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RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.” The author is Heidi Neumark. She’s been the pastor of the Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx for 20 years. Before moving on, her congregation was a mix of Hispanics and African Americans in one of the nation’s poorest communities. Why did you choose this work?
HEIDI NEUMARK: Well, from being a very young child, I always had a strong concern for justice and a sense that the church, as I got older, that the church needed to be in places where I felt it was going away from. I think that’s what the gospel is about: God being present everywhere, particularly where people are more on the edge of life and death.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the book, with terrifying detail, you walk us through the real lived lives of a lot of the people of the neighborhood where your church sat.
HEIDI NEUMARK: Mm-hmm.
RAY SUAREZ: And I’m wondering if you really understood how utterly and totally burdened their lives were before you came to live with them in the South Bronx.
HEIDI NEUMARK: No. I think… I think that’s a process of getting to know people and I didn’t know until I actually began to walk with people and share their lives, what were the multi-levels of struggles that people have.
RAY SUAREZ: Yet you couldn’t make poor people no longer poor; you couldn’t make chronically sick people– many of the people who live in that area suffer with chronic illnesses caused by their environment– you couldn’t take away those problems. What were you bringing them by bringing them the church, by helping the church be in a place like the South Bronx?
HEIDI NEUMARK: Well, I wouldn’t say I brought the church. I think also people there had… a lot of people are already filled with the spirit of god, but I think that the church brings hope and a way to put legs on hope, a vision that things can be different, that the word that society says to people and was certainly giving to people in that community that, “you’re not worth very much so we’re going to do all of our waste transfer stations, sewage treatment plants here, build prisons instead of schools,” that that isn’t how God sees people. And so I think that the church brings a sign of hope and possibility.
RAY SUAREZ: At one point when you’re doing work with a community organization you draw a distinction between yourself as a pastor and what community organizers do. Yet, you were involved in many of the same battles for health care, for a responsive social welfare system, for schools that took care of the needs of the children that you knew in the neighborhood. Did you sometimes feel like more… more like one than the other?
HEIDI NEUMARK: Not really. I think as a pastor, for instance, like all churches we baptize. We baptize and when we baptize people– children, babies or adults– we anoint them with oil as in the Hebrew scriptures, prophets, kings and priests were anointed. We say, you know “now you are precious, you are beloved.” We can’t really do that and then send kids out and say, “well, you’re beloved here but now go out and be treated like dirt. Go to substandard schools and maybe end up in prison.” To me there’s a real disconnect there– that what happens on Sunday morning is really something that ought to transform the rest of life as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Your decision as a life’s work to share the sufferings of these people didn’t implicate only yourself though. You brought your husband along, your children were born there. Were there times where you felt that your desire to have a vocation among these people was pulling them along to places that they wouldn’t otherwise go and wasn’t always great for them?
HEIDI NEUMARK: Well I guess the jury is still out on that. Our children are teenagers now, but it’s hard to imagine life being different. But I think that we all need to be connected to one another. I think it was good for our children to know how people live in different parts of the world and different parts of the United States, to feel… I mean, for them, the South Bronx is home. They’re very upset about moving. I remember a Monopoly game came out of New York City and the cheapest properties on the board, like the Baltic Place, was the Bronx. They were absolutely infuriated by that. I don’t think that they felt that bad about it.
RAY SUAREZ: One thing that impressed me about the lives that you touched during your time at transfiguration is how optimism manages to hang on and survive in the face of crushing life experience. It must be in some ways a kind of privilege to work with people who can keep their chin up when so many things are going badly.
HEIDI NEUMARK: Oh, absolutely. It was just the triumph of grace is an amazing gift to be surrounded by people who just rose up in the midst of such incredible obstacles. That’s really why I wrote the book. I wanted other people to be able to share in that experience and also perhaps be transformed by it, as I’ve been.
RAY SUAREZ: But there were also times where it read like you understood that your canoe, though still in the water and floating, was in danger of being swamped. That the enormity of what people in that area had to deal with was threatening to tip you over, too.
HEIDI NEUMARK: That’s true. But I think one of the things that always kind of, I guess– to use the canoe image– stabilized the boat, was the recognition of those who had overcome so much more.
RAY SUAREZ: So today, is this part of the Bronx a better place to live, a more hopeful place to live than it was when you came to transfiguration in 1984?
HEIDI NEUMARK: I would say in many, many ways absolutely yes, that the work of transfiguration with other churches, with a mosque and the work of other community groups and people has really transformed the face of the South Bronx. But there’s a lot still to be done. The schools there are still among some of the worst in the city. And it’s still the case that a few blocks from the church there’s a prison for ten- to fifteen- year-olds. It costs I think it’s about $120,000 a year per child in the prison where the school across the street it’s $6,000-$7,000 a year invested per child. So if we’re continuing to invest in prisons and not in schools, that’s the kind of hidden crime.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there people that you were afraid that you were going to lose, that they were going to lose themselves, who today are making it?
HEIDI NEUMARK: I just had a really wonderful experience. Through this book, I was in Milwaukee doing a reading and a young man came in with his wife and his name was Willie. He was in the very first group of teenagers who came to the church. He came to a karate class. He became very involved in the church. His mother was a crack addict who died of AIDS. He never knew his dad. He had just a horrible home situation and became active in the church through the youth programs.
He ended up tutoring in our youth programs. Then he went to a church camp. He eventually moved to Milwaukee. I haven’t seen him in years. He walked in to where I was with his wife and two children, and he told me that he runs a camp for kids out of inner city Milwaukee. I just burst into tears. He was in tears. His wife was in tears. I said, you know, “If nothing else happened out of 20 years in the South Bronx, this was worth it.” Of course a lot more happened, but…
RAY SUAREZ: A good day at work for Pastor Neumark.
HEIDI NEUMARK: Well, and for the people of the South Bronx.
RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey Through the South Bronx.” Pastor Neumark, good to talk to you.
HEIDI NEUMARK: Thank you so much. Good to talk with you.