I never cease to find it exciting, stepping off a plane and knowing that I’m in the USA. I suppose I have some romantic idea of it being the place of the movies and TV, a kind of ‘Dick Whittington’ notion that the streets are paved with gold. Everything is somehow iconic, the yellow taxis, the school busses, the lager bags of tachos, a dozen glazed doughnuts, diners, freeways, turnpikes. Is it a film set come to life? Is it the real side of ‘Glee’ or ‘Cheers’ or any of those myriad other ways in which our minds have become full of the visible expression of the American dream?
Of course, those who know the States know that none of this is true. The taxis may be yellow and doughnuts sold by the dozen, there may be a deli on each corner in New York but behind it all there is a foreign country that always takes some getting used to. One of the most famous lines in the movie ‘Wizard of Oz’ must be when Dorothy says to her dog, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Arriving in the USA you quickly realise that we may share (almost) a language but we are very different people, very different countries.
Back in 1994 I came on a long placement to a parish in New Jersey. It was something I never dreamt I would have the opportunity to do but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The priest I was to work with had been over to my parish in Leeds – with his family – and worked with me, in my urban context and then the following year I came over and worked with him in his.
The parish is St Paul, Camden – I say parish but of course that is an English concept. There is no Episcopalian parish system as we have in England. But the church of St Paul and Fr Martin Gutwein worked as much like a parish church as they could. Camden is a city that stands on the opposite shore of the Delaware to Philadelphia. From the riverside you can look at the tall buildings and bright lights of the centre of that great city, the city of brotherly love. The previous year to my arrival the film ‘Philadephia’ starring Tom Hanks had been released and in my head were images from that dark ‘AIDS’ film and the haunting title track sung by New Jersey boy, Bruce Springsteen. So I thought I knew something about the place.
Camden is in some ways similar and in many ways very different from its larger and more glamorous neighbour. Twenty years ago it was awaiting regeneration. It had been the place where Campbell’s soup factory was based and where the RCA building was, where stars arrived to cut their disks and His Master’s Voice, with the logo dog ‘Nipper’, was based. Neither of those were in Camden when I arrived. So much of the city had closed down. In the suburbs townships and shopping malls had been built and the more affluent had moved out, leaving the city to those who did not have the same financial clout, if any clout, and drugs and HIV and prostitution and attendant gun crime and violence seemed to be what the city was about. It was like the rougher parts of Philly but all over.
I’m glad to say that in twenty years things have changed but not as quickly as they should. The waterfront has been regenerated and there are now reasons for people to come to Camden as a destination and not just shoot through it and over it on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The RCA building has been turned into smart apartments and beneath them is the ‘Victor’ pub. But real regeneration takes more than a baseball stadium and an aquarium – there has to be a commitment by all the authorities to see investment in infrasturcture, housing, jobs, schools and health care and whilst there has been some of this there has not yet been sufficient to make the kind of difference to the lives of ordinary people that is required.
In the middle of it all St Paul’s Camden continues its ministry, worship of course, but also providing meals and food parcels, support for the most vulnerable and excluded in society. I saw this when I arrived in 1994 and it continues today and the needs are still there. Thankfully the churches in the suburbs and not only the Episcopalian congregations give generously in terms of time and resources to support ministry here – it doesn’t just fall on a few shoulders.
I’m here for a holiday and to see the Gutwein family again. Two of the next generation of Gutwein babies are to be baptised and it is a privilege for me to take part in the service and to be a Godfather. They are born into a complex world but a world of possibility and I suppose that, at its best, is what America stands for.
As I got off the plane I noticed a model of the famous Liberty Bell made of Lego. It stands there in the airport, one of the most famous symbols of the American dream, the desire for true freedom and ‘brotherly love’ made of one of the most famous brands in the world, a toy used to make a symbol of the truth. It sets you thinking – this is another shore, this is another land, a foreign land.
For me America has always seemed to be the place where we get our weather – I know that isn’t quite true – but in many non-meteorological ways it is. What happens in the USA we know will cross the Atlantic and have its affect on us. It certainly applies to the church. So I was saddened to read of the continuing developments in ACNA – the Anglican Church of North America – a real challenge to the Anglican Church as a whole and to The Episcopal Church (TEC) in particular. It has shocked me that so little has been said by those who could say it, to challenge this development and it feels as though we have left TEC and the Anglican Church in Canada in a very difficult situation. If such a development were to cross the Atlantic – from their shore to ours – would we sit back in the CofE and do nothing? I hope not. The ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ is always a place of challenge and development and I want to give thanks for it. Not everything here is good, or better, it is different – and I give thanks for difference.
God of east and west,
of north and south,
of where the sun rises
and the sun sets,
bless our brothers and sisters
on every shore
and make of us one people
to your glory.