Tis a gift to be simple
Tis a gift to be free
Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be ….
When I was a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1970’s my elementary school started each day with a song sung over the P.A. system. Everyone was expected to sing along. We sang “If I Had a Hammer,” “This Land is My Land,” “We Shall Overcome,” and many other anthems of an era of dramatic change and boundless hope. I would sing softly, never confident that my voice was any good, unless the song was “Simple Gifts.” That song did something to my soul. Tears would prick my eyes, and I would feel like I wanted not just to sing the words, but to shout them: “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down, where we ought to be!”
As I grew up, went to college, and moved to the East Coast away from my family, I came to believe that the most important thing in life was to receive the third gift referred to in the opening of that song: to come down where we ought to be. Sometimes I felt like a bird flying over the whole earth, seeking that place to land, that place of belonging and rest.
When I did eventually land it was in New York City, where I got married, found work, and had two daughters. My husband was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and wanted to locate our family there, near his parents. The Upper West Side in which he grew up, however, had become a “hot” neighborhood, and rents and purchase prices for even modest apartments were well beyond the capacity of our young family to pay.
Before all the news went digital we used to purchase a Sunday paper on Saturday night and read it in bed on Sunday morning. On one such Sunday I turned to the Real Estate section and noticed apartments listed for sale in “Inwood.” I turned to my husband Chris and asked, “Where’s Inwood?” He shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, maybe Queens?” I pulled out a map of New York City (sadly no Google yet) and learned that Inwood was a small neighborhood in northern Manhattan. I went back to the listings. Large Pre-war apartments in Inwood seemed to be going for a song. It was a sunny beautiful day. I was 4 months pregnant. “Let’s go up there this afternoon,” I suggested – and we did.
I have now lived in Inwood for 17 years. I have raised my children here. The neighborhood has gone through many changes. A nightclub opened at the end of Dyckman Street, which was followed by a cascade of other restaurants along the street that catered more to drinkers than to diners. Inwood residents were in an uproar. Noise, drunkenness, and parking headaches abounded. There were community meetings with lots of shouting, petitions, and demonstrations.
Around this same time something began to draw me toward the little church on Seaman Avenue up the street, an Episcopal Church called Holy Trinity. It had always looked a bit sad to me, with a crumbling stone cross on the roof, a metal fence surrounding the property, and broken steps leading up to the sanctuary. When my eldest daughter was small there was a play group that met in Holy Trinity’s auditorium during the winter so the children could run around without their bulky winter coats. I had also been to a few productions of the Pied Piper Children’s Theatre.
The Holy Spirit kept nudging me, and over the years I found my feet taking me to Holy Trinity more often. I slowly became a more regular church goer. Then a member of the Study Group. Then a member of the Centering Prayer Group. Then, all at once it seemed, Holy Trinity Church was in a crisis. Financial pressures were forcing an incredibly difficult choice, a trade-off between autonomy and security. The numerous issues with the old buildings could no longer be ignored.
My first instinct was to run away from all this turmoil, maybe find a more settled church somewhere downtown. But what I discovered in prayer and reflection was that I wanted to become more, not less, involved, because, I realized – I cared. I cared about this church. I cared about the people. I cared about its future. It had become a community for me and for others, a home, a landing place.
I have a favorite scene in a Sci-fi show called Firefly in which a clergyman finds himself on a space ship populated with thieves, runaways, thugs, and a prostitute. At one point he laments: “I think I may be on the wrong ship,” to which one of the other characters replies: “Well, maybe you are exactly where you are meant to be.”
I’m still not entirely sure I’m on the right ship, but I do suspect I have come down where I ought to be. Whatever the changes ahead, I have faith that we will move forward together.
April 7, 2017