reverend/author tackled poverty in the bronx and argentina
by gavin aronsen
rev. heidi neumark has been the pastor of trinity lutheran church since 2003, the latest chapter in a life driven by a passion for social justice.
before her move to the west 100th street manhattan church, she lived among the disenfranchised in the south bronx for 20 years, serving as pastor of transfiguration lutheran church. she penned a memoir of her experiences helping drug addicts, gang members and the abused and neglected there titled breathing space: a spiritual journey in the south bronx.
now, she is executive director of trinity place, a shelter she helped start, which gives homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth a place to get back on their feet.
"a church should be a place where people can come together across lines of race and class and background," neumark said. "building that kind of community in the city is really important."
neumark, 56, grew up in summit, n.j., and graduated from brown university before attending the lutheran theological seminary at philadelphia where she received her master in divinity.
during her seminary, she spent a year in argentina living in a squatter settlement outside buenos aires. she commuted into the city to an organization headed by adolfo perez esquivel, who won the nobel peace prize in 1980 for his work on behalf of human rights.
she met her husband, gregorio orellano, on that trip. the two have been married 28 years now and have two children, ana and hans, who are in their twenties. hans is in college and ana is an early childhood special education teacher.
neumark is fluent in spanish, one of the reasons she made the move to trinity lutheran. the church now has a spanish-language worship service, women's support group and after-school programs for children.
the church, she said, is also a place where low-income people alienated by property development in the neighborhood can feel welcome.
"one church can't solve racism and class divisions," she said, "but the church certainly should be an agent to work to do that."
kevin lotz, director of trinity place shelter, said he has worked with thousands of people as a social worker but "can't really think of anybody who is as consistently and so universally inspiring" as neumark.
lotz began planning trinity place, which opened three years ago, with neumark and another church member in 2006. gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth now stay at the 10-bed transitional shelter for up to a year-a typical stay is around eight months-where social workers help them develop life goals.
lotz has grown close to neumark and said he now communicates with her "many times a day on various shelter-related matters." he has been a lutheran his whole life, and continues to attend services at the church, which he previously served as its vice president.
"i've seen heidi, within 20 or 30 seconds of speaking, captivate an entire audience of people and inspire them to consider taking risks to reach out to the marginalized and address the needs of the vulnerable," lotz said. "she's a supremely gifted writer and speaker."
neumark is currently working on a new book about her family history, which she said she owed to her grandparents and father to write.
she learned a year ago that her father, who emigrated from germany in 1938, was jewish and her grandparents were put in a concentration camp in world war ii where her grandfather was killed.
"my father dealt with his trauma with silence," said neumark, who was raised a lutheran. "he never told anybody."
but, she added, "this kind of personal discovery makes me feel even more passionate than ever."