Tom || Lancaster, Pa.
A curator talks about the importance of statues, the meaning of hospitality, and the good in having a good time.
The front porch comes into its element in spring and early fall, when the Franklin & Marshall students return from break and Lancaster is flush with its best seasonal beauty. Right now, though, its aspect is a little bleak. The vintage patio chairs about to ice over. The potted plants gone lank.
But the cold outside makes the inside, past the bottleneck entryway, even more vibrant than when I was here in summer. The walls are the color of farm butter. A big dog and a small dog run arabesques around each other and the table legs and the legs of whoever walks in. There are books everywhere, stacked orderly but with an exuberant threat of chaos impending from sheer abundance.
A sofa of venerable age takes up most of the front room. On the wall, over a small desk shoehorned into the corner, hangs a woodcut print of Johnny Cash. A penumbration around his head, pointed out to me, indicates him as "Saint Johnny." More icons like this are spread among the rooms--Saint Clive, Saint Bono.
This is the Row House, and most people find it the way I did: by hearing about it from a regular. My friend Katie mentioned it to me, long ago, in passing; I met her sister Eliza by chance in Lancaster, when I was staying there last summer, and she invited me to bring my work over to a three-story brick home two units down from the corner of Lemon Street, facing the planetarium on College Avenue.
It's here that Tom, Katie and Eliza's father, has been quietly reinventing the salon for the 21st century.
Lancaster's rowhouses have been around nearly as long as the architectural style itself. Just after Philadelphia adopted the building format in the early 1800s, Lancaster's industrial boom brought a spate of high-efficiency construction, transforming the bucolic town into a thriving city center.
The special properties of this rowhouse (that warrant special spelling of its name) imbue it with a history beyond its years. But that's only been for the past fifteen years, since Tom moved in with his books, his well-worn furniture, and his habit of cultivating modern thought with ancient faith.
It's hard to pin down where that indelible vibe comes from. It could be from the faded fustian grandeur of the Persian carpets. It could come from the dining room table, which is extended as far as the room will allow to accommodate discussion groups and workshops, its scars and stains suggesting the impact of fists, writing of novels, and tears shed over beautiful music.
At this table, last summer, I wrote three articles, and then conducted a nerve-wracking interview with a famous musician--all in an afternoon, and all despite the the heat, the hypnotic influence of black-eyed susans nodding against the window, and the heaviness in my stomach of the best spaghetti I'd ever had, which Chloe the intern brought back from her side job at Delgiorno's in Lancaster's Central Market.
Wherever it comes from, that sense of history…more than history, of lineage…is at once comforting and uplifting. Sort of like being in the presence of a favorite college professor, it's an atmosphere both eminently respectable and affectionately familiar. It makes you feel both lofty and safe in your attempts at art, theology, and other forms of genius.
This is how the Row House feels. What it is constitutes a thorny question even for its founder. He's been working particularly hard for the last few months on communicating its essence, and the effort breaks the thoughtful cool of his demeanor. He asks me to take a crack on defining it, first.
"Please--this is really important to me. I know what I'm doing, I know what we offer, but how to explain it is harder, because I'm genre-bending here."
I tell him it strikes me as a less haughty version of Gertrude Stein's salon. By pulling together workshops, discussion groups, concerts and shows, it creates an environment for upbuilding cultural consumption. At least one goal, it seems to me, is to fight against the inhibiting forces of criticism by motivating the making of new artistic and academic work.
Knowing Tom for a few minutes means knowing that the Row House is operated on Christian principles. But that doesn't appear to make it a Christian institution--not in the usual sense, anyway. Rather than using an interest in beauty and aesthetics to push the message of Christianity, the Row House does it the other way around. It's because of their Christianity that the folks behind the Row House are interested in spending so much time talking about beauty. Christianity isn't the fruit; it's the pot it's planted in.
"That's cool," Tom says, sounding like a gallery owner approving the work of a new painter.
As with any creative type, the nature of Tom's work seems obvious to him. It's something he's been working at, all his adult life--creating meaningful reasons for people to get together and have a good time.
