Little Italy

Endicott’s “Little Italy”

{Lent 2018…panoramic photos I’ve taken, some published locally, prompting daily reflections. Thanks for visiting.}

Brought up in a family of eight, two parents, three boys, three girls (nicely balanced, right?) we didn’t go out to eat very often. But when we did, the places almost always served Italian food. Augie’s, Fusco’s, the Oak Inn (on the left in this photo of my hometown’s “Little Italy”). Augie’s was opened by Agostino Iacovelli. His older brother Camillo also had a restaurant, but Augie’s was just a couple of blocks from our house, so…

There is still a debate locally about which brother “invented” or popularized the spiedie, skewered lamb or chicken, marinated in a foul-looking, but savory sauce, served between two slices of Italian bread, and with no condiments…at least that’s the rule among spiedie purists. When I was a kid, spiedies were also available from street vendors. Today, the local delicacy is still a favorite, and thanks to IBM (“I‘ve Been Moved”) sending Endicott employees south to North Carolina, spiedies have found a welcome there. When my wife and I lived in Richmond, VA imagine my surprise (and joy) when I found Endicott’s spiedie sauce in the Ukops Markets’ BBQ section.

That was Augie’s. As for Fusco’s, I recall vividly two things about that West Endicott restaurant: the aroma (or odor?) of beer that pervaded the dining room, and the bibs the wait staff  distributed to spaghetti-eaters to keep shirts and blouses clean during the slurping process.

But, as I said, restaurant visits were fairly rare for our big family, so mostly we ate at home, and I still think my mother’s red sauce was the best! Pasta dishes and pizza were frequent meals around the Kellam table. Mom was not at all Italian, but during WW2 Mom’s Italian girl friends shared their family recipes and cooking tips, and our pasta dishes were authentic, as if shipped over from Abruzzo, Italy. And the pizza? We called it simply “hot pie.” As in, “I could smell the dough rising from a block away! Are we having hot pie tonight?” Hot pizza pie, as in “when the moon hits your eye…”

I wrote yesterday of the many gifts of our village’s immigrant culture(s). Food is one of those gifts. As times have changed around here, so have the culinary offerings. As is the case in about every locality, we have Indian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Japanese…you know, global goodies! It doesn’t all appeal to me, but the idea that I can get Chinese takeout a mile away, or have a pretty legit Irish stew downtown…very cool.

We live in an affluent land, amid an abundance of choices when it comes to food. I suppose one could Google how much food we Americans throw away daily. Our super markets (see? SUPER-markets), restaurants, caterers, and households toss our food waste into dumpsters thoughtlessly, while the mail brings appeals from Bread For the World, a local food bank, or Church World Service, looking to feed our hungry neighbors.

Here we are in Lent, and one of the Lenten disciplines is fasting. Some Christian faithful fast on Ash Wednesday, fast from certain foods for the whole forty days, or just drop a favorite in order to feel that one is making a sort of spiritual sacrifice for some fuzzy good. When I first retired from active ministry, I wrote a chapter called “The Role of Religion, Spirituality, and Faith in Food Choices” for a college text entitled Adequate Food for All. My research opened my eyes to the profound place of food in religious faith and practice. Think Holy Communion, the Seder, “daily bread,” or just “first fruits.”  Fasting is a choice (or sometimes a religious “law”) that is to contribute to both physical health and spiritual holiness.  I tried it once; I got really cranky.

That said, I do fast…from certain foods, for reasons of health and well-being. I know what’s good for me, and what price I’ll pay if I indulge in what’s not good. But what if I fasted from some of the very good stuff? The pleasurable, the savory and succulent? Is that a form of self-denial that would benefit my relationship with God? It’s a choice to consider.

I’ve not fasted from too many words today, have I? So, I’ll beat a hasty exit, with these words from Walter Brueggemann. (From The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness.)

The food choices we make “are big, far-reaching public choices concerning foreign policy and budget and land reform and dreams. We do not pick our food just before dinner. We pick our food by how we value life, and how we build policy, and how we shape law, and how we arrange money, and how we permit poverty and hunger in a land of abundance.”

For everything there is a season in Little Italy. A time for feasting and festival, and a time for fasting and freedom. It’s a choice for which we can be very, very thankful.



St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Johnson City, NY

{Each day in Lent (2018) I am posting a panoramic photo and writing a brief reflection inspired by the image. Many of these pictures have appeared in the Binghamton Pres & Sun-Bulletin under the banner “Southern Tier Views.”}

Yesterday I wrote of fences and boundaries, in a specific context. I could have used the same panoramic photo of that rail fence to write of breaking down barriers and tearing down walls, and opening ourselves to wherever the Spirit leads. I’ll do that today, but with the image above.

