Category Archives: religion

Unsung Hero #88

Little things mean a lot.

This year, Greens Farms Elementary School is performing its first play: “The Lion King.”

Director/producer Laura Pendergast — a GFS parent — and teachers Ellen Hardy and Suzanne Sherman Propp have prepared for months for this week’s show.

Dozens of school hours, plenty of work at home, and countless contributions from parent volunteers have gone into the production.

A crucial full-cast rehearsal was scheduled for last Saturday. Then, disaster struck. In anticipation of snow, all Westport school activities for that day were canceled.

Finding space for 70 children seemed impossible. Realizing that Town Hall auditorium might be an option, GFS parent Danielle Dobin called 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

Rev. Jeffrey Rider

It was not available. But Marpe suggested she contact Greens Farms Congregational Church, and ask about using the Fellowship Hall.

It was Friday evening. Danielle called Rev. Jeff Rider. She did not know him at all — they’d never met or spoken.

He said he’d check the calendar. Soon, he said the space was free — and that GFS was more than welcome to use it.

The location — smack in the middle of the Greens Farms neighborhood — was very convenient. The room was perfect. The cost was free.

And on Monday — when Westport schools were closed because of the overnight storm — Greens Farms Church opened its doors again, for another rehearsal.

Speaking for the entire GFS community, and citing his flexibility and generosity, Danielle nominates Rev. Rider as “06880”‘s Unsung Hero this week.

As she notes: “Thanks to Rev. Jeff, we went from stressed out to Hakuna Matata in no time flat.”

(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Send nominations to dwoog@optonline.net)

The show must go on: Rehearsing in the Greens Farms Church Fellowship Hall.

Methodist Minister: Westport Church Still Welcomes All

Almost as soon as the United Methodist Church voted last week to increase restrictions against same-sex marriage, and the ordination of LGBT clergy, Heather Sinclair’s phone rang. Her email inbox filled up.

The pastor of the United Methodist Church of Westport and Weston is a longtime advocate of LGBT rights. Years ago, the Weston Road congregation voted to become an “open and affirming” church, embracing LGBT parishioners.

The messages Sinclair got were supportive. “We’re with you,” they said.

Many of the first calls came from other clergy members in Westport.

“They felt like condolences,” Sinclair — who took over the pulpit last summer from longtime minister Ed Horne — says.

“It was like when a family member dies. One pastor told me, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ That’s what I say when I’m with someone who’s grieving.”

Last summer, Rev. Heather Sinclair was still unpacking in her new office.

The vote — taken by delegates at the church’s global conference in St. Louis — was both expected and a surprise, Sinclair says.

“The official stance for the past 40 years has been to exclude LGBT people from marriage and ordination. But this region has spoken out strongly against it.”

The vote was 53% for the measure to uphold and strengthen the bans, 47% against.

“We’re clearly not a ‘united’ Methodist Church,” Sinclair notes. “That’s part of where my sadness and heartbreak is.”

The other part is her desire for the church she loves to embrace LGBT members, fully and in all capacities. The statement adopted several years ago by the Westport church welcomes people of “all ages, races, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and economic circumstances.”

The United Methodist Church on Weston Road.

Sinclair was at the St. Louis conference, though not as a voting delegate. “It was a blessing to be there to support friends and colleagues with prayers, hugs, singing, fellowship, chocolate, coffee and more,” she emailed Westport church members when she returned.

“Now more than ever, we must be the love of Christ in the world, to our LGBTIA friends, family and neighbors, and to those who doubt our commitment to that love. Hope moves us forward.”

Yesterday morning, at her church’s men’s monthly breakfast, she offered reflections and thoughts on her experience in St. Louis.

Across the US, churches are wrestling with the question of whether to secede from the official organization and start a new denomination — or perhaps stay and fight.

The issue is complex. Deeds to Methodist churches are held in a general trust. “We can’t just take our building and leave,” Sinclair explains.

As the local congregation debates next steps, the pastor vows, “We’re here to be the same church as before. We’ll still serve dinner at the Gillespie Center. We’ll still prepare for Lent. We’ll still be a welcoming ministry to everyone.”

