For years, spiritual spaces have been key to progressive organizing in Bay Ridge. In today’s episode, we say goodbye to Reverend Robert Emerick of the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church. Bob is being forcibly retired after seventeen years in our community. We decided to sit down with Bob and reflect on how he and his congregation have let their spiritual and moral beliefs guide them through controversy, making innovative economic, civic, and educational decisions along the way.
Reverend Bob began his tenure in Bay Ridge during the tense and much-debated decision to sell the famed Green Church building, then the home of the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church. The press and protests faded after the church’s demolition and a new school went up on the site. But for Bob and his congregation, the story had just begun and the possibilities were endless.
Quickly jump to key parts of the episode by clicking the links below…
- Interview with Rev. Robert Emerick
- Our Reactions
- Messages from Fight Back Bay Ridge
The Green Church
- Reverend Bob mentions the intense opposition to the demolition of the church. You can read a few of the articles covering the controversy here:
- God To Pols: Thou Shalt Destroy The Green Church (Brooklyn Paper – March 24, 2007)
- The Little Church That Couldn’t (NY Times – April 1st, 2007)
- Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church Established (Historic Districts Council – April 18th, 2007)
- Congregation Wants To Sell Soul To Devil-oper (Brownstoner – April 18th, 2007)
- A Britisher’s View: The Green Church Could Have Been Saved (Brooklyn Paper – November 5, 2007)
- Ovington Avenue and the Green Church (Forgotten New York – June 10, 2007)
- Reverend: Let Us Tear Down Church (NY Daily News – January 24, 2008)
- Rally To Save Bay Ridge Methodist Church (Bay Ridge Blog – February 16, 2008)
- Nabe: ‘Save Our Church’- Critics Refuse To Let Green Go (Qns – February 21, 2008)
- ‘Green’ Church Is Coming Down, Blame Game Continues (Brooklyn Paper – September 19, 2008)
- Chuck Otey’s Bay Ridge Blog (December 12, 2008)
- Green Church Update (Forgotten New York – November 14, 2012)
Bay Ridge United Methodist and the Economy
- Watch the PBS video that discusses the Bay Ridge United Methodist “Economic Well Being” award.
- You can also buy the economic report that came closest to winning the award, from Dollars and Sense magazine.
- You can tell just how in-depth Bob’s economic research went. He name-drops the Minksy Moment when discussing the inherent instability of the stock market.
Expand to view the entire show transcript (lightly edited for readability)…
Dan: Hey there! Welcome to Radio Free Bay Ridge, your hyper-local progressive podcast centered exclusively on beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I’m Dan.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel.
Dan: And today we have a bittersweet little episode for you. We’re going to be interviewing Reverend Robert Emerick. You may know Robert if you were ever in any of the Fight Back Bay Ridge action groups within the last… what Rachel? Three? Four years? At least?
Rachel: Well, we’ve wanted to talk to him since we started the podcast.
Dan: Bob donates the space, the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church.
Rachel: And every meeting you’d just kind of have Bob off in the corner, kind of watchin’ everything. Projecting his wonderful energy.
Dan: And then occasionally just coming in with an amazing remark that just brings everything back on track.
Rachel: Wait, are you implying activists get off track?
Dan: [Laughs] I believe I am. We often did, especially in those early days. And I think that a lot of progressives owe Bob quite a bit. But what you may not have known is that he has a really rich history in Bay Ridge… and some controversies. There are some really interesting decisions that he’s made with his congregation. And today we want to focus on the things that Robert finds important.
Rachel: It’s also important to mention why we’re doing this right now, and you get in a little bit into this in the interview, but sadly… the Reverend is leaving Bay Ridge.
Dan: Yeah. He is ageistly being booted out of his position. After a certain number of years, you just are thrown into forced retirement.
Rachel: Yep. Without giving it away, there are some really interesting insights that he has into that early in the interview.
Dan: We are going to touch on some things that I think progressive sometimes leave behind when it comes to morality and the religious left… which isn’t a term you hear very often.
