Heidi Neumark: Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

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To listen to the audio of this interview visit “The Kindlings.com”.

Our daughter just moved to NYC to teach in the Red Hook District of Brooklyn a downtrodden area that is making a comeback. She is there with Teach for America. Jess’s passion for the “least of these” has been evident since she was a child. Her tender heart combined with a growing awareness of justice issues was nurtured through volunteer work, internships, a compassionate local church and some socially & faith savvy profs at Seattle Pacific University. As a Christian and broadcaster I’ve always been drawn to those who “live-out their faith” in radical ways and I know it is a lonely road. Heidi Neumark (Photo right) shows the reality and richness of such a calling in her book “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.” May her numbers multiply and may God protect those who go to dangerous places.?

(Originally Broadcast on March 9, 2004)
Well good afternoon everybody. This is your host and fellow seeker, Dick Staub, thanking you for joining me on this fine day. And for our next guest, following Jesus meant spending the past 20 years pastoring the Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx. Her inspirational and brutally honest story is told in a book titled, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. I’m referring to Pastor Heidi Neumark, and a book published by Beacon Press.

Q. Heidi, thank you for joining us today.
A. Oh, thank you for having me.

Q. You mention at the outset that the title is drawn from Pius V, this wonderful phrase, “Give us a breathing space in the midst of so many troubles.” And I was actually talking to my children last night about the troubles that you describe in South Bronx, kind of ground zero of urban blight. And the thing that I didn’t know as well as I did after reading your book was the degree to which it was planned that way. Talk a bit about Robert Moses and Roger Starr and some of what they did to make South Bronx an area of urban blight.
A. Well, yes. A lot of people just have this idea that the Bronx is a place of all these problems and even blame a victim. But a lot of it had to do with urban planning that was just very destructive. Robert Moses was a New York state and city official who did a lot of public works in the city. One of the things he did was build the Cross Bronx Expressway. And in order to build it, there were 60,000 families that were displaced. It just went through an area that was filled with homes and businesses that were all in good condition and they were just ripped out, totally knocked down. And as I said, displacing 60,000 families. At the same time that was going on, he wanted to build some new housing in an area of Manhattan where there were poor residents, and they were moved out in what he called a “slum clearance project.” And they were moved into the South Bronx. So as housing was being destroyed, more-more poor people were moving in, and it just created social havoc. Then in 1976, Roger Starr who was then working for the city as the administrator for housing and urban development, came up with a policy responding to the devastation that was going on in the South Bronx, which was in the early ’70s was the time of all the fires. They said there was about 70,000 fires between five years there. His response was something called “planned shrinkage.” That’s exactly what he, you know, called it. And it was cutting back on basically all public services, schools, fire services, ambulance, police, hospitals. And the quote he said about that was, “to accelerate the drainage” in the worst areas of South Bronx.

Q. Well, and the reason I’m bringing this up is sometimes people, suburbanites especially, have this attitude that the poor will always be with us and it’s their own fault, they lack initiative and so forth. And what we see in the story of the South Bronx is poor people that are disenfranchised politically. They don’t have any power, they don’t have advocacy, and they’re the easiest for powerful people to kind of manipulate towards their own ends. We see this same thing in the issue of how sewage treatment, how waste is handled. I think it was The New York Times that even called South Bronx as the city’s toilet. We see it in a memo that you describe about rats that kind of indicated that it’s okay if there are rats in South Bronx, but God forbid that they get in some of these other neighborhoods where more-more middle-class folks live.
A. Right.

Q. All of this has health impact and consequences. The point being, injustice is systemic and it is a political force and it, when you look at South Bronx, you’re looking at all those factors in one place kind of magnified.
A. Absolutely. Just intensified and concentrated.

