Gratitude for my father’s peace

Here is the short version of some reflections on my dad’s life. May it help celebrate and honor the good as well as contribute to our healthy grieving. 

Frederick Stanley Szczesniak was born on May 7, 1953 and grew up with his two brothers on the East Side of Buffalo, on the same block as his mother — the same neighborhood as his father. Buffalo’s Polonia District was home to all his grandparents after they arrived from Poland and the diaspora (invasions and borders shifted a lot in those days). Vincent Szczesniak and his wife Laura Skoniecki (arrived 1913, 1903) gave birth to my grandfather Fred (Dzia Dzia) and his six brothers. Stanislaus Bronislaus Pacynski and his wife Stafania Ciesla (arrived 1904, 1889) gave birth to my grandmother Esther (Nani), her brother, and three sisters. They were all part of the historic Saint Stanislaus parish.

My earliest memories are while living on Clark St across the street from a dilapidated Central Terminal with my brother Jeff and my parents — next door to the split house of my dad’s parents and my auntie, uncle, and cousins. We rolled three generations daily until 1986 when my family moved to rural New York state.

After parochial school, my dad went to Emerson Vocational High School where he tapped into his knack for cooking. After high school he earned an Associate’s degree from Erie County Community College, bringing his culinary skills to the next level. It was at ECCC where he met my mother Gail (who is still Polish “by choice” after their divorce!). They got married when they were 20 years old and over the next few years found Jesus and had a son (my wonderful brother Jeffrey).

My father worked in commercial kitchens until he was in his 40s. He had the imagination to create dishes and menus and was a legendary baker of cakes, cookies, and breads. I worked for him over a few years where he brought an old school mindset to the kitchen. He only hired dishwashers. He taught dishwashers to do prep work, then desserts and baking before working on the line and some sous chefs. Team work, efficiency, and clear communication of concepts helped the kitchens run well. When they didn’t run well, he usually had a bombastic end to his tenure.

My pops loved the church — leading it as well as criticizing it. He signed his name Rev. Fred Szczesniak for years because it made him feel dignified. We were part of a small “full gospel” Black church that met in row home in DC and a booming Assemblies of God church in Buffalo where he served as youth pastor. My parents served as house parents for Teen Challenge, aiding in the substance abuse recovery of teenagers in between restaurant gigs.

My dad came out as gay in the late 90s. He told me he had repressed his sense of attraction since he was a kid. I’m glad he met Brian, with whom he was together for 20yrs as lovers, partners, and eventually married spouses. Coming out in the late 90s took a lot of guts and resiliency, not unlike many spaces today. While he experienced intense rejection from the church and many Christian experiences of his past, he found acceptance and encouragement from Christians along the way and talked about Jesus until the day he died.

Fred hated the snow. He’s from Buffalo, so this surprised people. He always wanted to move to a warmer climate, and five years ago he and Brian finally did. He got to live out the rest of his life with a pool in his yard, flowers to tend to with his secret urine-based fertilizer, and in a loving partnership with Brian.

A few weeks ago, he shared with me that the greatest joys in his life was that he got to reconnect with parts of his family. After his brother Greg died last year, my brother Jonny (with his daughter Josie) and I got to make our peace with our father. He died peacefully in his sleep last Saturday morning, primarily due to kidney failure, at home with Brian by his side.

I’m grateful because the final words between us were of love and mutual forgiveness. I’m sad because this man I knew for my entire life has passed on. I enjoyed our conversations about cooking, gardening, and sci fi. Our senses of humor did not always align, but like him I find my own jokes to be very funny. My dad made no shortage of mistakes, including painful choices. May they be a caution to me and my brothers. I know he loved me, and he knew I loved I him. I’m grateful that his passing was peaceful, and that his final gift to us was peace.