But good times, for their own sake, are a hard sell in the evangelical niche. Especially if you're following the traditional method of raising support: a slide show of Bible study and church services, followed with passing a hat for "love offerings."
Tom's not interested in that method of raising support, anyway. He did it for twenty years, while on staff with a college ministry.
"I don't want to go back to that sob story. I don't want to be that guy that's 50 years old, asking for money."
And anyway, the Row House isn't a Bible study venue--which, in widespread church parlance, means it's not really a ministry.
The lack of definition for the Row House leads to a more personal quandary for Tom--what does that make him? He can't afford to let the question dangle in existential limbo--selling the Row House pretty well depends on selling himself.
"I tend to say I'm a pastor, I'm involved with outreach to the city. But that's not exactly who I am; I don't get paid as a pastor. I'm trying to figure out what I am."
Tom looks as little like a pastor as it's possible to look, these days. He's neither the kindly ecumenical conservative of the last few decades, nor the flannel-shirted, Greek-tattooed urban lumberjack prevalent among the new church. His look—a well-cut black blazer, his silver hair is combed meticulously off his prominent forehead, and dime-sized horn-rimmed lenses balance atop his thorny cheekbones—resembles nothing so much as a German art dealer.
He told Tom, “You're a curator.”
Tom's voice warms with satisfaction, remembering it.
"You know what, that's exactly what I do. But again, to people like my parents, they don't know what that is. So I mostly say I write and speak in regard to the intersection of faith and culture, and I'm a pastor part time."
He lifts his hands, and lets them drop with a clap on his knees.
"Is that even who I am? It's hard to explain. I don't want to be pigeonholed, anyway. But for the sake of raising money and getting people on board, it's kind of important."
It's more important right now than ever, because he's in the midst of a fundraising campaign next year. He calls it Winter Planting; the goal is $10,000 by the end of the year. It's the kind of thing that brings both joy and stress; it weighs on his mind, how to get it done. He presses a couple of flyers on me, along with a copy of the quarterly journal the Row House produces, and urges me to watch the promotional video he just made. Things like that have been the upside—the emergence of filmmakers, graphic designers and other experts who believe in the Row House and are putting the time into establishing it with him.
He talks about the campaign with an air of diffidence, but his mile-a-minute speech pattern betrays an exuberance that his frequent glances toward the corner of the ceiling can't quite deflect. It's an excitement he seems to be trying to measure, in acknowledgment that he's striking into unmapped zones of ministry.
An entrepreneur by nature, Tom would rather do something "more social media-based, more in tune with the times." He's thinking along the lines of a public radio model, only instead of getting a mug—he stops, considering, "I could do mugs"--the giveback would be online content, subscriptions to the journal, free tickets to concerts. He wants the kind of people who support him for the same reason he supports Radio Paradise:
"I get something out of it, I'm part of it. That's the crowd I'm trying to build. My excitement is high...”
Here, his eyes flick away to a corner of the ceiling.
"...but my expectation is low. Because…I don't know…$10,000 on one hand isn't very much, but for me, it's a lot."
In 1999, Tom took his wife and five kids (aged 12 years to three months) to a retreat called L'Abri in Hampshire, England. The word, he tells me, means "shelter," and after ten weeks of lectures, discussion groups, arts, and community cultivation, "shelter" was the principal idea he came away with.
That kind of shelter shouldn't be limited to retreats, he asserts. Much as he loved being out in the country, he and his family came back to the US determined to create that same atmosphere within their community.
The key, Tom says, is hospitality. I'd ask him to define that, if I hadn't spent time in the Row House already. It's something way beyond guest privilege. There's a feeling in it of understanding for your limitations, and expectation of no less than all the greatness you're not sure you possess. It makes you feel as if this is a place where you could fit in, no matter how sharp your edges; that you're not going to damage anything by saying or doing the wrong thing; that you'll always find both someone to argue with you and someone to support you. (Possibly even the same person; possibly Tom himself.)
"Someone can come in who's not a Christian, and have time to disagree. They have time to be themselves. They have time to be known and know people in the context of community."