Rachel: It’s not, but it’s also increasingly important to have people and voters in faith roles who are reaching out and are creating welcoming spaces. And I think we’re very lucky to have had that in Reverend Bob.
Dan: For anyone who hasn’t been in Fight Back Bay Ridge and is coming into this completely fresh: Yes, Bay Ridge progressive politics has very much had an alliance with and centered progressive activist religious groups in the neighborhood. Spiritual spaces across the spectrum, whether it is a mosque or a synagogue or a church, have been key organizing spaces from the very beginning. And it’s about time to center those and acknowledge the importance that they’ve had.
So without further ado, let’s go straight to Reverend Bob.
Interview with Reverend Robert Emerick
Introducing Rev. Bob
Dan: All right. Number one: Nice to be back in person! We’ve been doing zoom meetings for a while, but we’re here with Reverend Robert Emerick. Reverend Bob, thank you so much.
Bob: My pleasure.
Dan: Tell me a little bit about yourself, in case anyone hasn’t encountered you in their day-to-day life in Bay Ridge.
Bob: Well, let’s see… I grew up in a town of 250 people in the Appalachian mountains. And I came up to New York City to go to seminary and never went back. So I’ve been serving churches in New York City. Along the way, I got an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and was running mental health center and doing counseling and supervision. I taught psychology for a little while as an adjunct. I was in New Jersey doing clinical social work when I got an invitation to preach in Bay Ridge. Don’t know where that came from, but that was in 2004 and I’ve been here ever since.
My mandatory retirement date is June 30th. I like to tell the congregation: religion is the one area of life where any and all forms of discrimination may find safe haven.
The policy of my denomination is upon reaching the June after your 72nd birthday, you are retired. That’s a form of discrimination. It’s like saying, “Okay, from now on, you got nothing to say.” But in religion, anything goes. All forms of discrimination are well-protected, and I’m experiencing that. Now, mine isn’t nearly as severe as others, but it does have an impact. It’s like, “Oh, you’re done.”
Dan: Well not today.
Bob: Not today! But that’s basically the overview. I have a daughter and a son-in-law and a grandson and a granddaughter on the way.
Dan: Oh, wow! Congratulations.
Bob: Yeah so, I’m doing OK.
The Green Church
Dan: Well, three years ago you wrote a book called Finding Solid Ground. I have a copy right here, thoroughly annotated. It explores a really interesting dynamic between the economy, religion, and personal reflections on your time in Bay Ridge.
Bob: I don’t think I could have come to any of the insights that I relate in Solid Ground if I had not come to Bay Ridge.
All my life I’ve had questions and concerns and doubts. But I couldn’t quite crystallize what they were. When I was a kid I knew I was going to be a minister. But one of my earliest questions was: how can people who say they’re Christian, church-going folk… also be racist? That just didn’t make any sense to me. I never got an answer until I came to Bay Ridge.
It’s a complicated story. I was invited to be a guest speaker here in October of 2004. I was invited to come back and speak in December. Eventually they asked me to be the pastor here. But I wanted to come here because the congregation was willing to let go of its building in order to do ministry.
Dan: That’s so interesting.
Bob: Yeah. I had never seen that before.
Dan: That was one of the reasons you came?
Bob: Yes. That was the main reason. That the congregation was willing to sell its building. The membership had dwindled as they have in most Protestant churches and Catholic. We had to rent space, gladly, to Heartshare, in order to pay the operational budget.
But one day the building would have needed a new roof. Repairing it would have been out of reach. That’s big money. So the congregation realized that we were cash poor but land rich. In other words, they were actually sitting on their assets, if you will. [Laughter]
So they made a unanimous decision in March of 2005 to sell the property and build a smaller solar powered church building. We would use the proceeds to remain in operation regardless of the membership fluctuation. In other words, we’d have enough money to keep going and to do the things that Jesus said his followers should do… like care for the poor, and do it with love.
But then there was tremendous opposition from some segments of the community. Some secular folk but also some church folk. There were just one or two churches that defended our decision. That made me wonder: how is it not perfectly clear in people’s minds that churches have an obligation to use their resources to do what Jesus said?
