If the shoe doesn’t fit . . .

Wherever we are, whenever we can, we need to take a stand in support civil rights for everyone.

In my testimony at the Allentown City Council meeting on July 19 in support of a ban against conversion therapy, I used an illustration that many found helpful, and I promised to publish it here. Considering President Trump’s tweet last Thursday banning transgender individuals from serving in the military, and the subsequent stance of the Justice Department against LGBTQ civil rights, it is obvious that anti-LGBTQ initiatives are going to continue. Here’s hoping my story helps people see this issue from a new perspective.

Allentown Council supports ban on gay conversion therapy for minors

Click to read about Justice Department’s brief and President’s tweet

“Sometimes I can be seen not only wearing this tricorn hat but also clothing from the colonial era for our commemorative services at the Liberty Bell Church. I also wear a pair of colonial era straight last shoes.

“For those of you who are not colonial re-enactors or historians, I need to explain that in colonial times, shoes were made to fit either foot, which is to say, they fit neither foot. There was a single form used to make shoes, called a “last.” It was straight, so you could put either foot into either shoe. Eventually, the shoe would conform to the shape of your foot, or perhaps your foot would conform to the shape of the shoe. And if it hurt it hurt!

“Thank goodness for the invention of the machine lathe in the 1850s when they began to make shoes in left and right styles. And thank goodness for the eventual manufacture of adult sizes from 4-16 and widths from AA to E, resulting in 60-some shoe size combinations that we are free to choose from. We wear whatever size fits us best!

“Council members, perhaps you’ve had the experience, the painful experience, of forcing your foot into a shoe that does not fit properly; imagine how painful it is when someone tries to force you into a way of being that does not fit! Unfortunately there still are people in America who think everyone should fit into one straight shoe.

“I begin with this illustration because I hope it is a memorable image. If I’m known to people in the wider community, it’s probably because I wore this tricorn hat all over Allentown during our city’s 250th anniversary a few years ago. People know me as the pastor who dresses in colonial garb. But few people know that, in addition to being pastor of the Liberty Bell Church, I also have a master’s degree in pastoral counseling.

“For almost a decade, I engaged in a counseling ministry, working with clients from Bethany Counseling Service, the Church Renewal Center at Good Shepherd, as well as with a psychologist in private practice in Bethlehem. So I am well-aware of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association diagnoses and standards of care. And I am well-aware that it is unethical to try to force people to fit into a heteronormative mold. But there are others present who are credentialed in those disciplines who can speak more directly to those standards. I speak as one who now is primarily a pastor.

“I respect my conservative Christian colleagues: we agree on many things, we disagree on others. Certainly each of us is blessed to be Christians in America: each is free to have our own opinions and engage in our own ministry, including counseling people according to our interpretation of the Bible. There is nothing in these this legislation that interferes with clergy or prohibits them from counseling adults according to their interpretations. This legislation only affects licensed professionals, and it only applies to minors. Forcing conversion therapy on a child or a teen is the antithesis of personal freedom, and I would hope my colleagues would never encourage this.

“I personally understand the teachings of the bible very differently from many of my conservative colleagues. I’d be happy to talk about the bible with just about anyone, just about anytime, on these and other issues. Because it’s obvious to me from a Christian pastoral perspective that the only type of conversion Jesus was interested in was related to your soul, not your sexual orientation.

“Council members, legislation has more than one purpose. To be sure, legislation allows for enforcement, but equally important, another purpose of legislation is declarative and educational. To enact this legislation declares the boundary of humane practice and educates people about justice and social norms. As the third largest city in Pennsylvania, Allentown can be a leader in this effort. I urge you to vote in favor of this legislation.”

The following week, Council passed a ban on gay conversion therapy for minors.

Among the Homeless a Community of Grace

Homeless w-BibleA community of grace appears, Brigadoon-like, at Zion’s church each evening.

Since April 4 we have opened our Fellowship Hall every night to provide a safe, warm, dry place to sleep for the men and women who found themselves on the street again after the Alliance Hall Shelter (6CWS) abruptly closed on April 3.

As you might imagine, I’ve had a conversation with the fire marshal and another with the director of the health bureau. Of course we are following their recommendations, but our Fellowship Hall was not made for this kind of sheltering. Grace begins with an understanding that it is okay for us to provide this stopgap, but only until April 30, the date originally promised to the homeless.

