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Rev. Katrina Foster Moves On After 15+ Years at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church

June 4, 2010

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PASTOR KATRINA FOSTER’S LAST SERVICE WAS ON MAY 30 (PHOTOS BY ALMA WATKINS)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Five years ago, Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church’s congregation voted to tear down their beautiful church on Walton Avenue near East Fordham Road.

Their decision was prompted, not by a crisis in faith, but by a desire to transform the block and change lives. They planned to replace the near-century-old church, and two houses the church owns on Morris Avenue, with a garden and a pair of 15-story buildings, which would house affordable co-ops; a smaller church more suited to the needs of a modestly-sized congregation; a credit union; a gymnasium, a space dedicated to Christian education, and more.

“The vision was to create a whole ministry that would deal with entire persons and entire families,” said Rev. Katrina Foster, the church’s long-serving pastor, in an interview last month. “We would have done it all, and done it as blatantly Christian, unapologetically Christian. Anyone can come but we are doing this because we love Jesus and we love you.”

Toward the end of 2008, however, the economy failed. Funding sources dried up and the city canceled a program that would have subsidized the co-ops’ construction. The church was forced to put the $22 million project on ice.

In the following weeks and months, Foster began to feel restless. “I kept asking God, ‘Am I doing what you want me to?’” she said. “And I got the sense of ‘you’ve got to go so something new and different can happen here.’”

FORDHAM EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH AT 2430 WALTON AVE.

She added, “I think that my gifts and talents have been used as far as we can go with them.”

Long story short, she and her family are moving to Long Island this summer where she’ll become the pastor of two Lutheran churches in the Hamptons.

“I’ve been here 15 ½ years,” said Foster, 41. “The congregation is in pretty good shape, it’s in much better shape than when I first arrived. It’s best I think to go when you’re at a point of strength rather than weakness.”

These days, about 70 people attend service on any given Sunday, up from 20 when Foster arrived in 1994. Financially, too, the church is stable, with more and more members choosing to tithe, allowing the church to expand its programs.

On Sunday, May 30 – Foster’s last Sunday at the church – over 100 people turned out for what was a long, loud and joyful service, despite the sadness felt by many. Foster’s infectious energy, and her enthusiasm and warmth, were very much on display that morning. During a performance by the choir, she could be seen bobbing her head vigorously, clapping her hands, and singing along, a huge smile spread across her face.

In her final sermon, Foster talked about the times she confronted local drug dealers, and how, several years back, she physically tackled a man who had just robbed the church, stories that elicited chuckles from the crowd. Then she became serious, thanking her congregants for the “uncommon courage” they showed when voting her in as the church’s first female pastor almost 16 years ago; and then, eight years ago, for showing the same courage and support when she told them she was gay, and that her partner, Pamela, was pregnant.

For a time, Foster faced the possibility of being defrocked; openly gay pastors could serve, but only if they remained single and celibate. No longer content with staying silent, she became the “poster child” for those pushing to change the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s policy, bringing her and her church national attention – not all of it welcome, particularly the hate mail.

In 2009, at a national assembly meeting, the wider church voted to allow gay pastors in monogamous relationships to keep their jobs. Still, gay pastors are not the norm, and Foster expects to encounter “some discomfort” among church members in Long Island.

FOSTER

PASTOR KATRINA FOSTER AND HER DAUGHTER ZOYA

“I think that some of them are wondering, ‘Now that we’re going to have an openly lesbian person, are we going to become a gay church?” she said. “There was wondering aloud about that here [at Fordham] and I pointed out to them that I’ve been the pastor here for years and we never became [just] a white church.”

“Once we spend time together…I think the reality will set in that I’m just a very good, solid parish pastor,” Foster added.

After the May 30 services wrapped up, many of the congregants relocated to the basement for a “potluck” meal of chicken, pork, and rice cooked 10 different ways – a reflection of the many different ethnic groups (among them, African-Americans, Hispanics, West Indians) who call Fordham Lutheran home.

