At 11am this Sunday, May 25, Reverend Dan Ramm will deliver his final service in nearly 26 years at the Flatbush Reformed Church. In his quarter century of dedication to Flatbush, Reverend Ramm has seen the area go through multiple waves of changing cultural demographics, and face challenges like the Abner Louima case and the destruction Hurricane Sandy left behind. He has experienced political changes and economic shifts and welcomed multiple generations of churchgoers, and in that time, he and they have worked together to improve the lives of those around them. He loves the food on Church Avenue, believes in supporting longtime local businesses, and is critical of police practices he sees as dehumanizing while acknowledging the difficult line cops are asked to walk. And on a recent Sunday morning, he has just flown in from his son’s graduation in Oregon on the red eye.
“Who here speaks Spanish?” he asks the congregation.
Three people out of the 30 or so assembled raise their hands.
“I’ll tell you what,” he says. “We’re going to sing this in Spanish. But don’t worry, because no one is going to hear you individually anyway.”
The philosophy of a powerful chorus of voices, a collaboration of neighbors and community organizations, a group effort that results in positive change, is something that has seemed to guide Reverend Ramm as his retirement date looms. He put up a fight when he was honored at the Flatbush Avenue BID’s Annual Meeting; he’s pulled a written speech commending his work out of one woman’s hand and told her that was enough (“So embarrassing,” cringes his Associate Pastor, Reverend Cheri Kroon); and now, as Reverend Kroon stands at the church’s pulpit and describes Reverend Ramm’s habit of sitting in the congregation with other worshippers when he’s not speaking instead of above it, he’s getting flustered again. When Reverend Kroon pauses, trying to hold back tears, Ramm shouts, “Are you finished?”
What could be mistaken for brusqueness is actually the mortification of someone who doesn’t seem to much enjoy patting himself on the back–and okay, maybe there’s a hint of NYC native “keep it moving”-ness mixed in as well. Reverend Ramm, who was born at Methodist Hospital and raised in Bay Ridge (where he lives to this day), is just trying to move on to what he sees as a more worthy endeavor than the constant aggrandizement of any decent person’s actions.
The service continues in a distinctively modern Flatbush way–prayers are offered to keep neighbors safe from local gun violence, as well as to help one member come to terms with Boardwalk Empire filming near his residence. A child whose mother has lost her voice–admittedly from yelling at him–asks that she be made to feel better. A woman who is set to be baptized the next week approaches us at the service’s conclusion.
“There is nobody like him,” she says of Reverend Ramm. “He treats me like home.”
After leaving the church building, we head next door for coffee. As we follow Reverend Ramm to his office to schedule an interview, a woman standing nearby pushes a sandwich into his hand.
“For lunch,” she commands.
“Is there kimchi on it?” the Reverend asks, then scrunches his face as she says no.
I arrive at the same building the next morning to learn more about the Reverend’s past two and a half decades in Flatbush. He’s shuttling stacks of books from one place to another.
“I didn’t realize how much work this was going to be,” he says. ” I don’t think I have to tell you, you accumulate a lot of stuff over 26 years.”
When he’s ready to take a packing break, we sit down to discuss how he wound up devoting his life to ministry.
“I was studying biology at Wagner College,” he says. “I had thought of being a veterinarian–but my senior year, there was this nagging voice inside.
“I grew up in church, and church was important, and God was important–but it just seemed that this unrest wouldn’t go away until I finally agreed to whatever it was telling me.”
Reverend Ramm throws his hands up. “I said, ‘Alright, I’ll go!'”
Before coming to our area, Reverend Ramm was working at a church in Maspeth, Queens. When the Flatbush Reformed Church’s former pastor moved upstate, the organization was left with some problems–and what Reverend Ramm expected to be a temporary position evolved into a quarter century of work.
“I knew the area; it wasn’t new to me,” he says. “From the time I was born, we were driving to Macy’s to go shopping, so it was very familiar. I grew up in a time when urban ministry was very socially active, and this neighborhood is spot on for that, because of the type of social needs that exist.
“When I first came to work here, there was a large presence of Cambodian and Vietnamese folks,” he says. “In the 1970s, the neighborhood became very much West Indian and Haitian, and now it’s more Generation X and iPod people.”
He notices my perplexed look.
“That’s what I call them,” he says, “because I’m never quite sure the age cutoff for Generation X–but there’s always something hanging out of their ears.” Reverend Ramm pantomimes pulling out earbuds.
“No matter what, it’s always the same basic issues: education, healthcare, housing, and jobs. It’s hard for us to do anything about jobs, but we can organize around education, housing, and healthcare, and those are great needs in this community–especially at a time when our undocumented neighbors are still afraid to go to the hospital, or afraid to complain at school because they don’t want to get on the radar.”
And Reverend Ramm works to address those needs. In his time at the church, he has instituted a program that provides hot meals for 200 people every week. Of course he’s happy to help with the basic need of adequate nutrition–but he’s also proud of the social environment the program creates. “A lot of the people in our program come here alone,” he says, “but they get to sit, and eat, and talk to somebody, which you don’t necessarily get with a standard pantry… it’s really more of a lunch club.”
Many participants in the food program also choose to attend Mass. “What I love is that they feel welcome,” says Reverend Ramm. “They don’t always dress the way everybody else dresses or talk the way everybody else talks, and they’ve been accepted like everybody else.”
There’s a knock at the building door. When Reverend Ramm answers, the man outside asks for a Bible.
“Okay, but you have to actually read it,” Reverend Ramm says. “Don’t just use it under a chair to even the legs out.”
