Churches That Do It All
Each year, the coordinators of denominational hunger relief and development offerings/ministries meet in late spring to share ideas, strategies, and publications.
One of the topics for this year’s meeting during May 7-8 in New York City was “churches that do it all.” The topic was meant to identify congregations which engage hunger ministry with such commitment and competence that they make a real and lasting difference in their communities and larger settings.
While I was in New York, I took the opportunity to visit one such congregation, East 7th Street Baptist Church in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The church calls its community ministry “Graffiti” as a reminder of the ubiquitous spray-paint art which characterized this neighborhood twenty-five years ago. Now the area is aptly described as a tale of two cities, where one of the largest public housing projects in the country stands alongside the gentrified residences of Wall Street executives. Throughout the thirteen years Graffiti has received Texas Baptist Offering for World Hunger funds, the ministry has served children whose families are on public assistance, the homeless, senior citizens with limited incomes, and youth who are looking for viable careers.
When I first visited Graffiti over ten years ago, the neighborhood was pervasively drug-infested and dangerous to walk through. Because of the congregation’s continuing outreach to the community, many youth and young adults are leaving the drug economy and finding honest, self-sustaining employment. The church itself has moved from a small, cramped storefront to a new building constructed on property formerly occupied by a synagogue. In October, 2001 (just three weeks after 9/11), Pastor Taylor Field stood with me in a nearby vacant lot which had once stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center and pointed to a limestone marker with a Hebrew inscription taken from the facade of the synagogue. When I entered East 7th Street Baptist Church last week, the limestone marker graced the new entry way, symbolizing the renaissance of this neighborhood wrought by the Spirit through the hands and hearts of one congregation.
As I shared Wednesday night dinner at the church with Taylor and others, I could not help but reflect on the diversity of those gathered around the tables in the fellowship hall. There were blacks, whites, Asians, and Puerto Ricans. There were able-bodied and disabled, young and old, educated and illiterate, addicted and recovering from addiction. Taylor knew and greeted them all as our own conversation was constantly punctuated by good-natured side commentary with the other diners. Two young women who were both graduates of Ivy League law schools and practicing attorneys in Manhattan waited tables. After the meal–subsidized by the Texas Baptist Offering for World Hunger–we sang, shared concerns, and engaged in an ongoing study of the Psalter. The conversation was spirited and existentially rooted. No one seemed to be in a hurry to leave. When the service was over, Taylor spent another twenty minutes in conversation with the two attorney-waiters planning a series of free legal seminars for the community.
This litany of activity on Wednesday night is only a small sampling of Graffiti’s ministries. There are meals for the homeless in a nearby park on Saturdays, job training classes for youth, meals and snacks for children both after school and during the summer, a food pantry, and countless interns from all over the U.S. whose lives are transformed by the amazing grace of God at work in the disparate souls of East 7th Street Baptist Church. Here is a church that does it all, truly a sight to behold and one made possible in no small measure by the Texas Baptist Offering for World Hunger.
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