City Day Reflection

We left full with good scripture, good homegrown food, and one rule; be cool. I insisted that this meant that no one in our group was allowed to wear a nametag or a YAV tshirt as these would set us apart as we headed into NYC for “City Day” to learn about the urban ministry at Church of the Master on Morningside Ave in Harlem. Our leader, Emily, reinforced this information by telling us to not point, stare too long, and to “subtly” look at everything around us. Throughout the day she would frequently call out, “what’s the number one rule?” We could never seem to come up with an agreement as to what the number one rule actually was. I insisted it was, “no name tags!” The rest of my group offered more practical answers such as, “stick together,” and “don’t get lost!”

Here is the truth. There is absolutely no way to “be cool” hopping from the d train to the four train at Yankee stadium (161st) at 4:15 with a group of seven people all wearing matching green wristbands which allow us to be admitted to meals at Stony Point. Staying cool and staying together on the subway in the city seems as oil is to water.

In these intense moments of travel, I found myself quiet and stressed and doubting my ability to read a map. I asked the group what they saw on the way to the Church of the Master so we could write our reflection and it was a group members idea to shout out a word or phrase that they observed. I can only at this point express these words and phrases through poetry which is what I would rather do than list them.

Stressed. Quiet. Count.
1.2.3.4.5.6.7. Try to turn off my inner camp counselor, but old habits die hard.
It’s so loud!
And there is this child. He is sitting on his fathers lap, they have matching Yankees hats as it looks as they have just come from there.
“Hello! We are young street performers, and we hope you enjoy this!”
(Insert various drum beats, inaudible rap, and unrecognizable dance moves).

There is an expression of culture that the city holds like no other. The young street performers accents suggest that they’re parents or that they themselves speak English as a second language. The boy sitting on his fathers lap is (I assume) interracial and the father white with a nose ring and the longest dreads you have ever seen.

An initial reaction to the city was the word, messy. It is messy! How do I talk about race and this culture that I see that’s so different from mine without sounding completely crazy?! What can I say, what can my group say? It’s completely different than anything we have ever seen or experienced!

But there in lies what calls and what drives myself and I assume others. This passion for the human race and every one of Gods children in it. “Remember that the same hands that formed the universe are the same that formed you and surround you in this moment.”

Psalm 24 reads, “the earth is the lords and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” These words spoken each week by Rev. John Belle lay the foundation of Church of the Master located on Morningside Ave in Harlem. Where do I begin? An amazing congregation and a powerful learning session about Urban Ministry that left me speechless. I was so moved by the ministry and the witness of Rev. Belle and the lay persons who work with him.

Our time together began with Effie. A elder of the congregation of decades! She has done just about everything the church to offer. Brace yourself, this is a lot of different programs coming up in the rest of this entry. Just remember, if I am talking about it, Effie has done it, is involved in it, or started it.

Effie’s main focus was the summer camp. Unfortunately, we were not able to experience this vibrant ministry as it had been shut down while the church was reconstructed and an apartment complex was added on top of the building. Though you could sense a hint of sadness to not have the children around for the summer, the church was at least profiting from the lease of the apartments being added. They spoke with enthusiasm and life about reopening camp the summer of 2015. By the way, Effie was designated as liaison between the city, the contractor, and the church for the construction project…of course.

What was most important about Effie’s work running the summer camp for us was taking this into the context of being future church workers and starting new programs in these churches we will eventually work for or be involved in. The summer camp required money to run, hiring a supervisor, picking activities (craft, reading, and academic sessions everyday), first aid training, city permitting, background checks, and of course food. Several times it was mentioned throughout the day that food was absolutely crucial to Church of the Master. Each of these details seemed so small, but were part of the journey they had to go through to get where they were going.

70 years ago Church of the Master established a federal credit union. Guess who runs it? Three guesses and the first two don’t count. This work, to me, was absolutely fascinating. The thought of a congregation coming together and risking that much, legally, is absolutely thrilling. To Effie, it was business as usual. Members of the congregation or those close to the church take out personal, tax, car, vacation, and meal plan loans. And as Effie swore, “we’ve really only had to call in the collector once or twice. It’s a very well run system.” She’s been running it for seventeen years…

The church has a very rich history and unique position in the city of New York. James Robinson (founder) was the visionary frequently referred to in our conversation. He was the founder of the church, the credit union, and the genius behind Crossroads to Africa, which was a group that is cited as a forerunner to the Peace Corps.

We continued to hear from various elders of the church regarding the urban ministries of the church. There is a children’s music ministry that is celebrating its 20th anniversary. There are three different dance ministries (mime, senior, and children/youth). A jazz group, the choir, and perhaps one of the biggest joint ministries of the church, the Harlem Council of Churches basketball league. Each year the basketball league holds tryouts for its various teams.

As a group, we were all surprised to learn that the congregation is only about 150 people. For such vibrant ministry and powerful programming this number seemed small, but was a good reality check in remembering that the spirit is present when two or more of us are gathered.

On starting a new ministry, we took a few notes. For one, the church is firmly planted in being a small community lifting themselves up internally by taking care of their members. You could see this through the presence of the summer camp and credit union. They explained to us that any ministry takes about 7 to 8 years and that the foundation was prayer. This rang true to us in our YAV experiences as some of us will be in the first few years of a program or we may be years into a program. Either way, it seemed important to remember this humbling fact as we go out and attempt to make a small difference.

After the elders and Rev. Belle anointed each of us, we prayed together at the end of our session. Effie held my hand the way someone who has prayed for you for years and doesn’t even know who you are does, tight.

One of the hardest theological questions I have ever dealt with is the idea of being worthy. It is really easy to say that everyone is worthy of Gods love. But here I am holding the hand of a woman who has done work starting ministry far beyond what I ever think I will be able to accomplish. It’s humbling, it’s puzzling, and not feeling worthy is uncomfortable. It’s really uncomfortable! I’m surrounded by individuals who’s witness has done what moving mountains must look like. Here I am, twenty-five, questioning my spiritual call. And the worst part about all of this is that I don’t have an answer to this puzzling question. I think people can tell me five hundred times that I am worthy and I’m not sure I would believe them. It will be a theme that I will revisit a few times in my writing and I hope that at the end of my year I will have an answer that’s not only rooted in scripture, but is truly a self discovery.

So my final reflection will be the notes my group jotted from Rev. Belle’s session and hope they will guide my journey.

“We can be impatient. Gods time is different from our time.”

“Don’t be afraid to work out of your comfort zone. Be your authentic self.”

“Culture is not always visual. Don’t let anybody put you in a box. Meet people where they are. They will not hear you unless they see you being where they are, on their level, with them.”

Don’t get lost,
Russ

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