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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

                                    ICON City Beat June 2015

 Political correctness stunted honest opinions after PTC’s press opening of Brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. People were afraid to say they didn’t like this tale of a teenage black boy from the ghetto who works at Starbucks but who is then killed in the streets. The play tries hard to be original but in the end its predictability (The New York Times lamented the play’s “well worn paths”) and erratic timeline juxtapositions made us think of the word juvenile.  More reality TV and Hallmark After School Special than classic theater, we realize that genius theatre companies like PTC must fail from time to time.  

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s annual 2015 Founders Award gala at the Union League brought us face to face with art critic Edie Newhall who told us about her ancestor, Charles Godfey Leland, Philly’s own Aleister Crowley who wrote books on witches, wrote for The Evening Bulletin and was a friend of Oscar Wilde’s. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd, author of “The Invention of Wings” (an Oprah Book Club selection) was this year’s award winner, while HSP board member Alice Lea Tasman walked away with the Heritage Award. Gerry Lenfest, fresh from his Attila the Hun Inquirer debacle in which he overturned the newspaper’s endorsement of Jim Kenny for Tony Williams, showed no remorse for his sins when he took to the podium. What’s this world coming to when money outshines integrity?  (Later reports indicated that the Kenny campaign had mispresented what happened at The Inky. It was NOT Gerry Lenfest who strong-armed the Editorial Board.) 

 Fran Lebowitz once said that she never reads the works of 22 year old writers. The idea is to go up the age scale, not down, she says, though she’s mum on the work of young, emerging visual artists. While soaking up art auction items at the recent Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA) gala, we ran into the Switzerland-born Nadia Kunz, a board member of the Da Vinci Art Alliance Gallery, who showed us her bright as Easter hand made baby clothes. We hate baby clothes on general principal, but the twenty-something couple we caught eyeing Kunz’s cute as pie fabrications seemed to be having second thoughts about a commitment to childlessness. We chatted with Madrid-born artist Maria R. Schneider, and later ran into Deb Miller who spiced up Theater Exile’s superb Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Plays and Players when she insisted that her donated wine be served to patrons at the post production reception. While Plays and Players may love their cash cow bar, when wine is donated, the idea is not to pull a Gerry Lenfest.  


     On the scene of the Amtrak tragedy, Mayor Nutter was adamant: The projectiles that hit a number of trains on the same bank of tracks 30 minutes before Train 188’s derailment were inconsequential and irrelevant. As reporters continued to grill him on the subject he softened his tone but it was too late: His Honor’s old arrogance had returned like a boomerang. It’s called speaking before knowing the facts. Projectiles are thrown objects, stones or rocks, and one or more hit a northbound Amtrak Acela train while another smashed through the driver’s window of a Septa R7 Trenton-bound train. The R7 window smattering was so severe passengers had to be transferred to a bus. Acela train passengers recall hearing a huge crash when that train was hit. Septa’s Chestnut Hill Local has a rich projectile history: Two shattered windows a month has been this line’s monthly average for years. For decades the projectile problem has been dismissed as the shenanigans of “rogue kids,” but it’s time to up the ante and increase the penalties for open warfare.    

   At The Print Center’s Book Launch for poets Thomas Devaney and Joanna Fuhrman, we met Philly’s most famous woman poet, Eleanor Wilner and then chatted with poet Jim Cory before catching up with artist Diane Burko. From there it was a short ride to the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Heritage Day where the flavor was definitely Saudi Arabian, since one of this year’s award winners was “His Excellency” Abdulaziz Al-Zamil, chairman of the Zamil Group Holding Company and a leader in Saudia Arabia’s chemical industry. The exoticism continued when we met a blonde American girl who now lives in Dubai and who said she has plenty of freedom there, including wearing her bikini to the beach. She corrected our misperceptions about the place and told us that Dubai freedoms were just as liberal as they are in New York, except that you can’t have sex on the beach, which also happens to be true in Florida.  Our evening ended at the Nationalities Services Center Global Tastes Award gala at the Reading Terminal, NSC has been helping immigrants and refugees since 1921. This year’s Margaret Harris Award went to Ballard Spahr LLP for their pro bono work in support of NSC.   

