Even after walking 100 streets, from the East River to the Hudson, I continue to uncover fascinating stories about some incredible people. When I initially attempted to open the doors to the Trinity Lutheran Church, I could not get in. As I was standing across the street, however, a few minutes later, I noticed a young man exiting the door down below. I quickly crossed back over 100th Street and introduced myself to Hans, who turned out to be the Pastor's son - that pastor being Heidi Neumark, Hans' mom. Though I have visited dozens of churches in Manhattan, and I am sure that there are many women in senior spiritual leadership positions, Heidi was the first one I had heard of by name.
Hans kindly stepped back inside the church and invited us in. He was not only as charming as could be, but also very knowledgeable about the history of the church and the building, itself, but then this has been his home for much of his childhood.
Trinity Lutheran plays an important role in the neighborhood. "We've been here longer than anything else," Hans pointed out. The church was built in 1892, before Robert Moses came along with his grand ideas for city planning. The building survived the reconstruction in the 1960s and has thrived in the same spot for over 100 years. Hans took us into the sanctuary, where natural light streamed through large, clear windows. He explained that though the church has stained glass, they had to take it down when the thirteen-story building next door was being constructed so that it would not be damaged. We were able to see some of the stained glass, however, when Hans showed the Manhattan Sideways team through the inside of the organ to the wooden staircase that winds around the interior of the church's steeple. Here, we discovered one window's stained glass that had been left in place.
The church is very liberal. The congregation open to everyone, no matter their race, sex, income, sexuality, or gender identity. Heidi even welcomes congregants to change pronouns and nouns in sacred texts that give a gender to God. Signs of inclusion and openness are everywhere in the church. There is a beautiful mural hanging from the organ loft that depicts a black Jesus. "Everyone finds their own message in it," Hans said. Trinity Lutheran continues its liberal vision in community outreach programs, including housing a homeless shelter for gay young men from age 18-21.
After speaking about the history of the church, Hans went on to talk about his family. We were completely captivated as he relayed how his parents met while his mom was doing missionary work. Heidi was an activist, smuggling books into Argentina. When she returned to the United States, she worked with prostitutes, gang members, and drug addicts in the Bronx. Though she was raised as a German Lutheran, she learned in 2009 that her father was actually a German Jew. Afraid of further persecution, he raised his children Christian, and the family did not find out their true heritage until decades later. Heidi wrote a book about the discovery and her new questions about her identity entitled, "Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith." It is her second book after "Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx," a memoir. In ending his story, Hans sweetly proclaimed, "She's the matriarch of the family,"
St. Michael's Church, also sometimes known as the Union Church, is an Episcopal congregation that was established in 1807 on its current site. At the time, the neighborhood was referred to as "the Bloomingdale District" and was entirely rural. The present church is the third to be built on this same plot of land, but still has its original Tiffany stained glass.
Down the street from the Firemen's Memorial on Riverside Drive, Engine Company 76 has its home, earning it the nickname "Monumental Pride." The firehouse is one of the largest in the city, since it was formed from what used to be two separate stations. In chatting with one of the firemen, I mentioned what appeared to me to be a firehouse on Amsterdam Avenue but belongs to Brusco Realty. When I inquired, he explained that this used to house the other half of Engine 76, thus the exterior resembles a firehouse. Oh the knowledge one gains when speaking to people in the know.While discussing the Firemen's Memorial, this devoted young fireman told me that on the second Wednesday in October, every year the entire Fire Department of New York assembles around the monument. "It's very impressive, seeing 8,000 blue suits lining up," he proudly stated. Right then and there, I added it to my calendar and have every intention of attending this event come the fall of 2016. As the fireman pulled down the firehouse calendar to find the exact date, a tiny firecracker went off, causing him to jump backwards. "The pranks around here are non-stop," he declared with a wary smile. I was glad to know that firemen have such a keen sense of humor.
Wang Chen is a famous female table tennis player who moved to the United States from Shanghai in 2000. In 2008, she gave a splendid showing at the Summer Olympics before ending her professional career. As part of her retirement, she founded the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club. For $20 each month, members can play unlimited table tennis. The Club offers after-school programs for children, one-on-one coaching for all ages, tournaments, and birthday parties.Observing Chen play while teaching a student was a thrill. Her skill was immediately apparent as she casually hit the ball to a grown man who was sweating with the effort it took to return her swings. The Manhattan Sideways team then went to the lower level where we sat down on the steps overlooking several tables and became mesmerized as we watched both singles and doubles players hitting against one another. We all agreed that this was not the sport that we knew to be ping pong. These men and women took the game to a whole new level. Taking in my surroundings, I discovered photographs from Chen's professional matches covering the walls, as well as a paddle hanging that said: "To Wang Chen - thanks for kicking my..."