There is a long and beautiful road I use whenever I travel to my alma mater, Alliance Theological Seminary. Our church was conceived and an “urban promise” was made some 20 years ago on that quiet road, when God used the memory of a prayer request to break and capture my heart.
A young man was temporarily living at my house when he asked our small prayer group to pray for his 10-year-old niece, who was being prostituted by her stepfather to support his crack habit. We all sat stunned at his request, literally overwhelmed by the evil it represented. A subconscious numbing seemed to wash over everyone. A few of us mumbled a prayer; though our heads were bowed, our hearts were running from the horror and the sorrow of our city.
A week or two later I was heading to seminary preparing, ironically, for urban ministry. I sensed God saying, Do you really want to serve me? . . . You have to go there; you have to let it in; you have to begin to feel what I feel. I said, “Yes Lord” and wept in a way I never had before and never have since. I prayed, “Whatever it takes, help me to make a difference in my city.”
That day marked the beginning of a long journey. My wife, Rebecca, and I began New Hope Community Church in our living room a year or two later. Our neighborhood in Staten Island had its share of crack addicts and prostitutes, abusive parents and physically and psychologically abandoned children. Three children we ministered to were murdered, one ended up in jail for murder, several more for attempted murder. Many were taken away by child protective services because of neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
There is very little that seminary can do to prepare you for inner-city work. Chasing pit bulls out of your backyard . . . running outside in pajamas as you hear one of your neighborhood kids being beaten half to death . . . wrestling with your gun-wielding neighbor as you try to convince him not to shoot a police officer. Our house was broken into, our cars robbed often, our hearts broken and bewildered time after time. Nevertheless, just as Jesus had a special appointment to keep in Samaria, we have experienced His nearness as well.
One of the great joys of this journey is that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom. 5:20). For 20 years we have experienced “grace upon grace” as we have witnessed thousands of our neighbors open their hearts to Christ. Hundreds have been discipled. The Lord enabled us to purchase a warehouse (formerly used as a chop shop, pit bull puppy mill and drug dealers’ haven) in a neighborhood that had been known as Wild Wild West Brighton, Bloody Brighton or Murder Alley (our cross street!). As a church that operates on a shoestring budget, it is impossible to express the mighty miracle that God did in eliminating our $400,000 mortgage in 2010.
When we purchased our facility in 1999, West Brighton had the second highest murder rate in New York. In January 2000 we as a church fasted and prayed against the “spirit of murderous rage” in our neighborhood, and the murders stopped. To this day, 12 years later, the murder rate is down 95 percent. The Lord has clearly given us favor.
The harvest here is so ripe, it’s as if the fruit is begging to be picked. We spend hundreds of hours walking the neighborhoods, knocking on doors, praying and sharing the good news. Seldom does a week go by when we do not have the opportunity to lead several neighbors to Christ.
One young man, Elijah came to the Lord in jail. I had been talking to him about Jesus for weeks, and one day, there seemed to be a breakthrough. But that night, he participated in a robbery and was caught. He took that experience as a wakeup call from God. Now he often accompanies me in going door to door to share the gospel in the very housing project where he lives.
“I have a big heart for anyone that was in any type of lifestyle that I used to be in,” says Elijah. “I don’t want to see that. If I’m in the light, you know, I want you to tan with me.”
The great and constant challenge for any ministry in a blighted community, however, is not evangelism but discipleship. The difficult, long-term task is assisting our neighbors to unload decades of sin and sorrow. For this reason we began “Urban Hope NYC.” Our dream is that Urban Hope will be a sanctuary: a safe, sacred, enriching, encouraging and empowering place for every child and family in our community. We aspire to be the fence at the edge of the cliff instead of the ambulance at the bottom.
We have a full schedule: children’s discipleship, teen leadership development and community outreach ministry. There is always something wonderful going on at our after-school center. Every week we have music lessons, step dance, drama, a computer/homework center, Child Evangelism Fellowship and Metro Ministries Bible Studies and outreach events. Every summer we run a month-long, Christ-centered summer camp.
For all of our children’s ministries, we endeavor to hire junior high and high school “graduates” of our program as “street leaders,” serving as junior counselors, homework assistants and community peer leaders. The program is very costly, but it is one of the keys to the success of the ministry. One of the most vulnerable times in an inner-city child’s life is from ages 14 to 19. The typical “rebellious teenager” scenario that all parents struggle with to some degree is amplified when a child lives with a dysfunctional family, dwells in a high-crime community, is surrounded by negative peer influence and attends an overcrowded, highly immoral, gang- and drug dealer–saturated school.
After 15 years of ministry, it seemed like we were banging our heads against the wall when it came to the teenagers in our ministry. Rebecca and I had kids over to our house, threw them birthday parties, helped them build tree houses. But as soon as they turned 14, we lost them to the streets. The children we had nurtured were the ones who broke into our home, rifling through our bedroom in search of valuables. Many got killed or were involved in a life of drug abuse and crime; the girls got pregnant at 15 or 16. It was heartbreaking.
In our context, the cost of the street leaders program is minimal compared with the payoff. This simple strategy has enabled us to stay connected to our kids during their most difficult years. It has also borne great fruit for the whole program. As we enter our fourth year at Urban Hope NYC, many of our first campers are becoming street leaders. All of our younger kids look up to—and look forward to being—street leaders. Our street leaders in turn understand that they have a responsibility to be an example to the little ones. It has been a joy to see the step-by-step transformation of the beautiful children of our neighborhood.
There is so much more to be done. The housing projects of our cities are among the neediest mission fields in the world. I think of them as villages, filled with thousands of residents who are yearning for transformation. There are as well many godly families in these neighborhoods that are longing for a healthy alternative for their children. Again, the difficulty is not evangelism but that the enormous and heavy catch often breaks the nets.
Please join us in prayer as we envision children’s churches rising up in hundreds of housing project communities in New York City and throughout our nation. God’s promise to us throughout the years has been: “The desert and the parched land will be glad, the wilderness will rejoice and blossom” (Isa. 35:1). We have great reason to rejoice as we watch our urban wilderness blossom and bloom. We rejoice in the mighty hand of God and in His great love.