Leaving Home, Part I
Thursday January 8th, 2009 was a frigid day. I was working from home, watching the kids while Anne went out for coffee with a friend. At 3pm, exactly, I received an email from our lawyer entitled “Adverse Decision from the Judge”. I opened it and read…
“Here is the adverse decision from the judge on your case which was decided and filed earlier today. Please note the line on page 7 of the decision that “the Diocese is entitled to immediate possession thereof.” Based on this language, you do need to worry about a sheriff coming to your church door to change the locks to keep you and all of your people out…”
It’s not that we’d been expecting a win—we really didn’t know what to expect—but we’d prayed from the very beginning that God would let us stay in our home and let Good Shepherd remain where she’d always been.
The old church building spring, 2008
In 2008, while the lawsuit raged, Good Shepherd grew and expanded significantly. We’d finally begun to have some impact in the neighborhood, drawing people to church through our soup kitchen and block parties. Our weekly bible studies were packed with new people and we were, shockingly to us, beginning to draw an increasing number of students from BU. We were still very small by objective standards—90 or so on average—but we’d been much much smaller. When I arrived at Good Shepherd in 2002, there were less than 50 people in the pews on any given Sunday. It had been a bumpy ride but by January 2009 Good Shepherd was healthier, younger, larger than she’d been in decades—and she was slowly, steadily, growing.
We hoped that this growth was, perhaps, a sign that God wanted us to stay where we were. We knew intellectually that losing was a very good possibility but while the potential for leaving was real, we hadn’t truly considered what losing would mean for us nor had we anticipated the emotional impact of it.
Anne got home about half-an hour later. As soon as she walked through the door, I told her, “We lost.” We stood there for a moment and then I let her read the email.
We decided to tell the kids right away. The boys were both dressed as Spiderman (Aedan the Good Spiderman, Rowan the Bad One) as they often are. Emma had on an enormous princess dress. Gwendolyn had on a ballerina tutu was twirling around and around. We sat on the stairs and told them that we were going to have to move. Like all resiliant and clever children, they took it in stride. Only Emma really cried. They were as prepared as we were for this news—they’d been praying for months that God would change the bishop’s heart and we could keep our home.
Because the court order indicated that the diocese could take immediate possession we didn’t really have time to mourn and weep. We felt we needed to start packing that moment. (Two days later we would recieve an offer from the diocese—they would allow us to stay in the church and the rectory for two months in exchange for a rent of over $2000.00 per month. We did not accept this offer) but we didn’t really begin packing the house until the following Monday.
Our first job, starting Friday morning, was to pack up our offices at church and especially to gather our personal belongings, most especially our books, from all parts of the building (amazing how books wander all over the place).
The court order specified that everything owned by Good Shepherd now belonged to the Diocese of Central New York. We could remove our own personal stuff, but all of the things that had been a part and parcel of our community life for more than a century had to stay.
The 10th of January was a gray frozen day. The church was full of people coming to find their stuff or just to sit in the sanctuary, wander through the building, stand in the kitchen drinking coffee and talking about what to do next.
Parishioners arrive the gray Friday morning after everyone learned of our loss
The press arrived later in the day for interviews and to shoot footage of our departure
The image that stands out most in my memory of that day is that of one of our more stoic men standing in front of a plaque bearing his father’s name, tracing the inscription with his finger. It would have to stay.
We took these parting images as the day waned and we were coming closer to a final goodbye
We also prepared for our final service of worship in that place. Which brings up a critical point—we didn’t know where we would be the following Sunday. Much of the preparation for worship on Sunday the 12th of January was discussing options for Sunday the 19th. Was so and so’s living room big enough to accommodate 90 people at one time? What about the church on such and such street that has a gym? Would they let us rent it? Would anyone be able to figure out where it is? What about Sunday School? What about adult Christian Ed? What about bible studies…we have five of them every week. And what about the soup kitchen, the Shepherd’s Bowl? Next Thursday forty to fifty hungry people would make the trek from all parts of the city in horribly cold conditions hoping for and expecting the usual warm meal only to find a dark empty building. How would we feed them? Where would we feed them? How would they know where to go?
Meanwhile, we’d put the house completely on hold through the weekend. We didn’t clean or pack or do anything while we tried to deal with worship and location issues. We didn’t have time to think about where we’d live next until we’d sorted out where the church would be going.
Friday afternoon I called Pastor Hollinger of Conklin Ave. Baptist Church. Before I could say anything more than ‘Hello Pastor’ he asked where we were worshiping the next week and offered his sanctuary.
It turned out that our worship services were held at the same time as theirs. So, wanting to keep as many things as close to the same as possible, I started to gratefully waffle and back out. Pastor Hollinger pressed me and then offered up his gym instead—a heated gym with chairs, a table that could be used as an altar, and a huge kitchen so we could have the coffee hour and lunch. Oh, and classrooms for Sunday school.
Micah captured this photo while I was on the phone with pastor Hollinger
One day out and God had already provided a warm place to worship indefinitely. Now we’d at least be able to announce that services would go on as normal.
Before this the vestry estimated that we would be without our own space for at least a year and that during that time we should expect a 20 to 30 percent loss in attendance and membership. We were running at about 90 per Sunday at that point. We counted, optimistically, on about 60 to 70 stalwarts sticking with us the whole time.
As usual, we had visitors that Sunday morning. Two of them, a young couple, even ended up coming to the rectory during the week to help us pack and eventually they joined the church.