Dan: You’re referring to the Green Church. If anyone doesn’t know, it used to stand on Ovington and Fourth Avenue. It was crumbling away. You invited people to go and take a sample of the stone. You could reach out and it crumbled in your hand. It was falling. There had to be scaffolding and netting to keep it from hurting people nearby.
The New York Times quoted you saying, “Are we here to pour all of our money into stone? Or do we have a bigger mission in the world?”
Bob: Right. There were proposals about how we could use the land in order to generate funds. But all those proposals were based on the notion that all of that money would go into preserving stone. It became clear to me that that’s not our mission. Jesus never said anything about preserving buildings.
Dan: I am a historic preservationist by training. And either you preserve an incredibly expensive building, or you gut the interior and preserve the exterior… but then it doesn’t maintain character. You have to ask: what are you trying to preserve? There are so many questions about preservation that, it seems to me, were not made at that time.
Bob: I was asking myself the same question. What if the congregation’s wrong? And I asked myself that question seriously.
The only way I could resolve it for myself was to go and reread what Jesus said in the Four Gospels. The things that were attributed to him as having said. Because for me the church is a special case in that we are here in Jesus’ name and therefore we ought to do what he said. It’s that simple. Our mission in the world has to be defined by what Jesus said not by our traditions. And that means that church buildings are things that come and go.
There weren’t any church buildings at all until in the 300’s when Constantine started to build church buildings. For the first three hundred years the churches met in people’s homes. But when Constantine took over, he took public funds and built church buildings and put the clergy in senators robes. The church was already off the track… but it went completely off the track at that point.
That was a rationale that is clear in my mind, and I learned it from the conflict here in Bay Ridge. There is a definition for the church that supersedes church traditions. Christianity is entering its third millennium. Now might be a good time to think about what our founder intended!
The Role of Local Churches in Education and Economics
Dan: For so many people, that conflict over the Green Church is the end. They stopped paying attention after that. It’s now a school, which is lovely. But for us, it’s the start of this story.
Bob: Right. And the outcome thus far is that we don’t have a new building. And my feeling is: that’s probably a good thing. We rent space here at Good Shepherd in a beautiful room.
But because of that action with the property we have enough money to live on. Such that we give away our Sunday offerings. We have a mission committee that does research. We’ve given money to everything from the local ambulance to Doctors Without Borders. We give away all of our Sunday offerings. We don’t need it to pay the light bill. So people are really enjoying, if that’s the right word, figuring out the best way to give away this money that we get on Sundays.
Dan: That’s amazing. It’s almost refreshingly shocking to hear it’s given away… all of it.
Bob: All of it.
Dan: On top of that, if anyone doesn’t know you from the Green Church, a few years after that, a half page ad in the New York Times appeared…
Bob: Yes. That’s the second thing that caught my attention. If we’re here to do what Jesus said we should do, that is, to care for one another… how can we do that?
Because happening at that time was the campaign for the Obama second term. I was hearing all kinds of things being said about the economy. Who are the job creators? What’s this and what’s that? I went to college. I took micro and macro economics. But I didn’t know if anyone was telling the truth about the economy.
So I started to do my own research. I looked at seven or eight economic indicators since the end of the Revolutionary War, to the extent that data was available. I made long sheets of data. And then I did the math to come up with annual averages for each of these indicators. And I discovered that what was being said in the campaign by both sides to a certain extent was false. Actually, the most productive period for the U.S. economy was during the Great Depression…
Dan: Works Progress Administration. New Deal.
Bob: It actually worked. That was the period of the greatest growth in the economy.
After World War Two the economy did very well. There was a record number of federal employees. Eisenhower makes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez look like a moderate. His taxes were far higher than anything that anyone would dare to recommend today. And yet that’s what built the Federal Interstate Highway System and funded the G.I. Bill. All of those things created the most successful economy the country has ever had.
After that, there was a move toward what’s been called “supply side” or “trickle-down economics”. And the economy has done consistently worse since 1972.