Spirit Newspapers: Philly's New Prison

Jails: If You Build It, They Will Come – The Local Lens

“If you build it, they will come.”
I’m talking about a new prison for the City of Philadelphia in the Holmesburg section of the city. If you’ve ever traveled to Holmesburg in the Northeast, you know that this area has been heavily targeted as a blight zone filled with a waste treatment plant and a number of prisons near State Road.
While I feel sorry for the residents of Holmesburg—prisons tend to be ugly architecturally—I have to wonder where these residents were when the powers that be started to turn this section of the city into Prison Central. I can’t imagine residents of the Riverwards allowing this to happen in their neighborhoods.
Let’s go back to the year 2007. At that time, Churchill Development, a Bridgewater, New Jersey developer, announced plans to build Independence Point, a $460 million residential community. Sounds like a good idea, right? Churchill had purchased 100 acres of the State Road land from an organization called Northern Associates. Although the project was initially greeted with great enthusiasm, plans for that residential community never materialized. The property wound up in the hands of BNP Paribos of New York. At that point it was valued at $7.3 million.
There was no movement for a number of years until Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon had a “dunghill mountaintop” vision (this would be the opposite of a Martin Luther King, Jr. vision) to engineer a City Council bill giving a green light to the city’s Commission of Public Property to buy the land for another prison. Apparently, Henon sensed he would get city support because Mayor Nutter had already earmarked $7.8 million for the Philadelphia Prison System to replace the House of Corrections, which had been in use since 1927.
City Council’s Committee on Public Property, having swallowed the Henon Kool Aid, voted to approve the bill to buy 58 acres of the riverfront land to build a new prison to replace the old jail.

The news of City Council’s initial approval for another prison caused me to rewrite that famous Emma Lazarus line:“Give me your tired, your poor, your johns and prostitutes: Give me your weed, Oxycontin and Percocet peddlers, and all deadbeat dads. Give me also the wretched refuse of the littered streets: hard drug dealers, parole violators, obstructers of sidewalks and traffic ticket non-payers….Send even the homeless to the Tower of Philadelphia (modeled after The Tower of London), so they can lift their lamp beside the Holmesburg waste treatment plant.”   

The city was eager to spend $7,265,299 for the 7777 State Road purchase from the company that now owned the land, a carpetbagger operation called Philadelphia Loan Associates, LLC, a New York-based group that should be fined for using the name Philadelphia.
But here’s the creepiest rub of all: The New York carpetbaggers bought the property for $100 (the price of a one way Amtrak ticket to New York) last year, and then sold it back to the city for the 7-digit figure mentioned above.
Is this not the most Machiavellian of backroom deals, perhaps completed with cigar smoke, poker chips and thuggish guards carrying loaded .45 revolvers?
After a public outcry, Councilman Henon suspended Bill 150406. But suspended does not mean eliminated—the Bill could be acted on before Council’s summer recess. Whatever happens, it is almost too late to save this section of the Northeast, which has seen their old factories and warehouses east of I-95 torched, and the implementation of so much public housing that much of the old tax base there had fled for greener shores.
A few questions worth asking are why the city needs to build so many prisons, who are we throwing in jail, and why?
While I don’t have any friends in prison, many years ago I once spent a night in jail when a police van picked me up in Center City because the cops were looking for a red haired suspect. Faster than you can say “climate change,” I was ordered into the back of the van where I was shocked to find ten other confused-looking guys, all of them with red hair. Together we were taken to the Roundhouse then put in a lineup while a witness behind a one-way glass panel examined our faces. There I stood nervously until the witness in question decided that she could not identify anybody in the lineup. Then the group of us was summarily dismissed and told to find our way home.
In those days I was na├»ve and expected an apology like, “Sorry to have inconvenienced you. Would you like a lift home?”
Being in a lineup was everything I’d seen on TV: You stand on an elevated platform or stage with the other suspects. You look straight ahead. You do not smile or grimace. In front of you is the big, dark glass panel behind which the victim or victims of the crime scrutinize your face. Tension mounts like the buildup of steam in a shower stall. If there are chorus lines in Hell, this was it. I don’t recommend it as an “experience.”
In my travels around the Riverwards, I’ve heard far too many people say that they know somebody on parole, or in prison. I think it is sad that so many people are behind bars for drug related offenses.
While the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. That is an astounding amount. These numbers do not reflect a rise in violent crime but in the number of drug offenders. In fact, the numbers of incarcerated drug offenders has risen 1200 percent since 1980. Today there are more than 500,000 people in the nation’s prisons for drug-related offenses. The booming state prison population in Pennsylvania has grown by 21 percent in just 6 years: From 37,995 in 2001 to more than 49,300 in 2009. It is far higher today.
Meanwhile, as the economy continues to nose dive, petty (potentially violent) crime seems to be on the upswing. Last year a neighbor of mine was stopped on the street by three people who lunged at her from a parked car. As a side note, beware of people seated in parked cars pretending to be listening to music. These interlopers from another neighborhood pointed a gun at her and demanded the groceries she was carrying, a small bag of snacks from the local deli. They also took three dollars. Had she resisted or screamed for help, God knows what would have happened to her. People have died for less than three dollars.
These are the people who belong in prison, not the Oxycontin and Percocet dealers who pass their tiny discounted plastic bags behind parked cars in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot.
Obviously, the criminal justice system needs massive overhauling. A good first start would be to not build prisons in just one area of the city.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Wide, Wide World of Independent Internet Churches

