Faith In Brooklyn for January 11: Cobble Hill honors Fr. Ron Lau as fabric of the neighborhood
The Very Rev. Ronald T. Lau, rector of the historic Christ Church Cobble Hill, was honored on Sunday during a Solemn Choral Evensong for the Christian feast of the Epiphany. The liturgy, hosted at nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Carroll Gardens, also contained a rite for the Ending of the Pastoral Relationship Between Rector and Parish, a service customarily used at the time that rectors in the Episcopal Church retire from their active ministries.
Parishioners of Christ Church Cobble Hill and leaders and members of the wider Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill neighborhoods offered testimony on Sunday that covered the 19 ½ years that Fr. Lau has served the church and wider community. They commended him for his determination in rebuilding the parish’s finances and membership after a series of interim clergy, and for his tenacity in staying present during crises and tragedies such as the extensive damage from the lightning strike of July 26, 2012 — that made headline news around the U.S.
Fr. Lau first arrived at Christ Church Cobble Hill in June 1999 and was installed as the vicar of this parish about five months later, on Oct. 9. He was later appointed dean of a geographic area of parishes within the Archdeaconry of Brooklyn. On May 15, 2011, Bishop Provenzano inducted and invested Lau as rector of Christ Church, a move that gave both him and the congregation more privileges and responsibilities to function as partners in ministry.
Longtime Cobble Hill resident Joanne Nicholas said during the service, “Living in Brooklyn—also called the borough of churches—my experience has been that the majority of the clergy have enough of a responsibility focusing on their own congregations. But we were lucky in Cobble Hill. When The Very Reverend Ronald Lau became Vicar of Christ Church in 1999, he broadened what church traditionally does by also ministering to the community.
“If you ask Ron how he was so good at knowing what the people in Cobble Hill wanted, he’d likely say, ‘I asked them!’
“Ron visited the businesses on Court Street and Smith Street to introduce himself to merchants and patrons. He became quite adept at the Brooklyn art of schmoozing which he later combined with another Brooklyn tradition, stoop sitting. Ron could often be found on the Rectory stoop at 326 Clinton St. He found it a perfect place to meet, greet and perhaps do a needs assessment.
“He quickly learned that people were upset his predecessor had closed a beloved nursery school, a fixture in the community for almost 20 years. So, Ron started the Linden Tree Preschool and The Neighborhood Playspace to serve the community’s growing population of children under 5.”
Ms. Nicholas continued, “Ron worked with many community groups. He helped organize and actively participate in the Clinton Street Block Association’s annual block party, recently hosting the movies for children in the church garden. Also, in the garden were the annual July 4 and Labor Day barbecues — free and open to all. The atmosphere was welcoming.”
“Ron also formed partnerships with other groups to provide cultural and educational outreach. In appreciation of his years of support, The Vertical Opera Repertory Company, The Cobble Hill Ballet School, and The Young Actor’s Workshop held “A Variety Show in Honor of Father Lau” on Dec. 29 “to celebrate Father Ron Lau who has been so exceptional to artists and young people.” In an email from London, the head of the Ballet School said her school grew from 1 class with 2 students to 100 classes with 600 students.”
Ms. Nicholas added a personal note “for his leadership after the tragedy of the lightning strike when all the church buildings and grounds were closed by the city. Ron went into crisis control mode to create a temporary normalcy. He arranged with Kane Street Synagogue for Christ Church to hold services in their building. He found a home for the nursery school at Sacred Hearts Church. He worked with the neighbors to host a fundraiser at Plymouth Church and persevered with the wardens, the vestry and the diocese to get some repairs done.”
Cobble Hill resident and architect Ben Baxt, addressing his remarks directly to Fr. Lau, said, “Before you arrived 20 years ago, Christ Church was insular — aloof — the neighborhood was not acquainted with the clergy or parishioners. Most of us had never set foot in Christ Church, except perhaps for an occasional architectural tour organized by an outside group. When you arrived, there was a dramatic turnaround. You made the facilities available for education and civic occasions and community use. Now, almost everyone in the neighborhood has been in the Christ Church complex for some reason.”
Baxt continued, “Aside from opening the facilities and joining in our street life, you initiated and hosted a number of barbecues every year. We celebrated festivals together. You became a major player and planner for the block party. We gardened and pruned trees together. They were holiday fairs. We shared culture — opera, dance, movies, book and history talks. You shopped for us — cooked for us — and hosted meals in the rectory.
“In the process Christ Church parishioners and Cobble Hill wove themselves together as a community,” said Baxt. “Along the way, the Anglican church was introduced to many who would never have known it otherwise. Many in Cobble Hill have been blessed by your ministry. You married some. Officiated at funerals. We grieved with you on the death of your mother. We have celebrated births. You have blessed our pets. I think a lot of the neighborhood considers you their priest. That’s why there was such a huge outpouring of generosity when the lightning struck Christ Church in 2012. We wanted to bring our Christ Church family back home. And that commitment and affection is still strong.”
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