By Herm Card 08/27/08
Syracuse City Eagle
As recently as a month ago, the small plot of land behind Christian Life Assembly, the church on the corner of North Townsend and Catawba Streets, was strewn with trash and debris. It was an unfortunate metaphor for the decay of Syracuse’s North Side.
Despite the city’s designation of North Salina Street as the reincarnated Little Italy, the attempt at ethnic regeneration falls off abruptly as soon as you leave the glow of the upgraded streetlights. The theme of the street rapidly dissolves into the ethnic, racial and socio-economic diversity that sometimes challenges the city.
Enter Lou Vinciguerra. Lou, whose formal title is Reverend Lou Vinciguerra, is Christian Life’s resident Minister. His mission is to conduct street ministry for the church, where he lives with his wife Anne and daughter, Jessica. The small lot, about 50 by 25 feet, was, essentially, his back yard, tucked in between the church and Gebhardt Avenue a block-long alley between Division and Catawba Streets.
Within a short period of time, the trash-filled lot took on an entirely new identity. It became a bocce court — and it became one of the tools of Lou’s ministry.
But why the idea for bocce as a form of ministry?
“The Lord gave it to me in prayer. The Lord said, ‘Build a bocce court,’ kind of like in the movie (Field of Dreams), but a different source,” he said. “The North Side has changed. It’s no longer an Italian neighborhood — it’s a melting pot. Nobody knows how to play bocce, so they have to get together to learn. It used to be that everybody on the North Side knew how to play. Now, nobody does. It’s a curiosity at first. It’s non-threatening — it’s a social game. People talk to each other while they play — they get to know each other.”
The people playing on this past Tuesday afternoon were great examples.
Gary LaTray is the manager of Assumption Church’s apartment complex on the next block. Jaime De Jesus, a neighbor, was there as were Nick and Rosario Viggiano. They had all pitched in to help build the court.
Malva O’Neil, who lives “Just down the street,” was playing for the first time. Anne and Jessica joined in the game. Jessica, who is home schooled by Anne, a former teacher, shares her father’s affinity for the game and also served as the “official measurer,” using the traditional bocce measuring tool, a length of string.
The banter was friendly — Lou is clearly just one of the neighbors. He prefers “Lou,” or Brother Lou” to “Reverend.”
“I am a minister. Ministers serve people — they care for people, they help people,” he said.
Lou retired from a successful business career to enter the ministry. He was called to serve some 20 years ago, but could not take on the full-time position until his business was solidly in the hands of his successor, his son.
“I had a responsibility to my employees to maintain the business so they could provide for their families. I had served the church for many years and when the time came, I was ready for the ministry,” he said.
The court itself is a reflection of Lou’s ministry.
The surface is rolled crushed stone from Tom Kinsella’s quarry. The railroad ties, which boarder the courts, are castoffs from the CSX railroad yard, obtained by a fellow minister and transported to the site by Lou and his “crew.” They poured the concrete sidewalk, steps and walkway, learning as they worked. Fresh grass surrounds the new trees that grow in the median between the court and the alley. Lights for the court are part of his vision. When asked about the financing for the project he changes the subject, saying only, again with a knowing smile, “The Lord provides.”
Jaime De Jesus proudly pointed out the sign that hangs on the back wall of the church — guidance for those who would play there.
The court has rapidly become a source of pride for the neighborhood. Cars slow as they pass and drivers crane their necks for a look at the unusual sight. Friday night there were “a dozen people from all walks of life” playing bocce. They were a reflection of the neighborhood’s demographics. Some took time out from work — others took time out from less structured activities. Regardless, they were all enjoying the energy of Lou’s ministry.
Lou grew up in Syracuse, on the North Side and Lyncourt. He graduated from Henninger High School “a while ago” and over the course of his lifetime, he has seen the change in Syracuse. He wants to change it back.
“This is not about me. You saw that woman send her son over here to watch and told him to behave. Remember how she told us to send him back if he didn’t behave? She’s never even talked to us before. That’s what this is all about,” Lou said.
He has been at Christian Life just over a year and a half and is committed to making Syracuse better.
“We need to do it one neighborhood at a time, and this is our neighborhood,” he said.
Photo by Herm Card:
Jessica holds the measuring string for a match where her father Reverend Lou Vinciguerra (gray shirt) and Jaime De Jesus (blue) roll against Nick and Rosario Viggiano (both in red) at the Bocce Court behind the Christian Life Assembly.