Many had kind words for their departing pastor.

Edith Goodenough, an 89-year-old who lives on Williamsbridge Road and takes two buses to the church every Sunday, said Foster was there for her – on the phone and in person – when she lost her husband to cancer.

Orlando Torres, who plays the bongo drums in the church band, said: “Of course, she has the clerical robes, but when you get talking to her you get to see the human side…she taught me that it was OK to make mistakes.”

Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a state Senate candidate and a church leader who sings in the choir, said the fact that a gay, white woman from the South had forged such strong bonds with her predominantly black congregation in the Bronx, was “walking proof” that everyone could get along.

Pilgrim-Hunter and Foster got to know each other through the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where both were board members. As a pastor, especially one in an urban setting, it’s important that you are also a community organizer, Foster said. And she took on this role with gusto – whether working with the Coalition to demand “living wages” at the Kingsbridge Armory, or advocating for immigrant rights.

Choosing a new pastor can be delicate business – with both the wider church and Fordham’s congregants involved – and it could be months before Foster’s successor is found. In the meantime, guest pastors will preside over Sunday services.

Pilgrim-Hunter says she is hoping for someone who is “open, progressive, and flexible, and who’s going to be a fighter for this community” just like Foster was.

Q & A: Verona Greenland

June 4, 2010

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VERONA GREENLAND, THE PRESIDENT AND CEO OF MORRIS HEIGHTS HEALTH CENTER (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

On May 26, Morris Heights Health Center celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gala at Marina Del Ray in Throgs Neck. At the event, the board of directors of the MHHC Foundation, the center’s philanthropic arm, honored Verona Greenland with their 2010 Legacy Award.

Greenland, Morris Heights’ founder, president and CEO, was born in Jamaica, went to high school in England, and moved to the US as a young woman. She lives in Yonkers and has one son. Recently, she sat down with the Monitor to talk about her career and Morris Heights’ history.

Qestion: How did you get interested in healthcare?

Answer: I grew up in a family where people were always helping others. Not that we were rich, but to us it was important to take care of those who were less fortunate. That became a part of who I am. My grandmother always used to say ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’

Tell me about your early career.

I’m a trained nurse and midwife and so I did that for a little while. Then I went to Columbia University [to obtain a masters degree in public health]. While there, I went to an American Public Health Conference in LA. We went to a skit put on by the Black Caucus, or something like that. It was a long time ago, but I remember being so moved. In essence, what they were saying was that their communities – our communities – were so brain-drained that we needed to come back. They said come back with your German shepherd, come back with your night stick…but we really need you back. Back then, in communities of color, most of us, once we got our degree, we’d migrate out to the suburbs, so therefore our kids didn’t have role models.

How did Morris Heights Health Center come into being?

One Friday [in 1978], I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral [in Manhattan] and prayed, and then left there and went back to Columbia, where there was a little advertisement posted looking for a project director [for the Morris Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association, a community organization based on Grand Avenue, that was looking to expand into healthcare]. It was about 5 o’clock and I picked up the phone and dialed this number and the person who answered said they had already screened all the candidates they wanted and that they were having interviews on Monday. I talked her into allowing me to come. I arrived, resume in hand, happy to be the first person there, and I was interviewed and I got the job. The rest is history. [Morris Heights Health Center became its own entity in 1981.]

What were those first years like?

I was young and naïve; at the interview I thought there was a space. I arrived the following Monday to discover it was an “idea.” They had no space; they had nothing. In fact all they had was a room in a house on Grand Avenue and $25,000, but we were on the verge of losing it because nothing had been done with it. So it was a matter of working very fast and trying to find a place of our own, and after two years we were able to open a site [at 70 W. Burnside Ave., where the Women’s Health & Birthing Pavilion is today]. It was a very small group of individuals who just wanted to make a difference. This community, at that time, was becoming medically abandoned. Morrisania Hospital closed as did several other hospitals. So this major void happened.