Learning that, my question was: why are people saying what they’re saying? I found this out after about a year’s worth of research in the mornings, from 4 A.M. to 8 A.M. So I brought this to the congregation’s attention. It seemed to me that the church could say, “We have these two different sets of data. One pre-1972. One after. How come there’s such a big difference in the economy’s performance?” We offered a prize of $33,000 to economists (or a group of economists) who could come up with an answer to that.
The approach was: let’s figure out what we were doing right. And let’s experiment to see if that might work again.
Dan: And written in a simple, easy, laid out format. There’s a PBS piece explaining all this. We’ll have that in the show notes. What’s amazing is how much the congregation wanted these answers.
Bob: They were willing to dip into the capital. Because answering that question would be a service to everybody. Then let’s experiment with policies to see what might work, versus assuming that trickle-down has to be the way of life forever.
In most fields, including economics, we don’t know as much as we think we do. And there’s a lot to learn in applying economic knowledge to public policy. But to me, that was perfectly in line with Jesus’ teaching. Let’s use systems to bring about human wellbeing. If we fail, we fail… but let’s try.
So that went out in this ad in the Times. We had one response from Dollars and Sense Magazine. They actually wrote a book about it. They came the closest, but then I asked them please put some bullet point policy implications at the end of each chapter. They didn’t do that. So the money’s still sitting there.
Dan: And that’s with the congregation. So if anyone is listening to this now and thinks that it’s been taken…
Bob: It’s not. It’s still wide open. And to me, it’s the only sensible approach to economic policy. Let’s figure out what worked to produce human well-being. Now yes, granted, there was racial and gender discrimination during that period of time. But the principles prove that these policies could be successful again. The public and the private needing each other to make a successful economy. The people who say “small government is good” don’t know what they’re talking about.
Dan: Which is what you call the “heart of the economy” in the book. That there must be a balance between public spending and private spending.
Bob: Minsky showed that there’s no such thing as a stable stock market and that public demand through public funds is at least a foundation for aggregate demand. So even while we’re looking at the invisible hand, we can do “visible hand” policy.
But anyway, all of this, for me, it was stuff that the church should always be doing. All churches everywhere should be involved in trying to help people figure out what’s the best way to live the most humane life. That’s another thing I learned while I was thinking about what Jesus said. Let’s use all of our capacities: institutional, educational, economic. Why not try to build a better world?
Dan: You mentioned that before the Green Church was taken down you were trying to make ends meet by having Heartshare, a medical nonprofit, share the building. Many churches have nonprofits tenants that occupy their spaces and help with money and rent. That’s a great example of the balance that’s needed.
Bob: Yes, that’s something we could do intentionally. I think a lot of it was sort of forced on churches. But I think it turns out to be a great idea for churches become civic centers as well.
Spiritual Spaces and Progressive Organizations
Dan: That goes to the next topic. Before I started the podcast, I was a member of Fight Back Bay Ridge. There is an episode on the origins of that, if anyone wants to go listen.
After Sally and everyone founded it in their apartments, I remember coming up to the space that we’re sitting in now and meeting other Progressives. We had a little circle of chairs. Bob, you provided a space that acted as a community space for a good number of people. And that’s a continuation of that exact story, about churches being civic centers.
Bob: Exactly. Most churches have space. Why not use it to try to do some of the things that Jesus said? To make life better if we can? Why not use church space to let community groups meet and try to do that? To me it’s just a no brainer. Why are we here? Are we here just to have services and stuff? Or are we here to make the world a better place?
Dan: Yeah. Some of the things that were discussed in this room: voter discounts at local businesses. Trash pickup around the holidays in neighborhoods that are not Bay Ridge. Composting programs. Demanding answers from politicians. Going back to when you first were trying to investigate why so many politicians were lying or just incorrect, there was a voter education guide subgroup that I was a part of that sat just over to the left there, just trying to figure out what politicians were saying and what their actual policies were. But those were the kinds of things that this space enabled.
Bob: I have experience with a lot of different groups over these past 50 years. There are some good folks and some bad folks in every group. And by good I mean they’re people of good will. They don’t want to hurt anyone and they want to try to help if they can. No two people have exactly the same ideas about how to do that. But there are people of good will in every group. Also, there are people of ill will.
