A Theology of the Stoop (Reflection)

martha-and-kids-on-a-stoop-on-ward-ave-in-s-bronxWhen I was five years old, I remember my twin brother, Pete, and I hanging out on our stoop at 1132 Ward Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx. It was one of those hot, humid New York City summer days.  One of the neighborhood boys visited our stoop and showed us that he had a firecracker left over from the Fourth of July.  We told him to set it off on the sidewalk, but he decided to stick the firecracker in some freshly laid dog shit near a tree in front of our stoop.

Our young friend lit the firecracker and we all ran away as fast as we could.  But it didn’t go off. So we all went towards the pile to investigate.  When we had put our faces close the firecracker, it suddenly went off and dog shit was all over our faces.  Pete and I ran up to our third story apartment, screaming for our mother, who when she saw us started yelling and cursing at us in Spanish.  We were already pretty embarrassed, but now we were really scared, because we were sure to get the belt for this. But then something different happened.  My mother started to laugh hysterically, and so did we!

I have so many precious memories of sitting and playing on the stoop – especially during the hot summers, because no one had air conditioning.

You know, air conditioning isn’t really all that it’s cracked up to be. I think they should rename air conditioners Relationship Minimizing Cooling Mechanisms.  Far too many people today who live in air conditioned homes, including myself, live out their mode of hot weather existence by going from the perceived comfort of their faux cooled homes into their Freon chilled automobiles in order to get to some other climate controlled indoor man-made place of economic mass consumption.

Yet, for the multitudes of New Yorkers in the not so distant past, air conditioning was a luxury which only the very wealthy could afford.  The rest of us sat on stoops.  And not just when it was hot.  We sat there as long as it wasn’t absolutely freezing.  The stoop was the inner city playground of both adults and children in my place in the Bronx.  It was from there you picked your teams for stick ball on car lined streets or to dry off after splashing in the spewing water of an open fire hydrant. It was where you would take your seat in the community.  The stoop is where you get to sit down and enjoy Sabbath rest.  The stoop was where real life and relationships happened.

Mario Maffi said, “In the ghetto neighborhoods [of New York City] especially, stoops served many different functions…. These elevated platforms were ideal for observation, courting, a chat, or gossip….” (2004:8). Stoops were the center of life, of relational life, of what Jesus called zoe, or spiritual life.  The stoops were the relational circuits where we visited each other in our neighborhoods.

Two years ago I took my family from Pittsburgh, where we live now, back to the South Bronx.  I wanted to take a picture of us all sitting on my old stoop.  I told my children many stories of my childhood, including how when I went trick or treating I had to catch candy in my bag that was thrown from apartment windows five, sometimes ten, stories up.  I told them the old Puerto Rican wives’ tale that when it rained and it was sunny out, witches were having a barbeque.  Don’t ask.  I have no idea.  I told them how excited I was about the ghost the whole community came out to fight one summer’s evening; how I cried when a little baby died in a fire in the corner apartment building; how happy I was to find a quarter in front of the stoop, and I how I used it to buy a Matchbox™ car at the corner Bodega. I remember the fun Pete and I had racing up and down the block as my Dad timed us from the stoop.  I recalled with great fondness the loudness of it all, of having to scream for my mother to give me permission to cross the street.  She would then yell from the window, overlooking the stoop, when it was safe.

And then I told my family about the myriad uncles, aunts, and cousins on the block, each with their own stoops, stoops to visit, stoops to be with others.  I remember Uncle Dario who couldn’t hear too well, Uncle George with his huge Afro, Titi Nilda, Titi Lucy, Titi Martha, and Blanca and Carmen. They either lived on the block or they were somehow always there, and, of course, every other adult on the block was my “uncle” or “aunt.” Who really was your uncle or aunt or cousin back then was a complete mystery. Anyone allowed to spank you was somehow related to you; and there was a lot of spanking going on. I wasn’t told until I was in my twenties that my Titi Livia and my Uncle Dario were unrelated to me.  But we were related — much in the same way I am related to Jesus.

Because the stoop is where Jesus is.  Always, Jesus is waiting there to be with us, to visit with us, to commune with us, to abide in us, to be with us.  “Then God came out from heaven, became a human being in Jesus, and Jesus moved into El Barrio to hang out on the stoop with us” (see Jn 1:14). The stoop is a sacred space; it is holy ground; it is an altar in the ‘hood.  It is where heaven and earth intersect, where “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss” (Ps 85:11, NABRE).

The dictionary definition of stoop is primarily a verb. It means to “come down from a height; to abase; to humble; to submit.” To be on the stoop is to stoop.  God comes to my stoop as the One who is grounded in my reality, as the One who wants to display the truest way of life in humility.  God submits God-self to me, God’s creature, in order that I might be One with God and all creation.  To be on the stoop is to be real, to manifest my truest self to God and my fellow creature.  When I visit others on the stoop, I am called to remove my masks, to reveal my vulnerable, interdependent, and authentic self to the other.

On the stoop Jesus, the real God, comes to visit with His real people. In the Canticle of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist praises God for the soon coming of Jesus the Messiah saying, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people. Because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Lk 1:68, 78-79, NABRE). What great news!  Emmanuel!  God with us on the stoop!

Yet after visiting my old stoop, waves of sadness came over me.  I realized that I, like so many others, can’t seem to really find my way back to the stoop.  I cannot find my way back to deep community. I have chosen separation and loneliness apart from God and neighbor.  It’s not that I want to be lonely; I desperately want deep communion with God and others.  But I have bought into the lie of the consumer society, and that the pain of my loneliness and separation is more bearable than the effort it would take to be restored to blessed community. Thus, I really haven’t felt it necessary or even prudent to go back to try and restore myself to the stoop of Christ.

Why? I am hurting; I am afraid!  I have an idolatrous desire to be air conditioned, away from God and others, superficially dabbling in religiosity, playing roles instead of living out of my brokenness.

So I no longer need to visit the stoop of my nostalgic past, but I have discovered I need to be restored to the stoop of my eternal now.

Today, I define my being lost as not knowing where my true stoop is – to be out of deep, growing relationships with God and others.  To be lost and alone is what it might mean to sit in darkness and death’s shadow.  The Israelites said, when you were lost and alone, you were outside the camp. Bronxites would say you were missing from the stoop.  Jesus might lament saying, “you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Lk 19:44b, NABRE).

My heart’s desire is that I would be restored and gathered to my stoop, enjoying shalom and Shabbat with God, my family, my neighbor, being found and in community where there is neither black nor white, male nor female, religious nor atheist, but all are one with and in Christ, visiting, sitting, and abiding on the stoop together with Christ on earth as it is heaven.

(c) Paul Dordal, 2016

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