Today the organization employs 400-plus people and serves more than 60,000 people annually from 14 locations. How were you able to grow and thrive over the years?

The need. I think one of the things we pride ourselves on is not so much as reacting [to health conditions], but really analyzing and looking at what is happening in the community, what the needs are, and trying to address those needs. And we do it in concert with the community. We are a community orientated organization, we try hard not to stay in our ivory tower. We look at what we’re seeing, what our patients’ conditions are, and based on those analyses, we plan accordingly.

How has local residents’ health changed over time?

Some things are better. For example, HIV, the onset of HIV in the ‘80s. We didn’t know what we were dealing with. It’s still here, but it’s not a life sentence. Also, we look at the infant mortality rate. When we started here, the infant mortality rate was anything from 15 to 26 infants per 1,000. Those statistics are ones you would see in a Third World country. I think today the mortality rate is about 6 per 1000. More and more kids are getting immunized.

And what’s worse?

Obesity, hypertension [high blood pressure], and cardiovascular issues, and so forth. My community would be considered a young community, but it’s a community with old people’s diseases. One reason, when you’re poor you really don’t have the money to go out and buy the food that you need to. And so it’s the fries and the wings. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful.

In health surveys, the Bronx often tops “worst of” lists. What would it take to turn this around?

The hospitals, the community health centers, the social organizations – everybody – needs to start working together and plan for the healthcare of the entire 1.5 million people in the Bronx. If we really start looking at the community in its totality, and prior to birth, all the way through to death, I think that’s the way we’re going to transform [the borough]. Right now I still think it’s very compartmentalized and haphazardly done. I might be doing my little planning, a hospital’s doing their planning, everybody’s doing their planning, and it’s about them. It’s about looking at the total picture.

Tell me about the Harrison Circle project [the new building on the corner of West Burnside and Harrison avenues].

After many tries, we were able to raise the amount of money we needed from HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and other places. We’re hoping by July or August of this year, everything will be completed and we will have 70 apartments for seniors, and about 30,000 for medical and primary specialty care services, and some commercial space, including a pharmacy and other tenants.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What I enjoy is just the transformation. Thirty-two years ago when I came here, this was like a wilderness. It was abandoned in every conceivable way. It was palpable. Just thinking about walking through the community was very difficult, very frightening. To see how the community and the lives the community has changed, that’s what keeps me going. At the end of the day, I do feel in a very small way that I’ve made a difference and continue to make a difference.

Interview by James Fergusson

Local Man Sees Something, Says Something

June 4, 2010

LANCE ORTON LIVES ON UNDERCLIFF AVENUE (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

On May 4, Lance Orton got a call on his cell phone.

He answered, and a woman asked, “Is this the real Lance L. Orton, Sr.?”

“I said ‘Is this some sort of prank?’” Orton recalled recently. “She said, ‘I have to check because I have President Obama waiting to speak to you.’ I said, ‘Is this a prank call?’ She said, ‘Sir, this is no prank call.’”

Sure enough, Obama himself came on the phone and thanked Orton for his vigilance.

“When I heard the president’s voice, it made the whole situation worthwhile,” he said.

It had been a whirlwind few days for the 57-year-old Vietnam vet who lives in Morris Heights. On Saturday, May 1, he was selling T-shirts in Times Square – as he has for more than 20 years – when he saw wisps of smoke coming from a parked S.U.V.

He alerted a nearby police officer on horseback, who went to investigate, sparking a chain of events which began with an evacuation of the area, and ended with the arrest, two days later, of Connecticut resident Faisal Shahzad.

Shahzad has been charged with an act of terrorism and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

At first, when he saw the smoke, Orton didn’t think ‘bomb.’ Instead he was worried the gas tank might explode. Only later, inside the police station in Times Square (where Orton spent the night answering questions) did he realize the severity of the situation.