The response from the Christian community has been heartening and heartwarming as volunteers shared whatever talents they had with our guests: an MD who gave several hours of her time to consult with anyone who had health concerns; a professional singer who sang an operatic happy birthday to a woman who celebrated her 79th birthday in our shelter, and the local educator who brought her a cake, flowers and a Happy Birthday balloon; the homeless advocate who spent hours and hours on the phone, finally getting a man admitted to the hospital for mental health concerns; a member of Zion’s staff who knows someone who knows someone who offered a landscaping job to one of the men here, and who then found a pair of size 11 work boots to replace the man’s tattered sneakers. Grace abounds, often in small ways.

Our guests also help one another: wisdom, such as it is, about how to live on the street is passed along; a blanket is given by one who has two to another who has none because we ran out. Several people brought canned goods that they had received elsewhere during the day, giving them to kitchen volunteers in a stone-soup-like ritual. There are shared cigarettes, shared tips about who may be hiring, plenty of shared humor. Grace upon grace.

Many of our guests surprise me with their desire to help in whatever way they can, with their polite demeanor and frequent thank yous. One night, when one of the men didn’t think enough people had appropriately expressed their gratitude to the church for its hospitality, he shouted for attention. Everyone got quiet and he reminded them to be sure to render thanks to the pastor. So I collect gratitude like pennies in an offering plate, so many “mites” that I pass along to the people who made this stopgap ministry possible.

Yes, there have been a few problems, and the APD responds quickly and resolves those issues effectively. One man who we had to ask to leave (complicated story) apologized to the APD officers for the trouble, and then asked me for a prayer and a blessing before he left.

Yes, there are a few people who are taking advantage of the kindness offered here. But perhaps they didn’t find such kindness in many other places in their lives, so they suck it up wherever they find it. Even so, they are the exception, and as long as they follow the rules, we forbear them because we know we don’t always have the wisdom to separate the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:29).

And even now as I am typing this, 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday evening, our door buzzer sounds. It is a 45 year-old woman discharged today from a detox facility, formerly living in Allentown but now with nowhere to go. She says they told her to come to Zion’s church, that we have a shelter where she can spend the night. I ask, who sent you here? A social worker at The Horsham Clinic, some fifty miles away.

We have been a stopgap shelter for less than three weeks, and we’re getting referrals! As the days have passed, more and more people with nowhere to go found their way to our doors. I have received phone calls from other shelters as well as from pastors and ministries in the Allentown area, and sadly we are at capacity; we have to turn them all away.

But the woman from the clinic still sits in our Fellowship Hall, warming herself after a trek to the church from the bus station in windy, 54 degree weather. It’s supposed to drop to 36 degrees in Allentown tonight. She contents herself with a warm place to sit and only a promise that she will be on a wait-list in case one of our regulars found somewhere else to go. Then she can take that one’s place for the night.

A community of grace appears, Brigadoon-like, at Zion’s church each evening. What will become of them on May 1?



When Life Hands You a Lemon, Make Lemonade. Then Plant an Apple Tree!

ANIZDA Board - residents 2013-11-06 19 24 51Twenty people wearing signs that read $100,000 or JOBS COMMITTEE attended the ANIZDA Board meeting Wednesday night at City Hall. (The ANIZDA Board is the authority responsible to oversee construction projects in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone such as the Arena and City Center.) Many of those in attendance also were at the NIZ Jobs night at our church last week.

CeCe Gerlach, Paulette Hunter and Preston Lee, as well as four or five other residents, addressed the board about the jobs issue. Many concerns were expressed, however we specifically requested funding for a caseworker at the downtown Jobs Center. At this point it functions more like a sub-station of Career Link than a Jobs Center. Nancy Dischinat, Executive Director of the Workforce Investment Board, told us recently that they nearly had spent the initial $100,000 earmarked for the center. When asked what Career Link needed at this time, she and her staff identified:  a caseworker and funds for training. Another $100,000 probably would be about right.

