flanked by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Rev. Jeffrey Ryder of Green's Farms Congregational Church.

Rev. Peter Powell (center) before the funeral, flanked by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Rev. Jeffrey Ryder of Green’s Farms Congregational Church.

He recalled similar Westporters whose funerals he officiated at  — though one had only 3 mourners. He told their stories, and mentioned them all by name. They may have been homeless, but they were not faceless or nameless.

“Tina died cold, sick, alone and homeless,” Rev. Powell said. She — and others like her — should be remembered not because they needed us, but because “we need them.”

The town of Westport, police and Homes With Hope tried to help, Rev. Powell continued. Westport — “an amazingly generous town” — does far more for its homeless citizens than virtually any other affluent suburb in the country.

Tina did not accept some of that help. “Her reasons make no sense to you. But they did to her,” Rev. Powell explained.

“It’s not enough to love prodigiously, if people are cold or alone. We admired her pluck, her nature, her independence. But we could not find a way to house her as she wished.”

Calling Tina “an apostle,” Rev. Powell said that she has enabled us to “discover ourselves.”

When the service ended, Tina’s ashes were honored outside, in the church courtyard. It’s in the midst of downtown, where she spent so much of the last years of her life.

Mourners stood outside, as Tina's ashes were honored in the heart of downtown.

Mourners stood outside, as Tina’s ashes were honored in the heart of downtown.

Then everyone — social service workers, police officers, Westporters in very comfortable homes, residents of the Gillespie Center, and anyone else who knew Tina (or wished they had) — gathered downstairs. They shared food and coffee together.

And they remembered Tina.

(Donations in Tina’s name may be made to Westport Animal Shelter Advocates or Homes With Hope.)

Photos of Tina and her brother Ludy -- when both were young -- were displayed on a board in the church's Branson Hall.

Photos of Tina and her brother Ludy — when both were young — were displayed on a board in the church’s Branson Hall.

Tina’s Cat: The Sequel

In the aftermath of the death of Tina Wessel — the homeless woman known to many Westporters, who died last month — “06880” readers have wondered about the fate of her beloved cat.

Julie Loparo — president of Westport Animal Shelter Advocates — reports:

Tina’s cat — now named Elsie — is a delight. She is approximately 4 years old, healthy…just wonderful.

Elsie

Elsie

She is temporarily being boarded at Schulhof Animal Hospital, receiving excellent care and attention from staff and WASA volunteers. Now, WASA is searching for a local forever home for Elsie. She will need to be kept indoors for her safety.

Potential adopters should email wasa1@optonline.net, or call 203-557-0361.

Tina’s funeral will be held today (2 p.m., Friday, December 9), at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Westport.

Tina Wessel Service: Time Change

The time for the funeral service for Tina Wessen — the well-known local homeless woman who died recently — has been changed, to accommodate arrivals from out of town.

The new time is 2 p.m., on Friday, December 9. The site is Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, in downtown Westport.

Meanwhile, the Westport Police — who helped secure medical services for Tina’s cat — have released this photo of her beloved pet:

tina-wessen-catThe cat is now safe and sound.