The Common Good
July 2004

Space for Grace

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | July 2004

This is a book that takes your breath away and at the same time gives it back.

This is a book that takes your breath away and at the same time gives it back. I have every suspicion, and say it with a sigh, that Heidi Neumark has written a classic to be.

Breathing Space defies genre, or at least mingles them. Part diary of a city priest, part Bible study, part theological reflection on years of urban ministry with an undercurrent of journalized griefwork, part social analysis with patches of homily - yet always pure prayer and even pure poetry. All these are woven in centered self-awareness by a concrete and thoroughly unaffected wordcraft. This is one way of saying that, as a pastor, Heidi Neumark is the real deal - and, as a writer, she has the gift.

The title is only passing reference to the Louisville Institute sabbatical that occasioned its writing. It certainly names the contemplative process of penning pastorally on the run. But like the biblical notion of Sabbath year itself, "breathing space" reflects worship infused with justice. It is the sanctuary of ministry and community constructed with residents of the South Bronx, whose dumping-ground neighborhood was just surviving beneath the atmosphere of environmental racism and more, air violently stretched, literally toxic, inflicting countless cases of asthma. Which is to say, every pastoral act recounted here is political, an engagement of the powers that be.

In the eighties and early nineties, it seemed that whenever I sat down to pray, I was interrupted by gunshots. It has been said that prayer is easy when the bullets fly, but I've never found it so.... I realize that my prayer life is of negligible weight when placed in the balance along with all that is lost through such violence. I would forego all prayer if I could bring back...any one of those whose names are written on our hearts or spray-painted on our neighborhood walls in so many colorful, graffiti memorials. On the other hand, without prayer we cannot stand against these powers that are greater than metal and flesh and blood.... I refuse to accept a spirituality that functions as a silencer, dulling or blocking the sound of these shots in the dark.

Bonhoeffer says that intercession means feeling another's need or pain or sin so deeply that we pray their prayer. In their stead. For their sake. If so this book is one ceaseless intercession.

Readers grow to love a ragtag congregation they've never met. This is a peopled journal. There are parishioners you learn to know, watching them falter and transform into pastoral leaders. Others pass through as transient vignettes. And the deaths, far too many deaths. Funerals vie with baptisms, as though two sides of the same rite.

And the women. What strong survivors and witnesses! Like those returning from the tomb and refusing to go quietly away. Sometimes we are privy to their Bible-study conversations, around the widow of Zarephath, say, or the obscure and agonizing text of Rizpah, the grieving mother. These demonstrate not only Neumark's scriptural literacy, but also the collective wisdom from below - like The Gospel in Solentiname from the Bronx. (And small wonder: She received part of her own theological formation in Latin America, with Adolfo Pérez Esquivel's SERPAJ organization).

At the same time, we get to watch her blunder and improvise and discover a ministry. Here is a white Lutheran woman learning the contrapuntal rhythms of call-and-response worship, in Spanish accents, and loving it as home. The great pentecostal noise of worship spills out the door and into the streets, breathing both ministry and community to life.

BREATHING SPACE covers some 17 years, but hardly in linear fashion. In effect, you could open at any point and begin reading, though you'd miss echoes and the mindful layering that pervades the book. She mentions doing research on structure, how to hold it all together in view. There is literally a construction project afoot - a new addition on the church, space for grace, with attendant bureaucratic delays, funding dramas, and plumbing disasters. Its development is part of the book's frame and design. Behind is a larger skyline under construction: a groundbreaking community organization and its Nehemiah Housing project. The internal foreground is St. Teresa's - well, really Heidi Neumark's - "interior castle." Yes indeed, a layered literary geography.

Another structure: Cycling through the landscape is the liturgical year, scattering its texts and moods in rich providence. And Neumark opens them up right on time to illuminate the moment. Here's where snatches of sermons may emerge, or etymologies be unpacked like found street objects. She knows her stuff and lets drop illustrative heresies, or sermons of Luther, and always the guiding voices of women mystics. And for all this thick complexity, these layered fragments, beloved paradoxes, and structural sophistication, she writes nevertheless with a clean and straightforward simplicity. Guileless, honest, and unaffected.

You need be neither a theologian nor a pastor to read this book, but like both, you'll be edified of heart and mind. Don't hold your breath, but this book just may mentor several generations of seminarians. I know the first chance I get, I'm setting it in front of some in Detroit and Chicago. I bet they're stirred, like me, to life.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a Methodist pastor who directs a program for SCUPE in Chicago (www.scupe.com) and is on the steering committee of Word and World: A People's School (www.wordandworld.org). He lives in Detroit with his partner, Jeanie, and their two daughters.

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