After Communion and the blessing, we stripped the altar, deconsecrated it, emptied the ambry (yes we had one), and blew out the tabernacle candle. Somehow the ash from the censor spilled out in a smear across the altar steps. The congregation left in silence.
Photos taken during the last service at Good Shepherd
Monday began the herculean work of packing up 6 years worth of stuff in the rectory. We never managed to sort through and rid ourselves of toys or anything in the time we lived in that house. It was always on the back burner, ‘We really need to have a garage sale!’ we would say every spring. But we never did. And, we’d been in the midst of post Christmas homeschooling when we got the news, which means we home school first and clean second. So when 10am rolled around on Monday morning and 4 people showed up to help pack, they began that work in less than ideal circumstances.
Everyday someone different took the kids away to play or do school. Parishioners would just show up when they had a free hour during the day and fill boxes. The head of the altar guild took all our laundry every day for two weeks and brought it back clean, ironed and folded. The pillars of the church, besides supplying endless boxes, carefully and methodically packed all the china and breakables. One man alone powered through the attic in one day, labeling boxes, carrying them down and stacking them for easy moving. Our two youth ministers (the former and the present) tackled the horror that was the basement. Every day and into the night late the people of Good Shepherd packed us up, box by box, book by book, toy by toy, amazed at the array of unrelenting knick knacks we possessed.
When we started packing Monday, as I said before, it was with no aim in view. We had no idea where we’d go. I imagined we would have to put everything in storage and find an apartment somewhere. We packed that whole day in a fog of unknowing. The children, thankfully, had no curiosity about what would happen next because I had nothing to tell them.
I wish Anne and I could say that we faithfully trusted and believed that God would provide a place for us to stay and that our minds were perfectly at peace…but that would be a lie. I was certain that it was God’s plan for us to face the worst. I’m quite an unfaithful pessimist about these things. There seem to be two life plans for Christians…the abundance/blessing plan and the death/suffering plan. I assume I am on the death and suffering plan—that God is crouching behind a corner waiting for things to go well in order to take everything away so that I can learn to trust in him alone. That’s a terribly sinful and unfaithful way to think—I know that—and not at all true about God but for some reason that’s where my mind goes when things seem to be taking a turn for the worst.
At the very least, my attitude and what happened over the next weeks and months next seriously undercuts the (whacked out) idea that God waits around for us to gin up “faith” meaning “positive thoughts” before he provides. There was no “naming” and “claiming” happening in the Kennedy household.
Tuesday mid-morning the phone rang. It was Msgr. Meaghar, former priest of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church now priest in charge of the merged parish of Sts. John and Andrew.
In November of 2008, the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse merged two large Binghamton parishes, St John the Evangelist and St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. The people and priest of St. Andrew’s were told to close their property and merge with St John’s which is located on Livingston street a block south of Good Shepherd’s location (which was on the Corner of Conklin and Livingston).
The former St. Andrew’s Catholic Church was only about a mile and a half down Conklin from Good Shepherd. Prior to the merger, before they had to leave their property behind, St. Andrew’s had been packed out every Sunday, filling their parking lot of more than 100 spaces, filling their Sanctuary which seats 400 (twice a Sunday), and filling their school building with Sunday School children. Before he had to move into St. John’s rectory, the priest at St. Andrew’s, Msgr Meaghar, lived in a relatively new four bedroom three bath rectory settled in the shadow of the St. Andrew’s sanctuary. When the two parishes merged St. Andrew’s property (rectory, sanctuary, school building, parking lot and storage facility) was left vacant.
That Tuesday morning, Msgr. Meaghar read in the Press and Sun that we lost our case and heard, I suppose from one of his parishioners who lived nearby, that we were moving out of the rectory.
When I answered the phone, I assumed, because he is a gracious and kind man, that he was calling to offer his condolences.
“I was wondering”,” he said, “do you and your family have a place to go?”
Not catching on, I did my duty despite my pessimism and mumbled and stammered on in pious tones about God providing.
“Well” he said, “We’re basically moved out of our rectory at St. Andrew’s. Would you like to move in?”
I don’t know why I didn’t see it coming but I didn’t and for a few seconds I couldn’t think of anything to say. Did he know what he was offering? Was he aware of what it would mean for the St. Andrew’s rectory for my entire family to move in even for a week? We had four kids. Does he know that? I finally managed to say, “Well, we have a lot of stuff.”
“That’s ok,” he said, “you can stay as long as you need to and we’ll figure out the details later.” Before I could say a proper thank you, he’d arranged to hand off the key Wednesday afternoon.
The former St. Andrew’s rectory
So, by the grace of God, the generosity of neighboring churches and pastors, and the extraordinary efforts of the congregation, we were out of the church and house within a week. Far from jamming ourselves into a tiny apartment and worshiping in someone’s living room, we were settled seamlessly into a four bedroom three bathroom house with an enormous basement already set up to accommodate meetings and we had a large heated gym for worship. Vestry, meetings, bible studies, worship…nothing came to a halt or even paused.
That first Sunday we worshiped in the gym at Conklin Ave. Meanwhile, Msgr. Meaghar opened up the Sts John and Andrew’s parish kitchen and hall to the Soup Kitchen so, that Thursday, no meals were missed.
We were out of the old house by Friday. In fact, we slept in the new house Thursday night for the first time and made the final trips Friday and a little into Saturday. Thursday and Friday Anne stayed at the new house and tried to unpack essentials so that we could be clothed and in our right minds by Sunday.
And so ends the first week and part one of this series.
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