A year and a half ago Fr. Tom from St. Paul’s and Church of the Incarnation, The Rev. Jon Brown from Old Bergen Church, The Rev. Mona Fitch Eliot from St John’s Lutheran and I spent five hours at a City Council meeting. Near the end of the agenda was a vote to approve the purchase one hundred acres of land on the western edge of the city from Honeywell International Inc. to build as many as eight thousand apartments, 35% of which would be low income and affordable housing. The city’s original proposal had been to make 5% of the apartments affordable but Jersey City Together, a community organization comprised almost entirely of dozens of faith communities, pushed back.
After much discussion and debate, close to the stroke of midnight, the City Council approved the motion which is how on Monday morning, twenty months later, I came to be standing on the Bayfront property for the first time ever at a press conference announcing the completion of a deal to begin construction. By walking across the open field hidden from one of the busiest highways in Jersey City I can tell you: 100 acres is a lot of land.
The reason I was asked to speak on behalf of Jersey City Together at this press conference is not because I was on the front lines of the David vs. Goliath fight with Honeywell. I just happen to be the only cleric left who remembers how a lawsuit filed by ministers and church ladies led to the current plan to build two thousand, eight hundred moderate income apartments in a city where blue collar families have been squeezed out for decades.
When the factories that used to power Jersey City’s economic engine closed they left more than empty buildings. Not long ago, the Bayfront land like much of Jersey City was poisoned with chromium. A matriarch at Claremont-Lafayette Presbyterian Church named Ellen Wright once told me that when it rained she’d watch green water stream into the gutter. In the 1990’s, diagnoses of cancer clustered around contaminated areas.
Back then, Jersey City Together was known as the Interfaith Community Organization and to be generous it was about a quarter of its current size. I remember sitting in a small room on the second floor of the Barrow Mansion where ICO had an office, listening to our organizer Joe Morris with a fold out table for a desk talk to three or four elderly church ladies and a couple of clergy about suing Honeywell to remediate the land. I drank my coffee and doodled on the agenda. As a seminarian the whole thing sounded ridiculous. How could a handful of struggling churches sue a billion dollar, multinational conglomerate?
The suit went on for years. I was too busy running outreach programs for kids in public housing and having breakfast with guests at the Hoboken Shelter to take it that seriously. And then, one day when my boss The Rev Geoff Curtiss and I were sitting in the church office, after a five minute phone call with Joe, Geoff hung up the phone, turned to me and said, “We won.”
And that’s how I wound up standing on the Bayfront property for the first time on Monday, thinking about a long dead church mother from Claremont Lafayette named Myrtle Smith who chain smoked, had a penchant for sequined berets and looked like a stiff wind could blow her over. She was as confident as I was cynical that Monday would come because she knew about God’s time while back then, I only knew about my own.
Through the lens of Monday and Myrtle, I see again that cynicism is the opposite of faithfulness and that faithfulness requires some roots. It’s what Jesus calls “The kingdom of the world” that demands three year plans with assured outcomes, personal success and quick results. I saw Myrtle, Ellen, Joe and Geoff model allegiance to the Kingdom of God by holding time loosely, refusing the cup of cynicism, cleaving to each other, doing the next faithful thing together and leaving whenever Monday comes up to God.
Church people: look at this moment in the world with Myrtle Smith’s eyes. Just say no to cynicism. The temporary high it affords isn’t worth it. You don’t have to make your hope and faithfulness out of whole cloth without a pattern. Draw it up from your roots. Draw it from the salty saints, from your favorite hymn, from Scripture, prayer and from the witness of church fathers and mothers.
Time belongs to God. Hold it loosely and most important of all: never bet against church ladies.