outStanding in the Field
A Native Son Rebuilds a Church
n many fairy tales, and movies of fairy tales, there is a magic moment at which a transformation occurs. A repugnant beast turns into a handsome prince in Beauty and the Beast. A young girl thought to be dead comes to life in Snow White. And in Disney's most recent release, Sleeping Beauty, a determined prince inspired by love cuts through dense thickets of thorns and rouses a sleeping population with a kiss.
Though Victor Aloyo was born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of a supermarket owner and a high school teacher, his story resonates with a similar magic, a magic he attributes not to fantasy but to the grace of God.
Once upon a time, in 1902, a church was constructed in East Brooklyn that ministered to the predominantly Italian/German/ Polish community. The church thrived and membership grew to 300. But in the '40s, many members of the church community moved from the city to the suburbs, and only a remnant of the original membership remained. Soon, there was an influx of Caribbean and South American immigrants into the neighborhood, and a second constituency rose up. But the church was poor and lacked both money and leadership. Forty years passed and the building, like the congregation, slowly decayed.
By 1989, the year Aloyo graduated from Princeton Seminary, all that was left of the church was a shell. The interior was decrepit; walls were crumbling and beams were exposed. Birds flew through the windows broken by vandals and left their droppings on the altar and pews. A twelve-foot-high fence with barbed wire, the last resort of the handful of remaining members, surrounded the church in an attempt to prevent further damage.
The Presbytery of New York City decided to close the church and sell the facility. But the dozen members remaining believed "the area (was) viable for Reformed witness" and refused to go.
Enter Aloyo, a seminarian from Princeton employed as director of urban ministry by the New York City Mission Society between his middler and senior years, who felt called to return home. Aloyo recalls his wife's blank expression as the two of them stood looking at the pulpit. He recalls, too, the sense that he had of the possibilities that lay ahead.
"The people, the remnant, wanted a vision," Aloyo said. "I decided to make my preaching motivational, to take the Deuteronomaic stories and apply them here."
Thus, his first step in rebuilding the church was not to clean the years of debris out of the balcony or tear down the wire fence. Rather, it was to address the inner needs of the people, to lift them up and to remind them that they (were) chosen by God.
"All possibilities exist," Aloyo reminded his parishioners, "if you know who you are."
Unlike in fairy tales, where someone with a magic wand makes the improbable (if not impossible) happen immediately, the transformation of Redeemer Presbyterian Church took considerable physical, emotional, and mental effort.
The new, young pastor went door-to-door in the neighborhood introducing himself to parents and youth. He made a daily forty-five minute commute to play basketball with the young people so that they could get to know him. He united the two remnant congregations and began a bi-lingual (English-Spanish) service, sharing with the people that he had much to learn from them. "Help me," he said, "and you will see where my heart is."
Within his first three months as pastor, the congregation had grown from twelve to fifty, many of the new members youth. Small groups were developed and met on a regular basis. The session met at Aloyo's house to go over the five-year plan that he and the members of the church had developed together. The magic of God's grace had started to work.
Aloyo and his congregation rallied on the theme "Let us rise up and build." (Nehemiah 2:18) They determined four goals on which to focus: developing educational ministry, renovating the facility, developing youth and young adults ministry, and reaching out to the community. The initial goals were all realized, some slowly and some quickly.
Within five years, the Sunday school had developed into eleven classes and the youth ministry program into four age groups, each named by its participants: Pathfinders (senior high), Genesis (junior high), Servants of the Savior (grades 4 through 6), and Kids of the Kingdom (K through grade 3). The young people were (and are) full participants in the services and act as liturgists, lectors, ushers, oblation bearers, and babysitters. The church experienced a "domino effect" as young people attracted more young people who attracted more young people.
Physically, Redeemer Presbyterian Church experienced a Cinderella transformation. The once delapidated building is now a tribute to God's grace and to the talents and efforts of both the pastor and the congregation. As a result of Aloyo's knowledge of architecture (he was, at one time, offered full scholarships to both the Pratt Institute and Cooper Union in architecture), a parishioner's expertise as a contractor, and the general efforts of the church community to both design and build the structure, Redeemer now houses a lovely sanctuary with a hand-carved cross, a sound-proof nursery, and an eleven-paneled, movable wall that can accommodate the diverse programs that take place within its walls.
Among these activities are the House of Praise "coffeehouse" for young adult fellowship; an after-school tutorial program on Monday through Friday afternoons implemented by the Pathfinders, who serve as tutors, and their parents, who act as coordinators; classes in computer literacy and English as a Second Language (ESL); and the weekly Thursday Age of Jubilee program for those fifty years old and over.
How has the congregation been able to sustain such growth, both physically and financially? In part, Aloyo acknowledged that there have been "fairy godmothers" along the waythe Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church contributed funds toward the renovation of the building, and both NYNEX and Astoria Federal Bank donated computers for the after-school program. In part, he credits the congregation, eighty percent of whom are between eighteen and forty years old, for their willingness to "try new thingsto redevelop their whole understanding of ministry and to give their best because they know who they are giving it to."