“They had this big computer screen which was zeroed in on the car,” he said. “I saw the bomb squad along with the FBI….and the propane and gasoline [canisters]. That’s when it hit me how heavy this situation was. Because I was sitting as close to that car as I’m sitting to you. [If it had blown] there wouldn’t have been enough of me to even have been buried.”

Early the following morning, Orton and a handful of men he works with were allowed to pick up their T-shirts and tables and head home. But dozens of reporters, desperate for information, had other ideas.

Not that Orton was too interested in talking. “I said listen, we haven’t had any sleep, we’ve been up all night, and we haven’t eaten, or used the bathroom.”

Before getting into a cab, he did give them one quote, however. “If you see something, say something,” he said.

After some sleep, Orton was much more willing to talk about his experiences. He was interviewed by Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show, he met Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and, of course, he chatted with Obama. He also travelled up to Albany where, at the suggestion of Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson, he was honored by both houses of the Legislature. “He potentially saved the lives of thousands,” says Gibson.

Though Orton’s cell phone has just about stopped ringing, he’d like to stay in the spotlight so he can shine attention on two issues dear to his heart: veterans’ rights and affordable housing. (Last October, Orton was evicted from the apartment he rented on 163rd Street in Washington Heights. He said a new landlord had run the building into the ground and begun forcing out elderly tenants, with the hopes of upping the rents. When Orton defended them, and tried to form a tenants association, he too was thrown out, he says. Since then he’s been living on Undercliff Avenue with his father, a situation he calls far from ideal.)

Back in Times Square, Orton says he’s recognized all the time. Everyone, from locals to tourists, wants a piece of him, he says. “People are lining up, they want their T-shirts signed, they want me to hug their kids, they want me to take pictures with the entire family,” he said, sounding slightly exasperated. “I can’t tell them no.”
Often, someone will call him a hero. So does he feel like one? “I don’t feel like a hero,” Orton said. “I’m a Christian, I feel blessed that, a) It didn’t blow up, and b) That the good Lord put me in that seat, because I believe if it was anyone else, they would have just dismissed it.”

Carnival Raises $ for Teen Media Center

June 4, 2010

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

Students and teachers at MS 331, the Bronx School of Science Inquiry and Investigation, kicked off the start of the warm weather season with an outdoor fundraising carnival on May 28.

The schoolyard was transformed into a fairground, where students could buy 50-cent tickets to drench their teachers in a dunk-booth or throw a whip cream pie at their friends—the two more popular games of the day—as well as have their faces painted or jump in an inflatable bouncy castle.

“It’s been a great day to celebrate,” said assistant principal Roberto Padilla.

The event was organized to raise money to turn an old computer lab on the school’s fifth floor into a “teen media center”—a tech-savvy library space for students to read and do research that would emphasize digital literacy, according to English teacher Adam Fachler, who is helping to plan to project.

The middle school shares the building with two others—an elementary and special needs school—so the current library can get crowded.

“There’s only one library,” said 8th-grader Veronica Dias, who helped plan the carnival and ran a face-painting booth that day. “I know some kids don’t have the space to study at home, with their sisters and brothers running around. I kind of hope it can be a quiet space.”

The school’s goal is to raise $10,000 to build the new center. They’d already raised $2,580 prior to the fundraiser by selling t-shirts, and were hoping to get much closer to their goal by the end of the day.

Parent volunteers cooked food for the festival, which was open to the public for the later half of the day. In addition to raising money, the event was also a graduation gift to the school from the eighth-grade class.

Even though they won’t be around when the new library is finished, graduation students saw the effort as a community investment—a gift to both the current students and to younger ones who will eventually take their place.

“My little sisters can use it,” eighth-grader Dias said.

Local ‘Women of Distinction’ Honored

June 4, 2010

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

Senator Pedro Espada, Jr. recognized a number of notable community women on Saturday, May 22 at Mount Hope Housing Company’s community center on Townsend Avenue.

The celebration was part of the State Senate’s annual “Women of Distinction” program, where representatives select and honor women from their districts known for their remarkable work within the community.