And she’ll still be buoyed by all the messages of support she’s received. Including so many from her fellow ministers and rabbis, all around town.

(Hat tip: Don Roth)

Westport, Westwood And 1960s Anti-Semitism

Alert “06880” reader, longtime Westporter — and current Californian — Fred Cantor writes:

A new book, Hollywood’s Eve by Lili Anolik, is generating plenty of media attention. It tells the story of Eve Babitz, a writer, artist and real-life Forrest Gump-type: For years, she crossed paths with many prominent Los Angeles personalities.

Critics now hail Babitz for providing a keen insider’s perspective of the LA scene of the 1950s to ’80s. She grew up there, and spent virtually her entire adult life in LA –except for a short time in Italy, and one year in New York City (March 1966 to March ’67).

What does this have to do with Westport?

In Babitz’s first book — Eve’s Hollywood — she describes visiting Westport on a summer weekend, in 1966.

She had an anti-Semitic experience. She then generalizes about it, comparing Westport to Westwood circa 1960 or 1961. (Many of her high school classmates went to UCLA. Eve chose Los Angeles City College.)

Westwood, where UCLA is, is so insanely crappy you could throw up. It’s so WHITE and it’s so clean and it’s so impervious, and the closest I ever got to that feeling of Westwood was when someone took me out of the Lower East Side in New York one horrible summer day to their mother’s house in Westport, Conn., and their mother was so shocked and repelled by me (she could tell I was Jewish, where her son hadn’t noticed) that she ran slides of his ex-girl friend for 45 minutes after dinner. That’s what Westwood is like.

Eve’s observations about LA back in the day might have been spot on. As for her representation of Westport in 1966, and the comparison to Westwood — well, if you lived in Westport the ’60s, you be the judge.

Pic Of The Day #667

Bright sunshine this morning behind Saugatuck Congregational Church, near Winslow Park. (Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

A Brain Tumor Survivor, Wealth Manager And Comedian Walk Into A Church…

Plenty of Westporters have plenty of remarkable stories.

Nathalie Jacob’s is more remarkable than most.

Raised in Colombia and schooled in France, she spent 10 years in high-level marketing jobs with Fortune 500 companies, in 5 countries. She and her husband were ready to begin a family when she was stricken with a brain tumor.

Surgery left her partially blind. She could not read or write. The only number she recognized was 8.

Recovery was brutal. Nathalie experienced life like a small child, all over again. Her path was long and arduous. It still continues.

Nathalie Jacob, with her daughter and her book.

Yet Nathalie — married to Simon Gilbert, with a 2-year-old daughter Nicole — has persevered. She re-learned simple tasks, then moved on to more complex ones.

She’s now the creator and admin of popular Facebook groups like Westport Stay-at-Home Moms, Westport Women and Tumores Cerebrales.

She’s also the author of a new book. “8: Rediscovering Life After a Brain Tumor” celebrates courage, resilience, and the importance of a fighting spirit.

Nathalie is always giving back. She’s donating all profits to the Connecticut Brain Tumor Alliance.

She launches her book this Friday (February 8, 7 p.m., Saugatuck Congregational Church). But “Health, Wealth & Fun” is not a solo event. Nathalie will share the stage at the evening of food, drinks and networking with 2 other talented Westporters. Both are introducing their own intriguing projects.

Kiana Danial is the Iranian-born, Jewish-raised CEO of InvestDiva.com, an award-winning personal investing and wealth management expert, and author of the new book “Cryptocurrency Investing for Dummies.”

Bari Alyse Rudin is an accomplished comedian, writer and producer. She launches her podcast, “Community News.”

President Kennedy once called a Nobel Prize dinner “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Friday’s Saugatuck Church event is not quite that. But it sure is a great night to celebrate health, wealth and the human spirit.

(For more information and to RSVP, click here. For more information on Nathalie Jacob’s book, click here. For Kiana Danial’s website, click here. For Bari Alyse Rubin’s podcast, click here. Hat tip: Christy Colasurdo.)