Today, Redeemer Presbyterian Church is a lively place, especially on Sundays when, in addition to a congregation-wide prayer service, Sunday school, and a bi-lingual Spanish-English worship service, there are additional services conducted by the Sandol Fellowship (Korean) and the Hindi-Punjabi Fellowship.
The guiding theme at Redeemer is "one community celebrating the Kingdom." Flags from the thirty-two countries that compose the congregation hang above the pews, and "an intentional effort is made," said Aloyo, "to both confront and combat the sense of racism and discrimination that is so overwhelming in our world today." Education, rather than assimilation, is the goal, according to Aloyo.
"We safeguard the worship practices of each culture," Aloyo said. "The people of God are called together. Everyone participates together as members of one church, not as tenant and landlord." Most fairytales end with the phrase, "and they lived happily ever after." For Aloyo and his congregation, however, there is no such sense of completion. Rather, they embrace the idea that they "are on a great adventure" that is filled with the kind of magic that only God can provide.
Out of the Depths
Margaret Howland Dives for Images from the Deep
ike many young pastors who are devoted to their work, Margaret (Peggy) Howland found in her thirteenth year of ministry that she was acutely lonely. Her only friends were her colleagues in the church. So Howland resolved to "get a life." The result has been a twenty-five-year passion for underwater photography.
A member of the Class of '58, Howland stumbled into her avocation by chance, though she had been interested in photography since childhood. Her first pastorate was at Woodside Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York. While in Troy, she became very active in the Schenectady Photographic Society where she competed in the color slide group. "The photography excited me. Through the monthly competitions, I learned technique, composition, what creates impact in a photograph," she recalls. "And I learned that the way to make friends was through mutual activity."
During her first summer at Woodside, the summer of the Woodstock music festival, Howland founded South End Summer Program. Initially a day camp, the program grew to include a youth center, a remedial education program, and a day camp for developmentally disabled children as well. She became so involved with the program that it was eventually renamed the Margaret E. Howland Summer Program, but not without great personal cost.
By the summer of 1973, Howland was at the point of exhaustion. Her initial summer plans to take time for herself and to go whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon ran aground, and she found herself registering for a single's tour to Hawaii. "I knew I would have fun because I had my camera," Howland says. She also had a great sense of adventure.
Howland signed up for a two-hour scuba diving lesson. On her first and second dives she saw a moray eel and an octopus, as well as innumerable other wonders of the deep. "I thought to myself, there has to be some way to get a camera down here," she reflects. The next day, while diving off Maui, she borrowed the dive master's camera, and an avocation was born.
When she returned to Troy, Howland registered at the YMCA to get certified in scuba diving. "And I bought a wig because the 'Y' didn't have any hair dryers," she adds.
Since then, Howland has travelled all over the world to dive. "Scuba diving has taken me to places where people are very poorMicronesia, Egypt, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America," Howland says. "I've visited churches and missions in each place. I've seen a lot of poverty and read a lot of the Gospel of Luke. He had such a concern for the poor."
On each diving vacation that she has taken since 1973, Howland has chosen one book of the Bible to read and reflect on. "In St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands I read the Gospel of John," she says. "I was astonished because I then saw the place of water in John. Almost every chapter mentions water. Both the Baptism and the Lord's Supper are told in a unique way in John that reflects his theology."
Her time spent in and on the sea has increased her appreciation for the Psalms ("especially Psalm 107, verses 23 to 32. The 'wonder' is the way the wind whips up the waves") and for Jesus' humanness. "It occurred to me one night when we were sailing that Jesus fell asleep because he was seasick. He had his head on a cushion. That's what you do when you're seasick!" (Mark 4:35-41) Howland's congregation at South Presbyterian Church in Yonkers, New York, where she has been pastor since 1979, has benefitted from her experiences. Not only have they enjoyed their pastor's award-winning photographs, articles, and slide shows, they have also heard her reflect on the octopus ("a really vulnerable creature"), the shark ("totally misunderstood"), and other marine life in her sermons.
Howland's ministry has extended beyond her church. She has shared her underwater experiences and her knowledge of marine biology with audiences of all ages, from nursery schools to nursing homes. She has participated in several expeditions with CEDAM, an adventure organization dedicated to scientific and educational study, including a fish collection in Honduras in 1990, a squid research expedition in Little Cayman in 1992, and a reef study for the departments of fishery on St. Kitt's and Nevis islands in 1993.
A lieutenant commander in the US Power Squadron, she is also both the squadron and district chaplain and an adminstrative officer. She has blessed fleets and executed a burial at sea. Though she jokes that she "specializes in underwater weddings," she has yet to perform one. Only because she hasn't been asked!
Howland intends to dive for as long as she can. But she also has another interest to pursue and to photographwildflowers. Maybe it's time to "consider the lilies of the field"?
© Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary