Romanian Pilgrimage

By Sarah Dowson ’85


The small cement room on the Transylvania hilltop where we had vespers was breezy and gray from clouds.  It was part of a ruined fortress in Deva, Romania, that a group of All Souls members and friends gathered in August to pay tribute to former Catholic turned Lutheran turned Calvinist bishop Francis David, who preached that Jesus was human, not divine.  Francis David was imprisoned for his beliefs and died of cold in this space in 1579.

Zita carrying their son, Ors, and Hunor. At right is the Szappanyos family who hosted Sarah Dowson’s stay in Medias: Julia, Szidi, their daughter, and Csaba. All are gathered in the Medias church’s community room.

Also from All Souls were Sabrina Alano ’08, Robin Bossert ’97, Kim Calder, Lois Coleman ’09, Mary Geissman ’07, Arthur Hopkirk ’85, Sharon Lieberman, Harry Miller, Marilynn Scott Murphy ’86, and Rachel Ziemba.  Seven others had traveled from the Unitarian Church of Jowai in the Khasi Hills of northeastern India; two were from Richmond, Virginia, and one was from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona — a total of 21 pilgrims.

Leading the service and singing in a resonant tenor was Rev. Zoli (a/k/a Rev. Zoltan Koppandi) of the Unitarian Church of Deva, a congregation of about 50 people.  He invited us to share our thoughts, as some did, or pay tribute in silence, as did others.  Standing in a circle, we also sang the hymn, “Spirit of Life,” which many of us have sung in New York at All Souls.

Bishop Francis David led the Unitarian Church in Transylvania after King John Sigismund (1540-1571) issued the Edict of Torda in 1568, which extended religious tolerance beyond Catholicism to Lutherans, Calvinist and Unitarians.  It was considered an act of extreme tolerance, but after the king’s death, Francis David pushed the envelope to disavow infant baptism and exclude Christ from prayers and was punished.

After the vesper service, we descended to visit Rev. Zoli’s small contemporary complex. It includes his home and garden as well as the church’s windowless sanctuary with gleaming ash wood pews.  The seats are embroidered in red, white and green – the national colors of Hungary.  Geraniums bloomed in ceramic jugs. The hymnals were small—about five by eight inches— with one line of melody notes and text, of course, in Hungarian, similar to those I saw in other churches.

John Dale and Csilla Kolcsar-Dale of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council (UUPCC) organized and guided our journey.  From them, we learned that after World War I, Hungarian Transylvania became part of Romania.  Still, residents of Transylvania prefer to speak Hungarian and still feel themselves to be Hungarian.  (The land known today as Romania was fought over by Ottomans, Wallachians, Magyars,  Germans, Saxons and others, and many towns and churches are on the tops of hills and fortified, so that residents could escape up the hill and fight off their attackers.)

What impressed me about Unitarianism in Transylvania is that freedom of belief is cherished.  I have always taken it for granted here in the United States.  Two places we stayed had impressive Unitarian colleges, high schools and dormitories.



Hit and Run

By Jerry McCathern, ’87

Editor’s note: “What I Did on my Summer Vacation” is a back-to-school assignment cliché, but All Souls Jerry McCathern, a former member of the Stewardship Committee and visitor of the Capital Campaign, had a potentially fatal experience. If your summer yielded a dramatic encounter, the Beacon would like to hear about it.

On Friday, July 27, I was on my bicycle around 4:30 in the afternoon headed south on Ponquogue Avenue in Hampton Bays on Long Island. As I crossed the street in front of the library, a speeding car came seemingly out of nowhere and made a westbound right turn into my bicycle, knocking me off and causing a serious injury to my left hand and wrist. When he saw I was down, the driver sped up and took off.

I say I was the victim of a hit and run incident—not an accident— because the driver appeared to do it intentionally.  I suspected he was driving under the influence.

Because it was a beautiful summer week-end in the Hamptons, the streets and sidewalks were crowded with cars, pedestrians and cyclists.  A number of folks came to my rescue, and the cops and an ambulance were there within minutes. Although I was in shock and excruciating pain, I was able to call my daughter, Jenny, who lives just a few blocks away.

A 19 year-old man named Ryan was an eye-witness, and he followed the car that hit me. But when the driver saw he was being followed, he went even faster, and Ryan lost him. Ryan returned to the scene and gave the cop a description of the vehicle that hit me: a silver 300 Series BMW with a couple of letters from the license plate—HL. The driver is still at large.