Part of what makes that possible is, maybe surprisingly, the frankness with which Tom owns his own beliefs--he's a staunch descendant of the Dutch Reformed school. But his frankness is not a ministerial position; it's just a conduit for the real ministry.
“If we think this theology is the basic teaching of the Bible, then we should be confident it can stand on its own. If God's in it, he can defend himself. We just do our thing and God's going to be fine. We can be confident and winsome…and, I would add, whimsical."
The bulletin board, pinned with flyers and brochures from a year's worth of Row House, is proof of this. Ponderous titles like “Exploitation, Anarchy and God's Ecology” are paired with 1950s comic book-style illustrations and Star Trek typefaces. Their barely-hanging-on abundance is testament of Tom's assertion:
"Spectacles, events, gathering people—that's something I could do in my sleep.”
After returning from L'Abri, in 2000, Tom and a designer friend started hosting get-togethers at a Borders bookshop in Lancaster. His friend would play a Rachmaninoff piece; Tom would give a talk or host a discussion panel; people showed up to participate, proving Tom's belief that this kind of community was deeply desired in his neighborhood.
But the structural support wasn't. However, Tom doesn't finger the church for this. It's more a symptom of middle-class America, he says, to not place a high value on daily interaction with people; their focus is more on getting stuff done.
He refers unflinchingly to the Row House as a luxury, much like a statue in a city square:
"Statues are more important in times of war, than food, in some ways. At the same time, I can't say I'm putting clothes on kids' backs. I deal in intangible things. It's a different sell.”
So, for its first years, the "shelter" for ideas and community presence was fostered within the Becker household. Tom worked in campus ministry, taught high school, took the occasional speaking engagement, and raised his family inviting people into hospitality.
Then something happened--something Tom doesn't really want to go into. A series of unfortunate events kicked him into a panic attack/depression period, the likes of which he'd never experienced and, not being a moody guy, didn't know how to handle.
"I was just exhausted professionally, beating my head against the wall, not getting jobs, getting shuffled out of jobs. It was really bad. And I have a family to support--I'm like, 'What the heck am I supposed to do now?' I just crashed.
"I realized I have to do something with all this angst and creative energy, and I have to do something that's germane to who I am, and I have to create a job that nobody can fire me from."
(Not, he quickly adds, that he was fired before.)
"I was delivered out of that dark time--"
He interrupts himself, half apologizing:
"I have to testify here--it's a God thing, in the sense that he really rescued me. I think of the psalmist--this poor man cried out to the Lord and he delivered him.
"Kind of like a phoenix, God just sort of burned everything down, and what came up was the Row House."
He doesn't say this, but I can't imagine he hasn't thought it: that the rescue might not have just been from the depression. How many of us have the courage to strike out and do something on our own, something we know we're made to do? How few of us will actually find a use for all the tools in our native toolbox, and carve out a niche for ourselves with them?
Indeed, Tom is hesitant to say "Go for it" to the average young entrepreneur.
"You can't live on a dream if it's not sustainable.”
The advice-giving momentum gathers, and his pastoral side starts to show.
“I would just say to someone, if they have an idea, they need to write it down--a mission statement, some thoughts--and share it with a few people. If they don't have a day job, they darn well better get one. Just work, work, pay your bills, pay down your debt, be practical, be smart, and in your spare time, do what you can do."
He rolls to an unwonted stop.
"What am I doing…giving advice on being an entrepreneur? What do I know? That's just my story.”
Money is important, he says, but it's only one kind of asset. Equally to be considered is experience, which many great idea people don't have, especially in their twenties.
"I think you've got to be faithful with what you have. For me, it was campus ministry. All those years, it was a gig. I couldn't say it was my passion. I was very anxious being on campus. There were a lot of things I didn't do well, a lot of things I screwed up. But I just kept at it. For twenty years!"
He tried hard to like it, he remembers, to convince himself that it was a great thing to do, that it was spiritually focused and that made it the right thing for him.
"I felt bad even wondering if I should do it…afraid to not do, it because it was this pastoral thing. The last campus ministry job I had, I felt like, 'This is just not my thing. I'm not getting enough creative opportunities. I'm teaching the same things year after year.'
