Sunday, April 16, 2017

Remembering Fred Borsch

I was saddened to read of the passing of Fred Borsch, whose mark left on the world is beautifully described in this LA Times obituary. I loved the story of him bringing the Archbishop of Canterbury into one of LA's sketchiest neighborhoods to give him a new perspective. I was acquainted with Rev. Borsch at Princeton, where he was the Dean of the Chapel when I studied there in the early 1980s, and his son Ben was a classmate. He was a kind, gentle-spoken man who did indeed ask people to call him Fred. If you picture someone like Father Mulcahy on the old MASH TV series, you wouldn't be far off. But I think he made a mark wherever he went. I will always be grateful that, under the sponsorship of the Borsch's Office of the Chapel, a space in the basement of Murray-Dodge Hall was set up to create a café, where tea and fresh baked goods and occasional live music were on offer, but more importantly, an alternative social space for people who for various reasons didn't entirely fit into Princeton's regular social scene. That doesn't sound like any big thing today, but it's hard to project ourselves back to a time before there was any Starbucks, before there was a ubiquitous Internet, and before Princeton had a Gay and Lesbian Center (actually before Princeton even had a real student center at all). Back then, that café was a haven for, among others, a whole circle of students tiptoeing to terms with their homosexuality. It was quietly subversive and essential. And looking back, I think that Borsch probably understood that even better than I did at the time.

Flash forward 20 years to 2001, and I just missed meeting Borsch again, although I discovered his handprints when I moved to Echo Park, a now trendy but then rather edgy barrio near downtown Los Angeles. As an Angeleno, I had been well aware of the construction in the 1990s of the controversial Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown, a dramatic modernist architectural landmark. But it wasn't until I moved to Echo Park that I became aware of the Episcopal Cathedral Center of St. Paul, also constructed in the 1990s, a modest set of buildings that wouldn't draw particular attention to drivers-by let alone international tourists. I think the Catholic and the Episcopal churches both have strong traditions of "high church" majesty as well as social justice. But I find it emblematic that while then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Mahoney was building his grand edifice on the hill downtown, Archbishop Borsch was rolling up his shirtsleeves and getting to work in the barrio. I've been to services in both places, and there's no question which one feels more warm and welcoming to me.

The world is a notably better place for Fred Borsch having been in it.