Ryan offered to load my bike into Jenny’s SUV while my four year-old grandson, Aidan, saw me on the ground bleeding, surrounded by police and emergency medical workers, and the poor little fellow started to cry. I was taken by ambulance, sirens blaring, to the Southampton Hospital, and within a few hours taken to the OR for surgery to stabilize my broken radius, which protruded through the skin—one of the worst types of bone fractures. On the following Tuesday, I had the most important surgery to repair the break with bolts and screws, performed by the Hampton’s most renowned plastic surgeon, Joseph Brady. I was in the hospital for five days, my first serious hospitalization in 69 years.

I have always regarded the nursing profession as the noblest career one could choose, and now I have even greater respect for the nurses and hospital staff who care for patients while doctors flit in and out like butterflies. The staff struggled with my intravenous drip feed (IV), which was constantly occluded, and it became harder and harder to find a new vein in my good arm. Before my second surgery, four different nurses and two operating room doctors failed to find a vein for the IV, turning my good arm into a pincushion.  They finally used a sonogram to find a vein.  Pain management has been my biggest challenge, yet I’m opioid-free today with the help of large quantities of ibuprofen, after stepping down from IV morphine, IV torodol, and oxycodone.

I’ll be in a cast for another five weeks or so, and will have physical therapy twice a week for a couple of months.  Dr. Brady says I should regain complete use of my left hand and wrist and should even be able to play the piano again.

I am so thankful that my injuries were not worse. I’m aware I could have been killed had I landed on my head. Stupidly, I was not wearing my helmet that day. Other than a broken wrist and lacerated elbow, there wasn’t even a bruise elsewhere. My biggest regret is that the driver is still out there, a dangerous menace to us all. The Hampton Bays Library is a very busy place with wonderful children’s programming. Children, including my two grandsons, and families have to cross the street to get to it.

I’ve been a pretty serious cyclist for over thirty years, riding almost every day when I lived in Manhattan, the Jersey shore, and Newark. I have had many close calls, but the incident I suffered is one I most feared:  an impatient driver, making a right turn, speeds up to cut in front of a cyclist or pedestrian rather than slow down and yield.  There’s absolutely nothing a cyclist (or pedestrian) can do to avoid such a collision, because the driver literally seems to come out of nowhere at an accelerated speed.  It happens all the time. How ironic that this happened just one month after I moved to Hampton Bays, a beautiful little town with gorgeous beaches, fabulous weather, and many other gifts.

I’m so very grateful for all the well wishes and prayers from family and friends, and for the outstanding medical care I received. I’m inspired by people like Ryan, who went out of his way to help a stranger, and for my daughter, Jenny, and son-in-law, Jason, for taking such good care of me while I recuperate.

As my minister Galen Guengerich wrote to me, “Life continually reminds us that we are fragile and the future is uncertain.”  And the blessings of life are worth the risk and certainly better than the alternative.

Demos Head Talks Democracy

Demos President Heather McGhee with Women’s Alliance President Mary Geissman. (Photo by Chris Goodwin)

Demos President Heather McGhee with Women’s Alliance President Mary Geissman. (Photo by Chris Goodwin)

You may have first seen Heather McGhee on Meet the Press or Real Time with Bill Maher or Hardball with Chris Matthews, but on Saturday, May 6, the progressive pundit made an appearance at All Souls hosted by the Women’s Alliance. As the featured speaker at the Alliance’s Spring Event, she covered a wide range of topics from the economy to last fall’s election to immigration and racial prejudice.

And the audience of mostly women and a few intrepid men paid close attention over their strawberry shortcake and other desserts. McGhee, who holds a Bachelor’s in American studies from Yale University and a University of California law degree, also writes for the New York Times and The Nation. But it is her easy-going but focused interaction on the workings of our democracy that account for her popularity as its defender.

Demos (the people), where McGhee is president, describes itself as “a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.”

Asking for a show of hands from the audience from those who participated in January’s Women’s March and getting a good response, McGhee said she believes that we are at a moment of civic renewal and awakening of deep American values. “It’s exciting, and it’s overdue.”

Most engaging of the stories McGhee told was the experience of answering a caller on a CSpan talk show last summer before the presidential election. Callers posed a wide range of questions, she said, and one, a man named Garry from North Carolina, confessed to being racially prejudiced. How, he asked, might he go about remedying the situation? “How can I become a better American?”

