Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rev. Steve Eason: Time to leave, teach other clergy what he's learned in Charlotte

Scandal. Burnout. Illness. Division.

Those are the reasons you hear most these days when a senior pastor exits a big church before reaching retirement age.

But the Rev. Steve Eason says his decision to leave Myers Park Presbyterian Church next April is a “good news story.”

“No hidden agenda,” Eason, 60, told me after emailing his decision to the church’s 4,700 members this week. “Nothing is wrong here at the church. It’s not a story of burnout. This change is coming out of a position of strength and gratitude.”

After 12 years of leading one of Charlotte’s most prominent – and most generous – churches, Eason said he’s being called to take what he’s learned and share it with other clergy.

As director of consulting services with Atlanta-based Macedonian Ministries, he’ll teach, coach and organize workshops for ministers of various denominations.

It’s a group that desperately needs more support in an age when men and women of the cloth are called on to be there 24/7 for others.

“We’re in a situation where clergy are dropping out of this profession at an alarming rate,” Eason said. “Or not going into it at all.”

So Eason will try to pass along to his next flock – a group ranging from Catholic priests to Pentecostal preachers – what he’s learned about preaching, empowering lay people and more.

He’ll take his leave from a Charlotte house of worship that’s now the biggest Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) church in North Carolina and the fourth largest in the country. 

It’s one that’s blessed with enviable demographics: The largest age group at Myers Park Presbyterian, Eason said, is those between 30 and 40. That means young families with kids – a good predictor of growth into the future.

And it has deep pockets: members include developer Johnny Harris, former Bank of America CFO (and now top Carlyle Group executive) Jim Hance, and the Belks, the department store family.

But it’s also a church that gives in a big way: Under Eason’s leadership, it completed a $30 million capital campaign, then spent $11 million on everything from affordable housing in Grier Heights, a low-income neighborhood in Charlotte, to clean water projects in Malawi and the Congo.

“It’s a great witness for a church to make in this culture,” Eason said. “We didn’t raise that to spend it all on ourselves. I’m proud how mission-minded this church is.”

Eason also likes how Myers Park Presbyterian has weathered the intra-denominational battle over ordaining gays and lesbians – a change that prompted some big conservative churches to leave the PC (USA).

“We have conservatives, moderates and liberals, and they all end up together at the Communion table,” he said of his Charlotte church. “We disagree on things, but we don’t fragment and fight. … My job has been to not polarize the congregation.”

Eason will be around for seven more months, long enough, he said, to pastor his Charlotte flock through one more Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.

But the grieving has begun. Eason said he’s already gotten “a flood of affirming emails.”

The good feelings are mutual. “You have taught me so much,” Eason told members, “that I now can share with others.”

I’ll leave the last words to evangelist-author Leighton Ford, who’s been attending Myers Park Presbyterian with his wife, Jean (Billy Graham’s sister) for 20-plus years.

“He’s going to be terribly missed,” Ford said. “He’s loved. And the gift he’s given us – the clear, compelling preaching of Christ – has drawn in so many people.”

-- Tim Funk

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Q&A: Jason Alexander talks 'Seinfeld,' Judaism, Charlotte, and more

He’s a Tony-winning song-and-dance man, but Jason Alexander’s main claim to fame is that he played George Costanza, Jerry Seinfeld’s balding buddy – and a poster boy for underachievers – on “Seinfeld” (1989-98). The classic TV sitcom about “nothing” also starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine and Michael Richards as the manic Kramer.

Alexander, born 55 years ago Tuesday (Sept. 23) as Jay Scott Greenspan, will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 21) at uptown’s Knight Theater. Although the show is a fundraiser for Temple Beth El and Temple Israel, two Charlotte synagogues, and the Levine Jewish Community Center, it’s open to the public.

Alexander talked this week to the Observer about a range of subjects: his one-man show, his Jewish upbringing, his last time in Charlotte, poker, magic, TV, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, of course, “Seinfeld.”

Here's the full transcript.

Q. You're bringing your one-man show to town this weekend to help Charlotte's Jewish community. Is this something you do around the country or is this a first-time thing?

A. You mean doing my show or helping Jews? (Chuckles).

Q. Well, let's take them one at a time.

A. I tend to do both, to tell you the truth. The show is a stand-up comedy/variety show that I've been doing for about a year and a half all over the place. And a lot of the time it is for things just like this -- either corporate events or organizations doing big fundraisers at a theater.