Our area is full of golden domes atop churches. Greek Orthodox churches. Russian Orthodox Churches. And above, a Ukrainian Orthodox church. This isn’t the place to write authoritatively about church architecture, but there are those domes! Golden domes. They represent, I’ve read, the “light of God” or “celestial glory.” And the gifts of immigrants to our geographical, geopolitical area.

These domes represent the faith of generations of local citizens, the legacy of immigrants who came to Ellis Island and who (it is said in local lore) asked U. S. customs agents, “Which way EJ?”

EJ : Endicott Johnson Shoe Corporation. Immigrants from Slavic countries and Italy knew jobs awaited at the shoe factories of Upstate New York. Those factories would produce almost all the boots for the U.S. Army during two world wars, as well as shoes to supply stores in 30 states. The company’s 20,000 workers made 52 million pairs of footwear annually. It wouldn’t have been possible without workers from abroad.

My school friends had Italian, Polish, Russian, Greek, and Czech names. Many of the older folks on my childhood paper route didn’t speak English, or at least spoke it so hesitantly that when I rang doorbells to “collect” each week, they would seek out a younger member of the family to pay me. Our neighborhoods were, and still are, full of the gifts of various ethnic cultural traditions. Especially the foods. (More about that tomorrow.)

But also the festivals, the music, and their faith. (Music? Our area still has not one, but two Sunday morning polka radio shows, hours and hours of polka music.) And those churches with their golden domes. It was common as I grew up for many classmates to be absent from school a week after the rest of us had celebrated Christmas and Easter. Their liturgical calendar is different from ours. As is their architecture, the shape of their liturgy, the beauty of their art. Presbyterians like me are intrigued even by the aroma of their incense.

Whenever I glance at those domed churches while I drive local roads, I am reminded of the gifts of immigrants. I may not be able to pronounce their names, but thank God, someone pronounced them welcome a few generations ago. Our economy was built on


anti-immigration song seen at an Ellis Island display

their labor, and the signs of their many gifts still speak of the wideness of God’s mercy.


One more thing I note in that picture of the domes. Storm clouds, or at least gray skies that day when we visited the church. Maybe the skies speak of the welcome not extended to all. You know: “Irish need not apply.”

More on this tomorrow, with a photo not quite as impressive as that above, but still a reminder of what contributed to the richness of our neighborhoods here in Upstate New York.




Good Fences

Yes, it was Robert Frost who wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The context of that well-rehearsed line is helpful (as context always is).

“My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.'”

Today I recorded a television interview with the executive director of the local YWCA. The topic was boundaries. Especially the ones that remind us to keep our distance from one another, when one has power or authority over another, or when one has the potential to victimize another. My guest shared her intense “me too” story, a narrative that included a knife and a gun. I cringed with the telling. She said she had other stories, too.

When the news of sexual harassment and abuse began breaking in Hollywood and Washington, coast-to-coast, this male writer couldn’t think of a personal “me too” connection, though some men can. No… I wondered if I might recall an “I too” story, that is, a story in which I might have crossed a boundary, edged over a fence (trespassed?), or put another person at risk, with careless actions or words.

People who know me well are aware that I use humor to build community, to spread joy, to break tension, to ease a conversation, and/or admittedly to sometimes just hope people will like me. Saying something totally unexpected, outrageous, or out of the blue might be as funny as a guy slipping on a banana peel while solemnly carrying the offering trays down the center aisle of a church while the pipe organ plays its “voluntary.” See? Unexpected. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if sometime in the past 49 years of ministry I added sex to the nutty mix. Comedians do that a lot these days.

But did I say something that exploited, or that hurt, or threatened, or disparaged, or victimized? Or, hinted at an inappropriate inner thought?

One of my pastoral predecessors in a church I served was known as the “huggy-bear” type. I’m more of an introvert. Folks thought I was a bit aloof. But these days, the hugs and touches, the once-innocent  signs of affection and connection, are less safe, perhaps likely to be (mis)construed as sensual contact. Yet… I wonder if I ever acted in a way that seemed or actually was sexually suggestive or threatening. I too? It is worth the self-examination, Lent or not.

The current Co-Moderators of the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently sent an open letter to the denomination’s churches. In part, these two women wrote:

“…We are called in this unique time to seek a deeper cultural shift. We are called to stand up against a world that allows predators to flourish and victims to be shamed into silence. The Church is called to be what the world is not: safe, life-giving, and willing to hold people accountable.”

