Published September 11, 2008
NEW YORK CITY — “But Grandmother, why did the men fly the airplanes into the two buildings?”
That question, voiced by a six-year-old boy not yet born when terrorist attacks brought death and destruction to officer workers in the Twin Towers, still haunts New Yorkers seven years later.
As the sun began to set over the site on Labor Day weekend, the grandmother tried to impart a sense of history to the young boy as they stood on the sidewalk across from Ground Zero. Reading from the historical marker, then pointing toward the site, the aging woman deftly described the day’s events as she imparted a piece of history from her world into his.
Georgia Baptists are helping to answer that nagging question – and others about God and eternity – through church starts and mission trips to the Big Apple. One such church, Gallery Church in the Chelsea neighborhood closest to the site, has since added a second worship location on the Upper West Side and continues to reach out with the story of grace and forgiveness.
“The five-year anniversary was the big one but people still sort of tense up around this time of year,” says Gallery pastor Aaron Coe. “While the scar is still there, many New Yorkers have come to grips with its impact and have moved it out of the limelight of their lives.”
What happened on that 17-acre site is “just tragic,” he adds as he looks over the site humming with construction workers. The entire seven-building complex – including the most notable Twin Towers – was destroyed in the attacks.
The city lost the Twin Towers and its workers as well as six or seven other office buildings. Today residents are worn down by years of media coverage of the debate and redesign of the new structures that will reclaim the site.
Coe moved to New York City from Northstar Church in Kennesaw as part of the North American Mission Board’s “New Hope, New York” evangelism and church planting effort after 9/11. He remained after the emphasis shifted focus and helped launch Gallery Church in the Chelsea neighborhood.
The church, which rents space in Rustin High School (see Oct. 26, 2006, Index story at www.christianindex.org/2683.article) focuses its ministry on the arts and fashion community of the city. Chelsea is a high-energy area of creative people in the fashion and arts world that also has a high concentration of gays. It reaches out to all residents equally with a message of hope and redemption.
Since 9/11 Coe and others have noticed a lessening of open discussion of spiritual concepts. That was not the case immediately following the terrorist attacks when people were forced to come to grips with their mortality. Georgia Baptists ministering in the Big Apple agree.
Lewis and Kay Willard, who have managed a bookstore in Brooklyn since 1990, have seen the slow decline due to their longevity in the city. While Coe and others are relative newcomers, they remember the day the towers fell and littered their front yard with burned papers from the buildings.
“The whole city was overcast with heavy smoke – the most awesome smell imaginable – and we are three miles from the site.
“Sirens were blaring and emergency vehicles were coming and going all day long,” Kay Willard remembers.
Churches no longer filled
The churches were filled with people seeking answers to the tragedy and wondering where God was in the midst of the destruction. But that was then and this is now, and churches have largely returned to their pre-9/11 attendance levels.
But that doesn’t mean people have stopped searching, Willard explains; they have just toned down the urgency of needing their questions answered today. They can wait until tomorrow … or the next day. Today the primary focus is on the upcoming presidential elections, the state of the economy, the loss of employment.
“Don’t take that to mean that New Yorkers are not religious,” adds husband Lewis from behind the cash register. “There are a lot of faith groups in the five boroughs that surround Manhattan.
“Here in Brooklyn we have the international headquarters of the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses and right across the Williamsburg Bridge is the center of the ultra
orthodox Hasidic Jewish community. Muslims have built three or four mosques in recent years, as well. And, we have a rather large Haitian community that practices voodoo,” he says.
“New Yorkers are not non-religious, they just practice a god-consciousness of their own; they are all searching for the one, true God. New York is not unlike Athens of the Apostle Paul’s day when he saw temples to hundreds of gods … and even one to the unknown god to be sure they didn’t leave any out.”
Ebb and flow
After 9/11 New Yorkers filled the Christian bookstore that he and Fay manage, asking for Bibles and books on spirituality and faith. They were not shy about their quest and the traffic in the store remained pretty constant for 18 months after the attacks.
Today the couple, who still retain their membership at Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker, are sensitive to those who continue to seek spiritual relevance.
“There remains a multitude of people who are still crying out for God’s mercy and grace, much like the publican Jesus spoke about who cried out ‘God, be merciful unto me, a sinner.’ There are people here who are surrounded by false religions and don’t know where to turn. We pray every day that God will direct them to our front door.”
Georgia Baptists interviewed by The Index share a grasp of the current state of religious longing: basically everything is going well and New Yorkers feel more secure. That translates into a lessening of the urgency to explore spiritual matters.
