Based on real events in Hudson County, Elia Kazan’s cinema masterpiece On the Waterfront is about a mob boss who runs the waterfront with kickbacks and threats of free swimming lessons in the Hudson with a pair of cement shoes for anyone who stands in his way. Early in the movie, a young woman accuses her priest of living in clerical bubble with no understanding of the dock workers lives. Chastened, Fr. Barry responds “So, you think I’m a guy riding the gravy train in a turned around collar?” Then he goes to the docks.
In the middle of the movie, after giving last rites to a man who was about to testify against the mob when a cargo load mysteriously fell and crushed him, Father Barry preaches an extemporaneous sermon that enthralls me every time I watch it about the love of man being more important then the love of a “lousy buck”. From the crowd, a mob boss’ henchmen yells “Go back to church Fada!” and Fr. Barry yells back, “Boys, this is my church!....And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront you’ve got another guess coming.
”There is a plaque on an apartment building two blocks down from our church with my predecessor Fr. Albert’s name carved into it. It memorializes his work to create dozens of units of decent, low income housing in downtown Jersey City. Forty years later, long after most of the working poor have been financially forced out, Fr. Albert’s housing remains. One day, my son’s Godmother cancelled class when she was principal of St. Joseph’s School and took her children to protest the closing of a firehouse for financial reasons in the poorest area of the city. This was during the height of the mysterious fires in Hudson County, when tenements burnt to the ground and luxury condominiums were built on their footprints almost before the cinders went out. Sr. Norberta was arrested that day. Now long retired, she left Hudson County but the firehouse is still open and so is the shelter she and a handful of clergy began over thirty years ago. Often when I introduce myself to Jersey City natives who are my parents age they will beam when I say I’m from Grace Church Van Vorst. Excitedly, they tell me how the clergy and the sisters changed their lives by picking them up in school buses every day from public housing and bringing them to the youth program Grace ran in the fifties and sixties. For years, my mentor The Rev. Geoffrey Curtis was engaged in a lawsuit with a handful of clergy and lay people to make Honeywell International Inc., a multinational conglomerate company, remediate the chromium on hundreds of acres of land in Jersey City including a little league field that used to fill with florescent green puddles every time it rained. Impossibly, they won. During the November elections, it was Jersey City’s new clergy and laity who challenged candidates to make developers on that same remediated land commit to making 50% of the units they’re planning to build affordable housing instead of the 5-9% initially proposed.
I could go on.
The church has no political party and regards no one as an enemy. Compelled by Jesus, after worship on Sunday it goes out into an often inhumane world with nothing but open hands and prayer. The church opens food pantries, hospitals, creates good schools for the poor and makes Good Friday pilgrimages to places of violence on our city streets in remembrance that Jesus’ suffering is bound to our neighbors suffering. When it’s working, the church is God’s instrument to bear witness to Christ’s coming reign with, tangible, extravagant, costly action.
Jesus told his disciples “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20) When people are puzzled by these words I think it’s usually because they imagine the “you” being addressed is “any person of faith”. The “you” Jesus is speaking to is the church.
Do you want to move a mountain? Get on the bus the Episcopal churches in Jersey City plan to charter to go to the march against gun violence in Washington next month. Volunteer to make a meal or sleep over at St. Paul’s Bergen when they welcome homeless families to stay in their parish hall as a member church of the newly opened Family Promise of Hudson County or sign up to help out at the food pantry that will begin operating at the Triangle Park Community Center next month.
Whenever two or three people gather in Jesus’ name he never fails to show up. And if you don’t believe it, as Fr. Barry said, “You’ve got another guess coming.”
Your sister in Christ.