Rest in peace, Dad aka Fred aka Poppa Fred aka Big Phred aka Fred Bomb. xoxo




4 pro tips for enduring this Apocalypse

Some real UGLY has been revealed this week. This UGLY is around us, thrust upon us, inside of us, and in many cases coming out of us. I want to be brief and easy to read for different kinds of people so I’m making this list in the hope to help myself and others process some of our thinking and feeling so we can make more beauty in the midst of conflict. This apocalypse, an uncovering of a sorry state of the United States, has some new contours and threats. What’s also being revealed has been obvious to many people for a long time.

If you consider yourself woke or waking up, I hope this helps you. If you are frustrated and want other people to wake up from their Myth of Progress-induced slumber, I hope this equips you. If you’re skeptical about the future or even skeptical about faith I hope this post validates your feelings and makes for more options for you. I’m not trying to bring more condemnation upon us, I want to make possibilities for us to not get stuck. These “pro tips” are not meant to seem like I think I have all the answers or understand all the nuances of our problems. I hope they keep us moving in a healthy direction.

Pro tip: Feel your own feelings, think your own thoughts. Give your reactions, instincts, and emotions some names. Get to know them more. Like a song that gets stuck in your head, we are all susceptible to suggestion or picking up what’s in the air. I’m so symbiotic that I feel other people’s stress and need help differentiating it from my own. I spent at least an hour yesterday playing piano and singing. Music helps me to get in touch beyond my rational or cognitive processes. Some of my friends gathered last night to dance together. Get in touch with your own body, your own heart, your own mind – and see if that helps you likewise be able to get in touch with the heart of God.

Suggestions: Make a decision about what your deepest resonance will be today, or at least in this moment. Does confusion or frustration, shock or grief, anger or disgust need to be the primary lens you experience life? Do you want it to? I find Scripture, breath prayers, and songs very useful. We can choose what song will be stuck in our head. When you pray, you can ask Jesus to hold them with you. I find they become less overwhelming. [Psalm 139]

Pro tip: Confess how we/you have been complicit in systems that maintain white supremacy and related misogyny, phobias, etc. How has your attitude or behavior contributing to so many people not believing the stories of the oppressed? The president elect helped a lot of people see some deeply seeded issues the US generally does not want to deal with directly. Rather than pointing out how other people contribute all the time, start with confessing how you have internalized the dehumanizing messages, attitudes, or behaviors. It might be from a long time ago. It might be something you can see in your heart right now. The Western Church and recently those religious rule-makers (rather than spiritual practitioners) that we know as Evangelicals have helped settler colonialism flourish for generations. How have you intentionally or unintentionally helped the cause of the powerful?

Suggestions: Write some ideas in your journal. If you don’t have one, maybe now’s a good time to start a new reflective habit. Tell someone you trust, in person. These systems of injustice do not perpetuate themselves, they require active and complicit actors. Our limits and inability to have open hearted dialogue with relatives or other people that disagree with us become counter-productive to harmony and justice. [Psalm 32]

Pro tip: Consider the vitriol and material harm that has been unleashed this week. The maps show stark divisions in various ways, and we have no shortage of ways of thinking that categorize others and draw/see lines. For some of our US American relatives, an open season on minorities has begun. Racism that was underground has be legitimated enough by the recent political victories for it to be manifesting in frightening ways against the perceived “other.” Children in schools are getting told they will be deported, Nazi symbols painted in South Philly, and other likely worse things are on the horizon for people who are now even more vulnerable than they were. How has cruelty shaped us? What are your own instincts to dehumanize or make vulgar categorizations about others who don’t have your level of education or made a different choice at the polls?

Suggestions: Listen to those who have been living under chaotic threat, even as that group just multiplied. My brilliant Lakota friend Lenore told our cohort last night that “we are going to do what we always do. Natives endure. We will live through even this.” How can cruel attitudes and behaviors threaten your effort to make sanctuary, refuge, and safe spaces for yourself and others? [Luke 10]

Pro tip: What kind of alternatives do we need to embody? At the heart of protest are the seeds of possibility for the world that doesn’t exist quite yet. For Christians, we consider that the Movement of God is forming pockets of peace, resistance, and restoration all the time. It’s alraeady and not yet. We get to be part of it in a way that works for the flourishing of those not working directly with us. You don’t have to go at it alone. What kind of spaces do people need and what do you have to offer? Who are you going to work this out with?

