Neumark's "Hidden Inheritance" is a must read

9:34 AM

Craig Dykstra, then at the Lilly Endowment, now at Duke Divinity School, first recommended reading Neidi Neumark's Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, and I bought it a few days later in 2008. It is one of the few books to make both the journey down to South America with me and back to the North again.

When I saw that Neumark had a new forthcoming book, Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith, I made arrangements to have it shipped as soon as possible. Yesterday morning, I finally pulled it from a stack of books on my dresser. It was the perfect tonic for all that besets us this day. I read it straight through, interrupted only by visits to the coffee maker, an email to the author, and my mother's inquiries as she decorated at the Christmas tree.

Neumark discloses very early in the book, so this is not a "spoiler," that unbeknownst to her, her father's family was Jewish and suffered in the Shoah (the Hebrew term for what we commonly refer to as the Holocaust). Neumark, the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan, had imagined centuries of Lutherans in her family. Neumark was compelled to examine this aspect of her heritage and recounts the journey in her book.

One element of Breathing Space that I loved was her capacity to tell stories from her life and the lives of her parishioners. She takes the fragments of those stories and gracefully sweeps them into the Story of Salvation. She does not do so with tidy bows, but it is a beautiful thing to see. Breathing Space drew together both the prevalence of asthma in polluted inner-cities and young bodies seeking breathing space within their lungs as well as ruah (Hebrew for "spirit") and inner-city churches giving people a breathing space for the Holy Spirit. The work made its way into my prayer, my thinking, and my preaching regularly. It is one of my favorite books, alongside some heavyweights of Western Civilization. Personally, I connect that work to Pope Francis, who gives the Church breathing space, in spite of having the use of just one lung since he was a teenager.

Imagine my expectations coming to this work.

And, yet, Neumark exceeded my expectations.

As usual, Neumark takes very human stories of her family, of her parishioners, shares them honestly and in vulnerability, in all their broken pieces, and, in them, she animates anew Scriptural passages. She re-interprets the personal story in light of the Story, enriching them both. She tells of GLBT youth that her parish welcomes and serves. She brings in Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other German-speaking theologians of the period. In a central passage, she breaks open the Genesis story of Joseph (62-66). Unlike "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the biblical Joseph cannot and should not be seen as a Hebrew success story. While not a part of Neumark's recounting, the narrative arc of Genesis was the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham of a land of milk and honey, but Genesis ends with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. The final words: "Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. He was embalmed and laid to rest in a coffin in Egypt" (Gen 50:26). God spends the next four books (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy getting the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Neumark's insight on the Joseph narrative, and she says that she draws it from a Hebrew scholar, Avivah Zornberg, is that Joseph's brothers never heard his cries for mercy, thrown in the well. His cries go unrecorded in Scripture, because he was not heard. She connects this experience of hidden pain (hidden inheritance) to so many who have suffered abuse. This causes a form of dismemberment. In Joseph, his "brothers had not 'recognized' him at the pit, had had no compassion for him. The result is that he cannot know himself, cannot relate to his past in compassion for himself" (66). Citing Zornberg, Neumark writes, "Healing can only happen when another person hears the truth of what has occurred" (66).

 To explore her heritage and the questions before her, Neumark travels twice to Germany. She shares her questions and encounters with persons, with letters, with art, with history, with Scripture. She tells anew the horrors of the Shoah, in a very personal way as she uncovers the history of her family amid it and the church where her father had been baptized and confirmed. She ties the story of the Shoah, as well, to tendencies that remain with us today in racial profiling and police shootings of unarmed African-Americans (121). She also connects it to Christian churches: "This idolatrous 'Christianity' lives on. It sanctifies racism and militarism, bigotry and greed packaged as holy prosperity" (78). Yesterday, the press was aflame with Donald Trump's plans for Muslims. As a Catholic, it hurt to see the reference to Fr. Charles Coughlin, an American priest who espoused the worst of Anti-Semitism. Neumark recounts how, while many Americans gave their lives to liberate Europe, saving many Jews, we turned many refugees away (133), which I read at the same time as many U.S. governors reject the resettlement of Syrian refugees to the U.S. (I am grateful for Archbishop Tobin's leadership.) The boat that brought her father to the U.S. becomes a new version of Noah's "saving ark" (136).

Toward the end of the book, Neumark remarks preaching in the church where her father was baptized in Germany. Here, she offers some fitting words to all who preach:
Sadly, many people could add items to a long list of "Things Not Fit to Mention in Church." There are churches where it is not safe to talk about racism and White Supremacy, about being infected with HIV/AIDS, not safe to speak about incest and other forms of sexual violence, addictions that may be addressed by a 12-step group in the church basement but not in the sanctuary, depression, and mental illness to name a few examples. Never mentioning such real struggles in the lives of those who come to hear a word of hope is a shaming act in itself. The implicit message is that your truth is so loathsome that we can't even talk about it here. There are people who think that preaching is an outmoded form of communication, but I believe that it can still make a difference for good or evil. (187-188)
Neumark calls for a "no-holds-barred honesty in church" (188). I find her summons stirring, hopeful, life-giving. At my best, I tried to preach like that and likely failed more often than I succeeded, but I also know that it is what I seek when I attend liturgy.

Hidden Inheritance is a wonderful book. I have read a lot of good books this year, but this may well be, for me, the best, and it came at the right time.

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