Taking a deep breath, McGhee made a number of simple suggestions: get to know a black family; join a black or interracial church; learn some African American history. The interchange went viral on the Internet and the story was picked up by the Washington Post and CNN. Eventually, McGhee found out Garry’s full name and that he lived in Asheville. She and her husband visited him and have remained friends. His newfound attention to racial matters (the Confederate flag among them) has lost him some friends, but McGhee assured him he has her friendship and that of others. (You can see a video of McGhee and Garry speaking live on the website.)

“We are at a moment of deep reckoning on the question of who is really American,” she said. “And what is America? Is it a competitive marketplace where we meet to discuss money and power? Is that why all the world’s people have come here? Or is it our destiny…to form a demos out of the world’s population and reject the idea that we are somehow different and that some are better than others?”

“I believe that it takes all of us.”

A lively period of Q&A followed.

A Boy’s Gift

By Alexandra Rowley ‘10

Let me begin by saying this:Elliott Rowley

My husband, Stephen, and I are parents in creative careers (a writer/editor and an artist/photographer) and have had an incredibly challenging year personally, professionally, and financially. A year that has caused us to examine literally everything and reconsider who we are and what we truly value. Terrifying though it feels, it has also been incredibly illuminating in important ways.

I make gratitude lists almost nightly and try to focus my attention on the actions we can take to feel grounded and model resilience for our son, Elliott, who is five and incredibly sensitive. I have thought a lot about using my skills in the service of my convictions and have found more ways to do that this year. And Elliott has been a constant source of inspiration for us to be our greatest selves. Both All Souls Church and All Souls School (where Elliott is in his final year) have been havens for us. That said, we have had to cut our expenses drastically and have not been able to make charitable contributions as we are accustomed. Put simply, we have not felt able to support the places that support us, and that hasn’t felt good.

Anyway, here we are on a hot August day, and Elliott and I decide to head out for an adventure. He loves trains, so we decide to go to Grand Central Terminal, where we chat with some conductors, get some “tickets” punched full of holes, hit the whispering gallery (an archway where two people standing at diagonal arches can hear each other whisper), and have a quick lunch of fries and chowder at the Oyster Bar before deciding to extend our adventure at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. As we are headed down the stairs to the subway and I’m searching for my MetroCard, Elliott says “Look, Mamma! Dollars!” I look down and right at his feet on the steps are four $100 bills. I look behind me and ahead of me and no one has just dropped them. No one is anywhere. The bills look fake they are so crisp and new. We are both paused, staring down, and a man running up the stairs flashes a smile and says “Wow! Lucky kid!” So I hesitate, but I awkwardly scoop up the money, drop it in my bag and down we go!

At the token booth near the base of the stairs I ask a man in a bright yellow vest if there is a lost and found nearby and he aggressively asks what I found and barks, “Give it to me.”

I hesitate. What am I teaching my son here? What are the limits of my control? What is the right choice? So I lie and say “No, no, we lost something.”

And he barks, “What did you lose?”

“A mitten,” I say. Which is true. Elliott is still upset about a mitten we lost on the subway eight months earlier. But it’s not true. Not now. But somehow it gives me a minute to gather myself.

So I flee my own discomfort at the lie and we thank him and get on the subway and I’m reeling and unsure but trying to seem collected. I tell Elliott we are going to consider all of our choices and discuss the money with Dada later.

We have a wonderful time at the transit museum and I feel an incredible sense of abundance that day. It’s not about the money exactly (because I feel deeply conflicted knowing someone has lost something), but it’s rather what the money represents. A windfall. A sign. A gift. A sudden unexpected moment of grace during a really challenging year. And I’m not superstitious. I’m someone who believes in hard work and that you make your own luck. But still. I’m open. Especially this year. This felt auspicious in larger ways. It felt like the universe saying, “Pay attention! Put the phone down! Look! There are gifts everywhere!”

We got home and discussed it with Stephen. We agreed that it wasn’t our money. Not any of ours, but really, especially, not ours. Elliott found it, so it was for him to decide, with our guidance. Maybe half in college savings? Half to contribute? There was brief discussion of a toy. We knew Elliott’s fifth birthday was coming up and he would be getting the puppy toy he wanted so badly.

“Okay, Elliott, why don’t you think about places to donate it”  —and before we could even suggest his school or the Humane Society of New York (where we volunteer and Elliott donates money he makes selling lemonade)— he said, “I want to give it to All Souls to repair the cracks in the ceiling!”

Boom! Just like that.

It was beautiful how quick and clear he was, without any hesitation or encumbrance. It was one of those moments where I think “My goodness, you wise little soul.” I feel an enormous sense of gratitude that he is in our lives to remind us to be simple and clear. He was so clearly paying attention.