Q. It's being advertised as "An Evening with Jason Alexander . . . And His Hair." 

A. Indeed.

Q. It won't be that toupee that Elaine ripped off George's head in "Seinfeld," will it?

A. No, Elaine threw that out the window, I'm afraid. There was no recovering it.

Q. Can you give us a hint on how the hair will factor in the show?

A. You'll have to come. I mean, I can't give away the goods in the store. If you look at the poster for the show, you'll see what the hair looks like. It's rather, I've been told, dashing. It's completely bogus. Dashing and bogus, all in the same breath.

Q. You grew up in a Jewish household in New Jersey. I guess you had a bar mitzvah?

A. Yeah.

Q. Did you family take you to temple often? Were you Reform? Conservative? Orthodox?

A. We had an interesting relationship with Judaism. My parents were older than most of my peers' (parents). So they came up in the generation where households were pretty observant. Certainly culturally. The Sabbath was a factor in their lives. It was normal for them to go to Schul (synagogue).

By the time I came along, a lot of it was no longer practical for them. But they kind of went through the motions for their parents, more or less. There was a very strong cultural feeling in my family growing up -- you know, a lot of pride being Jewish, a lot of pride in the history and culture of the Jewish people. There was not a strong religious feeling. We kept a kosher house until after my bar mitzvah.

I hated Hebrew school, as most Jewish boys do. It did not speak to me. The metaphor I always use for the experience is: "They taught me to read Hebrew, but not to understand it." So, at the perfect time, I could have actually learned this language and have it become a part of my life. Instead, that opportunity was wasted for appearances, to be able to prepare me for my bar mitzvah. It was a conservative synagogue.

My bar mitzvah was, I think, more demanding than the average of what I see nowadays. And once it was over, I basically went to my folks and went, "I'm out. I'm done." I pointed out to them that, as far as I knew, the Torah did not say you could not eat the flesh of the pig and shellfish except in a Chinese restaurant, which is how we were practicing the (Jewish dietary) law.

So, at that time, my parents basically let go even of the kosher house. We weren't really observing the Sabbath. I did not go to temple every weekend. And I sort of moved away from the religious aspect of Judaism as a teenager. I put my sons through Hebrew school and they were both bar mitzvahed -- again, more for my parents. And I said to my boys as I did it, "The chain breaks with you. If you have a feeling for this and you'd like to continue the tradition, that's great. If you don't, do not do it for me."

My spirituality is certainly informed by Judaism. Of all the religions I'm aware of, I think Judaism is probably the finest. I just don't believe in organized religion. So that aspect of being a Jew doesn't particularly speak to me. Ironic, since I am coming to North Carolina in support of two very well established synagogues. I support religious Jewish communities. I think it's great. I think the people who benefit from it, I think that's great. And I think the good works that synagogues and Jewish religious communities are able to do, I think are fantastic. But the idea of being a congregant does not speak to me. That's kind of the nutshell of me and Judaism.

Q. I did notice that you gave your sons Biblical names. Gabriel and Noah, right?

A. That's only because my real name is Greenspan. So when Gabe was born, we were looking for anything that sounded good with Greenspan. And Gabe sounded pretty good. And then Gabe actually named his brother. I think his thinking was that, if the baby cries, I could put all my stuffed animals in his crib and sing the Arky Arky Noah song and maybe he won't cry. And we went, "Ah, that's as good a reason as any," (chuckles) so  we named our younger son Noah because of that.

Q. You were in the movie, "Shallow Hal," which was filmed in Charlotte, so you have been here before. Any memories? It's a much cooler town now than it back then (in 2001).

A. Oh really? It was a pretty cool town then. I actually loved being in Charlotte. We had our weekends free and I will not remember the name of the sort of gorgeous giant lake that's not far from town. But I used to go out there with a lot of members of the crew and some of the cast. Every weekend, we'd rent jet skis and WaveRunners and we'd go out on the lake and it was gorgeous.

I got to go to some Hornet games. And Poison was playing in town when I was there (laughs) and I actually hung out with those guys. The whole Charlotte experience while making that film was really terrific.

Q. Well, you know we hosted the Democratic National Convention here in 2012 and Newman -- Wayne Knight -- came. And Jerry Seinfeld was just here with his stand-up act.