Suggestions: Which of your feelings can be turned into action? The Movement of the Spirit has been in juxtaposition to what is unsettling us and will continue to. Last night people were protesting the next president. Black Lives Matter and water protectors at Standing Rock have been very active at making opportunities to demonstrate together. At my cell meeting this morning nine adults and two children did some good processing while making space for two people to join us that haven’t been with us before. What does that kind of inclusivity unlock? How could the Sunday meeting this week become a space of flexing our muscles of alternativity? [1 John 4]

Conflict can generate beauty

Photo by Jack Fusco

I got to take a quick trip up through Ontario last week. My family and I got to experience the beauty of the Niagara River, Niagara Falls (including the Hornblower!), and maybe best of all – we laid on the shores of Lovesick Lake and observed the Perseid Meteor Shower. We didn’t even know it was going to happen, I think my kids just thought it was Canadian magic or being 2hrs from a city and light pollution. The reason we can see such glory is not because junk is falling from space onto us – it’s because the earth swings through a bunch of rock/debris in our orbit each year around this time. It’s conflict. The earth is coming through, and the bits (like a tiny asteroid belt) pass into the planetary orbit and turn into fireballs and “wakes of light.” Spectacular.

We experience conflict every day. Most of the time we don’t get too emotionally involved and we find solutions easier when our defense mechanisms don’t take over. I find that when our emotions get to firing, we generally respond to threat in one of three ways: avoidance, assertion, or combustion. These categories aren’t scientific or anything but can generally describe most reactions.

Jesus lived in the middle of conflict. Besides the overlay of Greek/Roman empire influence, his tribal life existed during a spiritual reform as well as survival movements in the face of warrant kings and economic disparity. As he gathered folks from many walks of life, he also created conflict. Whether he called disciples out of their collusion with the states, out of their family business, or from under a fig tree, Jesus moved people to make changes. That meant leaving job, family, etc – not easy stuff to walk away from.

I have been enjoying a lot of conflict lately that Circle of Hope lives in. I think we have the vitality and centeredness to discern the Holy Spirit and move with God – that’s what this whole Second Act thing is about. We are trying to move beyond what has worked so far and change. I think our leaders have shown a lot of courage thus far. Each of us has to do our own processing about this particular threat. I hope we don’t just avoid it, I think that would be the worst. Combusting or asserting both keep us moving.

Our Compassion Core got about 120 of us to meet up at 9pm the other week at the future

Photo by Amanda Capasso

headquarters for the Phila Police to remember Mike Brown and other victims of racialized police brutality and to pray in a new era of justice in our city. We prayed for police (especially those who don’t wan to kill anybody, don’t want to stop & frisk, etc), for leaders, for those involved in the numerous stories we read, and for God to wake us up with justice. I think getting somewhere at 9 pm created conflict, so did the racial focus of the event, as well as not blindly siding with the authorities. About half the people who went didn’t RSVP on Facebook – maybe they are not on FB or maybe they didn’t want it on their feed because it was about Jesus or Black Lives Matter. I had a few combusting conversations about it, especially if I enumerated that last sentence. I felt the assertion more than anything – over 100 people feeling moved to do a notable act of compassion that brought us together and made a statement in the world! That was spectacular – like the meteor shower. Conflict was beautiful.

Last Sunday my good friend Drew Hart spoke at our Sunday meetings (listen to it here). They went long, especially because he was helping people process how we are “Taking on the form of Christ in this racialized world.” I appreciate both his prophetic, truth-telling brilliance paired with a pastoral instinct to help people move along the journey from right where they are at. I could sense lights turning on as he pointed out how we can jump on individuals for saying racist things (like the Hulkster lately) because it absolves us – but it doesn’t see how we are being formed by a racist system that produces the attitudes. By getting at the system, with the hope and power in Jesus, we can make personal changes and move together to form something new every day (not just on Sundays or protest days).


