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Leaders Speak: A Talk with Rev. John Merz of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension

Here’s the third interview in our FaithStreet Leaders Speak series, a series of interviews with Christian leaders in New York City. This week we * interviewed Rev. John Merz, Priest at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint. (We’ll be breaking Rev. Merz’s interview into two installments. The second installment will run early next week.) In this first installment, we talk with Rev. Merz about how Brooklyn has changed since he was a kid and the pitfalls churches face when they serve in gentrifying neighborhoods like Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Rev. Merz gives a wonderful, challenging interview. Please enjoy and please share!
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You are very proud of your Brooklyn roots. You mentioned to me that you “spent a fair amount a time pissed off about how the boroughs have changed”, that you felt anger when the rents got too high to find a reasonably priced apartment and felt pride in the graffiti on the trains. Do you think it’s important for Christians in NYC to understand the City’s history and how change effects different demographics for better and for worse? If so, how do you impart that understanding to your members at Church of the Ascension?

I think it’s important for people who profess to be Christians and who live in New York to recognize that there is a tremendous chaotic indigenous beauty in this landscape. There is a raucous heterodox energy that dates back to the first Dutch settlement. Before that it was the dwelling place of various native tribes in conflict and contestation for its natural resources and bounty. New York has always been about the marketplace whether that is the marketplace of ideas, of commodities, of pimps and thieves, whores and underworld gangsters; and it also has been the marketplace of religious energy. I always find it funny when two-bit pastors talk about the “negative secularism” of New York City when New York has been home to some of the greatest preachers of the 20th century and its institutions of higher learning housed some of the towering figures of modern American theology. The whole Christian idea that New York is inherently secular I find offensive. Christianity since its very beginnings has thrived on urban soil. Why? It is because of the energy present in such a place, the admixture and confusion of moral absolutes that the city by its very nature confounds. So, if you’re a Christian and you live in New York, spend some time meditating on the parable of the wheat and the tares.  Hopefully you will  get confused about which one you are.  I think the people I am with at Ascension have no problem appreciating the wildness of New York and its energy. We are all part of it. It is one of the reasons I was attracted to them in the first place.

You also stated your view that in gentrifying neighborhoods, such as Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, churches that primarily reach out to the newer, wealthier residents of the neighborhood  are “institutionalizing social difference.” What do you mean by this and why do you think churches do this kind of one-sided outreach?

Most mainline churches, and by that I mean Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. are shrinking. That’s a fact and has been for a long time no matter where you go. In gentrifying neighborhoods like Greenpoint, churches look at the newcomers as the folks that offer them some path to viability. For a shrinking mainline church in a gentrifying neighborhood with an unappealing or failing message it is easier to fantasize that a newer audience might find your old message attractive rather than doing some serious inward reevaluation of the content, the spirit, the ethos of your community and message.

If you reach out without inward revaluation and a new integrative holistic vision of what a new community combining older and newer residents into something real, wider, and new—something that might have a spiritual depth that can resonate with people across this spectrum—you are either going to wind up with either a monolithic community or two communities of people under one roof: one new, one old.

I see it as the mission at the Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint and Williamsburg to bring older residents and newer residents under one roof into one conversation, one struggle and one practice of faith expressed in various tones and shades. This inevitably means confronting very real differences: educational, socio-economic, sexual orientation, ideas about what it means to be Christian, etc. But it is important to remember that this mixing is a two-way street. People coming from all perspectives have their own valuable insights and bring rich histories and faith/life experiences into the mix. Differences are real.  However those differences are not to be misnamed in such a way that they become barriers that block people from recognizing each other’s common humanity, our holiness in being human, or our mutual connections and accountability.

When I mentioned gentrification as a process that “institutionalizes social difference” in our previous conversation I was speaking of the danger of setting up parallel institutions within the community at large and within the Church that are not in the end open for and to all but rather serve the interests of the few.  In the community at large we have separate nursery schools, play groups, bars, churches and even within churches, perhaps separate worship times. All these are ways that the gentrifying force moves in and rather than integrating reinforces its own social norms.  And because of economic realities, more often than not the gentrifying force displaces the indigenous culture which was the lure for moving into the area in the first place.  The church is a place where this tendency can be combated and people can meet at a place of deeper commonality.

I think most people would agree that this is a noble goal—to bring the neighborhood natives and the in-movers together—but is it realistic? Don’t people often want to go to church with people like themselves?

I do think it’s realistic, actually, to bring all these types of people together. On the surface, yes, people do want to go and meet people like themselves or at least they perceive that the fantasy of sameness brings some kind of security, comfort and safety. The reality is that even in a relatively homogenous community if people are honest and real about it, the diversity of ideas, faith viewpoints, aspiration and struggles are quite vast. I know that to be true from a pastoral counseling perspective. There is of course a common thread–the experience of being human, being conscious, making meaning in ways that seem manageable–that we all share. The exciting thing is spending significant time going through life passages with other people, and when they are people from backgrounds other than those you share it just adds to the richness.

Given the challenges faced by congregations such as yours (some of which you’ve elaborated on), do think it would be harder to start a church from scratch or reinvigorate a congregation as you are now doing?

I think it is harder to reinvigorate a congregation than to start one from scratch. Let’s put it this way, if I were to ask you “would it be easier to move out of your parents house and your grandparents house to start your own family or to start one in the context of those previous generations,” which would you rather do or imagine easier? I think here in the United States the question has already been amply answered. We move out of home as fast as we can, strike out and start separate families, create new story lines, etc. History, especially institutional history, whether glorious or tragic, is a heavy-duty burden as you move into the future or you imagine what a future might look like.  You either can’t live up to the past, can’t live it down or can’t get over it and get on.  By starting something new you lose the multivalent burden of history.