"But I had to do those things to be where I am now. If I would have started this 18 years ago, when I wanted to, it would have been a miserable disaster. I don't know what I would be doing now.”
Another necessary asset is support—relational, almost more than financial. Tom says if he didn't have his family, friends and church confirming his work, he wouldn't do it.
"Everybody in my family, from my kids to my wife to my parents, say this is perfect for me, keep going, don't give up."
But the fact that it's so germane to him is sometimes what gives him pause. Asking people to believe in the Row House is more or less asking them to believe in him.
"Super cool guys," he says, "who are taking the world by storm. They're leading with excellence, beauty, truth and community. I went in there and asked them for a corporate donation. They love what I do, they understand what I'm trying to do. Those are the kind of partnerships I've got to build."
Tom is emphatically against the Row House getting painted with the brush of church backlash.
“I love the church. It's stupid half the time, it's full of people I don't like, it's goofy, but I'm part of it. I'm not starting this thing to upend the church. I'm doing this because it's fun."
"I sort of feel like what I do is serving the church by leading it into cultural engagement, having a good time, and being an open door for people who want to investigate the faith."
He starts to laugh.
"My ambitions are pretty high. Wow."
Tom has found that in Lancaster County, the church and non-church cultures are entirely distinct. There might be crossover, in terms of attendance, but there's really no conversation between the two worlds. One of the principal obstacles is language: the “thin evangelicalism,” as he calls it, of the general church culture, speaks in a kind of sacred shorthand that is instantly recognizable to everyone, and understandable to only a few. You know from the minute you walk in that there's going to be a certain kind of music that isn't really about the music; there's probably not beer, but if there were, it's not there just to be enjoyed.
Events in this context are ministry, first and foremost, and ministry means savings souls. That's why even the alt-ministry method of "pop-up churches," social justice rallies and concerts self-consciously free of message, seem to irritate Tom even more than straight evangelicalism.
“I think Christians who are trying real hard to be 'relevant,' and cool, and nontraditional…”
He shakes his head in faint disgust.
“They can't appreciate history, for one thing. And they're really disingenuous on another level. And”--he delivers his greatest indictment--“they don't know how to have fun.”
The Row House, he says, is meant as a halfway house, both for those outside the faith and those within it. It facilitates enjoying things in common, and encourages them to converse about it openly with each other. It's having sacred enjoyment in secular things and people that makes it effective…and, at the same time, that disqualifies it as a "ministry." Like, for example, the ceilidh they hosted last year at the Elks' Lodge.
Normally, I try to be like Tom in keeping the church chip off my shoulder. But this mention of a ceilidh makes it grow back. It puts me in mind of the summer trip I took to Scotland ten years ago, to help a Christian college group with serving the homeless in Edinburgh's city center. At the end of the ten days, we put on a ceilidh in a church gymnasium. There were church kids, street kids, people of all ages, employed and unemployed, the Americans laughing at the kilts and the Scots laughing at our lack of coordination.
To me, the party felt like a natural extension of the soup kitchen we'd been hosting in the basement of Blackfriars. It certainly felt more like do-gooding than any street evangelism or prayer walks. And when I think of all the short-lived spiritual revivals I've experienced in my life, thanks to youth rallies and camp chapel meetings, it pisses me off that you couldn't pass a hat in a church to get money for an event that engenders real love, joy and all the rest of it among people who would normally be suspicious of each other.
Tom tries to placate me. Maybe, he allows, some of the more progressive churches these days would consider what he does worthy to be called missions.
"I'm just saying, I think the most significant thing the Row House does in Lancaster is create in a Christ-centered way without being overt about that, but not being shy about it. Everything's Christ-centered, but we provide a great time."
"Plus, sometimes Christians, who are really earnest people…the church culture's just kind of boring."
A shrug of obliged apology creeps into his statement.
"I mean, we put on a great show. When we have a party, we have drinking, dancing breaks out. Everything we do is fun. Anything we do has to be a good time, or I'm not going to be there.”
As a curator, though, Tom defines a good time in terms of actual goodness. It's on the grounds of "goodness" that he turns down a lot of offers of local bands to play.
