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Freelance Christian of the Street: Rev. Ian Alterman

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Ian Alterman is smiling. Every time I see him, he seems happy, like he's glowing, like something great just happened in his life. Like that something keeps happening.

I knew him in activist circles for about a year before he let it slip that he is an ordained minister. And he's been ordained twice, it turns out. He can use "Reverend" as a title in his name, but he rarely does. He's a different kind of minister, a minister without a "church" per se. But then again, "church" can mean "building," or it can have a more powerful meaning, that of "community." Ian Alterman's community, his congregation, are the homeless people in his Upper West Side neighborhood. He has an ongoing, regular relationship of care, listening, and direct-action aid with the lost sheep of Manhattan.

It is friendships like Ian's that give me hope that Christianity is becoming real again, that postmodernism will fade as a fad, that the real truth of direct-action love can gain a foothold as a common practice for a majority of us.

In some ways, Ian's story is a very New York story. His life is made possible in part by the rent-stabilization in the apartment he's had for almost all his life. So, he's been able to make a living working part-time in hotels, or in short term gigs like with the U.S. Census.

I met Ian recently at Tom & Jerry's 288 Bar down on Elizabeth Street. I sucked down two Hoegaardens in the summer heat's happy hour. Ian carefully had a seltzer with a splash of cranberry. We talked big picture. We both share this love for the Truth.

Is God Truth?

An excellent question. It is instructive to note that every faith -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. -- and even non-believers are motivated by a seeking of, even a thirst for, truth. Spiritual, scientific, political, economic, whatever. In Exodus, God is described as "merciful, gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth." And "truth" is among the three most common words is Psalms and Proverbs.

In the Qur'an, adherents are admonished to "mix not truth with falsehood, not conceal the truth." In the Yajurveda [that would be the third of four canonical texts of Hinduism, for all you pagans to Hinduism out there], we find, "I am renouncing untruth and embracing truth. One should accept truth, and should sacrifice their life to protect truth ... I take an oath that I shall always protect truth ... Unless we do not renounce our greed we cannot protect truth. Untruth inhibits self-development and physical, mental and spiritual growth. Therefore we should all adhere by truth."

In Christianity, of course, God is love. But love includes truth: it is not very loving to lie or deceive, is it? Jesus' ministry was based on eleven precepts: love, peace, forgiveness, compassion, humility, patience, charity, selflessness, service, justice and truth. John notes about Jesus that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us ... full of grace and truth." Jesus said of Himself that He was "The way, the truth and the life." And, of course, John also gave us one of our greatest quotes, cited by believers and non-believers alike: "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." So in many senses, God is, indeed, truth.

It seems that a person who knows this, who gets the relationship between Truth and God, and loves it, is at odds with the zeitgeist, the spirit of our time, this vague thing we call postmodernism, which seems to preach an "anti-truth." Perhaps it's fairer to say that contemporary trends in thought tend to shy away from "truth" because of the bad rap that capitalism and colonialism have deservedly received. But postmodernism veers so far into an "ultra-subjectivity" (i.e. there is no truth, it's all your opinion). What's your take?

I believe that the tension between faith/religion and postmodernism vis-à-vis the search for objective as opposed to subjective truth is as unnecessary -- and overblown -- as the tension between faith/religion and science. Although postmodernism was a "reaction" to what was perceived as a faith-fueled modernism -- and it is true that modernism had its faith-infused aspects -- even the postmodernists did not agree on either the definition or goals of the movement. Derrida famously disagreed with one of Heidegger's fundamental positions, and later postmodernists added more philosophical diversity to the mix. Ironically, it took less than 75 years for postmodernism to find itself largely deconstructed. Ultimately, postmodernism was never as "narrow" as some of its proponents claimed. In this regard, there would seem to be room for elements of both -- faith/religion and postmodernism -- even in a non-"cognitive dissonant" worldview.

[For philosophy buffs who want more on the difference between Derrida and Heidegger that Ian is referring to, see Heidegger's concept of "Destruktion." He called for all ontological concepts like history, being, theory, etc. to be destroyed. Derrida wanted to "parse" rather than destroy these, and these was the foregrounding of "Deconstruction."]

How did you get into Jesus?

It is probably as accurate to say that He got into me! And it is particularly ironic, since I was raised in an atheist Jewish household by two fiercely rationalist-empiricist parents: one a scientist (for whom faith/religion was just "so much hooey"), the other a Marxist (for whom religion was "the opium of the masses"). My spiritual journey began in my mid-teens with taking yoga and Eastern philosophy with Swami Satchidananda, and a concurrent "move" from atheism to agnosticism. Then there was an eight-year study of comparative religion (both on my own and in college), a further "move" from agnosticism to belief in a personal God, and eventually a realization -- spiritual, emotional, rational/intellectual -- that Jesus was who He and the Scriptures claimed Him to be.

What's your daily life like? Give us a window into your ministry.

My primary ministry is outreach to the homeless, primarily the street homeless. I provide moral and financial support and work with the higher-functioning homeless to get them social services and, if possible, off the streets and into a room or other housing.

My secondary ministry is counseling, both "in faith" (e.g., crisis in faith, fallen away, etc.) and general (alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, etc.), which I do in person, by phone and by email.

My tertiary ministry is Bible studies. My day begins by checking both voicemail and email to find out whether any of my homeless charges, or anyone I am counseling, has called or emailed for assistance. Once I have provided whatever services are required in that regard, I take a walk around my neighborhood to visit with my homeless charges. They run the gamut from high-functioning (one actually does The New York Times crossword puzzle) to alcohol- or drug-addicted, to mentally ill. Each has a specific set of needs, and I work with them individually.

I make one more round of the street homeless in the early evening, and then usually have a community-based meeting of some kind in the evening.

Where did you go to school, and what mentor or teacher was your greatest?

I was mentored through an intensive one-year program by four ministers with over 100 years of ministry between them -- eight to ten hours per day, seven days per week for an entire year. I then spent time with each of my mentoring ministers individually, honing various skills, -- I was ordained in a formal minister-to-minister ceremony in August 2003 by one of my mentoring ministers, and re-ordained in a similar ceremony by another of my mentoring ministers in October that year.

As for "greatest" mentors/teachers, certainly Swamiji was one, since he set me on my spiritual path. My tenth grade sociology teacher, Ms. Rosenbloom, was another, as she opened my eyes to all the "facades" of life.

There are also fictional "teachers" who made strong impressions, including the High Lama of Shangri-La, Klaatu (from the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still), Don Shimoda (the "reluctant messiah" of Richard Bach's book Illusions), and Yoda. Interestingly, all of them were both truth-seekers and truth-givers. So it is arguable that much of my entire life was guided by "truth."