The Underground Movement
Let me begin by apologizing for the radio silence for 2 months! We did not receive some of the testimonials I promised you, so the blog was left inconclusive for too long. So much is going on with Freshwater, and we can’t wait to share all of it with you. But I am quite wordy, so I would like to first share a brief glimpse of my experience with our mission trip with Connection Church. And I will post another update soon 🙂
“15 This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate His extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in Him for eternal life.” 1 Timothy 1:15-16
This verse from Paul has been recurrent in my life for about a month now. It’s one of my favorite verses because Paul is so refreshingly honest about his unworthiness.
For most of my life, I sat in church pews and heard pastors preach about “the struggle” that is life and how real it is in each of our lives. For most of my life, I sat next to people on those pews who would nod in agreement and mumble an “amen” but would pleasantly smile, shake your hand, and walk away until next week. We agree that the struggle is real, but don’t you dare let it out. Don’t you dare let someone know what your sin is- unless of course it’s not praying, reading your Bible, attending all church events- no, those are perfectly relatable and respectable struggles right? For years of my life, I’ve heard people say, “Paul was a MURDERER of Christians but look at what God did!” “Jesus ‘hung out’ with the worst of sinners! That was real ministry!” But that’s them, not you. Don’t YOU dare be among the sinners because you’ll end up just like them. Don’t YOU dare come out with your struggles to the church because then you don’t belong here anymore. But Paul didn’t say he USED TO BE the worst of them, did he? Maybe this is what your church experience has been like.
The theme of Freshwater Church and (if you’ve read my earlier blogs you already know this) the goal of my life is to live life on mission, to live as Paul described- “so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate His extraordinary patience as an example”. In doing so, I can’t live a life of pleasant smiles but judgmental thoughts. I can’t for a moment think that I am somehow superior because of my “churchiness”. I have to see others as I know myself to be- the worst of all sinners, who can/has/will receive mercy from Jesus. This is the heartbeat of our ministry, to see people as we know ourselves to be- longing for friendship, acceptance, and love. Maybe your church experience has been more like this. I certainly pray it has.
But if you’re like me and have felt that what you saw at church and what you saw in Paul’s ministry were very different things, then you might feel as I had and that is simply this: Churches living out the ministry as demonstrated by Christ are rare and are more like an underground movement. This was unfortunately my honest thought before last month.
A small group of us went to Connection Church in Astoria, NY for a week-long mission trip. When sharing this with folks before we left, I often received the question: “What are you doing for a mission trip in NYC?” You know because mission trips are usually building churches or homes in 3rd world countries right? If you take nothing away from this blog but this, I consider my mission accomplished: This was always my response, “People are dying and in need of love in *New York City too.” *insert anywhere ever* So I understood the whats and whys before we left, but what I soon found out broke me down.
First understand that this my first time to NYC ever. I think everyone has an idea of what New York City is like before they go, and they’re probably all wrong. In my mind, it was ALL Times Square, ha! It would be floods and floods of people and lights and insanity. I mean- it kind of is like that- but I felt like I could not comprehend the amount of people I was encountering each day- on the subway, on the streets, in the stores, in the restaurants- just tons of individual people living their lives out right next to me- the Southern/Island girl who has no idea how to “be” in New York! Our first full day in the city, we went to the Dream Center- a church that was sort of like Freshwater in that they “pop up” but with a sidewalk sign and in a school auditorium. We were welcomed by the congregation which included a multitude of ages, races, and backgrounds. The worship brought tears to my eyes, and the message from the pastor was one that struck and inspired me. I left there feeling that if this were my neighborhood, this would be my church.
That evening we attended Connection Church- the church we would be working with for the week- and found that it was also sort of like Freshwater in that they “pop up” but with a banner and in a beautiful Lutheran church. Connection Church was celebrating their 3 year anniversary, so the service was unique. It began with the pastor of the Lutheran Church sharing how Connection had inspired them to get out of the walls of the church and minister to the community. It flowed into beautiful worship and testimonials from the congregation on how the church and small groups have transformed their hearts and lives and how that has poured into others around them. The message for the evening was like the one I received from the morning- powerful and striking. And the service ended with a potluck celebration where we were able to hear and read more stories and meet people on a personal level. And again I thought, if this were my neighborhood, this would be my church. Maybe at this point you can see what I found in New York City, but at this point in the trip, I hadn’t gotten it yet.