My first church was in Central Harlem. And from then I moved to Manhattan Valley where we did housing development and economic development. And then I was in Staten Island for a while. And then I went into social work school. But I found the same thing here in Bay Ridge… that there are good folks. And I sense that a lot of people want to see things change for the better.
Maybe good will is strong enough to allow people to question their thinking. And to me, that’s the importance of what I call this “humane pragmatism.” Instead of speculating about what should work or shouldn’t work, let’s do things that might work in which people don’t get hurt.
So it seems to me that churches are a space that can open up to people of good will who might actually want to consider issues in an atmosphere of good will. Doesn’t sound like it has any chance of succeeding… but if we don’t try, what are we doing?
Importance of Facts
Dan: Have you seen good faith dialogs happening in Bay Ridge spiritual spaces since you’ve gotten here? Has it gotten better? Has it gotten worse?
Bob: I’ve seen more dialogue, say, in the religious sphere with Muslims and Christians and Jews. People meet each other as individuals. The idea there is if you see somebody on the street and they seem to be different, maybe you met them somewhere at a gathering so that they’re not a stranger. They are not to be feared.
Anyway, not everyone’s going to want to do this, but people of good will can find space. And I think churches ought to be the place where that’s done.
I don’t have to agree with the philosophy of people who use our space, because the truth is most people’s philosophy hasn’t really been thought about that much. And I include myself in that. That’s the point of having dialogue. You can also develop sympathy. Once people know what’s happened to each other in their life a lot of things make more sense.
But even in terms of having facts available for discussion, that’s part of what came out of the economic research that I did. To know, for example, for a fact that unemployment has been higher since we’ve had trickle-down and unemployment was lowest consistently when we had higher government spending.
I mean, there are always people who are going to deny that the earth is round. There’s not much you can do there. But with people who are willing to consider facts or knowledge… there is room for growth. And it just seems to me that churches would be a great forum for those kinds of conversations to occur.
Dan: And you’ve done that for Bay Ridge United Methodist. I think there’s a church committee, still, on the economic ideas that stem from your research. I would have loved to been in the room when you came in after that year of research and you told everyone about it…
Bob: Well, I showed them all of my research. I was willing to spend hours explaining it. I wasn’t expecting anyone to take my word for anything. Why should they? But I presented information that any person could verify on their own. And I showed the math. It is possible to gain knowledge of facts.
Dan: People nowadays might feel that that expressing facts is a little hopeless. It may feel like people just lie and lie. It can seem like our day-to-day lives consists of confronting a series of lies that you just can’t make stop.
Bob: Right and one of the tragedies (that I mentioned in the beginning of the Solid Ground book) is that public discourse has become big business. A lot of money is tied up in it. So the cynical part of me feels that maybe there’s not such a great desire to resolve these conflicts because a lot of people are making a lot of money on them. So why would you want to kill the goose that’s laying your golden egg by resolving a conflict?
Finding Solid Ground in the Preamble
For example, take the discussion of what’s actually in our tradition, our history, as Christians. To me the valuable tradition is what Jesus taught. Not debates about who he was.
Likewise in our “civil” discourse we do have some common ground in our preamble in our Constitution, which states the reasons the constitution was written. In other words, it says “in order to”, dot dot dot dot, “we hearby establish…”
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
– Preamble to the Constitution
The purpose of the Constitution is to fulfill the goals in the preamble, which are very noble. I’m not ashamed of any of them. I would love to join a Preamble Party! Sign me up! There are gems in our traditions that can guide us.
Except that I never learned these things in school. I didn’t learn that the American political philosophy is already expressed in the preamble. That’s why we exist. The preamble was the only political philosophy that was ever voted on by the people of the United States. That’s worth knowing.
Dan: Yeah. And right now you can learn a lot about the Supreme Court, our government, how we interpret our laws, all kings of facts… but it seems like people learn those things in order to have arguments online. They learn things as ammunition, rather than as a way of trying to find common ground with someone.
