For Gerry —
Today, in what appeared to be a bombed-out section of Bridgeport, CT, where The Projects are separated from the warehouses by fences with circular razor wire, and grass grows wildly through the concrete, God had a good day. Because of it’s location, and despite the famous people and news crews, you wouldn’t really know God was having a good day, but sure enough, that’s what was happening.
My friend Dave Ratz and I went to see my friend Gerry Claytor — Prophetess Gerry Claytor — open up her food pantry, with help from the Mobile Food Pantry or Mobile Food Kitchen or some such organization that knows a good thing when they see it. Gerry Claytor runs a good thing.
I have written about Gerry a few times in these pages and so here’s a little background. Gerry Claytor and her husband Benny ran a primairly African-American church in the city of Bridgeport almost 20 years ago when I was the pastor of Olivet Congregational UCC. The building they were in was costing them an arm-and-a-leg to heat because there was some problem with boiler and it was leaking oil or something. I knew Benny from the IMA, the African-American clergy association in town that allowed me — a White Boy — to join. His church was struggling and we had lots of space so, at the suggestion of the Spirit and one of my trustees, Benny and Gerry’s church moved into our space. They were shocked when we didn’t send them to the basement, but “allowed” them to use our sanctuary. I guess, at the time, White folk didn’t do that in Bridgeport unless it was a big deal and it wasn’t for us. But God doesn’t work so much in the Big Deals as all the little ones before that when no one is looking. Benny was a quiet, unassuming man with a good nature about him and Gerry was his quiet, unassuming, but very strong, wife. What most people didn’t know is that Benny was an engineer for 40 hours a week and then came home and ran a church I believe he started, and kept a marraige going in fine health. Any of these could be a full-time job, but they were Benny’s life — all of them in their own ways. I was younger than he was and I didn’t have that kind of steam even then. A few years ago, and long after I had moved away, Benny suddenly came down with stomach cancer and brain cancer and died in a very short time. To say that Gerry was devastated would apparently be to understate the case. She still isn’t over him and she’s as in love with him today as she was the day they married.
Since Benny died, their church closed, she has taken a vow of poverty and begun to live among the people who have nothing. Why? Because God told her to. To folks who don’t even believe that can happen: it seems to happen to her all the time. Anyway, after struggling with each and every part of daily life emotionally, Gerry is back to her old self, mostly, and here she is doing a food kitchen. She is noticeably a little more gray around the temples, but we’re all getting old these days, so she fits right in.
When I knew Gerry the first time, she was kind of a community organizer/inter-faith messenger. When John Fabrizi was mayor, Gerry was the Personal Appointed Spiritual Leader. She is known all over town down there, and now she says that people in the City Council and various politicians were worried about her when Benny died. They were worried about her not because she held power in the community, but because she was their friend and people care about their friends — another example of the subtle grace Gerry experiences and attributes to God.
Back to today: Gerry was there, and Bill Finch, the mayor of Bridgeport was there, and Gerry’s program got a check from an organization “For Life”, and the news crews were there, and the Bridgport Post was there … and God was there, all in the background.
In the background, I met a woman who was just there to support Gerry. Wearing a multi-colored dress, she talked about doing ministry by helping to create non-profit organizations. An accountant, she graduated from High School 2 years early, went to college, has written a book and numerous articles on how to create your own 501 (c)3 organization, re-organizes mortgages for use by the homeless, the addicted, the beaten-up — Jesus’ people.
Also in the background, Dave was telling the CR story to anyone that wanted to listen, and there were lots of people who wanted to hear. Apparently more places than New Britain have addicts and need help. Why was Dave there? He heard about Gerry and wanted to meet her — more subtle work for God while we waited around to support Gerry.
After the news trucks left, and the people — a line of them around the block got food — real, good food — for a week or so, the mayor of the city was drinking his bottle of water and eating his hot dog — and picking up papers some old Black lady dropped by accident. At that point, he proved himself a real leader. Jesus said “the first will be last and the last first”. By that standard, the only one worth worrying about — Bill Finch is among “the first”. More subtle work for God happened because Gerry was having an opening.
During my time there, Gerry introduced me to a White pastor who had given toys to the kids whose parents had to come get their food at a food pantry. He and his wife also apparently support Gerry — quietly and kindly without even being asked. Even more quietly in the background, there was yet another White pastor involved in justice and peace work helping out with no fanfare. He had on a great T-shirt, about reconciliation and peace and other real Christian values. He was interested in ecumenism and he was there … you guessed it, because of Gerry.
The reporter for the Post was a young intern with a tattoo on her foot. The tattoo was of rosary beads, so of course, she was happy to support Gerry as well. Still, if you didn’t pay attention, she was just another tattooed college co-ed. God, no doubt, knew otherwise.
Over on the overgrown concrete were local church people cooking hot dogs, passing out bottles of cold water and just generally helping out. Behind them were what appeared to be young punks until Gerry asked the church to applaud for them. Why? It turns out that they had worked tirelessly helping out the food pantry after training with Gerry. Who knew?
Also at this thing was an Emergency Psychiatric Mobile Team which was giving out information. I don’t know how they got there, but they too were helping out people Jesus and God cared about. It seems there’s a connection between poverty, addiction, and poor mental health.
At lunch, there was prophecy, people looking out for each other, more stories about people sharing and pastoral ministry as she spoke about her husband and my mother and the hard grieving involved in dealing with it. It was a subtle, but good day for God.