Q. So now, you have this wonderful section in your book where you talk about the God of Molech and how he’s uniformly condemned in the Old Testament because he practiced child sacrifice. And one of the ways you get at our sensitivity and our responsibility about the poor is to show the degree to which, in a certain sense, in certain parts of our country ¢€œand South Bronx would be one of them ¢€œ our policy decisions and our neglect actually result in the sacrifice of children. Talk about what you mean by that and how you’ve seen that in the South Bronx.
A. Well, I’ve seen it in the South Bronx in a lot of different ways, but one of the ways I discussed in terms of the sacrifice of children was education. The system of education. And the schools in the South Bronx for year after year after year are consistently functioning on a very, very low level, and yet there is no administrative change. And one of the things that we looked into was parents, as we began organizing was there was a system of school boards that was completely, completely corrupt. They were controlling millions of dollars. And the school boards near us were flying to Honolulu, Bermuda, for meetings. People were misappropriating money for special education to buy furniture for their homes, electronic equipment. Fortunately, these people were prosecuted but not before thousands of children’s education was tremendously, you know, misserved. At the same time that the schools were performing terribly, thousands, well millions of dollars were spent in building a prison not far from the church, for 10 to 15 year olds. And it was said in studies that the prison was going to be put there because it would save money on transportation. It was built for children from all over New York City, but that most children would come from that neighborhood so it should be put there. And the study showed that children that were coming out of schools that were not, where children were not being educated, were more likely to end up in prison. So instead of improving the schools, the money went into building the prison, which is called New Horizons, which is really a sinister kind of irony.

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. And financially there was a school right across the street from this prison where ($)6,000 to ($)7,000 a year is spent per pupil. In the prison it’s a little over ($)130,000 a year per pupil.

And the reason this is important is when we talk in terms of the political realities in our country right now, incarceration, building prisons, is very, very popular among conservatives, and yet many conservatives are Christians who-who don’t often make the connection between the amount of money we’re spending to incarcerate people versus the amount of money it would take to do preventative work and frankly just get a good education.

We’re going to be back with some more of our guest. We’re visiting with Pastor Heidi Neumark. Her book is Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. It’s published by Beacon Press. It’s available at your local bookstore. We’ll be right back.


Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting this afternoon with our guest, Heidi Neumark. She is the Pastor, she has been the pastor of a church in the South Bronx and tells her story in a book titled Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

Q. We were just talking about this wonderful phrase that forms the-the-the inspiration for the title of the book, “Give us a breathing spaces in the midst of so many troubles.” One of the things that you capture so well in this book is a subject that I think many of us who are appreciative of the contemplatives wrestle with. And that is that you want to be both a contemplative and an activist. You don’t want your contemplative life to mean withdrawal from the stuff of everyday life, and yet you’ve come to understand the need to breathe, which is often defined as, you know, get out of the South Bronx and go to the mountains which, frankly, most of the people who live in the South Bronx don’t get that opportunity to do.
A. Right.

Q. What are some of what you’re learning about the importance of finding breathing space physically and spiritually?
A. Well, the reason I take that title, and it’s interesting because today happens to be Ash Wednesday, it was on an Ash Wednesday when I picked up a prayer book that had a-had a prayer in it that really spoke to me. But one of the reasons it spoke to me was that I was surrounded by so many people with asthma, and asthma that was due to dumping of garbage and incineration and waste transfer stations, all of these things dumped on people in the Bronx that was causing physical asthma and a physical struggle for breath. And the more I saw that I kind of saw myself. And although I didn’t have that physical asthma, I had what I sense was a kind of asthma of the spirit of ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ where the space for prayer and-and for that breath of God and awareness of that can sometimes get just too small, just as, you know, the air passage gets small with all the irritants in the air. And now I realize I just think the connection between those two things are absolutely essential. If we’re going to be able to have the strength and energy to do the work for social justice, we-we-we can’t do that without obviously a connection to the strength that comes from God. But the reverse is also true to me, that seeking my own spiritual life and breathing space without that being connected to breathing space for all people, for everybody, is not at all what God calls us to. Our relationship to God draws us into relationship with one another.

Q. Well, and it’s interesting, too, because you’re a writer. And sometimes you get the idea, you know, you’re not in a situation conducive to the writer’s life. Somebody told me that once. And yet you quote this wonderful phrase from John of the Cross, you know, the poems that he wrote from prison which were just stunningly beautiful.
A. Yeah.