The good news is that Sy Traub, chair of the Board, said he will set up a Task Force on Jobs. He obviously had given this some thought prior to the meeting. In fact he consulted their solicitor (attorney for the Board) about it. So it was not surprising that when he read the definition of the Task Force’s purpose, it took paragraphs to explain it. We’ll have to wait until it appears in print to be sure the Task Force will do the job! (Pun intended.)

ANIZDA Board 2013-11-06 19 24 42In the lively discussion about these matters at the end of the meeting, board members Bob Lovett and Nelson Diaz asked good questions and made suggestions about ways Career Link might most effectively work with Allentown residents. Other board members nodded with understanding as CeCe made her case.

Perhaps sensing the impatience in the room, Sy Traub explained that this was the first time the board was hearing about these issues and he suggested we have some months before job openings will be posted anyway. Several of us clarified the difference between preparing the list of jobs to be posted and preparing people to be ready to apply for those jobs. The latter takes time, and for some people it may take a lot of time, depending upon the individual. I informed the Board that the impatience they were hearing from some of us is because we attempted to get these kinds of conversations underway more than a year ago, with no success.

Following the meeting, several people suggested I should just be happy that this discussion finally is happening…. I am. I understand: if you don’t get exactly what you want, make the best of what you get. So, yes, that’s what will be done. A lot of people will make do and make lemonade. But don’t forget, it didn’t have to be this way. This didn’t have to happen in the final months.

tree by watersI hope ANIZDA Board members and city officials realize there is a lesson to be learned. As we look ahead to the waterfront projects, wouldn’t it make sense to put these kinds of discussions about jobs closer to the beginning of the process instead of at the end?

And to my friends and colleagues in this effort, I’d suggest that while we’re drinking lemonade, we should plant an apple tree. Plant the seeds now to organize the community for greater involvement in the future. Then we shall be like a tree planted by the waters….

“for I was unemployed, and you provided resources to help me get a job.” Matthew 25:35 (RSV*)

Career Link

(RSV* = Robert Stevens’ Version)

Eighteen months ago, representatives from community and neighborhood groups gathered here at Zion’s Liberty Bell Church and heard the mayor promise he would work with them to create a community benefits agreement. That did not happen. 

A small group of community activists continued working for one of the goals that agreement would have addressed: to create a process that would help ensure downtown Allentown residents would be first in line for the jobs that were coming. Thanks to the efforts of CeCe Gerlach, Paulette Hunter, and Preston Lee, with assistance from Joshua Chisholm, a big step has been taken toward reaching that goal. On Wednesday night, Executive Director Nancy Dishinat and staff from Career Link explained how residents could begin to prepare themselves for the job opportunities that are coming. Our registrations reveal that 191 people were there taking notes, filling out forms, and getting their questions answered. 

As Matt Assad explained in his Morning Call article, link: http://www.mcall.com/news/local/allentown/mc-allentown-arena-jobs-20131031,0,5635077.story


we were surprised at the turnout. Surprised, not because we didn’t know there are a lot of people looking for work…. Surprised, because we knew how hastily organized and inadequately advertised this event was. I couldn’t help but wonder, how many more people might have come if we had the resources to get the word out.

And the word needs to get out. Many of the job-seekers in the room didn’t know there is a Career Link office located downtown (718 Hamilton Street). Now Career Link staff have contact information for those job-seekers and they will follow up to get them into the system.  

At the end, people stopped to thank me (Zion’s church) for hosting the event and to offer words of appreciation just for being able to get some information. One woman reached in her purse and grabbed a fistful of dollar bills as a personal offering. “Thank you for doing this,” she said as she pressed the money into my hand. “This is so important.”

Yes it is. It is so important. For many in the room, it offered a glimmer of hope.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn my opening prayer I asked that “the prosperity so evident in these big beautiful new buildings downtown would be extended to the least of these among us” and that God would “bless the staff of Career Link as they help people prepare for the job opportunities that are coming.”

Prayers for Career Link staff are important, too. They already have spent nearly all of the $100,000 that the ANIZDA Board allocated for this project. Now with nearly 200 more people to work with, and a potential of how many more, how will they do it with dwindling funds?

“We’ll find a way,” Nancy Dischinat said.

I love her can-do attitude. I would love it even more if only ANIZDA, the City, developers, employers, or all four put more money behind this effort. Another $100,000 would provide an on-site caseworker and funds for training at the downtown Allentown site.

