You just never know...
As I was reading through the comments to this blog, I came across a total surprise: a response from my mentor's daughter! I had written that Ray Swartzback had taught me about ministry being an emotional roller coaster - he taught me a lot more, too - and I guess now is as good a time as any to put some of it out there. I was unable to get back to Jamaica, NY for his funeral and then his dear wife, Jane, died so quickly afterwards, too.
Ray was my man: when I met him he was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, NY. I was a Union Theological Seminary senior doing an internship in urban ministry. I had interviewed at a number of places but all felt like a waste of my time until Ray agreed to meet with me. He interviewed me - found I had worked with the Farm Workers and been a CO during the Vietnam war - and told me that we might be able to have some fun. And man-ee day (one of his favorite expressions and mine, too) did we ever!
Every week I was with him in worship - he was a "confrontational" preacher who took on the issues of the day from the pulpit - and shared top notch biblical wisdom with a prophetic kick in the ass from time to time. He was a champion of peace and justice, GLBT civil rights and social justice for people of color. OMG could that man preach! For years I wanted to be Swartzback. I still weep over the way he remembered MLK - and spoke of knowing Rosa Parks - and putting himself on the line back in the 50s in Cincinatti, OH.
He preached my ordination sermon - "Trapped in the Trappings" - which I still reference in my meditations 27 years later. He came out and joined me for an urban ministry convocation in Cleveland when I was serving an urban church there (he once asked me if I was trying to follow in his footsteps because he had been in Detroit and I went to Saginaw, then he was in the Glenville neighborhood and I went in Cleveland, too.)
He inspired me for urban ministry; he studied and taught with the best in the movement throughout the 50s and 60s and was faithful to the end. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star but always advocated for the way of Jesus and his peace. He taught me to walk the streets of my "parish" and get to know the barbers, grocers, cops and hairdressers as a way to get the pulse of what is really happening. He also was clear: people will follow you into rough places IF you first demonstrate you love them and are there for them. So visit, visit, visit and make sure you delilver! He taught me to think of Jesus as "the man for others" which changed my piety forever.
After my divorce and sabbatical in the Southwest - where he had gone to do a convocation at Ghost Ranch with urban ministers - we got together in his retirement home to reconnect. He was carving wooden birds - more beautiful than anything I had ever seen - and preaching a bit and pushing his denomination to live into the spirit of Jesus with the GLBT folk. He even came up to Cleveland again to preach at my church one more time before we left for Tucson. Our last meal together was at an Ethiopian place in Cleveland which he thought was a hoot because you ate so much food with your fingers. We kept in touch at Christmas and a few other times. Then Janey called to tell me that "my old buddy had died..."
Ray was one of two father figures for me (the other being Sam Fogal who also recently passed on and about whom I will write more later.) When my first marriage was going south, he was a counselor. When I did not know how to fit into the civil rights movement as a white liberal, he gave me perspective and told me, "You ALWAYS have to pay your dues, man. And you can't take your street cred with you... it is not portable.. you gotta earn it again every time you move." He was so proud when I became part of an inter-racial School Board team in Cleveland and got elected twice -serving as the Vice President and a friend of the Mayor's while still serving my little church. He taught me well... and I still miss him.
I am so glad his daughter found my site and hope she will be in touch. He changed my life, gave me wisdom, love and courage to do the right thing at the right time and helped me become a real preacher. I loved him then and love him now. God bless you, Ray Swartzback.