I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of couples – married and about to be – in counseling sessions. We do a lot of work about communication and conflict. I get to co-captain an amazing baseball team that is full of conflict – every pitch. After a session with some business partners the other day, I felt grateful to be living with so many people who want to get at solutions – even if it’s in the middle of combustion. It’s quite a beautiful thing to want to solve a conflict with another person. After all, we live in a world where we send unmanned drones to blow up houses, people stab each other over a few bucks around the corner, and Black men are being locked at astonishing rates. Getting beyond just intention and into transformative relationship with Jesus, the earth, and one another is still the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.

The luxury of disturbance: meeting God in the liminality

Like many of you, I’m a rhythmic person. Actually, my flow probably feels more polyrhythmic. I live with certain cadences – whether it’s having breakfast with my children, using my own bathroom/sleeping in my own bed, meeting at Franny Lou’s Porch with my cell on Thursday mornings, getting to worship together on Sunday nights as a Circle of Hope, or being near internet/cellular service. I had the luxury of disturbance recently and God met me in some outside-my-usual spaces.

My seminary program, the Masters in Intercultural Studies through the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS), has a flow. As a hybrid learning program, my cohort convenes online for discussions and then face-to-face for a week or two per year. This time Wheaton College hosted us in their kind of fancy facilities (very nice!). I took major components of two classes – Missional Leadership and Human Spirituality, taught by two brilliant Native women who held space for a co-learning environment with about eight of us.

I decided to drive to Wheaton so I could visit my good friends in Pittsburgh (BB, Andy, and the kids), one in Chicago (Colleen), and see Dustin and the gang’s permaculture design experiments on 30 acres of family land in Canton, OH. It wasn’t the fastest way to travel, but now the Graces are equipped with hybrid technology I spent about $100 on gas over the 1,700 mile trip. I got to listen to Dune on audiobook, some tunes, and lots of quiet. It didn’t seem convenient all the time, but I enjoy spending time on the road – even though about 1/3 of it was out of TMobile’s service area so I was in a sort of cocoon. I enjoyed driving through Midwest thunder showers, mountains of PA, and seeing the funny t-shirts for sale in Indiana such as “Hoosier Daddy.”

I had to leave right after the class so I could make it back in time to help out with my kids’ school in their production of Seussical, Jr – again feeling disrupted. Being back home after being gone requires a lot of catching up to communications and happenings in the community, and being less available than normal for a few days can throw me off.

I wish I could distill the whole trip into something readable, but I guess if you’re part of my faith community you’ll be feeling it through the next season. In Jackie Ottmann’s Leadership class, we discussed how leaders can make space so people can experience change – often helping to create ethical space where we usually taste liminality. I hope that’s not too expensive of an anthropological word – basically it’s a time/space where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It can be that moment when the water is just about to/starts boiling…when it just became hot enough. Liminality is definitely disruptive to normal flow, but can be where the gritty grind of transformation happens.

This excursive week or so for me had it’s share of liminality and I’m glad that I was given the space to be able to get disrupted and be able to do something good with it. So often we as humans get stuck in patterns and pathologies that don’t experience disturbance outside of crisis. This break in my routine included enough time for reflection. I’m still digesting what God is saying – but I’ll say I’m grateful:

1.  to be part of a local expression of the Body of Christ – we can connect and work through stuff together and want to be directed by the Spirit. Lots of my friends don’t have it. So cool!

2. to have been raising my kids in a village of parents – whether or not one has biologically reproduced does not matter in village formation. As I see my creative middle schoolers rock their play, I can see the love and care poured into them by dozens of aunties and uncles in the church.

3. to have this luxury of disruption and the time to reflect about it – the flexibility in my schedule exists because of so many passionate and gifted leaders who also want me to grow and develop. Thanks for sending me to seminary and wanting to work out the disruptions I create because of it.

