The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Best this month

Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx
by Heidi B. Neumark is a well-written and superbly pastoral memoir about her 19 years as pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran, a Hispanic and African American congregation in the South Bronx. She recalls getting ready for her first worship service and seeing a box of rat poison under the altar next to the box of communion wafers — a fitting introduction to the realities of a neighborhood that already had an international reputation as "an urban desert, a landscape of withered hopes, barren of economic vitality, battered by violence, fear and death." The area's statistics were chilling to this white pastor: 60 percent of families on welfare, 80 percent of children living in poverty, 70 percent unemployment, 20 percent of adults and teens HIV-positive, and 28 percent of all deaths annually due to drugs, AIDS or violence.

Neumark is always looking for breathing space. Sewage treatment facilities, waste recycling plants, and incinerators burning the trash and hazardous hospital waste of New York City make it literally hard to breathe. On another level, she needs space to process her experiences and cope with the tragedies raining down on the congregation. She speaks out against the curses of poverty, racism, sexism, and other demonic and divisive forces that divide people. With true humility, she reveals what an honor it is to be allowed into people's lives, calling it "a sacred trust." She and others leave their imprint on the South Bronx — renovating the church, getting more low-income housing and improving the schools (Beacon Press).

In America
, written and directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), is a vivid and compelling portrait of the ways in which an Irish family in Manhattan copes with the contradictory, wrenching and chaotic emotions of grief. Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their daughters, Christie (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), are still mourning the accidental death of the youngest child, Frankie. In voice-over narration, Christie says, "There are some things you should wish for and some you shouldn't." Frankie told her she had three wishes; it is hard for her to discern what to use them for. There are so many things that need fixing and so many important challenges facing their family. They live in a rundown tenement populated by junkies. Johnny, an actor, can't find work; Sarah tries to support them by working in an ice-cream parlor. While poor in material terms, this family is rich in wonder, imagination and love.

One reason In America stands out from other family films is that the performances are so honest, natural and vibrant. Considine catches all the tense, hopeful and fearful complexities of a grieving father. Morton plays Sarah as a worn-out and exhausted woman who swings between depression and moments of elation as she tries to fulfill her obligations as mother, wife and breadwinner (Fox Searchlight — PG-13 for some sexuality, drug references, brief violence and language).


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