Rethink Church

The toothless watch seller on the corner of 125th and Malcolm X got out the photo of his son whom he hadn’t seen in 13 years. He parted from his wife when the boy was 12. In the photo, the handsome young man embraced a young woman on a rock.

The man was selling watches for $8 and $5. He told me he was abused and beaten as a kid, as was his mother and all of his siblings. And he said, “I’ve been in drug rehabilitation and I know all about denial. But the reason I drink is that when I lived in New Orleans, oh, it gets so hot, you need a nice cold beer.”

Drew and I watched over the man’s card table while he ran in to the Carver Bank to get change. That was one of our Random Acts of Kindness, part of today’s Rethink Church campaign. We opened doors for people at the bank. And we listened to stories, because, you know, everyone had a story.

The woman with the cigarette outside of the Starbucks wanted to know about our red jackets and hats. We told her we were part of the United Methodist church.

“The United Methodist Church? Is that Pentacostal? Because my father was a Pentacostal minister. He told God ‘If anyone of my family is going to get ill, let me have the illness.’ And he did. He got cancer and he died. My mother will die soon too, she’s just waiting for the last two out of six of us to go to church. I’m one of the two. So is that Methodist Church one I should go to? Do you have to wear a dress to church? Because I don’t have a dress.”

I told her she didn’t have to wear a dress. I don’t wear a dress to church. (But you know I don’t want to hasten her mother’s trip to heaven so I gave her the soft sell.)

We met a guy named Carlos who wanted to know where the homeless shelters were. We handed out the sheet with the shelters’ addresses. And Carlos asked us did we have a Metrocard and could we give it to him?

It was 10 in the morning. My unofficial partner was Drew Giddings. Drew was an excellent companion because he was friendly and wry and appropriately peeved when the security guard kicked us out of our most excellent location — opening doors for the disabled people going into 55 West 125th. Drew kept count. He and I performed 18 acts of random kindness in Harlem. Our next stop was Bryant Park.

Our leader was Bill Shilady, upbeat and easygoing. There were maybe 200 church people fanning out in several New York City neighborhoods today to promote tenthousanddoors.org and the Rethink Church campaign. Bill had prepped us at St. Paul and St. Andrew when we assembled at 8:30 am. One of our talking points was that church is a verb and not just a noun.

But no one really prepped us for the stories about alcoholism, death, and, yes, appropriate attire. (Maybe these are the parts of church I can rethink.)

“Nice suit!” Drew called out from the steps at 6th and 41st . The two young men stopped. One opened his briefcase and there were pattern squares and fabric samples neatly organized. Yes, the two guys were selling custom-made suits. “And our shirts are cheaper and better than the ones at Pink.” The two quite possibly did a better job of selling us their suits than we did of selling them on the United Methodist Church.

Some in our group simply dispensed the free music download cards, others really engaged with pedestrians. We tried to get the stories, maybe even make a friend.

One tall handsome guy accepted the free music card and gave me his card. “Because some day you might need a lawyer to protect you from identity theft .” I might.

In case you’re wondering, I did buy a watch from that watch seller in Harlem. The watch is keeping good time. But then I just bought it this morning. It only cost five dollars. Drew might buy one of those guys’ custom suits.

The highlight of my day? When Drew treated me to a Random Act of Kindness and bought me a spicy beef Jamaican patty at the Crispy Crust. It was so good. (I’m pretty sure all of the other Rethinkers on the bus were jealous.) I think I’ll go back for another patty someday and I’ll chat with that watch seller at the corner.

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