Besides the food program, Reverend Ramm is proud of recent changes to the parsonage on the property–now called the Mission House. The house provides private rooms for up to eight people attempting to get a foothold in an area where traditional housing is often prohibitively expensive. In return, they are asked to contribute up to 10 hours a week of services like teaching Sunday school, cooking for the food program, leading meditation groups, or helping with the church’s computer system and web presence.
“Is that called IT?” he says. “Some people are just creepily genius at that stuff.”
As it turns out, there is an upside to Generation iPod. “We have these 20-something young people just out of college teaching Sunday school now, and kids respond to that differently than they do to a 75-year-old.”
Reverend Ramm sighs.
“But most iPod people don’t come to church anymore.”
This seems like a good time to delve into the Flatbush Reformed Church’s inclusionary efforts, community involvement, and alliances with groups interested in social justice–all of which is a far cry from the perception an iPod person or someone raised in a secular household might have about organized religion.
It just so happens that Reverend Ramm’s office is littered with pamphlets and certificates from Room for All, a nationwide group of Reformed Church members whose mission is “To support, educate, and advocate for the welcome and full affirmation of people of all sexual identities and gender expressions” and to engage in “grace-filled dialogue” with people whose views differ. Still, he understands why I or my LGBTQ loved ones could see the concept of church as an unwelcoming one.
“That’s generally true,” he admits. “And that’s why churches like ours fly rainbow flags, to let people know that you’re not going to hear something crazy from the pulpit or in the readings. We’re not stuck in the 14th century.
“This was a conscious vote on the part of the church,” he says, “to label ourselves as open and affirming–we believe that God loves everybody, and God created everybody the way they are.”
The church also works with local organizations including Sustainable Flatbush, who has a garden on the property, and Flatbush Mutual Aid, who offers donation-based skills workshops on church grounds. As Reverend Kroon pointed out in her speech about his departure at the BID meeting, “Any organization that needs a somewhere to meet, Dan makes sure there’s a place for them with tables and chairs.”
“We’re a part of the community, too,” he says. “It’s really a whole–it’s not separated into church stuff and community stuff and youth work and all–it’s really just one thing.
“We’re concerned about sustainable living. Our faith compels us to open ourselves up to everything that’s going on in the community; scripture says that we’ve been given dominion over the earth, and that we should be responsible stewards for what God has given us. That could mean gardening, or serving hot meals to people–a great part of it is caring for people, whether they come to church or not.”
Part of a beloved clergy figurehead caring for any group of people is mediation–and in New York City, especially in an area with a history of violence, much of the mediating falls under police jurisdiction. Reverend Ramm acknowledges that Flatbush was more dangerous when he first came to work here, and gives credit to community organizers, tenant groups, and BIDs for positive change–but he also makes it clear that while the vast majority of local police officers he’s met are good people, he’s not entirely on board with certain NYPD practices.
“It’s so hard, because you try to be fair to them,” he says, “but there are times when it’s difficult. If there’s a problem at some bodega or grocery store and they come around, they round up everybody that’s there… some kid just happens to be walking in to get a soda, and suddenly he’s involved. And I don’t know if there’s a way to avoid that, but it’s scary, and it happens all the time.”
Reverend Ramm emphasizes the importance of our community affairs officers and others’ efforts to befriend area residents, rather than simply keeping order. He mentions how much more effective he thinks the 70th Precinct could be if their station house was more central to the area–that its current isolation is partially responsible for how well only specific blocks, and, accordingly, specific slices of our local demographic, are served.
Reverend Ramm explains how the neighborhood’s evolution has affected his decision to stay here for over two decades instead of the seven to 10 years that Reverend Kroon said–in her speech the day before that Ramm cut short–is the typical amount of time pastors spend at any particular ministry.
“It’s just so exciting,” he says. “There are so many challenges. Here, it’s like every day, every year is new. There’s nothing status quo; everything is always changing–the population’s changing, the neighborhood is changing, the politics are always changing.”
What will he miss the most?
“Oh, that’s easy,” he says, “that’s the people. I just look forward to seeing the people. Sunday is going to be really hard. I’ve baptized people’s children, I’ve confirmed their children–this has really become a family.
“I’ve seen them for years; I’ve listened to their problems. And as a pastor, you really have to separate yourself when you leave–you can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll see you for coffee.’ You have to leave, or else the person who takes your place will never be the person the congregation looks to.
“I’ll tell you one thing I won’t miss is these buildings,” he says. “The church was built in 1796 and hardly takes any maintenance at all–but this one, built in 1922 or something,” he gestures around him, “it’s just an albatross.”
After he retires, he’s looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren–and more immediately, visiting his bare bones cabin in the Adirondacks.
“I love this city; I’ve lived my whole life here,” he says–but although he plans not far in the future to return to his house just several miles south of the cacophonous Church-Flatbush intersection, he’s ready now for some peace and quiet.
Following Sunday’s Mass, Reverend Kroon will head up the congregation for one month. Come July, the church will receive an interim pastor while a consistory decides who will be Reverend Ramm’s successor. Reverend Kroon has applied for the position, but whoever is awarded the job, Reverend Ramm has one wish.
“Love the neighborhood and the people as much as I do,” he says. “All you have to do in urban ministry–all I did here–is open the door and it comes to you. People just come to the door. Just open your arms and let ’em in.”
If you’d like to see Reverend Ramm’s final Mass and wish him a happy retirement, you may do so this Sunday, May 25, at 890 Flatbush Avenue (on the corner of Church Avenue) at 11am.