The Bowery Mission is on the lower eastside of Manhattan. It is near the World Trade Center. I don’t know how close it was to the WTC and if it is in existence today. This is the Mission where Fanny Crosby supposedly played for a portion of her career. I think she had a ministry there if my understanding is correct. Hector took us to the Mission. It was set-up for us to go there, have a meal, take a tour of the facility, ask the main guy some questions and then hold a service. The BM was in a seedy side of town. I remember one time stepping out the door of the mission onto the sidewalk and there was a naked pornographic woman picture right at the door to where you had to step on it. It hit you immediately. I suspected someone planted it there to “trip up” the folks that came out of the Mission. I don’t know. Porn was so prevalent in certain places and situations that it is hard to tell if it was planted or just the way things were in the city.
We went in and they gave us an immediate tour. It was a dengy kind of place. It was very old. There were multiple floors. I think he showed us a piano supposedly played by Crosby. We sat at a large table that was situated right behind the stage. I didn’t know it at the time, but when we got up to walk through a doorway we were right on the stage facing the congregation. We ate the meal and the main guy gave a presentation of the mission. I think he was also trying to solicit support for the mission. We were cautious because if I remember correctly they didn’t use the King James Bible and that was a sign that we didn’t want to become too involved with these people.
We finished the meal and then moved through the passageway and stepped on the back of the stage. The people were already ready. The auditorium was divided into two parts. Facing the crowd, the mission workers were on the right and dressed all in white. They were predominately African-American. The left side were street people and I couldn’t tell if they were black, white, Italian, Asian or what. They were unbelievably dirty. We were about 4 feet or more above floor level. We were in coats and ties and pressed white shirts. We were dressed to the religious nines. There was congregational singing w/piano accompaniment. The Mission workers began singing, swaying and worshipping like black people, very soulful. It was one of the most incredible experiences I had ever had. It was surreal. It was deeply spiritual. I engaged God. They were swaying and clapping and singing to God. I was stoic and glancing from left to right. They were black and the other side of the room was dirty. I glanced down the line looking at my very white brothers to see if anyone was tipping their hand so to speak. My friend Shannon was crying. He was overcome. I stepped out of the line and walked down to Shannon. I hugged him and told him that we were 860 miles from home and nobody would know about it; go ahead and loosen your tie and get into it. I took my tie and coat off, rolled up my starched white sleeves and began to clap, sway and cry like a baby.
We were standing outside a restaurant early one evening looking for a place to eat. I went to NY thinking that I was going to eat some authentic food from many different cultures. Boy, was I in for a shock. We were standing in front of this restaurant and the only question that seemed to matter was whether the restaurant sold alcohol or not. I couldn’t believe it. I was not surprised that that was the question of the evening, but I was still amazed that there was a hesitancy about going into the restaurant. They resisted. They could not be in the same building where alcohol was sold.
I told them that I didn’t drive over 800 miles to eat at McDonalds. I was not about to eat at some chain on my first and potentially only trip to New York City. Well, we ate at Wendy’s. It was sad. Welcome to my world. I could not reconcile that kind of interpretation from Scripture. It made no sense to me. It was a preference that was amazingly inconsistent. And I was being self-righteous about the whole thing.
There was angst in my soul regarding my religion. This was an early sign that I was a misfit among my brothers. This was part of a continuum of evidences that told me that I was a fish out of my element. Unfortunately I didn’t know there was any other place to go. There were no options for me except for the option in which I existed.
The inconsistencies were all over the map. We could watch a football game played by godless people who promote hedonism and a low to no view of the local church that was shown on a TV that is owned by a godless corporation. The TV network is similarly godless and has done as much to promote godlessness in our culture as anything else. We buy gasoline from godless corporations and just about every other association we have has some connection to paganism. It is the world in which we live. However, somebody said that alcohol is worse than these other things and therefore we can be inconsistent as long as we believe there are degrees of sin, paganism, compromise, etc. The bible would not support this position, but depending on the group you are talking to you would find yourself in situations where you have crossed somebody’s artificial line of asceticism. It could be tricky for the novice, but once you get in and learn the ropes you knew where to step and not step. You also learned body language, the art of observation and question asking to quickly assess a situation to know if you have crossed the line or were about to. For me I was about at the end of caring for this kind of artificial, superficial religion. I was peeking over the fence and these brothers in NYC were a great help in this process.
