Typically, when I walk down Manhattan Avenue, or through McCarren Park, or up Franklin, I’m thinking about myself — praying I look cool, contemplating the new bars, and eyeing the countless men who surround me. Things shifted, however, when I strolled these same streets with Reverend Ann Kansfield, the neighborhood’s beloved minister of Greenpoint Reformed Church, last week. For a few brief moments, I saw the streets through the eyes of a person who is sharply focused on the well-being of the inhabitants of Greenpoint.
It’s been a big year for Reverend Kansfield. In 2015, she was elected the first female and openly gay chaplain for the FDNY, while winning the The New York Times’ inaugural “New Yorker of the Year” title amongst big-name candidates like Donald Trump and the “Broad City” duo Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Ann has a disarming way of making you feel like you’re her best friend — a “profound extrovert,” as she describes herself. It’s a no-brainer that she’s making such an impact on the city and the neighborhood.
We stop on Manhattan Ave a number of times to say “hi” to people she knows. She even pulls what’s been dubbed a “Classic Ann Kansfield” on me. This is where she hijacks the people she’s with for things she has to do. In my case, I found myself riding along with her to pick up her seven-year-old son, John, from school before dropping him off at his Irish dancing lessons at the Triskelion Arts space. During the ride, she makes plans with John to play Mario that night, and after I briefly reminisce over the Mario of my youth, she tells me that I’ll have to join next time. It’s this impulse to embrace new acquaintances that feels almost radical in a city like New York. And it’s something I suspect we could use more of.
Kansfield moved to Greenpoint in 2003 to join the clergy at Greenpoint Reformed Church, where she and her wife, Jennifer Aull, are co-pastors. But going into ministry wasn’t something she had always planned on. Actually, she resisted it for some time. She cites the results of a Myers-Briggs test taken in high school, which confirmed that she would be best-suited as a journalist or work clergy.
“I was like, ‘What?! I don’t want to be a minister, that’s terrible!’” she recalls.
Despite her resistance to full-time ministry, she always had the feeling that if she could make money doing anything, “it would be talking to people about deep subjects, and [being] helpful and supportive.” But being gay, she shied away from ministry and worked on Wall Street for years after college. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that she decided to leave her job to go into ministry full-time.
Initially, she didn’t believe any church would accept an openly gay person as a minister, but she soon accepted the position at Greenpoint Reformed Church after colleagues convinced her to check out the opportunity.
”There’s a lot of space for quirkiness in Greenpoint…and a higher level of tolerance, in some ways, for letting folks be who they are — not expecting folks to conform,” she says. “I always thought that if a neighborhood can tolerate a live poultry slaughterhouse, then it can tolerate me.”
When asked about how she hopes to make a difference in the neighborhood, she says:
“Change is built into our DNA, and the velocity of change, especially in Greenpoint, is pretty rapid. But a spiritual community that’s living out its mission to wrestle with God and love God and love our neighbors will always be able to find ways to encourage neighbors to love one another. So that’s the part that shouldn’t change about a faith community, but it will look different in different eras and different places.”
One way Kansfield lives out this mission is through her new job as FDNY chaplain. She is one of eight FDNY chaplains with duties that include counseling firemen and other staff members, performing invocations and blessings (she did the invocation in last month’s State of the City Address), and maintaining relationships with families of injured or deceased firefighters.
Kansfield wasn’t even aware of the chaplain role until the death of Father Mychal Judge on 9/11. She considered Judge a role model during her transition into ministry.“He had an incredibly joyful faith…this deep capacity to love people,” she says of the late chaplain.
Kansfield never imagined her dream job could look like this. But that changed when a colleague of hers mentioned the open position in a Facebook group, and then gave her the application details. She has been serving as Chaplain for just over a year now, and she is a testament to the FDNY’s recent efforts to diversify its department after decades of resistance.
It’s safe to say that Kansfield is a testament to a lot things: breaking boundaries in the religious community, unabashedly caring for our neighbors, and turning strangers into friends in a matter of moments. These streets have a lot to offer, and it’s people like Ms. Kansfield who make this neighborhood feel like a community.