In 1965 I was a first year, graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Part of my training as a seminary student was fieldwork which required being assigned to a church. My assignment was an historic Episcopal church, Saint Mark’s in the Bowery, in New York’s Lower East Side. I taught Sunday School and was an assistant to the coach of the church’s basketball team.
I was also assigned to a family who attended the church—the Martinez family (not their real name). Hector, who coached the team, and Mary Martinez lived in one of the massive public housing projects in New York’s Lower East Side. They represented a kind of fairy tale for me. In her mid 30s, Mary was the white daughter of a banker and was a college graduate. She had grown up in a middle class neighborhood in a New Jersey suburb. Hector was born in Puerto Rico, came to the city as a child, was part of a street gang as a teenager, and was a high school dropout. The two met when she was a social worker in the Lower East Side. They fell in love, married, and were raising their four stairstep kids ranging from age four to twelve. I had dinner with them in their apartment once a week and became an adopted member of their family. They represented for me the hope that our country could bridge the race, cultural, and class barriers that seem so difficult to overcome. The family seemed happy, optimistic, and upbeat, and I thoroughly enjoyed the weekly conversations over delicious dinners prepared by Mary.
Mary was a stay at home mom, and Hector worked in the garment district as a “runner,” someone who pushed large carts of clothing from one building to another. I shadowed him on several occasions and could not believe how hard he worked and, I assumed, for very low pay. But they were managing and surviving thanks in part to affordable housing, at a time when public housing in New York City was clean, safe, and well managed. And, I surmised, thanks to being part of a loving congregation at St. Mark’s Church. This was the reason, I told myself, that I wanted to become an Episcopal priest—to work with people at the margins and to make a positive difference in their lives.
The experience for me had its challenges. The rector of the church was young, arrogant, ambitious, and a self-described radical, who because of my Southern accent disliked me from day one, accusing me of adolescent enthusiasm and being immature and naïve. I recall one of his sermons he preached after he had marched in Selma in the spring of 1965, when he said that he hated all white Southerners— paused for a moment, looked directly at me, sitting in pew in the first row, and finished his remark with “no exceptions.” So, life was not perfect. I had uncomfortable weekly meetings with him as he tried to make me aware of how difficult the priesthood was, how hard it was for churches to succeed, and how great a job he was doing. I endured, however, relishing my time with Hector and Mary and their kids. They were for me Exhibit A that his grim assessment of the world—and his high assessment of himself—were misguided. Miracles can and do happen.
As the year went on, my naivety was put to the test. The team Hector coached consisted of six or seven tall, Black teenagers, who came from the projects, were members of the same gang, and were very good basketball players. Most of them could easily do slam dunks. I do not know how Hector recruited them; but as far as I could tell, they did not have anything to do with St. Mark’s Church. They all seemed fond and respectful of Hector but very wary of a young, white guy with a Southern accent. And it is true I did no real coaching. I just sat beside Hector at the Saturday morning games as his “assistant,” providing moral support.
At some point during the Saturday morning games, the feel good moment of being with the family changed when I noticed the smell of alcohol on Hector’s breath. Maybe their lives were not so fairytale after all. One morning Hector showed up so drunk he could hardly walk, departed before the game was over, and asked me to take over. When Hector stumbled out of the gym, we were ahead by 10 points. We lost by five. Not a single player would speak to me. Before the game ended, it had become painfully obvious that I had no idea what I was doing.
As was the custom, after each Saturday morning game, Hector would take the players out to a corner grocery and pay for cokes and junk food—win or lose. So that day with Hector gone, this was my job. I realized that I had barely enough money in my pocket to take a subway back to the seminary and had to tell the team that they were on their own for buying snacks. I watched in horror as the team members roamed through the small store stuffing candy and donuts into their mouths and their pockets, guzzling cokes, and angrily knocking items on the floor. A balding, older white guy behind the checkout counter shared my look of horror and consoled me, “It will be ok. Let them have what they want. It will be ok. I don’t want trouble.” It is funny how the mind works. I can still remember what the old guy looked like and where I was standing as I watched the team rip the candy off the shelves and trash his store without paying a dime.
As the year went on, I continued my weekly Friday evening dinners, but Hector was often not present. When I asked Mary where he was, she answered unconvincingly “at a meeting” or “helping someone” and eventually “not sure.” In the late spring when my first year at Union was nearing an end, I showed up for what was supposed to be my last dinner with them. I arrived early, around 4 PM, and noticed that Mary was not working on dinner as she usually was when I arrived, and no kids were present. She had her back turned to me when she opened the door, and then when she turned to face me, I was stunned. She had black eyes, swollen lips, what looked like a broken jaw, scars on her face, and bruises on her arms. Flabbergasted, I asked what had happened.
“Oh, I am fine,” she said, “I just slipped in the shower a couple of days ago. I’ll be fine.”
She apologized for how she looked and tearfully said there would be no dinner that evening. We chatted for a few minutes and then I headed back to the seminary. I knew something had gone terribly wrong but was at loss as to what to do.
The next week when I had my session with the rector, I mentioned that I was concerned about the family. He replied that Mary had disappeared with all the children, even the oldest, who was Hector’s child by a previous marriage, and that no one knew where she had gone. He looked at me with a self-satisfied grin, “Not exactly the fairytale story you thought it was, is it? Welcome to the real world!”
I never heard where Mary took the kids or what happened to Hector or if there was ever an attempt at reconciliation. My field work assignment at the church was mercifully coming to an end, and I was not offered a position there for the next year. When visiting New York many years later I did return to visit the church and was surprised to see that it had been repurposed as a theater and performing arts center.
But I am still haunted by the story and can remember the faces of all the Martinez family members even now, some 59 years later. I wonder what happened to them and what their lives have been like. Are the children still alive? Did any go to college? Have careers? Marry and have their own kids? How did Mary manage and what about Hector?
Approaching age 82 in a few weeks, I have failed to rid myself completely of adolescent enthusiasm though I have accumulated battle scars of my own as all of us humans do over the years. But as for the kind of suffering the Martinez family must have experienced and the obstacles that they faced, my life has been easy sledding. Their story is sadly not that unusual. I suppose that suffering is part of the human condition. The haunting images of the Martinez family –and especially of Mary on my last visit–will be etched into my brain for as long as I live and is a reminder to me of how tough life can be for far too many.