well its a thursday, its mid-morning, and i'm sitting in my office here at the church. it occurs to me that last week at this very hour i was in a very different place. i was about a block and a half away from the coney island boardwalk. if i looked out the window i could see the famous nathan's hot dog restaurant. it was about 90 degrees and so hazy that i couldn't even see the top of the cyclone; it just sort of faded into fog as it rose upwards. i had never been to coney island before, and normally i soak all of this stuff in. but i wasn't thinking about the sights and sounds and smells of coney island. i wasn't a tourist last week.
i was standing upstairs in a room that i had never been in. people were beginning to come in and find a seat in the rows of folding metal chairs. i was noticing the variety of people that kept entering the room: an older couple, i would guess in their seventies; a few african american women, a young hispanic man. it was clear, though, that they all had one thing in common: they were here for the food. salt and sea is a mission that provides a variety of services, not the least of which is a daily worship service after which those in attendance receive a bag of groceries. the director, and leader of the worship service, was not able to be there last thursday due to a family obligation, and had specifically asked that, since i was a preacher and all, i might come and lead the service. i had not met her. i had not been in the building. i had no idea what this ministry even consisted of. but there i was, having rode the subway over from 4th avenue and 54th street. a few of the youth were there with me, just as nervous as i was because they had been asked to share a testimony of God's presence in their journies. and we wondered what was about to unfold.
i began with a welcome. i tried to say something humerous but no one laughed. all i could see were the barriers between me and those who had come for food: racial barriers, economic barriers, language barriers (many spoke broken english), cultural barriers, and even barriers about expectations. i began to sweat but i resolved that i would forge through this with as much confidence as i could muster, and with faithfulness to the Good News of Jesus, even in the midst of the difficult lives these people were living.
and so we sang. i learned a caribbean gospel song called "jonah went down to ninevah-town," and i preached the gospel with as much hope as i could conjure. the youth were amazing with their testimonies. and, as ungraceful as that hour was, the Spirit was there among us. there was hunger and pain and grief and hurt and poverty and barriers and brokenness and there was God.
that is just one of my experiences from my trip to new york city last week. it was an awesome trip for so many reasons, none less important than the fact that the 40 or so youth that went had the opportunity to see Jesus in the city, in the eyes of the hungry, and in the least expected places. i had the opportunity to get to know some of the youth better and really build relationship with them as we served together. i got to sleep on the basement floor of a church. i got to ride the subway a ton. i got to drink dunkin' donuts coffee each morning. i got to work at a soup kitchen and a food pantry. i got to walk across the brooklyn bridge. i got to spend almost a week in the city that i love so strongly, a city of such noise. i wrote this one day on the subway:
so i'm in a nyc subway right now.
eight something in the morning.
leaving manhattan, silver city,
there's so many sounds here,
but i'm not sure anyone hears them.
the subway croaks and groans and beeps and
squeaks and stretches and sighs.
it even talks.
there is babel-speech in every tongue,
the hum of fans,
the din of detritis.
we are moving, and
making alot of noise,
but are we getting anywhere,
and is anyone listening?
each afternoon we returned to our neighborhood in brooklyn to lead a vbs program, and each afternoon i wondered if anyone was listening. we had somewhere around 10-12 kids each day for vbs, and i sometimes wondered if the truth we were trying to tell was really being heard. i pray that we were able to show love to those kids, to really communicate that God is in love with them. i loved them, even little julio.
one day (it was also thursday, come to think of it), we played some water games in the park before heading back to the church for the lesson. of course it was really fun for all the kids to douse the old fat white guy, so i came back completely soaked. nice. anyway, when we got back to the church, julio was out of control. whatever he wasn't supposed to be doing, he was doing, and doing it quickly. finally, in an effort to keep some sanity in the sanctuary, i grabbed julio and held him on my lap. since he wouldn't participate with the group, we had our own little vbs in which he told me that jesus was a spirit because all the people killed him. all of this was really cool until julio asked me why he was so wet. "you're so wet because we just played water games in the park and dumped water all over each other. look, i'm wet too."
julio then touched my wet t-shirt and his eyes got very big. "you peed yourself, too?" he asked, astonished.
"no, i didn't pee myself," i said, incredulously.
"i did. i peed myself," he quipped, matter-of-factly.
and did he ever. all at once i understood that that peculiar smell wasn't just a mixture of water balloons and sweat. nope. it was urine. 5-year old urine. julio urine. alot of urine. all-over-my-pants urine. and so i did all i could do: i loved him. i pretended like it didn't even matter, and we just went on having our own little vbs, working together to make his salvation bracelet, in which he told me that the green bead was for frogs, which are green, and which grow just like Jesus wants him to grow. by the end i had him knowing that the purple bead was for royalty because kings wear purple and someday he will be a king in god's kingdom. "i'm going to be a king?" he asked, as wide-eyed as before.
"you bet," answered the old fat white guy with urine all over his pants. "you bet."
still, the pee-all-over-my-pants episode wasn't the highlight of my trip. the highlight was the immersion experience. 4 of our teenagers were given a little mission, and i was to accompany them on this mission, but offer nothing in terms of advice or help. i was only there to make sure they stayed safe and obeyed the rules of the immersion. their task was to use the subway system to get to the east village in manhattan and then do a series of tasks there (including things like interview people about homelessness in the neighborhood, etc.). the biggest challenge, though, is that each of us was only given $2 for lunch, and that was all we were allowed to spend to feed not only ourselves but also at least one homeless person.
it was my immense joy to watch as these young people discussed and thought and wrestled with how to best use their money. after much deliberation, they finally decided to pool all the money and use the $10 to buy bread and bologna to make sandwiches. they purchased as much as their ten bucks would get them (they had a quarter left over which they also gave away), and then went to tompkins square park to find anyone who was hungry. there were a number of homeless folks there in the park, and so they had no problem getting rid of the sandwiches. all in all, they gave out 17 bologna sandwiches to people who clearly appreciated them. i was especially moved by the fact that they took such special care to assemble each sandwich right in front of the recipient, so there would be no questions about where it came from. they were trying to bring as much dignity to the situation as they possibly could. on the way home we sat on the subway and ate our bologna sandwiches, with the heels of the bread and with our own dirty hands. i thought about communion and the heavenly banquet. i thought about how we met Jesus there in the park. and i thought about how incredible it is to be in ministry with these young human beings who, at least for one morning, gave out grace in the form of bologna sandwiches. that was the highlight on my week in new york city.
thanks be to God for hope. for julio. for bologna. for the breaking of barriers. for new york city. for grace. for that heavenly banquet which we look forward to.