You see, on Sundays, Elliott likes to come to church in the sanctuary and hear the music. He always has, even when he was two or three. Now that he’s five it’s easier for him to sit through service. “Music is my passion. Singing is my passion,” he will tell you if it comes up. He says it like he’s forty years old and has devoted decades to his art. But it’s true. He just loves to sing. And he has started violin. And he loves the music at All Souls.

We have a little ritual where he listens to the service and stands to sing (though he doesn’t read yet so he can only sing the songs he knows, like “Ode to Joy”) and he draws, and puts our modest check in the silver bowl and then (please don’t be cross) he silently eats cheddar bunnies during Galen’s sermons. And, lately, Elliott has been making drawings during the sermon. He insists upon giving them to Galen after. Two Sundays ago he made one that was so beautiful I asked if I could have it. A swirl of graphite train tracks. My brother agreed, it looked like Jean Dubuffet. Please? Nope. He said it was “for Galen to repair the cracks in the church.”

And I admit I was baffled. What did he mean? I pictured the sanctuary ceiling becoming a collage of Elliott’s work. Oh lord! That’s so not Unitarian. How could Galen use these drawings? Would he understand this eccentric little boy stopping him after service and handing him these pieces of paper, mumbling something about cracks?

And then it just dawned on me. Elliott knows I sell my artwork and people pay me to make pictures. He comes to my studio. He knows his father writes about art and design and that stuff people make is important. Elliott helped make chocolate caramels that were sold at the All Souls School winter bazaar to help raise money for the school. I think he must intend for his drawings to be sold to raise money for the church.

The money he found sat in my desk until I realized the other day that we hadn’t donated it yet. Perhaps I relished the auspicious abundance it represents, the promise of a windfall, and also the beautifully clear conviction of our son. But I knew it was time. And  I knew the good feelings would linger and be multiplied and that our year had been filled with other auspicious abundances. So I stuffed it in an envelope with a note as we raced out the door and arrived just in time to sing the first Christmas carol.

Clearly he is paying attention.

Another Poet Dead

By Carolyn Jackson, ‘94

On most Wednesday afternoons, I attend a poetry workshop at my public library in Morningside Heights. Led by poet Bill Zavatsky, the group is open to anyone, and it attracts a group that is quintessentially New York. I’ve met (among others) a jazz musician, a psychoanalyst, a college student in a designer hijab, a radiologist, a convicted felon, a chiropractor, teachers, and, last spring, an African American woman in her sixties with the demeanor of a church lady.

Deborah came in a little late and sat beside me at the ever-expanding table configuration, accepting Bill’s handouts and poems submitted by other attendees. She mumbled a bit while Bill spoke, but she was affable and the next time she came, she read a poem that she had written. I left town, but while I was gone she went out for ice cream with a young man in the group and later brought snacks for the class. When I returned in the fall, she wasn’t there.

One October Wednesday, Bill told us that Deborah, whose last name was Danner, had been shot and killed in the Bronx by a policeman who responded to neighbors’ complaints about a woman out of control. She had been armed with a pair of scissors and, according to one account, a baseball bat. I’d never known that Deborah suffered from schizophrenia—or that she was an information technology professional or that she had quit coming because the library wouldn’t let her bring in her baskets of belongings. She wasn’t homeless—she had an apartment of her own and a sister who cared about her but was often rebuffed.

Aside from the shock of something gone terribly wrong, I understood my connection to Deborah. My father’s sister had schizophrenia. People with severe mental illness can be challenging. One minute they may be charming and engaging, the next ferocious. My aunt was like that, and, so, apparently, was Deborah.

But the big difference is that my aunt was white and died in her sleep past her 80th year, and Deborah was black. The policeman didn’t use a Taser or wait for back-up, he simply pulled out his gun and shot her. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Deborah didn’t have to die. A police spokesman said he spoke in haste, before a proper investigation. I have heard nothing else. Beyond my hope that perpetrator will never again be allowed to carry a weapon, I want to see police trained to pause before they act. Most do, but experiments have shown that , no matter what our racial identification, our reaction to skin color is deeply ingrained and prejudiced against dark skin. We need to address our approach to mental illness with that in mind.

Just the month before the shooting, in September, we at All Souls gave the Forrest Church Humanitarian Award to the three women—Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opal Tumeti— who founded Black Lives Matter. Ever since, I’ve been wearing a rubber bracelet that was created for the occasion. It never occurred to me that someone I knew even casually would soon be shot dead by police. But now I have.

And I hope we won’t turn away.