Thursday, September 24, 2009

Celebrating East

This morning I put the same effort I usually put into selecting my clothes for the day- I reached into my dresser drawer and pulled out the shirt on the top (I am sure I have shirts on the bottom of the drawer that have not seen the light of day for months- or years).

A bit later I was standing in front of our building waiting for a friend, and I caught my reflection in the window. It was then that I realized that the shirt selection was the right one for this day, because today was an important anniversary. 09.24.06. Three years ago we launched what we simply called "East" at the time- Kensington Community Church's campus in Clinton Twp.

It seems like it was a lot longer than three years ago. But the memories are still vivid. The year leading up to the launch was filled with home meetings, team building, looking for a location for the church, and celebrating the certainty that we were following God, and that he was up to something big. During that year I made many new friends.

September 24, 2006- we were filled with anticipation, uncertainty, and when it was over, joy. We knew that God had started something that would have impact, and he had used a bunch of ordinary east-siders. At the time, God had already started nudging Chris and me toward NYC. I really resisted those leadings initially. A big part of me did not want to believe it was true because I could see myself a part of this new community on the east side for the rest of my life. We were just getting started! In the end, leaving East became the most difficult thing about going to start a church in NYC.

Tonight, I spent the evening with Timm and Char Kelly in Brooklyn. They were at that first service at East. Char had worked with Treasure Island and Timm in production. They were key players for the East campus. Now they are key players with us in New York.

I felt pretty melancholy today as I walked the streets of my new city. I still miss terribly the many friends we made as we worked together to launch a new congregation. Clinton Twp. seems a million miles and a lifetime away.

If any East Campus friends are reading this blog, I would love to hear from you- just leave a comment. And I am thrilled that in a couple of months I have the chance to be back with you to teach on Sunday, Nov 29. And by the way, we have plenty of room for many more to come and help us!

Bumper Stickers and Buttons

Every where we turn, we are faced with some sort of message…billboards, t-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons. Many are trying to sell something, but some are attempts at capturing a philosophy, a world view, a value, in a simple or clever statement. Sometimes the meaning is clear, other times it is hidden. Some are uplifting, some are hostile. Take this example I saw early today on the bumper of a brand new burgundy Honda sedan:

“If Pearl Harbor Hadn’t Happened, Hiroshima Would Not Have Happened.”

I can’t imagine why someone would want to proclaim that message some 64 years after such a horrible event in human history. I wonder if the owner felt any irony putting it on a Japanese car?

Later in the day I was waiting on a very crowded subway platform at Union Square. I had just completed a 4 mile run and was a bit impatient waiting a long time on the hot platform for a train. People kept funneling down from the street and the platform became wall to wall with people. As I looked down the track waiting for the train, my eyes caught a very tall woman, who based on the covering on her head, appeared to be African. For a moment, I thought perhaps she was Immaculee Ilibagiza. Immaculee is the author of the book Left to Tell, the story of her amazing survival during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. I had a chance to meet her a couple of years ago and to hear her tell her story. At that time I knew we would be moving to New York City, where she now works with the UN, and we said perhaps we would bump into each other in the city. It hasn’t happened yet- even though I live just 10 blocks south of the UN building.

This week, things have been crazy in my neighborhood this week with the UN General Assembly and President Obama in town. With the attention on the UN, I have thought quite a bit about Immaculee, and now wondered if we were about to meet on the 6 Train. But with a second look, I could tell it was not her.

When the train finally arrived, it was a stampede of everyone trying to get into the train that was already nearly full when it arrived. I felt bad for those who got sandwiched in near me, with my shirt soaked in sweat. As it turns out, the woman I had spotted was right next to me, and like Immaculee, she was several inches taller. In her hands was a book about Rwanda- so while I had the wrong person, I had the right country. And also like Immaculee, she had a beautiful and joyful countenance. It was then that I noticed the button she was wearing (I was not staring at her- we were simply neighbors in ways that only those who have been packed like sardines in a NYC subway understand!). It said:

I Exist to Praise God and to Help Others

It was all that would fit on the small button attached to the lapel of the jacket she was wearing, but I could not think of one thing that I would add to that as one who strives to follow Jesus… a life directed in praise and adoration to our Creator, and a life directed to serve our fellow man.

And it took a lot less space than the bumper sticker.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Just when I think I am beginning to get a grasp on this city, I have an experience that makes me feel clueless. This morning I took the subway up to Harlem with my wife Chris and my cohort Dave to help out in a community food bank. The Yorkville Common Pantry provides food for over 1800 people a week. Communitas people have volunteered here a dozen times or so. Until today, I have worked in the back pantry area where food packets are assembled for distribution. We put together bags of staple foods for families of various sizes. When families come to pick them up, the bags are given out along with some fresh vegetables and meat. Today I was assigned to work in the distribution area. There were two choices for meat- chicken or pork. As each family came, I was to ask them if they wanted chicken or pork. Sounded pretty simple. Except that the first, second, third, fourth (you get the point), did not speak English. Most spoke Spanish. So Dave got on the phone to his wife, Michelle, who is fluent in Spanish, and asked for the Spanish words for chicken and pork. Armed with two new Spanish words in my vocabulary, I began to ask which they wanted in Spanish, bringing confused looks and occasionally nods and the word “yes”. Yes to which one? Pork or chicken? Clearly, this was not working.