The next day we took a train and got off at several stops to experience the different ethnic neighborhoods and learn the needs from our guide. The first stop was Corona, a Spanish neighborhood. We stopped in at a local church that was having another Sunday service on a Monday in the mid-morning because that’s what works for this group’s work schedule. Again- a gracious congregation and more stories of God’s work in their lives and others through the ministry here. I teared up as the pastor translated our pastor’s words of thanks and encouragement to the congregation who beamed at us and shook our hands with enthusiasm. We then went to Flushing for lunch (an Asian neighborhood), walked the streets in Jackson Heights (aka Little India), and stopped in Long Island City, (strangely resembling any smaller US city) looking across the river at the mass of Manhattan. We traveled the world in a day, and we learned from our host that the needs of these people (from drastically different cultures and upbringings) were the same as our own in the VI and what it boiled down to was acts of love and genuine care for the welfare of the community. I was starting to get it today, but again, I wasn’t quite there.
I’ll summarize the remaining days as best as I can. The next morning we met at Connection (the gorgeous Lutheran church) and were asked to pray for God to speak to us before we start today. And I cried as God revealed to me that I need to be more vulnerable with people, more emotional, more open. I could go on explaining how my MO is awkward sarcasm and correcting (as teachers are prone to do), but we can all understand and relate to this revelation on some level I’m sure. We then took a tour of Astoria, learning of and praying for the unique community needs- the unique needs which were much like ours: a safe place for families and children to fellowship, for opportunities to connect with and support local businesses, for doors to be open to minister to the “unreachables” (the strip clubs, the homeless, the non-English speakers, the elderly with no caretakers, the constant workers, the “stay at home” parents, etc.). The two pastors guiding us shared how Connection is working to meet those needs, and we experienced most of those ministries over the next few days. We did park ministry where we provided free bagels, coffee, and kid’s snacks. We set up games and sidewalk chalk and played kids songs, and we met people- single parents, same-sex parents, nannies, parents who came to America with nothing, and families that looked a lot like my own. We went to a local business, pledged 50 cups of coffee, and stood outside with a sign and cards offering free coffee inside, and we met people- teachers, police officers, a butcher, an elderly Ukranian couple with their dog “Killer”, Spanish people, French people, hipsters, and a smiling young woman who reminded me of myself. We bought flowers, spent an afternoon potting them, and then gave them out for free with some lemonade outside the subway entrance and on the sidewalks of the projects, and we met people- kids commuting home, young couples, a man who took a flower for his “crazy mom” and his “crazy wife”, a woman who said this was the best part of her day, people going to work, people coming from work, and a Caribbean woman who reminded me of the ladies I work with on island and said she’d teach her daughter to care for the flower before she can have a pet . We went to the senior activity center in the projects and dusted the library shelves, cleaned the bathrooms, and served lunches, and we met people- true New Yorkers- men and women, young and old, painters, chain smokers, chefs, sports fanatics, and a hard, stubborn man that I helped with his resume who was just like some of my hard, stubborn uncles. We ended the week sitting in a park discussing the past week in quiet reflection and listening to a story about a man named Sean who received Jesus near the end of his life, battling cancer, and how his level of evangelism and enthusiasm for loving people through Jesus inspired many of their ministries and forever instilled the idea that any ministry begins with one willing person.
In New York City, I saw my friends, my colleagues, my family. I saw Louisiana, and I saw the islands. I saw the same struggle on concrete blocks, under towering skyscrapers, in Chinese and Spanish and Arabic, in line for caffeine, pushing a child on a swing, running to work, in couture, and behind a cardboard sign. I saw them, and I saw myself. I saw pop-up churches, and free flowers, and prayer walks, and real worship, and a ministry that wasn’t an underground movement at all but one that looked, sounded, and felt like the one I read about in the Gospel. In New York City, I saw Jesus.
Please join us in praying. Pray for these churches. That this church will be THE church.
In His Service,