My first few days in the US were about travel; getting here, recovering from getting here, organising more travel and meetings. But also enjoying hospitality and conversation with my lovely hosts, preparing a sermon- and experiencing something which I definitely will not experience again in my lifetime!
The trip across the Atlantic was fine- on Tuesday, 5 June. I had a bit of a deja vu feeling about arriving once more at Newark airport, and relieved to be asked no awkward questions at immigration! I was first here when I arrived on a plane from London way back in 1991. Then I was picked up and whisked to Princeton by a student volunteer. This time it was Jeff Geary who picked me up from the airport. Jeff is pastor of White Plains Presbyterian Church, just north of New York City. We are old friends, having met when we were both students at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1991-2.
Newark airport is in New Jersey, across the bay from New York city. We drove through a landscape I’d never forgotten: harbours, highways, railway lines (I should say, railroad tracks), murky rivers, power lines, industry, great bridges. New Jersey calls itself ‘the Garden State’, but for New Yorkers, to whom New Jersey offers its ugliest face, this is a bit of a joke. However, our route along the New Jersey turnpike was not the (for me) familiar trip southwest towards Princeton, but north, roughly following the line of the Hudson River. We finally crossed the river on the Tappen Zee bridge, entering Westchester County, New York State.
This area to the north of New York was among the earliest settled by Europeans. It was, of course, the Dutch who settled Manhattan to begin with, and the Dutch names are preserved especially in the local names. We had dinner in Sleepy Hollow, home of Washington Irving who immortalised it with his tale of the headless horseman. Rip van Winkle fell asleep hereabouts; and Washington fought the British at White Plains (unsuccessfully, on this occasion).
We arrived at the Geary’s house to meet his wife Noelle Damico, and their six-year old son August. August was excited to be having a visitor from Scotland (even although he was only two when he visited us in Inverness). After settling down we went our for a meal at Sleep Hollow and then, armed with a neighbour’s welding visor, headed down to the Hudson River to watch the transit of Venus, something young August was very excited about.
The transit of Venus was a rare natural phenomenon, which won’t happen again until 2117. Venus passed in front of the sun- something you can’t, of course, see with the naked eye. The welder’s mask didn’t work either, but we picked the right spot, for there were a couple of amateur astronomers equipped with some serious equipment for observing, including a 4 inch telescope fitted with a special filter, allowing you to see the sun safely. We thought we would be disappointed, as it was such a cloudy evening, but we were in luck- the clouds broke a number of times, and we were able to see this kind of thing:
This is an even better image than we were able to see, but still what we saw was spectacular. Venus as a small dot passing over the face of the sun, and something common but which I have never personally seen, sunspots. In a few days’ time the Olympic torch passes my front door- something some people would call a once-in-a-lifetime event. I’m going to miss that, but Venus passing the sun is, for my money, the more exciting event!
So then I settled down a couple of days of recovering from jet lag, starting to do some reading, and organising more of my schedule for the days and weeks ahead. Noelle has been great at suggesting people to meet and places to go related to my Study Leave topic. She is Associate for Fair Food at the Presbyterian Church’s Campaign for Fair Food. She is especially active in attempts to secure fair wages for immigrant farm workers, who often work for poverty wages to grow food bought by fast food chains and supermarkets. The threat of boycotts by concerned consumers has made some of these firms change their ways, and take responsibility for conditions on the farms which supply them.
Jeff Geary has been Senior Pastor of White Plains Presbyterian Church for some 18 months, having previously been an associate minister at a church on Long Island. A native of Chicago, Jeff was in his Junior Year at Princeton Seminary when we found ourselves along the hall from one another in poky Erdmann Hall at Princeton Seminary. One night we both went along to a weekly extra-curricular activity called ‘Cheap Beer Night’. As we walked in, Jeff was stopped in his tracks by the sight of a woman student he’d not met before- and he and Noelle are now happily married. We have had plenty to talk about, comparing notes about our experiences in our respective congregations, and putting the church and the world to rights!
On Friday I took myself off to New York for the day. There is a very handy rail link, which gets into Grand Central Station in less than an hour. With tracks on two levels, and some amazing architecture, this is worth visiting even if you are not a railway buff. Then I explored a bit along 42nd Street, on which the famous station stands. I’d never been in the station before, and it was to be a day of exploring a bit of the city I didn’t really know and going into places I’d never been before. I enjoyed reading in a nice cool room in the New York Public Library.
I had lunch in the neighbouring Bryant Park (a park with WiFi!). Despite it being hot and busy, the city seemed relaxed- it has, perhaps, a more European feel than other parts of the US.
Then it was off towards the East River to see the United Nations Headquarters. I took the tour, with a guide from the Democratic Republic of Congo, seeing the General Assembly Hall and the Security Council chamber. Waiting for the tour I nosed around on my own. I discovered the Quiet room which had been planned by then UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. At the entrance is a striking stained glass window, immediately recognisable as the work of Marc Chagall, whose work I knew from St Stephen’s in Mainz.
The window at the UN was commissioned by UN staff following Hammarskjöld’s death in a mysterious air crash over the Congo in 1961, which also killed seven other United Nations staff members, and the Swedish crew. It is dedicated ‘to the memory of Dag Hammarskjöld and to all those who had lost their lives in the cause of peace’; nearby are other memorials to more recent tragedies, such as the bombing of the UN office in Baghdad in 2003. UN peacekeepers have just been killed in Côte d’Ivoire, and UN observers in Syria are doing a dangerous job just now.
The tour took also took us along the corridors surrounding the General Assembly Hall, where there are numerous works of art, including a striking mural commemorating the Chernobyl accident. There are also exhibitions about various aspects of the UN’s work and concerns: genocide, hunger, disarmament. The effect of all this on me was to remind us just how parochial our political debates are. A striking exhibit was a statue blown off Hiroshima’s Catholic Cathedral, which lay within a few miles of the epicentre of the atomic bomb. One side is undamaged, as it was buried in the rubble. The back of the statue was where the blast hit, and you can see where the stone crystalised in the heat. As the guide said, ‘If that’s what it can do to stone, imagine what it can do to humans’.
- The total annual UN peacekeeping budget is less than 0.5% of all global military expenditure
- Women produce half the world’s food and work 2/3 of the world’s working hours, yet women earn only 10% of the world’s income and less than 1% of the world’s property.
- Unicef has developed a ‘school in a box’ which can be flown to emergency situations so that local teachers can continue the children’s education in some form. Following the Haiti earthquake, there were more children attending these temporary schools than there had been children at school beforehand.
No-one can deny that the UN is not perfect, but you cannot but be struck by the (unreported) dedication of its staff in various agencies. And I’m also struck by both the ingenuity and determination of humanity to deal with the most difficult of situations, and by our reluctance to change things for the better. I’ll be back at the UN in a few weeks, finding out about the churches’ role with the organisation.
You can see more of my visit to the UN, along with other pictures from this first week in America, on the Picasa album, which will be undated as I go along.
Tomorrow, preaching at White Plains, and then Amtrak to Washington DC, and the start of a busy three days of visits and meetings!