Perhaps we need to paraphrase Jesus’ standards of judgment in Matthew 25:35 for our city’s leaders to ponder: “for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was unemployed, and you provided resources to help me get a job.”

Farewell to Chris Nelson

Nelson Chris & Smith David Charles 2013-05-29 181625The farewell service for the Rev. Dr. Christine Nelson was held on May 29, 2013 in Zion’s UCC sanctuary, where many Lehigh County Conference of Churches sponsored services and events have been held (and which for a time housed the Conference of Churches offices). In addition to reflections by the Rev. Dr. David Charles Smith (pictured here with Chris at left) and a Farewell Liturgy officiated by the Rev. Alan Miller, the service included Pastor Nelson’s  “final words.” We share this especially for those who were not able to be at the service, with appreciation from Zion’s U.C.C. for her outstanding contribution to ministry with ‘the least of these’ in the city of Allentown and throughout Lehigh County. 

Are Allentown officials listening to the concerns of city residents?

hands_circle2Can we talk? Joan Rivers always used that line to introduce the next string of jokes. But what I want to talk about with you is no joking matter.

A year ago more than 200 people gathered at historic Zion’s “Liberty Bell” United Church of Christ to witness Mayor Pawlowski’s answer to one question: will you work with groups and organizations from the city to create a community benefits agreement ? A CBA is a written agreement between the community and developers that details specific and measurable benefits the community will receive for a project funded with tax dollars. 

We told the mayor that we were pleased and hopeful about the potential benefits of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone for the planned hockey arena and other construction. We shared research data about the high poverty and unemployment levels in downtown Allentown. We asked if the mayor was willing to convene a meeting with “a longer table and more chairs” that would include faith-based organizations, neighborhood groups, non-profit and service agencies, who could collaborate with city officials and developers to create a community benefits agreement (CBA)? The mayor responded, “Yes.”

The following week he referred us to his Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). We provided a list of groups and organizations that had expressed interest in joining the conversation and suggested that DCED invite others to that “longer table” for a truly collaborative discussion.

However, we soon learned that an open, collaborative process was not going to happen. A few CUNA leaders were invited to meet with DCED staff several times over several months. We explained that we already had talked with two developers who expressed interest in a CBA. We expounded the value of gathering groups and organizations in collaborative decision-making. However, we observed that this goal was not shared or valued, and to make a very long story short, it became obvious that they were not going to convene those “longer table” meetings.

So last summer, CUNA leaders began our trademark “one-to-one” conversations with leaders and members of other organizations. As a result, the Allentown Community Benefits Coalition formed. This broad-based coalition includes the NAACP, the Housing Association and Development Corporation of Allentown, the Hispanic American League of Artists, the Lehigh County Conference of Churches, Resurrected Life Community Development Corporation, the Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King Memorial Project, as well as CUNA and several downtown churches.

We created, distributed among our constituents and then collated a simple survey about priorities for community benefits. A month ago we presented the results to DCED, elected officials, the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Authority, and the press. As a bunch of citizen-volunteers we worked hard to be a catalyst for a fully collaborative process. The only response we have received from DCED is that they are working on their own statement.

As the pastor of this downtown church for more than 18 years, I often have been asked what I thought about the future of the city, and my answer for many years has been the same: there are so many good people working for the good of the city, good things are going to happen.
Good things are happening! But can you imagine how much more good we could accomplish around issues like job creation for Allentown residents, affordable housing, and quality education if we were brought together?

Who can bring us together if the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development is not willing to do so? Why is it so difficult for city officials to provide leadership for collaborative conversations about matters that affect so many people in Allentown?

Peter Block, consultant and author of “Community: The Structure of Belonging,” observes that in many of our cities, government entities, businesses, schools, social service organizations, congregations and other faith-based organizations, as well as neighborhood groups, function in isolation and aren’t brought together for the common good.

Sound familiar? Sadly, this fragmentation not only robs us of a true experience of community, it also prevents the development of synergies that could occur if these sectors collaborated about the problems and opportunities we have in common.

We now realize the question is no longer, “Can we talk?” We now want to know, “is anybody listening? Who will bring us together?”

c. 2013 Rev. Robert T. Stevens, Zion’s ‘Liberty Bell’ U.C.C.