Q. You know, meditative impact. And he wrote them from the least beautiful places, by outward appearance anyway.
A. Yeah. And that gives me a lot of inspiration.

Q. Yeah. Well, it’s a very important observation on-on the nature of true contemplative spirituality. Now, you-you in your book, you talk about your own call. And you’re more than willing to be unflattering in your self descriptions because you really describe yourself as a bit of a Jonah. You talk about your experience in St. Johns Island, you were shaped in Philadelphia, experiences in Buenos Aires. How were you called to the kind of ministry that you have and have had in-in a place like the South Bronx? How did that happen in your life?
A. Well, I think it happened over a long period of time and with different experiences. But I’d have to say that even from a young child I had a strong sense of-of injustice in the world. And some of that occurred through when I was about seven my best friend died and she died of a congenital disease, and was slowly dying although I didn’t know it. And around the same time I’d seen a film with my parents in church about Indian children dying from lack of clean water. And I saw the eyes of the child in the film who was dying and they looked like Tracy, my friend’s eyes, and I said, oh my God, my friend Tracy is going to die. And she did. And my sense as a little girl was, you know, this isn’t fair. Why did Tracy have to die?

Q. Yeah.
A. And I mean, I grew up quite in a suburban middle-class environment and in a loving home so I didn’t, I wasn’t experiencing injustice in many different ways personally as a little girl, but when my friend died that¢â‚¬¦ And I feel I connected to what was going on with these kids in India.

Q. Yeah.
A. And that stayed with me, that sense of injustice and a connection between what was happening in my personal life and what was happening publicly around the globe.

Q. Yeah.
A. It just made an impact on me and I felt like whatever I did I wanted, I wanted to be part of struggling for-for life, and for the gift of life that God gives us.

Q. You talk about being a Lutheran and-and that it’s for the most part a white, middle-class denomination. And you say something that I think is important for people of all different denominational traditions, and particularly perhaps among suburban evangelicals, that there is a danger of what you call kind of enamored of our miraculous charity, or to romanticize poverty. How did you get beyond that? And how do you see that in the way we act sometimes towards the poor?
A. Well, I guess the answer to the second question first, I see that in terms of how people can act towards those who are poor as like, well, we’re so like Our Lady Bountiful attitude or paternalistic attitude, you know, we’re helping you, rather than seeing, I mean, the strength and the gifts that our sisters and brothers have to offer us and that we don’t have all the answers and we may be part of the problem.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I guess, to me, how I came to a different understanding in terms of poverty is through first-hand contact not, I mean, recognizing in my situation I was choosing to be in the South Bronx where other people had no choice at that time. But when you live in that environment you quickly see it and learn that people there had tremendous strength and, in fact, were-were-were as we talked about earlier, all these public policies had-had really led to what was the devastation there. And people that didn’t need help from me, they needed to be able to use their own abilities to make a difference and find their own voice. Sometimes I think we talk about being a voice for the voiceless, and I think it’s more important that those who may have been voiceless are able to discover and use their voice for themselves.

Wow. We’ll pick up there when we come back. Folks, you can spend more time with Pastor Heidi Neumark by picking up a copy of her book, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. I think it’s a timely book, a very readable, engaging book. It’s got a literary quality to it and a heart and eyes, I think, that help us see a place like South Bronx the ways God sees it. We’re going to be back with more right after this. Don’t go away.


Well this is Dick Staub back with you. And we’re visiting with really an interesting person, Pastor Heidi Neumark. She has been pastoring the South Bronx for over 20 years. She’s told the story in Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, and it is a remarkable book.

Q. Just before the break Heidi was telling us about the importance of understanding that we go to certain places thinking we are going to transfigure them and find ourselves transfigured, which is a wonderful counterintuitive nature of God. You talk about a lesson that you learned from Miss Ellie from St. Johns Island. And to me it was one of the most wonderful examples of-of how we, in the kind of modernized western high-paced, fast-paced world, have lost the nature of being human. And it had to do with something that you did for Miss Ellie that you thought was going to help her, and you came to learn a lesson. It was you were going to transfigure her life, she transfigured yours. Tell us what happened in that story.