Fences may make good neighbors. And holding to boundaries and recognizing the dignity, worth, and human equality of our neighbor across the fence may indeed bring the deep cultural shift that honors relationships, both professional and personal.





The Journey Begins

A few years ago, I began a Lenten discipline that required a few minutes each day: writing. And very quickly, those minutes turned to a couple of hours each day, because I am a fussy writer. I added some photos — was it just last year? — and used the pictures as a springboard to write something spiritually “meaningful,” if only to me. I considered the time and energy spent something of a sacrifice as each day began.

This year, I am determined to write less (that is, be less wordy), and maybe let the photos speak for themselves. Many of the forty pictures I intend to use here were first edited for publication in the local newspaper, panoramic shots under the paper’s “Southern Tier Views” caption. (The Southern Tier being the New York – Pennsylvania border, the NYS side naturally.)


So there’s the first picture. A snowy trail, an unidentified walker and his leashed companion. If Lent is a journey toward something worth the hike, this path pic seems as good a way to begin as any other. Those of us on the path have little idea who travels with us, globally-speaking. We are on the same path, but at different points. Some are very piously (and I use that word in all sincerity, originally meaning  “faithfully”) marking Lent by “giving up” chocolate, even on this Valentine’s Day, or fasting in some other fashion, abstaining from the pleasurable in order to focus on something more spiritually-enriching.

Others of us will take up another practice: devotional reading of the Scriptures or other sacred writings; sacrificing more of one’s time in order to serve others; spending more time than usual in prayer or meditation. One friend has suggested taking something from various drawers and closets, an item each day, to give away to those who live with much less than we.

Some will receive ashes today, meditating on the meaning of penitence, the shadow of death, the gifts of humility. All on the path, but at different mile markers. All following the blazes, but at a different pace. Some bearing the cross on their ash-marked foreheads, and others bearing crosses in their hearts, far heavier than we can imagine.

Whether the path is snowy or dusty, newly blazed or well-worn, there it is. Let’s take that first step, for it is the only way to begin. And we have forty days.




{This is the last in a series of forty Lenten reflections loosely based on ideas suggested by mugs found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. As I wrote on the first day, this exercise was designed only for my pleasure. The discipline of writing each day has taken a couple of hours out of the 24, and has further frayed the already worn edges of the pages of J. I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder. I know I’ll miss this daily practice, but I will be glad to have the time for something else…like springtime.}SONY DSCThe first mug I wrote about was a commercially-produced coffee cup with the name “Jeff” on it, along with a kind of greeting card verse about what “Jeff” means. Now, on the last day of these forty days in Lent 2017, I turn to another mug with my name on it. It’s the companion to one with my wife’s name similarly inscribed. We were given these mugs by the Bick family when we left Richmond, Virginia after some 27 years. The Bicks were our neighbors and members of our church. I trust that they did speak for all our Richmond friends by expressing their love. We still treasure the mugs and the message.

Does that mug “fit” this day? Does it have context? Today, the Saturday between Good Friday and the Day of Resurrection, is certainly “the day between the days.” This last day of Lent is non-descript for most Presbyterian-types. We know it has deep meaning, but we don’t pay much attention to it, as we await tomorrow’s sunrise service, with its shivering little congregation gathered amid tombstones in the church cemetery hoping the sun will actually be visible on what is predicted to be a rainy day. And then later, in the church itself, we will sing lustily (pardon the expression) and find ourselves accompanied by brass players and pipe organ. We will hear the Good News of the Gospel (pardon the redundancy) proclaimed, add flowers to the bare wooden cross, and break out the Lenten-hid alleluias (pardon still another parenthesis, but that word shouldn’t have been typed/seen/spoken/sung until tomorrow. Sorry. OK, enough with the pardons!)

But today is just Saturday. Some call it “black Saturday,” because of the solemn mood of sadness or defeat that followed the day of crucifixion. Others refer to it as Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve. Many years ago, Joan and I participated in our first Easter Vigil, a three or four-hour service that chronicled the Biblical story of “salvation history.” There was music, drama, graphic and fabric art, the reading of Scriptures, with prayers and accompanying liturgy rich with spiritual depth. It was a powerful service, difficult to transport back home from the conference we were attending. But many Christian communities around the world do something similar on “Easter Eve,” some even longer services, most shorter; but all designed to keep the rich meaning of God’s grace and love and Presence in focus, so worshippers could move from Good Friday to Easter knowing the all-important context of what some refer to as cross and crown.

