One life, many roles

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Prep time 15 mins Total time 30 minutes
Servings 4-6
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 large onion
1/2 tsp ground oregano
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 tsp ground basil
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 Tbsp chili powder
1 lb. ground beef or turkey
3 Tbsp red-wine vinegar
One 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes
One 29-ounce can of dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
Heat the olive oil in large saute’ pan on medium high.
Add the onions and green pepper, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
Add the meat to the pan. Once the meat has browned, add the spices.
Stir in the red-wine vinegar and tomatoes.
Using a potato smasher, mash the whole tomatoes down.
Stir in the kidney beans.
Cook the chili covered for 15 minutes on medium-low heat.
Serve over white or brown rice.
Garnish with grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, cilantro, and/or avocado.


James Geist has filled many roles in his life so far: pastor, activist, teacher — and now he can add one more: writer.

Perhaps storyteller would be a better description. When he told his stories to his students, they urged him to write a book. It is for them, and his nieces and nephews, that he wrote about his life: the principles he tries to live by and the pitfalls he's faced along the way. Inspired by St. Augustine's autobiographical "Confessions," he titled the book: "Modern Augustinian Confession: Memoir of an Urban Pedagogue, Minister and Activist."

Geist was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and grew up in a blue-collar family. He graduated from Nyack College and the Alliance Theological Seminary. He served in ministry in Elmhurst Queens at New Life Fellowship Church from 1993 to 1999. While in ministry, he traveled to Africa, where he came to appreciate the people who lived according to a different concept of time and taught him that happiness does not come from possessions or wealth.

Geist was also a fervent social justice activist. He learned that Haitians who sewed clothing for Disney were paid unlivable wages — $11 a week — and fought the giant entertainment conglomerate for fairer treatment. He was featured in a Sept. 7, 1996 New York Times article by David Gonzalez.

Eventually, Geist decided he no longer wanted to be a parish pastor.

“But I felt a prophetic calling to speak out on justice issues,” he said. “The Church Elders at New Life Fellowship gave me the title ‘Pastor of Peace and Justice,’ and thus the backing to get involved in speaking out against child labor, sweatshops, persecution of Christians in Islamic and Communist countries, and against genocide in Sudan and modern day slavery."

As an activist, he worked with different organizations and came in contact with like-minded people from different faiths, cultures and ethnic backgrounds, many of whom are well known. In 1997, The Jewish Action Alliance gave him its Interfaith Outreach Award. It says, “In deep appreciation of his dedication, persistence and boundless energy in bringing together people of goodwill of all backgrounds, to make a better world for all.”

After leaving ministry, Geist had hoped to get a job in the human rights field.

"It is very tough to get a job in the business world as a religion major with a seminary degree," he said.

From 1996 to 1999, Geist left full-time ministry and attended school to get his teaching certificate. He painted houses and worked as a substitute teacher to pay the bills. In his memoir, he writes about his experiences teaching. "I must say, each day I walked out of the schools I subbed in, I left with my jaw on the ground."

In 1999, he began work as a full-time high school social studies teacher, first in New York City and then at charter schools in Newark.

In 2012, Geist was teaching at Merit Preparatory, a charter school in Newark, and was named Teacher of the Year. The following year, his contract was not renewed. The pages of his book that deal with this are eye-opening. “People talk about charter schools being better than public schools,” Geist said. “That's not my experience.”

Geist would like to get back into teaching, which he loves. He's licensed to teach in New York and New Jersey and is working on attaining a Pennsylvania license.

Today, Geist is happily married to his wife, Helen.

"With some recovery and therapy, I have better tools for an equal-energy relationship, and realizing happiness comes from within, connectedness with God and myself, and not expecting the other to make me happy – only I can do that," Geist said. "I cannot change anyone but me."

Copies of "Modern Augustinian Confession: Memoir of an Urban Pedagogue, Minister and Activist" are available from or Geist can be reached at

Geist loves to cook. February is the month in which we honor presidents and in keeping with that theme, Geist contributed President Obama's chili recipe, which Geist says is delicious.

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