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 Halper (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

Dr. Kendi’s Journey

Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.

It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.

The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.

Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.

And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.

Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.

It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”

Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.

Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.

Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.

Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)

As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has  not yet been announced.

The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr.

He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.

Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.

(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)

The Immigrant Experience Comes Home

As Americans debate a slew of important items, immigration stands at the top of any list.

Here in Westport, we’re far removed from our southern border. The Wall is an abstraction — not a reality — to most of us.

But — for one reason or another — the immigrant experience resonates with nearly every Westporter.

This month, several events shine historical, artistic, literary and nuanced lights on a variety of immigration stories.

On Friday, January 18 (6 to 8 p.m.), Saugatuck Congregational Church opens an intriguing exhibit.

“Art Across Borders” features the work of 18 area artists, from Guatemala, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. All migrated to the US. Each will share his or her own story, through art. The bold, emotional exhibit is curated by Rene Soto, owner of a gallery with the same name in South Norwalk.

One of the pieces on display at the Saugatuck Church — by Jose Munoz, from Guatelama.

“Lots of people come to the US — and to this area — for better lives,” says Saugatuck Church Arts Committee member Priscilla Long. “And many of those people express themselves through art.”

Saugatuck Church has long been concerned with social justice. This show is a natural outgrowth of that commitment. The exhibit will remain up for a month. Click here or call 203-227-1261 for more information.

The following week, a different house of worship offers a different program, on a different immigrant experience.

In June 0f 1939, over 900 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi terror on the SS St. Louis were within sight of Florida. Heartbreakingly, they were denied safe haven by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Canada also refused entry.

Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis.

The captain returned the ship to Europe, where countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and France accepted some refugees. Many, however, were later caught in Nazi roundups of Jews in occupied countries. Historians estimate that a quarter died in death camps during World War II

Three passengers who survived — Judith Steel, Sonja Geismar and Eva Wiener — will be in Westport on Thursday, January 24. At 7 p.m., Chabad on Newtown Turnpike will screen “Complicit” — a film about the SS St. Louis’ ill-fated journey. The trio will participate in a post-film Q-and-A, led by its creator/producer Robert Krakow.

Click here for more information. Tickets are $25 for adults, $18 for students.

Meanwhile, all month long — and into February — the Westport Library sponsors WestportREADS. This year’s book is Exit West. Novelist Mohsin Hamid follows 2 refugees who — against all odds — find life and love while fleeing civil war.

WestportREADS activities include book discussions, a conversation with migration experts, art exploration, world dance instruction, storytelling, music, genealogy research, and a presentation by a Syrian refugee family sponsored by members of the Westport community.

Click here for a complete calendar, and full details.

Unsung Heroes #80

On Monday night, the frenzy of holiday preparations was over.

Gifts were bought and wrapped. Trees were trimmed. Even the stockings had been hung by the chimney (with care).

Christmas Eve was a time to relax.

Unless you were working.

Home for the holidays? Not everyone.

Police officers, firefighters, EMTs — all were on call, on duty, away from their families. For many who serve in Westport, those families live quite a ways away.

Doctors, nurses, technicians and orderlies were working too. And all those people employed in nursing homes.

Plus cooks, wait staff and dishwashers, at restaurants that offered a Christmas Eve meal.

Of course, clergy and church staff were on the clock as well.

Some of those same folks worked yesterday — Christmas — itself.

And it’s all repeated next Monday, on New Year’s Eve. (Except for the religious services.)

Of course, there will be more restaurants and bars open.

Those trains don’t run themselves.

Not to mention everyone working on Metro-North, for the revelers going to Times Square.

Trust me, the return trip is not one you sign up for.

So to all everyone who was on the job Christmas Eve, or Christmas day. And all those who will work New Year’s Eve:

Thanks for being there for us. We don’t always thank you — or even know who you are.

You’re all this week’s Unsung Heroes, for sure.

Pic Of The Day #617

Greens Farms Church, from Hillandale Road (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)