Donate to RNS

NEWS FEATURE: Lutheran Pastor Finds `Breathing Space’ in South Bronx Church

c. 2003 Religion News Service NEW YORK _ For one Lutheran pastor, staring at the face of urban death made her feel more alive. In “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx,” the Rev. Heidi Neumark details 19 years of work in one of America’s most poverty-ridden neighborhoods, blending Christian ministry with a […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ For one Lutheran pastor, staring at the face of urban death made her feel more alive.

In “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx,” the Rev. Heidi Neumark details 19 years of work in one of America’s most poverty-ridden neighborhoods, blending Christian ministry with a call to social justice.

“The South Bronx has an internationally negative reputation,” she said in her book-cluttered office on a Sunday morning before Holy Communion. “I felt there were other stories not being told. It all depends where you focus the camera.”

Written over seven years during stolen moments as Neumark balanced leadership of Transfiguration Lutheran Church with the family demands of a husband and two children, the book turns a lens onto dozens of people from the community. The stories center on frustrations like broken boilers and the pitfalls of securing a loan for an addition to the church, and larger obstacles like AIDS, drug abuse, gang violence, and racism. More often than not, Neumark’s characters teach her not only about survival, but about hope, faith and joy.

Neumark said one intention in writing the book was to get readers thinking about their own lives and to make connections between themselves and her characters, but also to “make connections to the negative aspects as well, rather than blame the victims.”

Sparing no barbs in criticism of New York City policies that helped contribute to the South Bronx’s rapid descent into what she calls “the ground zero of urban blight” in the late 1970s, she rails against failing schools, the plight of illegal immigrants and the prison system for juvenile offenders. During her almost two decades in the Bronx, she banded together with representatives of other Christian denominations and other faiths to help build low-income housing, found a new public high school, and push for badly needed changes at a local hospital riddled with corruption.

As for working with Catholics, Muslims and others, she said, “The more diverse you are, the more powerful you can be.”

Her words could serve as a tagline for her book, which emphasizes the need for inculturation in the Lutheran church. Thus Neumark quotes from the late African-American author Zora Neale Hurston and in an interview mentioned reading the novelist Julia Alvarez as more Dominicans moved into the area.

“It was important for me to read books written from the perspective of the people I was ministering to,” she said.

In return, Neumark was given a glimpse into worlds far removed from her upbringing in suburban New Jersey: Honduran tamales, Mexican Christmas songs, African dance, and personal stories, which she wove into “Breathing Space” and integrated into her own life.

A rainstick from Guatemala, where some of the Transfiguration members emigrated from, appears both in the book, during a memorial service for a woman who suffered from depression, and at the close of a sermon at her new parish in Manhattan. Since June, Neumark has served as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side, tucked between low-income housing projects and stately apartment buildings to the west along the Hudson River. After 19 years in the Bronx, Neumark is now concentrating on the task of starting over with a new congregation.

Already she has revamped the church’s youth programs, begun English as a second language classes, and started offering Spanish-language worship.

“We knew we wanted a Spanish-speaking ministry,” said Nyla Rasmussen, president of the parish council. “And Pastor Heidi said if you don’t want this, then you don’t want me.”

After four years without a full-time pastor, Trinity seems ripe for Neumark’s energy. She has attracted new members and pays visits to the nearby housing developments to drum up spiritual business. But she says it’s the middle-and upper-class streets to the west that pose the greater challenge.

“The projects have public space, where you can meet people easily, and culturally speaking, there’s no hostility to the church. Over on Broadway, I’d feel more uncomfortable approaching people. I have to learn how to adapt my outreach there,” she said.

Neumark hopes Trinity will represent the diverse community surrounding the church.

“After 9-11,” she said, “at first we were all together. But there are still so many divisions. There’s a human architecture of how people are connected. If this connection can’t happen in the church, where can it?”

KRE END CIPOLLA