A. He's very good, that Jerry Seinfeld. He might work.

Q. My readers will kill me if I don't get a few "Seinfeld" questions in.

A. Sure.

Q. You stopped filming "Seinfeld" back in 1998. Now, 16 years later, the reruns are still all over the TV. Any theories about why it's still going strong? It's part of American cultural history rather than just a TV show.

A. I know. You know, if we really understood why it is so enduring, we could probably do it again. I think all of us are relatively surprised at the size of the success of the show. Certainly when we were doing it, we couldn't believe it because we started on nobody's radar. I mean, we were barely on the air when we began. And we just kept doing what we wanted to do. And then it caught on in an unimaginable way.

And it continues to create new audiences. My older son just graduated from college, my younger one has just begun college, and it's a huge phenomenon at colleges. It's a huge show around the world in places I would never have imagined it being seen or being successful. We don't know why.

I guess, at the end of the day, all we cared about when we made the show was: "Is it funny?" We didn't really focus on character integrity or learning or growing or hugging or any of that stuff. Is it funny? And oftentimes, what was funny in one generation doesn't translate to the next. But for whatever reasons I can't understand, "Seinfeld" continues to be experienced as a very funny show from generation to generation. I assume eventually that will not be true. But, for right now, it continues to be a phenomenon.

Q. Do you watch it and, if you do, are you able to laugh at the characters? Or do you just remember the making of it?

A. I never sit down to watch it. There are times when I'm flipping channels and I come on an episode and I'll sit and watch it out. What's amazing is that I don't remember even making most of them. People come up to me all the time and go, "Remember when you did such and such?" And I look at them with my jaw agape, and go, "Did I do that?" Whenever I watch it, I am reminded of the one defining truth of those years, which was: We were having a blast. 

Q. It looked like it.

A. We really enjoyed working together. We loved doing the show. And I think that is clear in every frame of every episode, that these four idiots are having a good time.

Q. How did you see George? As a lovable loser? Or a not-so-lovable loser? What's your take on him?

A. (Chuckles). You know, very quickly in the series, I understood -- not initially, but very quickly -- that George was an alter ego for (the show's co-creator/co-writer) Larry David. And I am incredibly fond of Larry David, with all his quirks and eccentricities. I'm completely charmed by the guy. And Larry used George to kind of explore -- most of the things that happened to George on the show happened to Larry in real life. And it was his way of doing what he wanted to do at the time or saying what he wanted to say at the time.

Q. Including the masturbation contest, right?

A. Yeah, Larry was really in that. That was a real thing. So, because of my affection for Larry, I don't see George as despicable as many could legitimately see him being. Was he a loser? Yes, if you think, well, he couldn't sustain a relationship, he rarely could sustain a job. He had many character quirks that would be considered undesirable (chuckles) or unappealing or unethical. But he was aware of it and somehow he was able to persevere through all of it. So, in that way, I kind of admire the little guy.

You know, he's caught having sex with a cleaning woman in his office. And when he's called out on the carpet for it, he actually comes up with an excuse like "Is that wrong? Should I not have done that?" (Laughs). I mean, that's a brilliant way to attempt to escape the responsibility of that indiscretion. So I adore the character and, apparently, the vast majority of the audience seems to.

Q. I saw you on Charlie Rose's show talking about "Seinfeld" and you seemed incredibly different than George. How do you figure out how to play someone who's not like you? Was it on the page?

A. First of all, yes, so much of George is on the page. The page gives you: what is he doing? What is he saying? What is his response? The stuff that I brought to the character was a keen ability to observe and distill. Most of my work as an actor has been character work and I have always been a student of human behavior. I love watching people. I have notebooks full of observations about different people -- how they move, how they talk, how they communicate or try not to communicate.

If you go back and look at the early episodes, my role model was Woody Allen. And I was really doing a fairly flagrant Woody Allen imitation for the first half dozen to 10 episodes. Once I understood it was Larry, I really began to observe Larry as best I could and then bring elements of some really funny guys that I have seen over the years that you've seen, too. There's a little bit of Jackie Gleason in George, there's a little bit of Phil Silvers in George. There's a little bit of Fred Flintstone in George.