You can thank the Internet for the birth of so many independent Catholic churches. Google the phrase and you will get a huge configuration of church names like Liberal Catholic, Apostolic Catholic, the American National Catholic Church, Independent Old Catholic Church of America, United American Catholic Church and the Anglican Catholic Church. These don’t even scratch the surface.
Most of these churches are generally progressive, “inclusive” churches with female priests and bishops; married clergy; lesbian archbishops, and so on. Some independent churches will be traditional and conservative, but this is generally not the case.
I once wrote a column for another newspaper about my ordination to the priesthood in July of 2001. This may sound like a funny thing coming from this newspaper columnist; I hardly qualify for sainthood. Still, it remains a fact that in 2001 I took an Amtrak to New York state and received the traditional laying on of hands from both a bishop and an archbishop, from Israel, with Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Anglican and Russian Orthodox ties.
The name of the Church that ordained me covered the waterfront for umbrella inclusion: the Anglican Catholic Byzantine Orthodox Church. How’s that for a mouthful? I came across ACBOC after an intense Internet search and sent an email to the presiding bishop, inquiring about ordination. The bishop who ordained me said that my ordination was valid, despite the fact that the church had a primarily Internet-only presence with priests whose home doubles as a parish. For the most part, these home parishes include a basement or a garage that has been converted to a small chapel. While I never went to seminary, I’ve spent half a lifetime reading theological and church history texts, so becoming a priest didn’t seem that far-fetched. After ordination, my bishop gave me a chalice, a friend in Montreal made me a chasuble and a stole; I was ready to go!
But go where?
Shortly after moving to the Riverwards from Center City in 2002, I started saying Mass for the Sister Peter Claver Catholic Worker House in Kensington. These were home table Masses in the bland and predictable Novus Ordo rite, and they always preceded dinner. While I had great affection for the CW crowd, the liturgies were a hodgepodge of influences reminiscent of the scattered method of writing used by William S. Burroughs. Pop music CDs often supplemented prayers and chants, and generally the Mass prayers were altered to fit the latest theological fashions: God the Father became Mother and Father God, and some celebrants even called God “She” or  “Cosmic Mother.”
Depending on the personal style of the priest saying Mass, you could expect almost anything when it came to communion. Use of traditional communion wafers was rare. Often it was seedless rye bread or chunks from a Thriftway Kaiser roll, reports of occasional oatmeal cookies, and grape juice for wine. Despite these innovations, the CW participants were role models when it came to practicing what you preach, like loving your neighbor as yourself. When I said Mass at the CW House I came equipped with real communion hosts, a crucifix and a traditional stole.
In time, the CW house became so theologically out-there that anyone with a sincere intention to say Mass was allowed to do so; the thought was that every person sitting around the table was a member of the priesthood of believers, suggesting that everyone was a priest.
The bishop who ordained me would periodically ask how I was getting along in my new role.  “It’s lonely.” I would tell him. “Saying Mass for a congregation of one is weird. It’s like the sound of one person clapping.” Initially, the bishop had hoped that there would be lines of people outside my house on Sunday mornings. “Look,” I reminded him, “nobody is going to leave Saint Anne’s parish on Lehigh Avenue for my humble coffee table church. I don’t even have acolytes.”
Other difficulties arose when people quizzed me about how ACBOC worked. Many were perplexed when it came to the “mechanics” of the independent Catholic movement.
“Oh,” they’d say, “So it’s Catholic but it’s not really Catholic as in part of the Archdiocese or under the Pope?”
“No, our bishop is in upstate New York. We respect the Pope, but we’re not under him necessarily; we follow the Catholic tradition.”
