Friday, August 29, 2014

Feeding the Five Thousand in Harlem

Last week, we had a week of (dis)orientation at Stony Point Center in Stony Point, New York. It’s only about 30 minutes outside of New York City, so we spent one of our days exploring the city.

We traveled as our small groups of six YAVs and our YAVA (Young Adult Volunteer Alum) facilitator to four different sites in and around the city. Three small groups went to each site. We were sent out to the Presbyterian Office at the United Nations, a Hindu temple in Queens, a Sikh Gurudwara in New Jersey, and Church of The Master in Harlem.

I was in the group that went to the Church of The Master in Harlem. The church developed when white flight caused Morningside Presbyterian Church to close its doors. Rev. Eugene Robinson saw it as an opportunity to begin a new church for the new residents of Morningside Heights in Harlem. Church of The Master was able to use the building to develop what has become a thriving ministry.

We heard about a summer day camp program, the Federal Credit Union that is operated out of the church, the community children’s choir, a young men’s basketball league, and an expansive music and dance ministry.

As we walked from the subway station to the church, we tried our best to “be cool,” as Lydia told us, and not seem like lost tourists. We were some of the only white people walking the streets. As we walked past one street vendor he yelled out to my small group, “Hey white people who speak Spanish and French, this is Harlem. Just because Taye Diggs won’t speak to us doesn’t mean that you can’t!” Don’t ask me what that means. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. We all awkwardly stood at the corner until the light changed and we could walk across the street, but we did not talk to him.

That was the difficult part of this trip. I’m used to smiling, waving, and saying hello to people as I pass them. “Being cool” meant keep your gaze forward, walk with a purpose, and don’t look lost. In work that I’ve done with homeless populations, one of the biggest takeaways has been that we should acknowledge the homeless and not ignore them, as it can feel like an invalidation of humanity if they are invisible to the public. However, I did not know if my greetings would be misinterpreted simply because I am a young white woman. Would it make me more likely to be a victim of pickpocketing? My sentiments may not have been received well due to my privileged status based on my race and the perceptions that come with that. What was the right thing to do? I’m afraid I still don’t know, but that’s ok.

When we arrived to the church, they fed us lunch and began to talk to us about the church. Rev. John Belle is the current pastor who gave us a bit of history about the church. We then heard about the summer day camp and federal credit union from Elder Effie Bynum, the matriarch of the church who has been involved with anything and everything in the church. Elder Rory Scott then told us about his community children’s choir ministry. Lastly, we heard from Elder Will and his involvement in the Harlem Council of Presbyterian Church’s youth basketball league.

One of the first questions we asked was where the name of the church came from. The Church of The Master. Given the history of race relations in the United States, it seemed unusual to me that the African-American congregation would choose to include in the name of their church a word that has such an association with the times of slavery. However, Elder Effie explained to us that it was named Church of The Master (Yes, the T is capitalized) because they only serve one Master, who is God. Anyone who tries to call it Church of The Masters will be swiftly corrected because God is the ultimate Master, and God is One.

The mime and dance ministries incorporate almost every generation in the church. The children dance in the mime ministry. The more experienced women of the church dance in the Silver Streamers ministry. As Rev. Belle put it, “Don’t think that because you see smoke out the chimney that there isn’t a fire in the furnace!” This congregation is definitely dedicated to serving people at every stage in life and throughout the lifetime.

As anyone knows, ministries cost money. Money for supplies, resources, music, food, etc. The really awesome part of this church and all of its ministries is that they do not come out of the church’s budget. A lay member feels a call to start a certain ministry. The member then lets the congregation know of this ministry and the need for funds. Somehow the funds come through in order for the ministry to happen, and it does not affect the church’s operating budget. Time and time again, we heard of examples of this; hence, the title of this blog. When the Spirit wills it, the resources will be there in order to support God’s work in the church, community, and world.

As we heard about all of these ministries, we were sure that the church had to have several hundred or thousand members. Nope. This church has only about 130 members. They take very seriously the idea that whatever God gives, God expects back. It is a church that relies on its strong community as a support system through which they can do God’s work. They truly believe that God will provide, always. It was amazing to see new ideas welcomed and begun so quickly. As Elder Effie put it, “What harm is in new things?” I think that’s a lesson many Presbyterians would do well to learn, including myself. Hope clearly abounds in this church.

Rev. Belle also had some words of wisdom for us as we ventured out into new cultures to live and serve. As he learned from his move from North Carolina to New York City, you don’t have to bite the apple, just nibble. Eventually you will feel comfortable in your community within the greater context and can expand your horizons throughout the city. These are good words for me, a lover of small towns and communities. He also advised us to “Learn the culture, respect the culture, but be your authentic self” and to “Meet people where they are.” These are valuable words for encountering any culture, whether familiar or different.

We ended our time at Church of The Master with a powerful anointing service. Elder Effie, Elder Will, and Rev. Belle came to each table and anointed us with a mixture of frankincense and myrrh by marking us with a cross on our foreheads. I think this was a first experience for some, if not most of us. For me, it was a remembrance of the last, and only, time I was anointed. That time, a woman who went to Duke Divinity School and was in my small group at Triennium 2007 anointed and prayed for me following a fire drill in the building where our small group met. It was the first time I had heard a fire alarm since my house had caught on fire a few months earlier. (For those who don’t know the story, it was only on the porch, and my dad contained it with a garden hose. We were all safe and able to repair the damage.)

During this particular anointing, it served as a commissioning. The wonderful people we met at Church of The Master were sending us out to our volunteer sites with love, prayers, and blessings. Rev. Belle prayed as we stood in a circle, holding hands. During the prayer, he mentioned the words of one of my favorite hymns. God has asked, “Whom shall I send?” We have answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

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