So, I’ve been writing about mugs, have I? But this series hasn’t been about ceramics, fair trade coffee, favorite teas, or how to use drinking vessels as marketing tools. The context has been Lent, a time of preparation, of anticipated spiritual growth. As days lead from the ashes of that first Wednesday to the dust of the Emmaus Road, some of us added mid-week gatherings of worship and/or study; many used Lenten devotional guides such as the one on the Kellam dining table, Walter Brueggemann’s A Way Other than Our Own*; Lenten disciplines included service projects, lectio divina, labyrinth walks, special music, and giving up Mountain Dew. All in the context of the Lenten journey of Jesus, a wilderness time of testing and surviving, a prelude to his life’s symphony of compassion, outreach, healing, and teaching. His was a life and death by which we measure our time on this God’s earth.

[* Brueggemann’s take on this day: Saturday is that in-between day of stillness and doubt and despair when time stands still in lethal flatness.]

In relying on mugs to get me started writing each day, I’ve kept context in mind. The context of the season, the context of following Jesus, the context of my own day-to-day existence. Some days are, sadly, a big waste of time. Or, seem like it to me. I make that confession as I fall asleep those nights. “Forgive me, Lord. Didn’t do much for you or your people today. Wasted time and gifts. As the Psalmist prayed, ‘Put a new and right spirit within me,’ and offer me another day.” On those other days, my personal context is that of being and serving in a community of faith, and some opportunity pops up unexpectedly. Or, maybe it’s a family thing, where I find unconditional love so vital and energizing, that my prayers at night are full of thanksgiving. We all have some context in which we find ourselves– or are found.

Context is the weaving together of things that yearn to be connected. My life and someone’s need; my gifts and someone’s lack; my lack and their gifts. Faith and life. Daily living and revelation! Our purpose and the Shepherd’s guidance. Mugs and Lent. The context of a neighborhood, politics, (don’t get me started), local church or national denomination, the cloud of war or threat of terrorism, a child’s trusting eyes. Temptations, sin, dark thunderhead clouds hanging over. Context.

So, I wrote about mugs in the context of Lent. But more, in the context of my life. And if you have read some of these reflections (to call them meditations may be too generous), you know a lot about the man whose name is on the mug at the top of this day’s blog. You know something of my family, my church life and ministries, where I’ve lived and places I’ve been, what I believe, and — heck, even the name of our everyday china!

But, again, I haven’t been writing for you. I’ve been writing for me. I may know who you are. WordPress tells me who’s “following” my writing here, and others have happened by and sent private responses with names attached. But I’m guessing that if this writing stays “up” in some Internet cloud somewhere, I have no idea who you are. That said, the question is, do you know who you are? Now early in my 70s, I’m getting there. Knowing who I am, that is.

Today, the context is somewhere between the shadow of yesterday’s cross and the rising sun of tomorrow’s Light of the World. I have to admit, that I have had more than my share of that Light already. Grace has encompassed me. Love has surrounded me. Read that mug again! And God has gifted me with a strong family from which I have come and a beloved family I have helped to nurture. My wife, my children, and now my grandchildren. Wow! Plus, there was that Call…my vocation… full of exclamation points! (<There’s one now.)

The Apostle Paul once quoted a Greek poet as he preached a sermon in Athens. He referred to God as the one “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” There. That’s context. I am content in that context.

Yet, there is still tomorrow!

There is a new context that awaits, something downright cosmic, earth-shattering, mind-blowing, a whole new song to sing…there is tomorrow!

There will be Easter!




DSC07427{Lent 2017…Good Friday…nearly finished in this series, and this is the penultimate mug of the forty…}

This mug was handmade by a North Carolina potter whose initials are written on the unglazed bottom surface with a Sharpie. We got this at the Montreat Conference Center. Though posed by the coffee pot, it’s never held my coffee, nor Joan’s tea. Its purpose is more decorative than practical. Like the crosses that hang in churches and around our necks. The design on the mug is the logo of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Central in the symbol is the cross, though the initiated can also find symbols of flames, dove, font, open Bible…Word and Sacraments and Spirit.

I suppose it’s obvious that I chose this mug for today, Good Friday, because of the cross. This particular art work masks the violence of the executioner’s work and the tools it took to kill. We see the cross shape, but not the rough-hewn wood, the heavy spikes driven into flesh, the blood stains.