“You follow the Catholic tradition but you are not 100 percent Catholic? I don’t understand.”
Others wanted to know if ACBOC was headquartered in a city cathedral and I’d tell them that the only cathedral was a large garage chapel in a New York country split level home. Things got worse when people wanted an explanation of what I meant when I said that our little Internet church had a valid apostolic succession. All too often I faced empty, incredulous stares.
Nonetheless, I was still a priest prepared for anything. In my house I had a ready stock of communion hosts that I purchased from a religious goods shop in South Philly. The unconsecrated hosts had IHS inscribed on them. At one point I even debated buying a cassock but, in the end, decided that I didn’t want to walk around the neighborhood in it; it would only cause more confusion.
“What do you mean you’re not a Catholic priest but a priest with Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic and Russian roots? What does that mean?”
“It means,” I could have answered, “that my little church contains multitudes.”
One day, I was asked to attend a Mass at an Old Catholic Church in Lansdowne. This was a traditional  church with a large congregation, mostly families. Some weeks later,  when the parish priest was away, I said Sunday Mass for the entire congregation. Most of the Masses in the Lansdowne church were Catholic-Evangelical hybrids, a Catholic liturgy with Methodist music and an occasional female priest thrown in for good measure. The parish was up on the social, cultural and political issues of the day; it was politically correct to a fault. My first homily wasn’t bad, but I ended up wishing that I could have read a short story instead. I hated pointing fingers and preaching to people. I knew I had to find a new way to preach.
Meanwhile, my bishop was sending me disturbing news about the interpersonal wars going on among the hundreds of independent Internet Catholic churches. These churches were like jealous siblings or vengeful spouses intent on destroying the competition. The stories I heard were quite shocking, everything from the intentional spreading of malicious gossip, tarnishing the reputations of competing churches to full-on lawsuits. Our own church was even being sued by another independent church with a similar name. Under threat of a lawsuit, our church had to come up with another name; the bishop was hard at work trying to think of something that could work.
The small mindedness of all this shocked me and, in a single moment, I understood why I once considered myself agnostic; there were just too many Pharisees in the world of organized religion. It was astounding to me how a group of people purporting to believe in the message of Christ could act like the corrupt corporations in an Ayn Rand novel.
When the bishop emailed me the new name of our church, I had mixed feelings. Yes, the bishop was a good person. Yes, I liked and respected him; but the name he came up with sounded almost farcical.  The Orthodox Church of the Near Isles just didn’t sound right and I couldn’t take it seriously.
I emailed the bishop, “Please, do not use this name. It makes me think of Hobbit stories by J.R.R. Tolkien or the hair washing scene in the movie South Pacific.” But my protests went unheard. The church website was changed and from then on everything went downhill. ABCOC is now a shadow of its former self.
Not long after this, strange things started to happen in the independent church world; there were schisms and breakaways every five minutes. A priest would have an argument with his bishop and then leave in a huff to join another church. Or bishops would make their best friends bishops, then outfit them in lavish pectoral crosses and red robes. It didn’t take me long to realize that I clearly had entered a lunatic asylum where the inmates were merely playing Church.
I wanted out. I had had enough. But along the way, really good things happened. I married three nice couples. One was near the creek at the Inn at Valley Green, another in a large Center City church with over 200 invited guests. After this, I folded up and put away my faux chasuble and joined an established Northern Liberties parish as a pew occupying parishioner.