There are times – like when John Coltrane plays “A Love Supreme” – that jazz becomes a mystical experience, burrowing deep into your soul. The Rev. Peter Heltzel knows a bit about both, being a jazzhead and a theologian. A few years ago, spellbound by the artistry of a combo in a West Village basement jazz club, he had a revelation: if musicians can start with standards and transform them, why can’t preachers be equally adept?
David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.
“Faith leaders need to learn some lessons about loving from jazz musicians, who’ve studied the standards, but improvise in making music in new ways,” said Dr. Heltzel, who is director of the Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary. “Corporate leaders, Wall Street financiers, real estate developers and insurance executives are already in conversation. We need to improve with the religious traditions in our faith communities to create the conditions through which we can collaborate for justice as we build a deeper community.”
Those sentiments are at the heart of his book “Resurrection City,” which presents an evangelical Christian perspective on working for social and economic reforms in modern-day America. Its title is a nod to the encampment set up on the National Mall after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., where a cross section of faiths and races converged to continue the slain leader’s mission of creating the “beloved community” where earthly and spiritual needs were met.
Dr. Heltzel’s choice of title is no accident. He wants to remind people that many of the same concerns that dominated Dr. King’s last years still confront society today. That was on Dr. Heltzel’s mind in recent years as he joined other clergy and community activists to press for the living wage legislation that was ultimately passed by the City Council. Now he and his allies have set their sights on having employers provide paid sick leave.
He sees those campaigns – as well as recent environmental movements in places like the South Bronx – as examples of what can happen when people rooted in tradition improvise in the moment. During their efforts to pass the wage law, he was part of a group of clergy who approached the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, and presented her not with a list of demands, but with a framed portrait of Mother Teresa.
“We said ‘You’re an Irish Catholic and if you’re really serious about your faith and its social teaching, you need to step up and pass this bill,’” he recalled. “And she did.”
This riff on faith goes back to one spring night in 2010, when he and several friends — theologians, ministers and activists – squeezed into the dimly lighted sanctuary of Smalls Jazz Club on West 10th Street. He had been a regular, but there was a moment among those friends that touched him.
“The band featured a virtuoso sax player who reminded me of Coltrane, backed by a rhythm section that played the standards, but improvised,” he recalled. “There was no real stage. They broke the fourth wall. There was a deeper communion with the music. The crowd was black and white and there was a feeling of togetherness, but also this sense of being beyond boundaries. It was a transitional space where people from all walks of the city came together and experienced friendship and fellowship in a way that harkens to the possibility of beloved community today.”
He said he was optimistic – even excited – about the city’s future, especially as he has seen like-minded evangelical Christians and Pentecostals tackling economic and social issues that affect neighborhoods and families.
“When storefront Pentecostals from the Bronx join with tall-steeple pastors from Lower Manhattan on behalf of a citywide movement for economic justice, there will be change,” he said. “The kicker for me on this is unless our faith is impacting the city where we live, I question if we have true faith at all.”