A. That was early on, and that was the year I took off from college, actually. Well, and Miss Ellie lived on Johns Island off of Charleston, South Carolina, way out in an area without electricity and just dirt roads. And she lived out on her own. She was old, almost 100 years old, cutting her own firewood. And she had a really good friend named Netta that she would go to visit. But to reach Netta she had to walk miles through thick, tall grass and, you know, I used to feel really sorry for her. There were snakes in the grass and it was really hot, and I got all this poor Miss Ellie, she had to walk all this way. And actually her friend didn’t live that far away, but there was a stream that cut across her path. And she had to go pretty far to find a place where it narrowed enough that she could just actually go across. So I came up with this great idea. I thought of building a bridge to make a shortcut for her. And I found an area where it was really narrow but very deep, and she couldn’t go across. I got the wood and cement to build this little bridge. And I went to see her and I was all excited and I said, you know, I wanted to go show her this surprise and she just wanted to sit ¢€œ and she was a wonderful storyteller ¢€œ and tell stories. And I said, No, no, you know. I have this great surprise. So we went off and I showed it to her. And she just, you know, I had expected her to look all excited. And she said well like, What’s this? And I said, This is a shortcut for you to visit Miss Netta. And she says¢â‚¬¦ And she looked at me like I was the one that needed pity. And she started telling me about all the friends and people she’d visited and the friends she’d made on her way to visit her friend. And the person she’d give some quilts scraps to and someone that she brings them biscuits and they give her some raisin wine, and all the relationships she developed along the way. And then she just looked at me and said, Child, if you want friends in this world, if you want love, you know, there are no shortcuts.

Q. Wow. And that is a lesson that is difficult to learn, and you learned it because you, because you spent that time in-in St. Johns. Now, when we get to how you were transfigured and the lessons learned in South Bronx, you tell the wonderful story of your own ordination which happened to be on Transfiguration Sunday. And the speakers were Rick, Evy and Lucy. Talk a bit about how they are kind of a cross section and representative of important lessons learned in a place like the South Bronx.
A. Well, yes. The people that came to transfiguration really transfigured the church with their faith and their hope and their courage. Lucy was someone who came to the church, who had been out of church for many, many years because of domestic violence, and having received a message that she should just stay married and forgive the person she was married to when she was at one point she was pregnant and she was pushed down the stairs and lost her child. And so she was very angry, angry at church, angry at God. And yet one day she walked by the church and she heard the choir practicing, a youth choir. And you know, she heard this music and so she started just standing, listening in the back to this practice. And another woman who was in the church, Burnice, who had gone through a similar experience, reached out to her and said, You know, why don’t you come in? And she, you know, didn’t really want to. But they were able to, Burnice was able to reach out to her and say, No, no this is different. And well, to make a long story short, Lucy became, started to come to a women’s group in the church. And then she eventually began leading a domestic violence support group in the church, participated in women’s Bible study. She eventually became a leader on our church council ¢€œ

Q. Wow.
A. ¢€œ and was able to really bring a transfiguration ¢€œ and the story of transfiguration which, actually in the Bible, is something that takes place on a mountaintop ¢€œ down to the street where people live and need transfiguration.

Q. You also in your book talk about the “Elijah cycle,” and how we think of it as a story about Elijah, but you’ve to come to see the importance of the widow. And you talk about Burnice in your church representing the kind of women that are, you know, representative of people in whom and through whom God is really at work.
A. Yes, absolutely. Burnice was somebody who came to church initially looking for simply a handout and was going to get some toys for Christmas for her kids, sell them for an overdose, sell them for drugs and take an overdose. And she, on Christmas morning came to get these toys, and a student, a seminarian took time, looked at her and just began to talk with her and listen to her story and pray with her. And Burnice asked if she could de-tox in the church. And she did.