On the other hand, when reinvigorating the congregation, you already have the most precious resource present and that is the desire, the longings and the stories of those present and their history of valuing a place of worship. The challenge there is helping to call out the best of their affection for the place they have been so long, the best that is in them, while limiting the negative drag of history.

In an effort to attract congregants, some churches in New York City spend a lot of money on marketing. They purchase advertising space on Google and do things like purchase advertising on entire cars on the Subway. Is this a good thing?

My personal preference is a halfway decent website and word of mouth, but I am open to other things. Personally, I have a hard time discriminating between ads on the subway so when I see some church like Marble Collegiate (Dutch Reformed) or St. Bart’s (which is from my own Episcopal tradition), they all kind of get blended together. I think Dr. Zizmor who did skin peels and acne treatments had a very effective and enchanting ad on the subway. It is an ad I can still recall vividly when I close my eyes. I’m not sure how big his congregation was, but I think he did well as he could afford all those ads—somebody should check.

Here’s part 2 of our third interview in our FaithStreet Leaders Speak series, a series of interviews with Christian leaders in New York City. This week we * interviewed Rev. John Merz, Priest at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint. Those of you who read last week, know that John has a quick wit and an unconventional perspective. Please enjoy and please share.
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New York is a very transient city. Is it frustrating doing ministry with people who often aren’t going to live in NYC for more than a year or two?

Not really. I just try and meet people where they are. I was a college Chaplain at NYU for five years so I got used to transient populations. I figure you just try and be present to whoever is present.

New Yorkers are often perceived as having a negative view of church, do you think that this is accurate?

This is a loaded question for me because I’m a native New Yorker. I don’t think New Yorkers can really be generalized in such a way. I will say this if I have to generalize: New Yorkers are savvy bunch. This is a culture rich, no BS, reality heavy town. You can fill 10 lifetimes with interesting and wonderful things to do here. There’s more life, character, tragedy and depth on some single street corners in New York than there are in some other entire urban centers (how’s that for an answer from an obnoxious New Yorker!?).

New York is often characterized pejoratively as “secular,” but I actually see the city as quite spiritually-rich.

So with all this spiritually-rich life, action and energy, churches are quite hard-pressed to present a faith life that takes into account all of the rich challenges one encounters in this urban landscape and not be found lacking or somewhat evasive; one’s understanding of the Christian tradition or whatever tradition needs “chops”, as the musicians like to say.

What would you say to a New Yorker who says, “Why should I put my faith in God?”

I would say first off, knowingly or unknowingly you put your faith in something (art, money, culture, the fantasy of progress, psychology, religion) and we are deceiving ourselves if we imagine otherwise. Therefore the first question is in what or who do you put your faith consciously or consciously. Secondly, I would say, you should or shouldn’t put your faith in God based upon the richness and depth of your God concept. If you have a superficial and literal conception of God—God as big daddy in the sky or the Bible as word for word dictation from a cloud—I would highly recommend benign consumerism as a better faith path and less of a public safety hazard.

If you have a God concept that is big enough to imagine a ground of being that contains within it all our polarities of good and evil; our temporal sense of life as beginning and death as end of being and yet still remains larger than all that, points to a still yet larger sense of life’s and God’s unknowable circumference; if your concept of God allows you to feel lovingly part of this creation, not the center of it but rather connected to and contingent upon other human and sentient beings, then I would say it’s worthwhile. I think the Jesus story, the Gospels, and the Hebrew scriptures are large like that.

I also don’t think you “put” your faith anywhere. That makes it sound like a briefcase that I can set up on a table: I’ll “put my faith here” or “I will put it there”. Like I said at the outset of this question we are unwittingly faith creatures: we don’t so much choose where to “put our faith” as our histories, our conscious and unconscious drives, and our fantasies about who we are and who we want to be conspire and get us caught up in some grand narrative. I guess the question is do you feel your narrative is connected in some transcendent way to the narrative of all others, including the story of the world in a sustainable and just manner (a just life for all). If that is the case then you are involved in a faithful God story that is worthwhile. That is just my trip though; there are many other viable visions.

There are thousands of churches in New York City. Do you think those churches do a good job of working together?

I do not think we do a good job of working together primarily because we are all what you might call financially strapped not-for-profit agencies. Though it would be for our mutual benefit to work together, the limited resources of most churches ironically prohibits the seeming luxury or time to look outward in collaborative efforts. Not that they don’t happen but they surely do not happen enough.

What discourages you about NYC? Gives you hope for NYC?

I’m not too discouraged about New York City, I think we are right on track—for what I am not sure, but I do think we are just about where we should be at this point in human history. However all the talk about kayaking in East River and our various waterways I do find somewhat disturbing. Not that I dislike kayaking, it’s just that it seems like a lot of talk for such a small boat.

What magazines, blogs, websites and other media do you read weekly?
I read the New York Times every day, I read the New York Review of Books and I have a subscription to the New Yorker whose unread editions I plan to save and use as insulation in the walls of an as yet unpurchased mansion on the upper Hudson River.

Where do you go in the City to relax?

I like to walk around the streets, any streets, and little urban adventures my wife Tara. When I’m feeling particularly melancholy I either walk across the Brooklyn Bridge or go out to Coney Island. I also like to take my Bernese Mountain Dog Lola out for walks

If you weren’t a pastor, what would you be?

I had a woodshop before becoming an Episcopal Priest so I might be doing that. I love dogs so I could see working at a doggy day care or running one. I also have a fantasy of operating a tugboat in NY harbor but all the big ships seems to have gone elsewhere. I also have a fantasy of managing a McDonalds really well. I could go on and on, but I think I will leave it there.