One of our other Communitas friends, Jennifer, who is a Spanish teacher, observed what was going on, pulled me aside and gave me a quick lesson on the correct pronunciation of chicken and pork in Spanish. I tired again- only to realize that I was now speaking Spanish to a Chinese man who kept saying “yes” and “thank you”. So I retired from my position and spent the next four hours bagging vegetables and bagels- and watching the parade of nations. Unbelievable to think that so many people who live in America and call this country home have limited or no ability to speak our language. How did they get here? Why did they come? How can they function when they cannot communicate outside of their small circle of relatives and friends? And these are my neighbors. We live together in this city which I am realizing more and more is a microcosm of the world.

As I reflected on my experience later in the day, it is also clear that the work of Jesus in NYC has to be as varied and diverse as the city itself. Communitas has very limited ability than to do more than to serve the needs of these communities within the city, since I only know how to say “chicken” and “pork” improperly in Spanish. I’m not sure what the Chinese man heard me saying!

Later in the day, Communitas served at a mission in the Chinatown area of Manhattan. My job this time was to simply hand a plate of food to those coming into the New York City Rescue Mission. Fortunately, there were no choices this time, only one thing on the menu. Over 200 meals were served to the men and women who came in. They were young and old and also represented a broad spectrum of ethnicities, but nearly all of them spoke English. As I handed each a plate of food, I wondered about their story. What put them into a place where they had to rely on a soup kitchen for a meal? Why are they living in the most expensive place to live in the world?

My normal inclination has been to judge people in these circumstances. I would assume that drugs, alcohol, irresponsibility, etc. have landed them in this situation. But since moving to New York, I have found a growing desire to hear their stories, to know what has brought them to this place. I am certain that not one of the men or women to whom I handed a plate of food tonight had dreams when they were young of eating at a soup kitchen and living in a shelter. And I know that they all hope for a better future. Perhaps intersecting love by way of food and shelter will provide an opportunity for change.

As I left the mission, I spoke to a young man working at the front desk of the Mission. I thought he was a staff member, but as we talked, I discovered that he is a resident in the Mission’s program. I did not have time to get his whole story, but He came in off the street, and in the provision and protection of the mission, his life is coming back into focus. This spring, he plans to enroll in college. And he is growing in his relationship with Jesus. I shudder to think where he might be today if the Mission did not exist. This is why we help out in places like the Yorkville Pantry in Harlem and the Rescue Mission in Chinatown. God’s eyes are on the down and outers in this city, and rescuing them often begins with just keeping them alive.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Being the Church

A year ago we came to NYC to plant a church. Our intent was not to get people to come to "our church", but to be the church. Influenced by the thoughts of Alan Hirsch (author of The Forgotten Ways), we are convinced that a church must not allow itself to be defined by what happens once a week in a 60 minute service. While it is commonly said that the church is not the building or the one hour service, I think the way we speak about church reveals a lot. We speak of "going to church", or "what happened at our church last Sunday". Our mantra to "be the church" is a reminder that Jesus is actively at work through those of us who have come together in his name to build his Kingdom 24/7- not for an hour on Sunday. And in many respects, the work of Jesus will be more defined by what he is doing, and we are doing, the rest of the week.

This past year we have focused on some simple things, like learning to love each other. Jesus said that the world would know that he had been sent by the Father when they saw our love for each other- so this seemed to be an important priority. We have also spent time learning about our city. For those of us who came from the suburbs of Detroit, we discovered that NYC is a very different culture. We needed to listen and learn and be patient. And we also began to serve. Jesus said that he came not to be served, but to serve. And so we have attempted to the best of our abilities to roll up our sleeves and to serve as he taught us.

As we move into year two, we hope that we have firmly established the DNA of Communitas as a community of people on a mission together to love God and each other, and to demonstrate God's radical love as we serve others. The first year we have met on Sunday evenings, informally, learning together, praying together, and building community. We refrained from calling it a "service" (serving is what we strive to do all week long), but rather, we simply called it a "gathering". It has been a time when we gather together to learn and to celebrate the presence and work of Jesus in our lives and our community. Today marked an important day in the development of that gathering.

Today we moved into our new location for our weekly gathering- a public school auditorium. Our first official gathering there will not be until October 4.

We came together this morning to learn what it meant to have our gathering in this venue. We spent four hours drinking coffee, eating donuts and bagels, putting together sound equipment, working on music, and a host of other things we need to figure out over the next three weeks. The puzzled looks help explain why we are giving the month of September to preparing.

As we spent the morning together, the real joy for me was to look around the auditorium and to see Communitas at work- about 30 people, some who came with us from Michigan and some that I have only known for a few weeks, enjoying being together and pitching in to help in any way possible. It was chaotic, and it was a blast!

I don't know what God has in store for us as we put a bit more energy now into our weekly gathering. I know (pray!) that it will not replace the identity or work of Communitas as defined above. If you are in New York and you want to find Communitas, you don't have to wait until Sunday morning at 10:30 at PS 40 on 19th Street. We can be found throughout the city, trying (imperfectly) to follow Jesus and to be his hands and feet and voice. But starting in October, you can also find some of us in a public school auditorium, learning about the One who has given us new life, worshipping him together, and celebrating what he is doing is our lives and our community.

As I left the auditorium with all our equipment safely put away for a week, I looked at all the empty seats.

How will they ever be filled? There are 500 seats, and Commuitas is currently about a tenth that size. But as I have thought about it all day, I believe the key is not in finding clever ways to invite people to come to church. It will be filled as we stay true to our calling to be the church in our community.