Q. Wow.
A. And then she began coming to Bible study. She ended up becoming the president of our church council. And this was always a tremendous companion and witness to me. And if there was any time when I would ever feel sorry for myself or tired or rundown, I just looked to her and¢â‚¬¦

Q. Wasn’t she the one that the New York Police Department Street Crimes Unit came and trashed her apartment at one time? Was that the same person?
A. Yes, that’s the same person.

Q. Yeah.
A. Her apartment was trashed by police looking for drugs. It was the street crime scene that had killed Amadou Diallo with 41 shots that has since been disbanded

Q. Yeah.
A. And I learned a lot, I learned a lot about prayer from Burnice. She¢â‚¬¦ Yes, her apartment was trashed and just totally, totally¢â‚¬¦ And it was a devastating experience. And a few days later when, after it had been cleaned up with the members of the church council over which she was president, I found her in front of her, praying by her window. And she said, in front of these plants that she was looking at… And she’d say, you know, I used to do this in the kitchen but now I do it in the living room where these plants are. And it turned out that the plants were the only thing in the entire apartment that had not been destroyed. I mean, the mattresses were ripped up, the TV was destroyed, everything was gutted except these plants¢â‚¬¦

Q. And they became her favorite place of prayer.
A. Yes.

Q. That’s amazing.
A. That was her breathing space.

Yeah, some breathing space. There you go. We’re going to be back with our guest, Heidi Neumark. Her book is Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. It’s published by Beacon Press. We’ll be back with some concluding comments coming up right after this. Don’t go away.


Well this is Dick Staub with you. We’re visiting with Heidi Neumark. Her book is Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. It’s published by Beacon Press, and a wonderful, wonderful and inspirational story. You’ve already heard some of the inspiration.

Q. One of the things that you see in this book, Heidi, is that every attempt to try to do something good is met with some sort of either spiritual or bureaucratic resistance. I mean, you talk about the obstacles of the simple tree planting that some people wanted to do. And you talk about what it took to get the Space for Grace and the Bronx Nehemiah Home’s Projects done. Talk a bit about those projects, what they meant to the community, and why it’s frustrating that you can’t even plant a tree, for goodness sakes.
A. Well, it’s important, as we began, talking about Robert Moses coming in there and destroying the land, taking over, knocking down people’s homes and businesses. I mean, part of the reversal of that is people retaking the land and rebuilding the land, not having the city come in, continuing to come in and say for youth build prisons, which was the largest expenditure for youth over the past ten years in the South Bronx, and so building positive things that people of the area wanted to build. In the church we built, I mean, a very modest extension but that was important. We had a parking lot and people, for the most part, didn’t have cars, but we needed room for ministry and for youth and for children in the church. And so we struggled to build that Space for Grace. That was¢â‚¬¦ And we didn’t have a lot of resources so it took a lot of struggle. But it was important to say, you know, we’re building space.

Q. Yeah.
A. The same thing with the, of course, housing. And housing we couldn’t build on our own and so that was important to work with other churches, and also a mosque in the community, organizing South Bronx churches where we were able to leverage funds as a larger group and build low-income homes.

Q. Now, what was interesting about that one is I think that you said that the Nehemiah Homes were built for ($) 6 million, in the same year where one of the bureaucratic administrative divisions ¢€œ
A. It was 3, but go on.

Q. Was it 3 million?
A. Uh-huh.

Q. Wow. There was an authority there that was missing ($)100 million, couldn’t account for ($)100 million.
A. Yeah, that’s correct.

Q. And the point is, you know, at 3 million, that’s 33 times the amount of money that it took. And what a difference it would have made if you would have had that money.
A. Oh absolutely. Right. And part of our work is trying to call public officials to accountability in terms of how taxpayers’ money is being used.

Q. You know, I want to bring up something that I actually thought of during 911 because I interviewed some other pastors in the area, and it’s this. After 911 there was this tremendous outpouring of goodwill. But in a certain sense it was ¢€œ and I don’t want to be critical here ¢€œ but it dangerously bordered on the kind of a miraculous charity situation where there were people that were willing to help if they could help a specific kind of person and so forth. And one of the points that you make, without having to make it really by telling the story the way you do, is that there are ongoing needs in a place like the South Bronx, or for goodness sakes, all around the world and around the United States everyday that, at a certain level, are every bit as critical as 911. And yet we tend, Americans with more wealth, tend to have a donor mentality and a charitable mentality that responds to crisis but not the ongoing possibilities of how our resources of time and energy and sometimes money could be used to transform places here or around the world.
A. Well, you said it better than I could say it. That’s absolutely true.

