Article 25

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

Fred Cook Says Farewell

In Uncategorized on 08/15/2012 at 9:33 am

ImageA caring neighbor leaves Over-the-Rhine

Story and photo by Margo Pierce


“I leave you with each other” can mean many different things: “Care for each other,” “Fight it out,” “Work together,” “I wash my hands of you.” When Fred Cook said those words July 22, he did so to comfort his audience and to urge them to recognize the community of people in which they exist and to care for each other as valuable and valued beings.

As pastor at First Lutheran Church in Over-the-Rhine, Cook worked to dismantle the boundaries between the church and the community and between neighbors. Even though he’s leaving, his final sermon made clear that he expects the work of building community to continue. Cook is assuming the role of pastor at Resurrection LutheranChurch in Lebanon, Ohio.

It was a difficult goodbye. A parishioner who stepped to the podium to read from the Bible paused for a very long time before looking at Cook and shaking her head, “No.” She couldn’t do it. And the sustained applause for Cook finished in a standing ovation, leaving him staring at the floor, clearly trying to reign in his emotions.

The son of an inner-city Lutheran minister, Cook grew up in Cleveland, living in the poverty so common in Over-the-Rhine. He learned from an early age how important it is for everyone in a struggling community to come together and help each other, not just to survive but to be happy together.

He applied those lessons at First Lutheran, whose Clothing Closet makes clothes available to those with limited resources. The church also offers hygiene products and hosts a monthly community meal. The Over-the-Rhine Learning Center, housed in the church, helps people improve their literacy skills free of charge. Working in collaboration with their neighbors, Cook and others at the church have succeeded in breaking down cultural and social barriers to provide what is needed.

In 2011 Cook explained how he helped people from the suburbs – usually students seeking an “urban experience” – understand how this kind of collaboration works.

“We do a little exercise with some of the groups who come. They each get $1.20 to go to Findlay Market, and they have to find something to eat,” he said. “Those who pool their money eat well. Those who say, ‘I got mine, you get yours’ can only afford a hot dog and a bag of chips. They can’t even get anything to drink.”

For adults, the lesson is more difficult.

“If I walk down the street and I have my pockets full of money, I don’t need you,” he said. “I don’t see that I’m broken; I don’t see that I need anything. I’m managing my own situation – in fact, I’m angry at you because you’re not, and you’re asking something of me. ‘I’ve done my work. What about you? I don’t see any reason to be obligated to you because you just have to straighten up.’

“But if I’m aware of my brokenness, my emptiness, if my pockets are empty, all of a sudden I look at you differently and I need you.”

Not long ago the church’s need for a new heating and cooling system required a capital campaign the likes of which were unprecedented in its history. Necessary to preserve the historic building and continue community outreach throughout the year, the money was raised and the new system installed. But money for operating costs remained hard to come by. It’s one thing to preserve a building but quite another to keep open the doors of a church, however socially conscious.

Last year a local paper reported that fact and announced that Cook was leaving, with a headline that caught him, his parishioners and colleagues unaware. When asked about the inaccurate reporting that left him scrambling to explain the money concerns taken out of context, Cook focused on the difficult economic realities everyone faces.

“How pastoral leadership will be shaped by the financial constraints and so forth is a chapter yet unwritten,” he said. “Certainly we’re faced with some challenges to the budget. We’ll have to respond to those. It’s a problem not unfamiliar to not just churches but business and everyone one else – how to function in a time and an age when there’s a lot of financial worry and hand-wringing? We’re not protected from that.”

A year later that chapter is now written. A temporary pastor will work with the congregation to figure out how to carry on without paid staff. The commitment to doing just that was clear as Cook said farewell.

By regular standards, the church was packed – approximately 60 people came to the final service, compared to the 12 to 18 who normally attend. The man who served as their pastor, their friend, neighbor and partner in social justice advocacy reminded them that the opportunity to be part of a community is ever present, no matter who moves out.

“The work, the opportunity to care for one another is never done,” Cook said. “It can be exhausting. As much as we were hoping to be finished where we could take a break, just when you think you found the right place for some kind of a respite, somebody finds out where you’re going, and they’re sitting there, waiting on you.”

Reporter’s note: I first met, interviewed and worked with Pastor Cook and his wife, Les, in 2011. When Article 25 needed a place to set up shop a few days a week, they welcomed us. During that time Pastor Cook has challenged assumptions I didn’t realize I held, caused me to think, shown me new perspectives. I am gratified to know that his efforts to bring peace and justice to our world will continue unabated with people who have not yet had the privilege I’ve had, to benefit from his experiences. They will soon appreciate their new friend, as I do.