My sense of humor is a compilation of lots and lots and lots and lots of funny people that I've been exposed to. When my career started bending towards comedy -- because it was not what I set out to do -- I actually studied great comic actors and comedians to try to learn why they were so funny. And there are things that they all have in common. So, you kind of come up with a palette of colors that you can use to kind of paint a new character. So George is a real conglomeration of my observations and intuitions about Larry, colored by a whole bunch of other people I thought would flesh him out.

Q. It seems like everybody has a favorite "Seinfeld" episode? Do you?

A. Not a favorite. They all had something going on, either in front of the camera or behind the camera, that made them special.

I think if you ask the four of us, was there one that kind of turned our fortunes around, it would be the masturbation contest. We were really just hanging on by a thread the first two seasons. That episode came around in season 3 in a very challenging spot. NBC finally put us on after "Cheers," which was the No. 1 comedy in television at the time. And if you didn't hold the "Cheers" audience, you were very quickly going to be taken off the air. We knew it was a sink-or-swim situation.

I think that was our third or fourth episode airing in that slot and it just destroyed the "Cheers" audience. We started at the same number that "Cheers" had. And by the time that episode was over, we had built on that audience. Because people were calling their friends and going, "You've got to turn this on. They're doing a show on masturbation." And our fortunes were rock solid from that point on.

So I think we point to that one as a really pivotal show, and it was a great one and we loved doing it. But I don't know if it was our favorite. I don't think we have one.

Q. You told Charlie Rose that the four of you on "Seinfeld" will always be like the Four Musketeers -- when somebody thinks of one, they'll think of the others. Are you all still in touch? Do you get together ever?

A. First, I have to give credit where credit's do. That was Jerry's line. Before we would tape any episode, we'd be behind the set and would do this silly thing called the Circle of Power, which was really nothing. We'd kind of huddle up and wish each other luck. And on the last episode, Jerry made that comment. He said, "You know, for the rest of our lives, if anybody thinks of one of us, they will think of all four of us. And I could not have wished for three people that I'd rather have that be true of." It was an extraordinary statement, especially from Jerry cause Jerry is not known for his sentimentality (Laughs). So it was a huge thing for him to say and it really struck us all.
You know, the interesting thing about the four of us is: we were great work friends. We loved coming to work, we loved seeing each other, we loved playing with each other, and we enjoyed each other thoroughly. We never, in the nine years that we worked together, really had a habit of being social friends. At the end of the work day, Jerry would go back to the writers' room, Michael would go back to Mars or wherever, and Julia and I had families. Our children are almost the exact same age and we wanted to get home and be moms and dads. And we had other jobs.

So we never really shot a show on a Friday night and said, "Hey, let's have dinner tomorrow." So when the show ended, we had no history of being social friends. And we all kind of went very different ways. Jerry and Michael went to New York for a long time. I had a show, Julia had a show. We were doing different things. So we don't see each other all that much.

But I've had several lunches and dinners with Julia. We email each other when things are happening. I've asked Jerry a dozen times to help me out on something, do a benefit for something, join me in a project. Every time it's a yes. He's done the same thing with me, the same thing with Michael. When we see each other, it's always like no time has passed. The bond has not diminished at all. There's no sense of "Oh, Julia, you've won a thousand Emmys." (Laughs). It's us, the four of us. And that's a lovely feeling. But, no, you would not look at our day-to-day communication and think, "These guys are really close friends,"

Q. TV is hot now. Big actors are doing things for HBO and other cable channels. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a hit with "Veep." Would you be interested in going back to TV in a big starring thing on HBO?

A. Yeah! Listen, if I had one in mind or they had one for me, in a heartbeat, especially in the HBO model. What I'm not terribly interested in doing is going back on the big network TV. People are doing good work out there. But for the most part, the world of comedy has moved to cable and, particularly, to the Internet. And the really, really extraordinary dramas (are on cable.) Again, people are doing some wonderful things on the broadcast networks, but they're over-challenged. You have to pump 22 of them a year. In an hour slot, you have 40 minutes to tell your stories. There's barriers on language, there's barriers in behavior. And it has to play to as broad an audience as possible. So it's not easy to do profoundly good work on the broadcast networks.

I have a comedy in development that we're pitching now for some cable outlets. And I'm open and available as an actor. I've actually tried to move a lot of my career to the directing side. But, yes, I would happily do another series if it was the right thing. The thing about series is that when you go to sign your name on the contract, you're making a multi-year commitment. And if you don't think it's something that you're going to want to do in year 2 or 3, it's a scary thing. If you don't think the quality is going to be there.