“This is an opportunity to recognize the many professional and personal achievements of women – entrepreneurs, community activists and business leaders – whose service in both the public and private sectors has touched the lives of so many in the Bronx,” Senator Espada said in a statement.

“Their work and contributions are integral to improving the quality of life and providing a strong foundation of advocacy for thousands of families, senior citizens, tenants, children and businesses throughout the borough,” he said.

Community Board 5 member Dr. Marcia Brown was among those chosen for the honor, along with a number of business leaders, activists and community volunteers. Joy Cousminer, founder and CEO of Bethex Federal Credit Union, which provides free tax preparation assistance to low-income residents, was also one of the honorees, as was
Wilma Alonso, the executive director of Fordham Road BID.

Aida Martinez, the chairperson of Davidson Community Center; Sallie Smith, a community activist; Maxine Brunson, the president of Twin Parks Tenant Association; and Alma Watkins, who runs the youth program “Queens of New York,” and takes photographs for this newspaper, were also among the honorees.

Advocates Say They Were Banned From Espada’s ‘Town Hall’

June 4, 2010

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

A group of housing advocates who tried to attend a “town hall meeting” held by State Senator Pedro Espada say they were physically barred from entering the building, according to two people who attempted to join the meeting.

The event was held at the Davidson Community Center on May 19, and was an opportunity for Espada to explain a rent bill he’s sponsoring, according to a press release. Videos sent with the release show the senator talking about the bill, discussing charter schools and answering questions from the crowd.

But the group says they didn’t get to ask their questions — because they weren’t allowed inside. One woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retribution, said she was pushed away and had her hand ripped from the door when she tried to enter the building. The man blocking her entrance told her to “get the hell out” of there, she said.

The woman said Espada’s staffers recognized her from some of the senator’s previous rallies, which she had attended to protest his controversial rent freeze bill — legislation Espada has been pushing for months that would freeze rent prices for some New Yorkers but that tenant advocates claim is pro-landlord legislation in disguise.

Mayor Bloomberg recently sent a memorandum to the State Senate saying Espada’s rent freeze bill was unfeasible.

Michael Leonard, a local resident and self-described activist, says he was also stopped outside and told by a man in a suit that he wasn’t welcome there. He believes he was banned for picking up a flier from a protester who was outside the community center, he said.

“In my view, this was not a ‘town hall’ meeting or any sort of viable community forum,” Leonard said. “This was a pep rally for Espada.”

A spokesman from Espada’s office said the meeting was open to the public, with mailers being sent to addresses throughout the district. Some people were asked not to come inside because they were holding signs and chanting and would disrupt the purpose of the event, according to the spokesman, who denied that anyone was physically removed or blocked.

Five people were banned from the meeting, the woman said. The group then set up shop on the curb and handed out fliers about Espada’s housing bill to people passing by. According to the woman, Espada’s staffers took the fliers out of passersby’s hands and tore them up.

It’s not the first time there’s been a confrontation at an Espada event. Back in 2008, blogger and well-known City Hall gadfly Rafael Martínez Alequín got into a scuffle with Espada staffers at a campaign rally. Martínez Alequín was filming and asking questions, he said, when Espada’s son Alejandro pushed him and broke his camera. A court ordered Alejandro to pay for damages to Martinez Alequín’s camera.

Last week, dozens of Bronx activists took a bus up to Espada’s home in Mamaroneck to demand that the senator, who is head of the Housing Committee, take action on a number of pro-tenant housing bills already passed by the assembly.

“Espada’s rent-freeze bill is bootleg, not working for tenants, working more for landlords,” said Carlea Griffith, one of the protesters. “Espada wouldn’t come to us, so we came to him. We are his constituents.”

Espada says he is still considering some of the legislation passed by the assembly, including a repeal of vacancy decontrol, but he remains committed to his rent-freeze bill.

additional reporting by Gina Ciliberto

Article first appeared in the Norwood News.

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