Dan: Just going back really quick: I feel like when you were mentioning that so much of debate right now is big business… Twitter or Facebook or what have you… I just want to point out the clear counterbalance that a space provides. I don’t think there is any mistake that so much progressive activism in Bay Ridge (at least for the past four to five years) has occurred in spaces like this.
But again, going back then to the preamble, that is a thing that we all agree on.
Bob: I’ve heard some folks say that the United States is about people being able to worship freely and to get rich. Neither one of those is in the preamble.
There’s a balance of virtues. And they are all interdependent. So the people who think that the United States is only about individual Liberty to do whatever you want… that’s not there! And there’s a thing called the general welfare and the common good. There’s also justice. Tranquility. All of these things that were voted on are the reasons we exist as a nation. You don’t have to agree with that. But if you don’t agree with that then you’re the one on whom the burden of proof lies. You have to be the one arguing for changing the constitution’s preamble.
Dan: You mentioned in the book that all of them must be balanced.
Bob: Right. One of the sages of 50 years ago was Mortimer Adler. He was professor of philosophy of law at the University of Chicago Law School. He wrote a book called the American Testament. And he makes the argument that each of the six purposes in the preamble are interdependent.
For example, you cannot have tranquility if you don’t have justice. And you can’t have liberty unless you have the general welfare. That all of these things are interdependent.
Some groups, they want to pull out one of those purposes and say it is supreme. No. They’re not. If you don’t have them all you don’t really have any of them.
There’s a general notion here that’s implicit. Just as human beings have physical bodies, society is a body. You can’t have a healthy society if the parts are not healthy and working together. In a human body, you need a healthy heart, pancreas, whatever… they all have to be well-nourished, well supported. So yes, each individual is important. So is the social body that protects individuality.
And then you can expand that to talk about the natural world that we live in. We’re part of nature. That includes other living things. And the planet that gives us our food, air, and water.
People say that Darwin said, “it’s dog eat dog, kill or be killed”… that’s not what he said. He said it’s about adaptation. Darwin actually said, in Descent of Man, that the key to human survival is moral evolution. That means developing a sense of connection with all of the realities that we live in. What a concept!
We’ve overlooked the most important discoveries in the last thousand years in order to establish a form of tribalism that’s very selfish and self destructive.
There’s a book I could recommend, came out a few years ago, called “Why Nations Fail“. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. That book documents the importance of understanding society as a body. The institutions that we have need our support. Yes, schools cost money. But they also maintain the society as a whole. If anything, we should be spending more on them.
Sometimes we get short-term gain confused with long-term wellbeing. But I think that’s one of the benefits of looking in our traditions. For me it’s Jesus’ teaching. But for all of us it’s the preamble. That’s pure gold.
And the more you think about it the more it develops the mind and the heart to think that we’re all actually parts of the same body. And we need to care for one another because that’s how we care for ourselves as individuals. That’s contrary to those other fearful and selfish ideas that make a lot of money for people.
Dan: Yeah. Well, if we could redistribute some of that back…
Bob: Yeah that would be great!
Dan: [Laughing] If you’re going to argue and get angry online, we’re just going to take all of that money that Google or Facebook is making and just put it back toward the things that don’t make people upset…
Bob: [Laughing] Just for that you’re going to have to pay for a teacher’s salary!
What’s Next for Bob
On March 1st, I was 72 years old. I finished 72 years. Coming to Bay Ridge was, for me, a key part of my intellectual and spiritual development. Because of what I encountered here, I wrote the Solid Ground book. I had written a book about the soul that came out in 2010 and I thought that was the end of it. But then this one came up.
So I’m going to be writing another book, which I hope will be the last. It’s about Jesus’ teaching and real life. I want to sketch out some ways in which his teachings are universalizable. He says the way to get justice and goodness and all of these things is through love. Not the selfish possessive kind, but the kind that cares about another’s wellbeing. That that’s the best path to accomplish what we want to do for our children and ourselves and long into the future. Jesus’ teachings have implications for understanding ourselves, and for the society we live in, and for our politics and economy and spirituality.
