Tuesday, December 30, 2008


January 1, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,
Adell Allen, a long-time parishioner of St. Augustine Catholic Church here in the South Bronx, died on the first of December. She was 92. Born in Jamaica and trained as a teacher, she moved to New York in 1945, working menial jobs for years before finding employment at Lincoln Hospital and rising to unit coordinator. She and her husband raised two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom became medical doctors. At her funeral, her son told the mourners: "My mother defied the racial prejudice she experienced here in America and made a successful career, as did my father. They motivated us kids to do the same. But Mom always said she'd never live to see the day when a Black person would become president of the United States. For the first time in her life, she was wrong about something."
On election night at eleven o'clock, the neighborhood around St. Augustine's erupted with firecrackers and shouts: "O-bam-AH! O-bam-AH!" Not long ago, the noise would have come from gunfire and fights.
Talk about "change."
Whether or not the new administration will be able to effect change in the political sense, profound change has already occurred in the symbolic sense. Electing a Black president has lifted not only Blacks' self-esteem but the whole nation's — and the world's. My friend Georg Michels, a history professor at U.C. Riverside, told me that his aged father in Germany — along with most of the globe — stayed up till dawn watching the election returns and Obama's victory speech. His dad calls Obama der Weltpresident — the World-president.
Let's hope our new leader can use this enormous cache of good will to make genuine progress toward peace and justice here and abroad.
Change: It definitely was a year of it, wasn't it? Just look at your retirement account. Who but those few economists that take the dismal science literally could have predicted what might be the Great Depression II?
Oh well, it's only money.
A receding tide lowers all boats, but it's less evident in areas that are perpetually aground, like the South Bronx. The working poor here are still working and still poor, but the basics get harder to meet. Rents continue to rise, as downsized Manhattanites begin finding the Bronx suddenly attractive. The population is slowly diversifying; White artistic types are colonizing the far south of the South Bronx, doing the loft thing to rundown furniture factories on the waterfront and opening up tony restaurants nearby. Albanians are retreating north, selling their bodegas to the Arabs: Up on Third Avenue, the Kosovo Grocery has become the Anwar Deli. Many West Africans are moving into this formerly entirely American Black and Hispanic neighborhood, as well as a few daring Jews and Asians.
The building boom continues here, though it may only be the completion of securely-financed projects. Two blocks west on Third Avenue, a brewery from the 1920's, one of many in this once-German area, long since turned into warehouses and parking garages, has been demolished, to be replaced by a strip mall, of all things.
But if there is any indicator of economic health and sickness, it is food. The number of people coming weekly to the St. Augustine Food Pantry has tripled, from 200 a year ago to 600 today. Obtaining that much food is a challenge to the pantry's director, Sister Dorothy Hall, an African-American widow and mother who retired from government service six years ago to join the Dominican Order of nuns. One of her main funders is America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based food philanthropy. This year my sister Jeannie requested our family to forgo Christmas gifts and donate the money to this charity, which I most gladly did.
A related food issue is "sustainability" — decreasing dependence on industrial agriculture by producing food locally. Everywhere in New York City, community-run farmers' markets are springing up, supporting upstate family farmers and bringing urbanites fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices — particularly important in places like the South Bronx, where poor nutrition and low-quality supermarket produce lead to virtual epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.
Community gardens also contribute. Last summer, our tiny garden here produced enormous quantities of vegetables, the surfeit of which we gave to the farmers' market up the block, run by local high-school students.
But it's not just vegetables anymore. In August, faculty, students, and alumni of St. Augustine Catholic School built a chicken coop in their garden, and in October, 15 hens arrived from an upstate chicken farm to live and lay in it. In addition to giving the community fresh, nutritious eggs and providing our gardens with natural, nitrogen-rich fertilizer, the chickens have become a unique kind of clucking teacher, showing children where their food comes from and asking them to take responsibility for their care. (The chicken project, by the way, was funded by Heifer International, the organization known for supplying livestock to poverty areas worldwide — another worthy cause to support.)
And my beehives continue to thrive, yielding great quantities of pure, healthful local honey.
It's only natural.
For the chickens' bedding and nesting, we buy hay from a feed store just a few blocks from here — the last holdover from earlier times, when West Farms was not just the name of a subway stop smack in the middle of the Bronx.
There's something timeless about it. The sweet smell of hay in our henhouse stretches back to Bethlehem.
Wishing you peace and well-being in the New Year,
Roger Repohl

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