Just before Christmas, I stopped in at a church I know in Bushwick. Not that Bushwick. I’m talking old Bushwick. BC Bushwick- Before it was Cool. I was in Bushwick when it was the poorest assembly district in New York. That neighborhood had some serious image problems. Income was low, crime rates were high, and the firemen were the best in the city, because they had so much practice putting out fires in insured buildings that no one would buy.
The small storefront church sits in the shadows of an elevated train track in eastern Bushwick, just a few blocks from Brownsville and East New York, in what is still one of the poorest corners of New York City. Poverty shapes the lives of the little congregation. It impacts every decision, but it doesn’t dampen the spirit of Christmas. People here have stared in the face of poverty. It cannot beat them. The battles have left them scarred, but their spirit is unbowed.
“I came here 32 years ago from Guyana,” Aletha Stevens told me. What she wouldn’t tell me is how old she is. But I do know she has ten grandchildren and five great grandchildren. “I came to visit my sister for Thanksgiving. All I knew about America at that time was what I saw in the movies and heard on the news.
“When I came for my visit,” Aletha remembered, “my sister told me, ‘no one comes to New York and goes back home.’ Six years later, I had my citizenship papers.”
Aletha, who worked in New York all her adult life is now on disability.
“I fell at home and broke my leg.” The rest of her story is about a healthcare system that’s based on the wealth of the patient. She was never properly treated, and eventually wound up getting back surgery. “After the back surgery, I couldn’t hear or see or talk for a week. I was in a nursing home for two months. Eventually, I had both knees replaced. It made it very hard to work.
“I’m willing to do more, but I can’t. I took some lessons at LaGuardia College on the computer. I bought a laptop. But someone broke in and stole it.”
Sitting with her in the church, I wanted wondered what difference poverty made to her Christmas. I asked what she would do if she had some extra money for the holidays.
“If I had money, I would do things for others.”
She was not the last one to tell me this. I had to push to get her to think of herself. She finally admitted that her life could be better with a few purchases.
“For myself, I’d like to get a good back and two good knees. I sit a lot in my living room. I’d like a nice chair, a recliner. And I’d like to change my bedroom set.”
The woman’s plans for the holidays focused on family. The plans are a little different than they used to be.
“When my mother was alive we would all gather at her home. Now, I spend Christmas with my elder daughter. I don’t do a lot of walking anymore. I used to go and get gifts for the grandkids. I can’t buy anything for them, now. I can’t afford it. So, all I can give them is a simple hug and a kiss, and reminisce.
“I’m hurting so bad, now. I would like them to fix my knee so I could run with my grandkids. But I’m thankful for SSI. I live alone. Some nights it hurts. I’m living one day at a time.”
A man came by and introduced himself as Ronald Bradford. As we shook hands, Ronald immediately struck me as the most peaceful, contented man I have ever met. He seemed so happy it was almost unnerving. He was happy to tell me he’s 53, and happy to talk about his plans for the holidays.
“For Christmas I hope to celebrate with my grandson. He’s one year old. I’ve never seen him. He lives in Florida. This will be his first trip to New York. I feel really good knowing I have a grandson. It gives me energy. You have no idea what a grandson is. When I see him, I’m just gonna pick him up and hold him. I hope he and his mom come here to the church for our Christmas dinner.”
The man’s daughter and grandson will be staying in New York for several days, but not with him.
“I’m in a rooming situation,” he told me. “They can’t stay with me. They’ll stay with her mom, and I’ll visit.”
He had heard my conversation with Aletha. He was ready with an answer before I could ask the question.
“If I had more money, the first thing I’d do is take my daughter and grandson to DisneyWorld. Then, I’d love to go to Las Vegas. I’ve never been. My friends tell me it’s for me.”
Ronald, who “used to be a musician,” has tasted the temptation of financial success.
“Twenty years ago, it was all about myself. God has a funny way of humbling you. Years ago, I was a musician. I wrote songs. My songs were very popular, but my words were bad. I had cars, jewelry, drink, drugs, women. My uncle, who was a preacher, questioned what I was writing and doing. He said to me, ‘what does it profit a man who loses his soul?’ I walked away from that style of music. Now I feel good.”
I asked him if he’d like a grand piano. As he thought about the idea, the answer was all over his face before he opened his mouth.
“If I had a grand piano that would be beautiful. That would make me feel...” He stopped talking and just looked off into space, imagining his fingers on the keys of that grand piano. “We have just an upright here,” he told me, referring to an antique sitting against the wall. He plays it for the congregation whenever he can.
“A grand piano,” he said, going back to the dream. “That’s the first thing on my list. Second is a car. I used to have a Shelby Cobra. Now, I would get a BMW I-8 Spyder. It’s my dream car.”
Ronald was good enough to tell me a little about wealth.
“The money is an illusion of satisfaction. It’s multiple drinks, drugs. It can’t help you sleep. You gain money, but you lose a lot. I was making $500 a night playing my music. But it didn’t add up. Now, I play here in church. My mind is clear, my music is better than ever.”
On my right, Lenore Jackson smiled in appreciation, remembering the many times she’s heard that music. Lenore is another one of these folks from old Bushwick who just don’t look old enough to have learned everything they know. I asked Lenore where she is from.
“I came here about 42 years ago from Belize. I came to help my family. I worked and also went to school, but I always thought I would go home and build a house.
“I became a social worker. I had an accident and fell at work. That was four years ago. Now I’m on disability. I’m alright in the summer, but in the winter the pain is bad.”
It doesn’t stop her from getting out.
“For Christmas, we’re going over to my only friend and spend the day making her happy. She can’t get around on her own. She can’t get out of bed, so we’ll visit her and remind her of Jesus. We’ll do our best to make her happy.”
Lenore also thought first of others when I asked what she’d do with a little extra money.
“I would help my daughter and grandson, and my friend in bed. My daughter would like to go to school to be a registered nurse, but she doesn’t have the money for school and a baby sitter.”
When it was time for me to go, I was showered with warm season’s greetings. I headed for the door full of Christmas spirit. But outside the little church, under the elevated tracks I became a little sad, a little angry. There’s an apparent unfairness in life that’s particularly irritating around Christmas time. It was bothering me as I walked to the car. Then I remembered something that was said just a few minutes before in the church. Lenore had explained it all to me fifteen minutes before. Christmas is not about the things we don’t have.
“The giving of love is what Christmas is about,” Lenore told me. “We share our good fortune with others less fortunate. We should give to those who have nothing.”
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