You know, I don't anticipate another "Seinfeld." There will not be another "Seinfeld" for me. So what you want to do is something that is challenging, something that connects with people, something that is quality. If you're going to bring the "Seinfeld" audience to something you're doing, you're kind of saying, "I think this is worth your while." I'd like to feel like it actually is. And, unfortunately, those are few and far between. And one of the reasons is that the world thinks of me iconically as George. They don't know that there are lots of other arrows in that quiver. I show them occasionally and they go, "Oh wow!" But nobody has said yet, "Hey, let's build a series on Jason that isn't George."

Q. But you're a musical threat, too, right?

A. Yeah. And, in fact, a lot of what I'm doing right now is working on projects that would take me back to the theater in New York, which is really, truly, before "Seinfeld" happened, that's where I thought my whole career was going to be, very happily.

So, yes, I'm doing things like I'm doing in Charlotte. I am performing and working more than I care to. Life has not slowed down. It's just not often in front of cameras right now because most of what they give me in front of cameras is not that interesting to me. So I tend to say no because I have the luxury of being able to say no.

Q. Wikipedia says you're quite a poker player and you started out as a magician. Are those to talents linked in some way?

A. I wish they were. I'd be a far more successful poker player if I was a better magician. No, the magic is a hobby and a passion. The poker is, I just love the game. People give me a lot more credit at being better than I am. I'm a student of the game and it's a never-ending school. Very few people are maestros at the game of poker. I'm a good member of the orchestra, but I'm certainly not picking up a stick and leading the group. But I love the game. It's a great challenge and a great social game and I've met terrific people from playing it.

Q. Back to Judaism. Are you still active in OneVoice Initiative (which seeks out moderate Israeli and Palestinian voices to promote peace and a two-state solution)?

A. As much as I can be.

Q. Given what happened in Gaza, are you still optimistic about the peace process?

A. Well, yes on any given day. And no on any given day. I'm optimistic because there is no other outcome that is viable. Neither of these peoples -- the Israelis or the Palestinians -- are going away. Neither is giving up their cause. Neither is going to lay down and die. And the Israelis, thank God, are not willing, nor should they ever be, to obliterate the Palestinians. So it's not going to come to an Armageddon situation, all or nothing.

So, given that, there's only one other outcome and that is they've got to find a way to live side-by-side with each other in some sort of harmony and peace. I am optimistic that (Palestinian Authority President) Mahmoud Abbas is the real guy. He is wise, and I think he gets it and I think he sees the value of having a permanent peace with Israel and having a real Palestinian state. I think he is wise enough to know that, initially, he may need to make a lot of sacrifices and then build on the successes as peace becomes a reality.

I am not convinced that (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu is the best player in the game right now because every time he has an opportunity to further the relationship with Abbas he puts up a new settlement. And that makes Abbas' job with his own people much more difficult. So I do think that if the two right leaders are in office at the right time that there can be a very positive result. Is that the case today? No.

Q. Last question: Anything you're excited about that your fans can look for? 

A. Yeah, I think. I have a movie floating around the festival circuit called "Lucky Stiff." It's a musical. Could be fun. We loved doing the movie. It's a quirky kind of thing. I've done a lot of television guesting. There's a new show on Comedy Central called "Big Time in Hollywood, Florida" that you'll see me in. And, again, there's a lot of stuff on the burner that I'm not sure where it's going to go.

Q. Well, it looks like you'll have a birthday a few days after your appearance in Charlotte. So happy birthday…

A. Thank you, sir.

Q. And we'll look forward to seeing you see in Charlotte on Sunday night. It was an honor to talk with you.

A. My pleasure. Bye bye now.

-- Tim Funk

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Pope Francis focus of talk at St. Gabriel

St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte will present “Pope Francis: Taking the World by Storm,” a free 90-minute program at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 10).

Monsignor Henry Kriegel, pastor of two inner-city Catholic churches in Erie, Pa., will examine how the popular pontiff has stressed tolerance, mercy and  hope. He’ll also suggest what’s ahead for Francis’ papacy.

St. Gabriel is at 3016 Providence Road. For more information: 704-364-5431.

 -- Tim Funk