"God bless them, I hope they keep persevering, but I need people to know when they come to a Row House show, it's going to blow them away. And, somehow, all our shows have ben awesome about that. It's probably because I'm a stickler about that."
The bar for Row House shows was set back in 2005 by Josh Garrels, a folk singer then little-known and from Indiana, whom Tom first saw perform at Illinois' Cornerstone Music and Arts Festival.
"The first time I saw him I just fell down, literally just sat on the grass, and was like 'I've got to tell my family about this kid.' That was in 2004; the next year we had him in concert; we had him again in 2010. He's a significant artist--indie music, social media, the way he runs it. And the testimony is there, but it fits with who he is."
Those are the elements of public theology, Tom says, and what mark an artist as thoroughly Christian. He guarantees,
"Christians are doing the work, and doing it well."
The problem for those doing it well, of course, becomes the possibility that doing it well is keeping them from being Christian enough. That's another thing the Row House exists to fix.
"If their testimony or message is shaky, that's okay--maybe we can help them out. But we give them a shot, because they're damn good at what they do. If they want to share the gospel, great, do it, but it should be germane to what's happening."
Like, he says, the hippie evangelist-turned-blues guitarist Glenn Kaiser, who broke up his set at the Elks Lodge (when) with bouts of revival tent-style preaching.
"I'm getting chills just thinking about it."
The reason it worked was that it belonged to Kaiser's style. In the same vein is Timbre, a Lancaster native returning to play a Row House concert next month. People leave her shows, Tom says, wondering what just happened to them.
That, he insists, is what marks a work as Christian work--that people leave having experienced something good, even if they don't know what it was.
"As Christians, whether you run a magazine or play jazz music or run a construction company, you do it unto God for the common good, for everybody's benefit. Just like God's mercy is shed abroad without any discrimination, through the sun and through the rain. Jesus says that's what holiness is. He says be holy as your heavenly father is holy or perfect, in this way--for the common good. You'd do better to just shut up and not share your message, if you're not going to do it excellently for the common good."
Assuming the Winter Planting brings in what they need, great things are in store for the Row House. It's these things that cause Tom's anticipatory hustle when he talks; they also can keep him awake at night, sometimes.
"I don't have anxiety chronically," he assures me. "That's behind me and I never have to go through it again, because one, I know I can get through it, if it happens. But two, I'm doing what I love. I just gotta figure out how to make it work.
"That makes me anxious, week to week. Somedays I'm like 'This is awesome, people love the Row House, it's a cool thing, and I've got money coming in.' There's other days I'm like 'There's no money, how is this going to work?' But I'm just psyched now. Just moving ahead."
In the same breath, he admits to a certain amount of jealousy of those people who seem to breeze through efforts, be it ministry or artistic, without any resistance whatever. Even some of the kids who come through the Row House, the musicians and artists, sometimes cause a certain amount of resentment in that vein, especially those with super supportive church families behind them.
"I hit my head against the wall with everything I tried to do, so I was forced to make my dream job my day job right from the start, and with no money...I couldn't even take a loan out. I was just cut adrift!"
The spark in his voice subsides, cooled by an upward look and a sigh.
"Everything I read about businesses is it always takes more money and longer than they think it's going to."
The Row House he expected to take about five years to establish.
"I'll give it another two years, then I might need to take another day job."
His eyes flick upward.
"I hope not."
It helps to know that he's not the only one in that position. His frequent speaking engagements bring him into contact with people in Bakersfield, Chicago, and other places, where visionaries with no money are trying to do cool stuff that can't quite be contained within the ministry box. Tom envisions having a foundation, one of these days, to gather support among organizations like his own and help them get off the ground. He thinks of hosting a summer festival--"I've always wanted to have a festival!"--anchored by a few nationally known bands.
"...With a lot of local stuff. A dance party! And a bonfire! And camping, for those who are in the know."
He turns to his intern, who is working over one of the big scars in the dining room table.
"We're going to pack it in. We're going to change the world, Chloe."
"We're already changing the world," she says, with a dry tone and a game smile.
He nods, spirit undampened.
"We're going to change all the changes we've made. Under one change."