A society of beggars: Navigating the seas of Brilliant Friends & Crowdfunding Fatigue

I’m a bit of a booster when it comes to my friends’ projects. While I certainly love creativity, most good ideas I hear about never turn into a reality. Sometimes it’s because some people are better dreamers than practitioners. I think most often, it’s because we don’t think we actually make a difference.

Not a small number of my friends shared the pixelated photos yesterday of a group of white people walking down the street. They were likely the group who assaulted two guys in Center City last Thursday after making anti-gay remarks, landing them robbed and in the hospital.  How could sharing these photos actually help? On Twitter, someone must have recognized the dude in the salmon/blue shirt while searching Facebook check-ins near the scene. No arrests have been made as of now, but it appears this case may have been solved by Twitter users. It’s amazing!

I hope that seeing how sharing stories or other seemingly small contributions like this make a huge difference for people involved. Caring & sharing go hand-in-hand with social media – especially with investing & crowd sourcing. Here are a few suggestions for how to navigate the seas of having brilliant friends while possibly feeling the fatigue of people asking.

Ask the questions “why are so many people begging?” I’ve heard my share of “back in the day” stories when if someone had a business idea they went to the bank and got a loan. Since 2008’s financial debacle, that’s not likely to happen – especially if your business doesn’t exist yet. Our financial rulers prefer to ramp up more big box franchises, non-tenure adjunct instructor, part time employee, consolidation of wealth strategies. Those of us without rich families of origin, benevolent wealthy friends, or friends capable of investing are left begging. How should we respond to begging when we’re turning into a society of lesser beggars?

People are asking us for money or signing up for something everywhere we go. Buying underwear at Target is to be asked if you want a Target credit card. Going to a show is to be asked to buy merch so the band members can afford to have a family. Watching a Youtube video is to sit through an advertisement and being asked to “like,” “share,” and of course “subscribe.”

Pay attention to your heart while examining what your friends are sharing. Do you have a few minutes to consider their idea or do you tune it out when you feel like you’re being asked for something? Have you been desensitized to a friendly ask by all the begging? Is God trying to soften your heart at times for meaningful attempts at breaking through

You might have the problem of there being too many good ideas for you to support. You can’t give money to all of them. You might not want to turn your Twitter/Facebook feed into a constant stream of advertising because it could violate your personal branding, image, or purpose for having them.

Consider what you give away unconsciously. Most of my friends fantasize about war tax resisting without looking at the resources we have while the war machine gladly enjoys our acquiescence. We’re hit with bogus fees on everything from ATM withdraws to processing fees to fuzzy administrative charges from utility companies.

It’s been a rough summer for my friends trying to crowd source some start up funds. Gary Ducket Pickles got about $4k of a $30k goal on Kickstarter. Crime & Punishment Brewery got about $13k of their $24k goal on Indiegogo. Are these ideas bad or are we fatigued?

This week my friend Alyssa is trying to fund her thesis show about PTSD and women in the military. My friend Nic is gething pre-orders for his upcoming book about Kensington Homesteading a block from my house. Scotty is about to go to to Iraqi Kurdistan with Christian Peacemaker Teams. My friend Blew, after a crazy landlord conflict had to close my favorite direct trade organic coffee house that happened to be a block from my home. She is attempting to courageously open a new one, right across the street from the old one. She’s got like 4 days and about $7k to raise or else she gets nothing from her Kickstarter campaign for Franny Lou’s Porch.

Consider what you give away consciously. You swim in a sea of imagination where people are less reliant on inherited wealth or debt to predatory lenders. Does your conscious sharing/spending match your values? Martha and I had to adjust our budget a few years ago to make room for gifting to projects we believe in or friends that need a blessing – on top of our normal common fund sharing with Circle of Hope. It is freeing for us and feels good to help good dreams become reality. We want more generative projects and businesses, even if it means less “freedom” to spend money on other whims and habits.