I just want to do a sketchbook on that because I haven’t been able to find a book that talks about Jesus’ teaching applied to real life in a sort of comprehensive way. So I issued a $50 challenge to the congregation. If you can find a book that talks about Jesus’ teaching applied to the various dimensions of life, I’ll give you $50 U.S. That’s my standing challenge.
Dan: [Laughter] I feel like that challenge might stand for as long as the other one. You folks will have to act quick to earn that $50 because Reverend Bob is going to be retired in a little bit!
Reverend Bob, thank you so much for being a member of Bay Ridge, and a member of the community. I know a good number of people owe you and will remember you fondly. I don’t think you’ll ever be forgotten.
Bob: That means a lot to me to hear that because that’s how I feel about you folks too. People of good will need to find each other in the world and be together and work together. It’s been my privilege to be here. Thank you for this opportunity, Dan.
Dan: It’s been Bay Ridge’s privilege.
Bob: Thank you so much.
Rachel: Wow. That was a really interesting interview. I’m really glad that you and Reverend Bob were able to sit down and do it.
Dan: I’m glad too. That was a day before Fight Back Bay Ridge actually had a celebratory going away party with a cake and…
Rachel: Oh my god, the cake. Terri, your cake was amazing.
Dan: It was also very relieving to do an episode live again, in person. That felt so nice.
Rachel: And it brings out such beautiful moments. You know, as much as we love Zoom, is not quite the same.
Dan: Do we love Zoom? [laughter]
Rachel: We “love” zoom, in quotes. But no, I mean, there were some really amazing lines in there. I think my favorite one was, was it “Eisenhower makes AOC look like a moderate.”? Love it!
Dan: There’s so much in Reverend Bob’s writings that screams “Bernie Sanders” to me. So I’m so glad that we had him speak so candidly about some of the things that he’s seen in bay Ridge for these last few years.
Rachel: He has such an incredible spirit of generosity. And something we asked the community to do, which you’ll be hearing in a moment, is that a few members of Fight Back Bay Ridge wanted to put their thoughts and memories and hopes for his future. Dan, I think you and I both had a couple of things we want to just say about that. Do you want to go ahead?
Dan: Well, number one, I want to give Reverend Bob the Fight Back Bay Ridge perfect attendance award as he was always… [laughter]
Rachel: Probably the only one!
Dan: Yeah. I think the only one! He was at every single one of those meetings (because he had to!). But seriously, Bob, thank you so much for the decisions you made in this community. I’m sorry that some of it was contentious. I’m so glad that you had the space of mind to question whether or not you were wrong, and question yourself. But not in a way that led you to change that decision, but in a way that led you to strengthen your belief in the decisions that you and your congregation made.
The thing that floored me the most in that interview was that you came here because that congregation wanted to do that. That decision was so brave.
I remember when that church went down, I was upset because I didn’t really know that story. And learning it has made me reframe some of my beliefs. I believe that I was wrong to be so against that church going down. Because now my niece goes to that school, which wouldn’t have been a thing. And Fight Back Bay Ridge would not have had that beautiful space. I really love that everything you did has enabled so many others in the neighborhood.
Rachel: Relating to what you just said about Bob’s generosity and that space really making a difference: yes, at the neighborhood level and also on very personal level for a lot of us who are in Fight Back Bay Ridge.
Personally, I just want to thank Bob because had he not been generous enough to give us that space, a lot of our lives would be very different right now. Me personally, I was a fashion copywriter when I first moved to Bay Ridge. Getting involved at Fight Back Bay Ridge was my first experience with formal organizing and electoral organizing. And obviously since then, I’ve gone full on into politics.
Dan: I’m going to try to distribute some of Reverend Bob’s Finding Solid Ground books to some of the little free libraries in the neighborhood. If you walk by one, open it up, you might find a book there. He did not write those to make money.
Rachel: He sells fifty copies a year.
Dan: [Laughs] Yeah, he sells exactly 50 copies a year, he told us. No more, no less. So, yeah. I can’t think of a better way than to make Bob’s legacy available for free to the community, through those little free libraries.
Rachel: Unless perhaps it is by listening to all of our friends and fellow organizers sharing their memories.
