When it comes to nice guys, Tom Martinez may be one of the few people I have met, that qualifies for the definitive list. I first met him when I saw that he took photos of the musicians (including myself) at the Vox Pop open mike, which occurs every Sunday. Some of the best photos of us on stage have been taken by Tom. It was a great opportunity to have a chance to sit down on a hot afternoon, to speak with him and get a more in depth story.
Tom came to Ditmas Park when he was made minister at All Souls Bethlehem Church at
566 East 7th Street. The church describes itself thus: an inclusive community, welcoming and affirming all – without regard to race or ethnicity, differences in ability, gender or sexual orientation – all who seek a liberal church committed to justice and an open spiritual quest. In 1999 our congregation voted overwhelmingly to declare All Souls Bethlehem an Open and Affirming Church, and more recently it voted, again overwhelmingly, to become affiliated with The Center for Progressive Christianity.
Their mission is inclusive of a more holistic spiritual view which is grounded in the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings of Jesus, but take John Robinson at his word. To that end they enrich their worship and spiritual pilgrimage by drawing from other wisdom traditions, including Buddhism and Native American spirituality, and from other wise teachers such as Gandhi, Thích Nhat Hạnh and the Dalai Lama. They are affiliated with Unitary Universalism [UU]. Much of the work is humane based, and concerned with social justice.
Having grown up in Miami, and working for several years as a social worker, he attended Union Seminary. After graduating, he went to work for Christ Church in Summit, NJ. Wanting to get back to the city, he took the job at All souls Bethlehem Church here in Brooklyn in 2003, just around the time Vox Pop was opening.
His first impressions of the neighborhood was the incredible diversity. He soon met Rabbi Ellen Lippmann and a Moslem educator, Debbie Almontaser, who were putting together The Children of Abraham Peace Walk and they needed a Christian based minister. At the time “I was writing poetry prolifically. That was my creative outlet. But then I went to visit my sister in Seattle. She showed me a slide show of pictures she took with her little digital camera. I was so deeply impressed and intrigued that I felt I wanted to do that.” This was around his 40th birthday. The impression was so strong that before even returning home, he purchased his first camera and began taking pictures.
But it would be his ministry that is at the heart of Tom’s life. “Everyone should be free to search for truth and meaning.” he stated. “Everyone is entitled to their own journey. You can be on that journey and still be part of a ‘UU’ community.” The church is very progressive in that it also embraces the rights of the Lesbian-Gay community. Tom has called his church “the most diverse church in America.” They have pagans, Jews, Christians, atheists, humanist-agnostic, Buddhist, and other variations that were too numerous to list.
Our conversation ventured into the area of our collective beliefs. Especially the notion that there is a divine being watching over us. I expressed to Tom some of my own views that “there are vast energies in the universe. And the possibility and purpose of humankind is to connect to these extraordinary forces. To become a conduit for them. To become more awake. But this is in dire contrast to how the so-called ‘civilized world’ has come to be formed. And religion, as we have known it, has diverted us from this, and replaced this quest with collective fantasy.”
Tom responded, “It becomes a question on how to cultivate a spiritual mindfulness. A compassionate heart. To feel reverence for the natural world. Which here is all covered in concrete, grafitti, soot and grime. It is a gritty place to live.”
I mentioned the film Little Big Man in which the Old Chief Lodge Skins tells Dustin Hoffman’s character that “the white man no longer knows where the center of the earth is.” Here is another piece of juicy dialogue from the film where the village is being burned and plundered:
Jack Crabb: Do you hate them? Do you hate the White man now?
Old Lodge Skins: Do you see this fine thing? Do you admire the humanity of it? Because the human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone. And also the things from them… like that hair. The man from whom this hair came, he’s bald on the other side, because I now own his scalp! That is the way things are. But the white man, they believe EVERYTHING is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.
When asked if there was a meditative angle to his church he replied, “No. Anyone who grew up in a mainstream Christian denomination would recognize the liturgy, music and ritual. But many of the readings will be taken from outside the Christian tradition. A sermon might be something from another religious tradition.” Singing songs and giving a message with an open forum for people to share their personal concerns in the form of a deep sharing.
Tom claimed that his deep connection to Taoism is what brought him to his current calling. “There is this notion in Tao, that if you can name what is at the heart of the universe, then, it is not the Tao,” he quoted. His recent trip to Honduras, has fed his support for Liberation Theology which focuses on the unequal distribution of wealth and social injustice. He has made journeys to the 9th Ward in New Orleans, the Gulf Coast oil devastation and Baghdad, but he mostly shoots life in New York City.
Tom’s photos can be found regularly on Only The Blog Knows Brooklyn. His photographs have been published in the Staten Island Advance, and the Brooklyn Paper. You can see more of his photography at Tom Martinez Witness Photography.
“Photography and Ministry have been the two major passions that have overlapped in my life. I have come to understand how the two vocations have been merging. Sharing my understanding of the world and having people share it through my pictures, truly makes me happy.”