Q. And how does it feel to be a pastor in a situation like that and know those resources are there and-and to be a Lutheran and, you know, representative of any number of denominations that would have that same kind of struggle? I mean, what do you feel should be done about that or can be done about it?
A. Well, I think it’s¢â‚¬¦ It just requires continually speaking out and lifting up that reality and making people aware of it and bringing it more to peoples’ consciousness, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book.

Q. You build the book in a certain way around St. Teresa and her progression through rooms to a point of union with God. Talk about how that was a useful metaphor and has been a useful metaphor for you, in terms of your own spiritual journey in the South Bronx.
A. Well, St. Teresa of Avila is kind of a spiritual mentor to me because she, in a century when there were huge obstacles, I dare to say perhaps more obstacles even than we face, although certainly as many obstacles, she did not give up. She kept going. She tried to reform and, the life of the church in her time, people’s understanding and she started communities through Spain, traveling by foot, traveling, you know, by horse or donkey, I guess. Under very difficult conditions. She was physically ill. And in addition to doing that she wrote, and she wrote books on her spiritual journey. And the fact that she was able to do all this under very difficult conditions. And she continues to be a tremendous inspiration to me.

Q. I mentioned to you that I posted something that you talked about at my website today. I emailed you that earlier today. And it had to do with singing there’s power in the blood and a certain level at which that kind of visceral aspect of our gospel connects with people who need to see power in blood, and the Bronx needs a God who bleeds. Talk about why you feel that, what you mean by that.
A. Well, when you find out it’s not a spirituality that’s pie-in-the-sky and disconnected from our humanity, our flesh and blood struggles. And my understanding of Christianity is Jesus being fully God and fully human. Fully human, sharing in all parts of our humanity. And but, you know, the sense of not Jesus as a weak victim dying for us, but Jesus dying for us because of his powerful love for us, resisting a lot of dehumanizing powers and yes, bleeding, but also rising to life. And I think in the Bronx I discovered the power that of that life, you know, not just this, again, something at the end of life, a resurrection, but a rising up and getting out of bed every day for a lot of people, getting up in the morning is a resurrection ¢€œ

Q. Yeah, absolutely.
A. ¢€œ when you’re struggling with a lot of injustice.

Q. So in conclusion, your hope from this book, and then you’re in a different ministry. And how did you decide to make that change?
A. Well, that was a difficult decision. When I was on sabbatical for a few months, which is when I did part of the writing of the book, I visited a church in Manhattan one Sunday where the gospel text was Jesus calling Peter, you get out of this boat. And it just was one of those moments where it felt that God was speaking and saying, Heidi, get out of your boat. And that was a very threatening kind of thing to me. But to make a long story short, it turned out that God, I really did feel was calling me to a new ministry. And it was not, it was something I resisted but, in fact, it’s how I felt God calling me. And I guess in my book I’m hoping to call all of us to get out of our boat a little bit and to, you know, to get into a boat with our sisters and brothers and see things in a new way.

Wow. As one reader, I will say that that certainly is part of what my experience was in spending time with the book Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, as told by Pastor Heidi Neumark, published by Beacon Press, and available at your local bookstore. We’ll be right back. Don’t go away.

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in August 14, 2006 by | 1 Comment »

One Response to Heidi Neumark: Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

  1. Harlette Washington on November 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Just simply want to say thanks. Thanks for making me look back on the disparities of raising a family in an industrial community on Chicago’s south side, but hallelujah, because we all made it. It made me think back to growing up in the public housing development called the St Bernard Project in New Orleans, La – how all public housing was looked at with disdain – but for those of us who lived there – it was home. Many survived – because it was what our parents wanted for us – it was what the community provided – even against all odds. Keep up the good work.

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