I write these reflections in a bookcase-surrounded nook off the front hall of our home, and as I look around, I can count nine crosses here. And one Celtic cross around my neck. None is daunting. Each has a story: where it came from, who made it or gave it, what its particular design means.  Two wooden ones were made by children from my last church, another handmade by a woodworker from the church we now call home, and others of metal, plastic, or wood came from various places that hold special memories. Most are rather plain, but the one from Central America is predictably full of color, with cartoonish flowers, birds, a little home beneath a verdant tree, even a bunny! It’s a celebration of life.

But none of those crosses holds a broken, bleeding, and bowed body. None is a crucifix. All are empty.

I do have one crucifix in a small box near my alb and stoles, however. On a sturdy chain, that cross was given to me by a church member who had traveled in Rome and thought I would like it, coming as it did from the seat of the Church’s early power. Ordinarily we Protestants prefer to see the empty cross as a Resurrection symbol, rather than focusing on the passion and pain of the crucifixion. Even on this day, this day of days, this day curiously called “good,” many Protestants will let the day go by with no special worship services, little (if any) attention paid to the death of Jesus at the hands of the empire. We leave the Stations of the Cross to the Catholics and Episcopalians. While there are some communities that have ecumenical gatherings on Good Friday, it’s been my experience that attendance by Protestant folk is sadly lacking.

Palm Sunday? Yes, we get to parade and sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” and get a free palm to take home. A far fewer number will be at church for the Maundy Thursday communion service. But Easter Sunday! Lots of attention there…all good…big crowds…upbeat, joyful, and downright brassy! Good Friday, though. Kind of depressing. Really dark. We’d rather go from joy to joy and skip the hard truths of the Passion.

When I was in high school back in the early 1960s and living in a heavily Catholic community, public schools took a day off on Good Friday. May as well, they thought. The Church pretty much demanded its adherents be in church on Good Friday, so why battle the resulting truancy? Our Presbyterian Church joined with other Protestant churches in the neighborhood offering a three-hour “Seven Last Words from the Cross” service. Seven sermons and the scripture lessons that fed them, a few hymns, some prayers, and the concluding reviews. (As in, “Which minister did you like best?” )

When I served a church in suburban Richmond, we too offered that service for a time. I’d be assigned one of the words, almost always wishing it had been one (any) of the others. (The grass is always greener…) If I were to choose one for this Good Friday blog, I’d go with the passage from John 19:30, where the crucified Jesus, having been offered sour wine after saying he was thirsty, cries out– or moans– “It is finished.”

I might speak about how his public ministry had begun at a wedding feast where, when the wine had run out, he mysteriously turned water into the best wine of the celebration. And now, as he is dying, wretchedly sour wine is offered to him in response to his thirst. Some scholars discount the physical thirst of a man so close to death. They suggest that Jesus’ expression is more a metaphorical longing for God. But, as usual, he is misunderstood, and he is given bad wine. Shortly after, he says, “It is finished.” “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Finished? What was finished?

In a previous verse, the scriptures have that “it” referring to “everything,” or “all things.” A. E. Harvey notes that Jesus’ life and work “was a perfect unity, a work to be finished and a destiny to be accomplished.” I like that. In that moment, about to gasp one last breath, Jesus announces that all is ended. Complete.

Still…the word “it” needs commentary. And our good friend from Montreat days, retired professor Lamar Williamson, is so helpful here. In his book Preaching the Gospel of John, he writes:

First, in laying down his own life, Jesus has completed what he was sent to do. He has revealed the true nature of God and on the cross has demonstrated God’s love…Second, the Scriptures are fulfilled…The death of Jesus has filled with meaning and brought to their intended end the passages of Scripture that speak of him. Third, Jesus’ earthly life is now over, as the end of the verse states explicitly.

Perhaps his executioners thought Jesus’ words meant something else. Like, this one’s over; let’s move on to the next victim. Or, well…that’s that. His pathetic reign is over. That should quiet the anti-Rome movement for awhile, until the next threat to Caesar pops up somewhere among the Zealots. And maybe even the followers of Jesus who dared stand vigil at the foot of the cross misunderstood. Maybe they thought the movement of love, grace, forgiveness, welcome, hope, inclusivity, and justice was “finished.” Period. All Jesus had taught the inner circles, preached to the crowds, lived to its fullest– all that talk of blessedness, the parables of God and humanity yearning for one another, ministering to the hungry of heart and stomach, the lessons validated through healings– it’s over. Done with.

But no. While indeed he had then “bowed his head and gave up his spirit,” while the broken body was unpinned from the crossbars and carried away to a borrowed (and temporary) tomb, not all was ended. Not by a long shot.

Flowers still grow in the garden near the grave.