I don’t think God expects everyone to be huge boosters of all these campaigns. I hope that you can find some prayerful place between your the instincts you might have to shut down in what could feel like pressure or blindly say yes to everything. God will guide you towards Godly values and help discern how to keep putting them into practice. I think we have a chance to do so many beautiful things together, and our neighbors need more beauty.

Ethnicity/Immigration class blog #1

My prof for a class called Ethnicity and the Immigration Experience is having all the students write 2 posts per week about class topics.  I figured I might as well cross post to get rolling on my own blog again.

My father’s grandparents moved to the US from Eastern Europe around the beginning of World War I in 1914, identifying as Polish.  It was customary to treat immigrants according to ethnicity rather than country of origin.  Because of border disputes in the rise and fall of empires, Poland’s boundaries changed a lot between 1850-1950. My father’s paternal grandfather was given the name Szczesniak when he came through Ellis Island, likely because he was from the city of Szczecin.

My grandmother (whom we called Nani) Esther Pacynski lived on the same block on Clark St in the East Side of Buffalo, NY for her whole life.  She and my grandfather, Frederick Szczesniak (Dzia Dzia), met as kids in their local parish, St. Stanislaus.  It was one of the first Polish Catholic churches in the state of NY, founded in 1873. Both Nani & Dzia Dzia worshipped in Polish, went to Polish Catholic School (in Polish) and spoke to one another in Polish.  Although they learned some English in parochial school, Polish was more common to speak at home.
It was similar with their three sons, including my father.  They were tacitly encouraged to blend in and embrace the American identity.  Their neighborhood was still mostly Polish people with many Polish owned businesses but they spoke mostly English on the playground and in high school.   Outside of their little ghetto they only spoke English, dressed like Americans, and dated non-Polish women.  By the time they finished public high school, they had somehow become “more” than just Polish, they were white people.

Even though I lived on that block on the East Side until I was 10, I had a more “American” experience than previous generations on that side of the family.  I didn’t go to Polish school, Polish mass, or speak Polish beyond a few funny words to the old ladies.  It had only taken two generations for my brothers and I to have our primary identity become American, rather than Polish people living in the US.

re: definition

Great day with the family, working in the yard and the house.   I am constantly surprised by how wonderful it is to increase the definition of different areas.  When my yard bleeds into one blob, it feels chaotic to be out there.

I get something inside when there are boundaries in the garden.  Different areas for different things.  Places where you don’t walk.  Weeds pulled up and other junk that collects between plants.  It feels so tranquil.

This is not my first post about such things.  But it is the first post about yard work when I thought of a song-not a ton of connection beyond me stealing the title.  This is a great video, too.

Cop:  [To Hi-Tek] “are you deaf?”

Tek:  “nah, he’s Def.”

Mos Def:  “he’s Hi-Tek.”

end of semester, beginning of…

Lots of things coming to a good end lately:

The 2007 Frankford renovation.

The college semester (one more assignment and final).

Lots of good things beginning:

Wed night baseball

Shalom House Festival (May 13, 6:30pm at 2007 Frankford)

The Discerning Team has met twice about the next church plant.

Composting in the backyard, getting ready for our little garden (Japanese cukes, cilantro, some flowers already going)

I also managed to sprain my ankle during the first inning of the first game of the year.  I go to a specialist tomorrow to see how bad the damage is.  Today was the first day that the swelling went down, that’s encouraging.

Happy Dyngus Day!

With more polish people than usual in tow, we got to celebrate Easter with some fun traditions.  We at our usual breakfast meal on Saturday night (this time)… Barscz (famous soup), fresh kielbasa, fresh pierogi, hard boiled egg, gawumpki, cabbage & onions, horseradish, rye bread, and butter lamb.

Today is I think only the 2nd annual Dyngus Day parade in Buffalo.   Most of it happens in my old neighborhood.

Throw some water on someone today as a blessing for the year.