Dan: Yes. Listen after the end music rolls in the episode (especially you, Bob, if you’re listening). Stick around after that music. ‘Cause there are some people that want to say something.
So until next time everyone, follow us on Twitter at @RadioFreeBR, on Facebook, on the web at radiofreebayridge.org. Instagram. Twitter is always a more salty version of a podcast, if you feel like you need an extra helping of us having opinions, go that way.
Rachel: Two extra helpings!
Dan: Until next time everyone.
Rachel: Stay free, Bay Ridge.
Messages from Fight Back Bay Ridge
Stephen: Hi. I’m Steven Pickering, and a member of Fight Back Bay Ridge since 2017. When I think of Reverend Bob the word sanctuary comes to mind. Truly, there are many kinds of sanctuary, and I can say with enormous gratitude that Reverend Bob provided that for me and many others in the wake of the Trump election, where we were suddenly looking to organize locally from house to house, block to block, and neighborhood to neighborhood.
Reverend Bob opened his church space to us so that we could gather to build community and create the change that we envisioned. What was so beautiful is that his gentle spirit and advice guided and centered us. We came from many different backgrounds and ideologies yet we were absolutely united in the actions of our group.
From ousting corrupt State Senators, to helping clean the streets of Dyker Heights, from community led congressional town halls, to green market composting, reusable bag initiatives… Reverend Bob gave a sanctuary.
Thank you for all you have given us and Bay Ridge. And apologies for the occasional salty language we dropped in the space. We were pretty fired up. Thank you for your grace. Reverend Bob we wish you much love and joy in your next stop. And we will not forget you.
Jay: Hi, Reverend Bob, this is Jay Brown. I just wanted to thank you very much for all the years where you meant so much to all of us participating in Fight Back Bay Ridge. Always providing us a safe space to organize and just the space in general.
Sometimes, when a group of people who are trying to get involved and try to start something, it’s the hardest thing to find a place where everyone can convene together, assemble, work things out, and figure out how they can help the community. And you always play such a big part in that.
I always appreciated your words when we would meet. Because you weren’t just there providing us the space. You were kind of giving us some wisdom, some great input, and you were participating. You were always valued in terms of what you brought to the discussion, and the ideas you brought.
And I just appreciate what you did for us. What you’ve done for your congregation, and the community at large. Thank you so much. I wish you all the best in the future.
Mallory and Alan
Mallory: Hi Bob. This is Mallory.
Alan: And this is Alan.
Mallory: And we’re just really sorry to see you leaving Bay Ridge, but so happy for you that you get to retire and spend more time with your grandkids.
Alan: I mean, Bob, you were instrumental to Fight Back Bay Ridge. You were such a central and level force. And you injected a real sense of calm to the proceedings, which was often very, very helpful.
Mallory: Yeah. You’ve been our home for a lot of the last four years. After we very quickly outgrew Sally’s apartment and we were looking for a place to meet. We thought we would be finding places that were temporary, at least at first, but we didn’t. We found a place with you that nobody ever wanted to leave. Or see end.
Alan: Yeah. And the fact that you were so generous with your time and so flexible with what we wanted to do was truly a gift. So to put it mildly, you will be missed.
Mallory: And thank you so much for everything.
Devon: I met Bob about five years ago now. It was at his church for a Fight Back meeting. My first meeting actually. Can’t remember the action we were working on at the time, but somehow in the discussion I must have said something that just made my faith obvious. Because after the meeting Bob came up to me. And it was our first conversation. And he asked me if I was a person of faith.
He said he could hear the teachings of Jesus in my comments. And we had a discussion about faith. And how that led me to my activism. And how it influenced all my views on social justice and our duties as humans and as Christians. And that was the beginning of a really fast and authentic friendship and deep respect for one another.
Since then Bob has become my mentor, my friends, my family, my teacher, my therapist, and really just one of my biggest cheerleaders in life. I am grateful to God every day for putting him into my life. And my children and I love him dearly. Bob, I am a better human because you came into my life.
Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for loving me so unconditionally. And we’re going to miss having you around here in Brooklyn. But I know you will always be in our lives. Love you!