They didn’t have the luxury to created ascetic practices. They were tyring to survive.
I fell in love with New York City. I felt as though I belonged there. It was my place. I was in love immediately. It was a full sensory experience. My expectations were immediately altered. I went in thinking one thing and was nearly catapulted to another way of thinking. The people were not mean. They were gracious, friendly and engaging. The Christians in NY were more gracious than any Christian people I had ever met. They were different. They did not have the luxury to created standards, rules, preferences and ascetic practices. They lived in another place. They were not in the bastion of fundamentalism where you can create lists and rules to live by. They were in survival mode. I had never been in such a culture. It was not safe. My practices and ways were being attacked at the level of my heart. I felt like a lot of my religious practices were mainly peripheral and artificial.
They prayed for parking places when they were coming to a place where they needed to park. They began praying 5 minutes beforehand. I had never prayed in my life for a parking place. I’m a Christian of privilege. They mixed with nearly every imaginable kind of cultural background and ethnicity. If I witnessed to a black person in Greenville, South Carolina and he wanted to begin attending church meetings then I would tell him about a “black” church he could attend, but he couldn’t attend my church. In NY all colors attended the same church. It was incredible. It was refreshing.
My first Sunday in Queens at All Nations Bible Baptist Church I went in the front door and saw all the diversity. It was amazing. I met a man named Hector Henriquez. I told him about something and asked him to pray about it. He listened and then said, “Let’s pray right now.” At that moment right inside the auditorium door we were praying, right in front of everyone. There were people milling around in front and all around us. It was a bit uncomfortable and a bit releasing. I had moved off the epi-center of religion and out onto the periphery where folks did things different. I called this a “frontier religion”. They were out from under the all-seeing eye of “everyman” that seemingly tracked everything from the length of your hem, the type of clothes you wore, the places you went and the people you hung out with. There was none of this in NY. They had other things to deal with. They were surviving. They were living an authentic Christian life. I wanted to be there. The cloud of legalism was breaking up in my mind and I could begin talking with anyone, making friends with everyone, engaging all people and inviting them to “my” church, which was located at the American Legion Hall. They also didn’t have the luxury of having their own building. They could not afford it. It was cost prohibitive.
David, myself and about 6 other guys went on that first NYC mission trip. I don’t remember the other guys altogether. It was Shannon Harrell. I think Jess Revis went with us as well. There were some other guys, but I can’t remember at this time. We drove a couple of cars if I remember correctly. I do remember driving the Buick up there on one of the trips. I remember stopping outside of NYC and taking the wheel covers off so they wouldn’t be ripped off once we got into the town.
I think it was the first trip that we took a wrong turn and ended up in New Jersey. To get into NJ was not hard to do since the city is somewhat contiguous to NYC. We were in a sub-division in NJ trying to get turned around and back out and hopefully toward NYC. Actually we were going to Queens in all of these trips. When I say “NYC” I mean “Queens”. While we were in the sub-division we noticed live deer walking across the yard of this guy’s house. It was sort of surreal to see deer in a sub-division, particularly since that sub-division was in NJ somewhat contiguous to NYC. It was really weird.
We made it to Queens and stayed at this lady’s house who was a speech pathologist I think. Her name may have been Janet. She stayed upstairs and we all stayed in the apartment-type house. It reminded me of the introduction to All in the Family. The houses looked like the intro to that TV show. I think Janet stayed with somebody else while we were there. She gave us her place.
My first two impressions of NYC I was not prepared for. On that first night I was on the balcony of the apartment looking out in the street. I looked as far as I could in every possible direction and all I could see were cars. They were on both sides of the street and on both sides of the street going up both side streets on my left and right. There were no empty parking spaces. I saw hundreds of cars in that brief time on the balcony. I began to weep uncontrollably. Those cars represented people and people represented souls and souls were the reason we were there. It was an unforgettable moment. I was overwhelmed by the number of people in that city.
The other initial memory was the niceness of the people. I was expecting to see bloodshed, gun shots and more. TV had altered my view of the city. It was not like that at all.