Jen Maala, who serves as production and communications coordinator at Gallery Church, also remembers the “big turnaround” in the value New Yorkers placed on spiritual values after the attacks. She was in college in Delaware on 9/11 but traveled into the city regularly to observe the phenomenon.
“The questions they were asking were pretty consistent: ‘Why did God allow it to happen? Is heaven real? What is God’s love really like?’ They were searching for something that was missing in their life and they weren’t shy about asking the questions they had buried deep inside their souls.
“The attacks brought all of those questions to the surface and suddenly no one was ashamed to ask about the brevity of life and the reality of eternity,” she says.
“Today it’s different as other issues have come to the surface in an election year. They still have the questions, but you need to probe a little deeper to get to that level. That requires developing a relationship with people that was not immediately necessary after 9/11 when strangers would talk openly with each other about matters of faith.”
John, who prefers to remain anonymous due to a ministry he is involved in, echoes Maala’s observations.
“You have to start in a totally different place when you begin to talk about faith with many New Yorkers than you would back in Georgia. You don’t start by asking an individual if they believe in God or heaven. You have to start at the most basic level by asking something like ‘Do you believe in absolute truth?’
“That is the basic question many are struggling with, because it relates to their values and worldview; they have not even gotten to the point about asking if God exists. They want to know if you can believe in truth and does it exist in its purest form or is it just relative to your situation?
“Once you have established that common ground you have a launch pad for discussion and exploring other areas of life. Sometimes it goes further and sometimes not; you just have to be faithful and sow the seed.
“New York City is very transient with 70 percent of the population fitting the ‘single’ category – never married, divorced, or widowed. That gives people the flexibility to move and due to the high cost of living many cannot afford to put down roots.”
Gallery Church is working to break down the barriers to the gospel and has developed a strong outreach to the arts community where the church is planted. It even has a rotating art gallery in its church office a few blocks from where the congregation meets in rented space.
Residents in the area place a high value on creativity so Coe and other staffers agreed to create common ground as a bridge to those individuals. Their solution: crowd as many staffers as possible into one very small room to allow the much larger secondary room to be transformed into an actual art gallery. Then open the gallery to local artists to display their work and the community to come view the pieces.
Nearly 150 residents came to view the opening night of the current photography exhibit, with many of them visiting the church for the first time the following day, John says.
The church has also reached out in ministry to the HIV-positive community surrounding the church with its heavy gay population. It acknowledges that AIDs is not just a gay disease, but infects a large portion of the population.
“Our AIDs ministry is perhaps the greatest impact we have had as a congregation,” Coe explains. “We didn’t walk into that strategy from the beginning but the Lord gave it to us and we felt we should respond.”
While the health department says 25 percent of those living near the church are HIV positive, AIDs is a much larger social issue. Coe explains that AIDs primarily impacts the minority heterosexual community as well – specifically African-Americans and Latinos. The church has begun working with clinics offering HIV testing to help promote the events and then offering counseling.
“We don’t preach to individuals when they get their results back; we listen and offer the spiritual help they are seeking. We have come to realize that HIV is largely a soul issue. Those who have AIDs continue to spread it even though medicine is largely available in many instances to contain the disease.
“We feel that leading individuals to faith will help them come to grips with the basic soul conflicts that lead them into lifestyles that place them at tremendous risk. Our desire is to bring healing – both physical and spiritual – to those who are seeking help.”
Gallery Church is not content to stay in New York City with its 191 people groups but is launching a third location this fall in Baltimore. That is in addition to an earlier location started on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Coe said he is praying that Georgia Baptists and others will join them in reaching out to those who need the gospel in both New York and Baltimore through a special four-day worship and service emphasis next summer called City Uprising. (See this page.)
“We really believe it will make a big difference in both cities if Christ’s church came alive to make a lasting impression on their communities,” added Coe. “We are praying that believers from Georgia, as well as other states, will join us and begin today to plan their mission trip to be with us for next summer.”
How to help
Gallery Church pastor Aaron Coe lists three primary ways Georgia Baptists can undergird the work of reaching New York City residents for Christ. Among those suggestions:
· Pray – “Any movement of God is based on prayer and an openness on behalf of the receivers to hear the gospel.”
· Participate – “We could use 50 churches next June in community service outreach to our neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, the Upper West Side, and in Baltimore, Md.” See related story on City Uprising.
· Partner – “Gallery Church is always looking for congregations that want to partner with us by providing financial support as well as send us volunteers throughout the year. We are halfway through a five-year plan to become self-supporting, and outreach ministries like next summer’s City Uprising will be very expensive.”
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