Morgan Powell lived for Bronx history. He spoke about everything from the borough’s parks, rivers and early settlers — the kind of people for whom streets and neighborhoods are named — to the waves of African-American and Latino immigrants who remade the area during the 20th century.
He paid the bills — as best as he could — working as a landscaper and gardener. But he sustained his spirit with his love of Bronx history and his advocacy for the natural environment. He did his research on his own, sharing his knowledge and passion on blogs and free tours….
Now Ms. Martell and her friends are struggling to find the most basic of connections to Mr. Powell — his next of kin. His body was discovered floating in the Erie Basin, off Red Hook, Brooklyn, on Sept. 29. The New York City medical examiner’s office is investigating the cause of his death. People are devastated and confused: How could a man devoted to uncovering the hidden history of the Bronx have concealed his own past? Worse, would he now be fated to a pauper’s unmarked grave?
“When it came to his family life, there were all these questions I never asked,” Ms. Martell said. “Now I wonder, was I a good friend? I didn’t even know his family. I’ve talked to people who knew him longer, but nobody knew his family.”
Mr. Powell, 40, lived on Allerton Avenue, not far from the tree-shaded paths along Bronx Park East and the Bronx River. He had grown up in the area, attended Christopher Columbus High School (where he was known by his given name, Kristopher) and eventually became interested in horticulture through a program at the nearby New York Botanical Garden. Ms. Martell said his interest in history was piqued by a plaque he had spotted at the garden that referred to Joseph Rodman Drake, a poet and a member of a prominent early Bronx family.
Mr. Powell threw himself into the study of local history, combining it with his love of nature. In time, he developed walking tours that explored both the environment and the borough’s African-American past, which he detailed on his Bronx River Sankofa blog.
“He was an independent scholar who did this on his own, without any grants,” said Mark Naison, a history professor at Fordham University . . . “He did incredible research and published work. I have never seen anything quite like it.”
Last year, Mr. Powell stunned Mr. Naison by donating his archives to Fordham.
“It was like this phase of his life was coming to an end,” the professor recalled. “He said something about maybe moving south and wanting to make sure this material was preserved. It was a pretty heavy thing to do.”
Mr. Powell had told some friends that his mother immigrated to New York from Jamaica and raised him along with two sisters who now lived in either Maryland or the Carolinas. Last year he told an acquaintance that he had had little contact with any family members after he came out as a gay man.
“They rejected him and disinherited him,” Ben Stock, a gay rights advocate, said. “Parental rejections are extraordinarily painful. Your sense of home is gone. What more can they take away?”
To his friends, Mr. Powell was intelligent, confident and unashamed of being gay. Active on social media, he lamented last month on Facebook about the lack of a support group for closeted black men in the Bronx. It was one cause, he told friends, on which he would not take the lead. Near the end of September, he told a colleague at the garden center where he worked that he had to “go away on family business” and that if he did not return by Oct. 2, he would never be back.
“When we found out he was dead, we all kept going back to that Facebook post, wondering if there was something there,” said Ed Garcia Conde, a blogger who had published Mr. Powell’s writing on environmental and historical topics. “It was so out of character for him.”
Scores of people who knew Mr. Powell have been contacted. Still, no relatives have surfaced yet. Ms. Martell insisted that if no one emerged to claim his body, she and her friends would…
“Potter’s field cannot happen,” Ms. Martell said, her voice breaking. “He spoke a lot about potter’s field and not having access. How people would be forgotten. That would be a slap in the face if that happened to him. This guy who did so much, to be buried where nobody can see him? If no family comes, we will bury him.”
There are a lot of people who say: “See, this is what being gay leads to.” And they miss the point. Maybe the story grabs me because of Powell’s love for history but here is a man with a High School education whose intelligence and sense of purpose made him a serious scholar who could make an exceptional contribution to his community’s knowledge and self-understanding, not as an academic in an ivory tower but as a person who did manual work to support himself while he did serious research and publication. Maybe his story grabs me because of my own career in teaching, but here is a man who loved books and knowledge and learning for its own sake and for the ability to open the eyes of his neighbors to learn things about themselves that they had never yet known. And here, finally, is a man whose gifts have been lost, indeed whose life has been lost, because he was left isolated and rejected and without the support of those nearest to him. I don’t know if Mr. Powell was Catholic or not, and I am not saying that we as a Church failed him. But we do fail the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters when we fail to be the sort of family of God to which and in which all are welcomed without condition. Morgan Powell’s story is what happens in a society that leaves people isolated because of their sexual orientation or gender identification and we as a Church cannot be part of that isolation. To be part of system that perpetuates the sort of prejudice that left Morgan Powell bereft of the love and support of his family, or as feeling alien and alone within one’s social network, is as seriously wrong, if not more so, than any sin of sexual behavior of which we humans can be found guilty. We as a Church profess to decry any discrimination against people because of sexual orientation, but when “the rubber hits the road” we too often find ourselves part of the problem and not of the solution.
The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops had proposed the following statement about the Church’s relationship with men and women who have same-sex attraction.
Paragraph 55: “Some families live the experience of having persons with a homosexual orientation. In that regard it was asked what pastoral attention is appropriate facing this situation, referring to what the church teaches: ‘There does not exist any basis for assimilating or making analogies, however remote, between homosexual unions and the design of God for marriage and the family.’ Nonetheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and delicacy. ‘In their regard, every trace of unjust discrimination is to be avoided.’ (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Considerations regarding Projects of Legal Recognition of Unions among Homosexual Persons,’ 4).”
The proposed paragraph was not a particularly challenging statement. In fact it passed with a majority of 118 votes with 62 votes against. That means that while a majority of bishops favored it, it was not included in the final statement because it did not obtain the ⅔ majority needed for consensus. Moreover, several of the negative votes were from bishops who considered the statement to have been too watered down in asserting a welcome place in the Church for gays and lesbians. Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, was one of those who saw the proposed statement as a moral failure because it did not go far enough. The Cardinal expressed his disappointment that the proposed document had not used much stronger language about the need to “respect, welcome and value” people in same-sex relationships.
The interesting thing will be to see where the agenda goes from here. Pope Francis said in his closing homily Christ wanted his Church to be a “house with doors always open to welcome everyone.” This was an obvious echo of the proposed statement “men and women with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and delicacy.” Francis seems, from his homily, not to be willing to let drop either the statement on people with same-sex attraction or the need to find a way to let the divorced and remarried take a place at the Table of the Lord for the Sunday Eucharist. Over the course of the next eleven months, expect the Holy Father to return to these themes in subtle but unmistakable ways. I think we can expect to see him relying less and less on Cardinal Kasper and others to get the message out and to see him take a more direct (though implicit) role in shaping the discourse. The Wednesday Audience remarks, his daily homilies, and his Sunday Angelus messages will probably be the medium, though he may also use his homilies for several key feasts—such as the Sunday of the Holy Family between Christmas and New Year’s—to make observations and express hopes for the upcoming Ordinary Synod in 2015. I think we will also see some reshuffling of the deck before the next synod. Cardinal Burke has already confirmed that he is on his way out of a Curial position that would guarantee him a seat at the Synod, although the Pope could, in theory, appoint him to the Synod. It will be interesting to see what happens. And pray for Pope Francis himself, not only that God will guide him through this process, but that God will protect him and give him the health to see it through. There is a lot riding on that papal horse.