About a year and half ago I began a journey I never imagined would change me in the way it has. In April 2016 I was pastoring a church plant in the Park Slope community of NYC. I was leading a group of adults towards missional living in a context that was in many ways safe to for of us. While doing this I received a call from a community leader from the Red Hook community asking when would I be planting a church in Red Hook. I shared my vision of planting there in about 4-5yr. I wanted to get the church in Park Slope “healthy” enough to send a team to plant in Red Hook.
To my surprise, God had other plans. June of 2016 I hosted a Collegiate Missions Team from GenSend who spent the entire summer serving in the Red Hook community. The goal was to discern if God was leading us to Red Hook. Fast forward, September 2016 I meet with our Core Team to discuss shifting our focus from Park Slope to Red Hook. Overwhelmingly, everyone agreed we needed to be in Red Hook on Mission. So we moved to Red Hook October 2016, began hosting bible studies Jan 2017 and launched Redemption Church April 2018. Along the way God has taught me a number of lessons. Here are 5 Lessons that continue to teach and shape me and our church.Don’t Despise what God calls Beautiful
Being born and raised in Brooklyn, NY I knew the community of Red Hook. I remember it being known as one of those communities you wouldn’t go to unless you had to, and you didn’t go by yourself. Back in 1988 LIFE Magazine labeled Red Hook as the “Crack Capitol of the world.” So, I knew what Red Hook was about and I had absolutely no desire to plant a church there. However, I found myself working in this community after it was hit by hurricane Sandy. During my time serving there, my heart broke for the needs of the people but even more, my heart broke seeing the need for gospel truth to touch them. So many lived life with very little hope in change and progress. A community that once looked undesirable to me now became a community with so much beauty and potential for change, gospel change. Lesson 1 was – Don’t despise what God calls Beautiful. I found out quickly that God loved Red Hook, even with all her brokenness and past. God had not given up on saving her so I needed to do what I could to bring the God News of this truth to all that would be willing to listen.
One of my preconceived thoughts in coming to Red Hook was that we would have a hard time getting people to listen to the Gospel. Quickly I found that was not true. In fact, I found myself praying for people everyday on street corners, in bodegas, and in coffee shops. Yes, Red Hook isn’t just known for being the second largest housing development in NYC, it is home to one of the fastest gentrifying communities in the city. The problem wasn’t that people didn’t want to hear the Gospel – the issue was what they had already heard and seen fleshed out wasn’t an accurate depiction of the gospel. There are 8 or more churches in the community and many of them have been there for years. Most people have attended or have family members who still attend, yet there was and still remains a great disconnect between the churches and the community. One of the most encouraging things I found was that most people actually wanted to know more about God, Jesus, Christianity and most importantly “What is the role of the Church in the community?”
People wanted the church to be the church. They want the church to have answers to real life questions, they want the church engaged in community issues. They want the church to have a prophetic voice for the voiceless. Unfortunately, the church hadn’t been doing a good job in being the church. As a result most people Redemption Church encountered had a distorted view of the Church and the Good News. This resulted in a hesitation to trust us, which I myself would feel the same if I had their same experience. People, in fact desire the church to be the church but in this community there was a history of disengagement. There aren’t not many community in NYC that actually are opening the doors for the Church to lead and take ownership in the way Red Hook has. I believe God was setting us up! He placed us in a community that was undesirable yet was crying out for the Church to love and serve in amazing ways.
As we began serving this amazing community we shifted our apologetic from simply telling truth to Authentic Gospel Living. People know the Bible, they heard every story and even more whoopin and hollering preaching. They went to every church in the community, they wore their Sunday best. They dedicated their kids at Grandma’s church and even gave to the building fund. Yet, what they hadn’t seen was the fleshing out of Authentic Discipleship. They hadn’t seen the Church love them when they failed, they hadn’t seen the church stick with them even when they didn’t show up to Sunday service.
We have seen people come to faith because we have walked with them for over a year in their mess and the challenges of life without them ever stepping foot in church. We have had people show up to every community event, eat all the food we gave out for free, benefit from our community giveaways – yet never hold that over their heads as bait. This kind of love has caused so many to question our motivation. It has caused them to consider the “Why” we do what we do. The answer is simple…we love Red Hook! People really don’t care how much bible you know. They want to know if all that bible can translate to applying it, and specifically applying it in relationship to them. Our greatest apologetic has become loving, Loving God and Neighbor.
In the way that our apologetic is loving others well, our method of loving is shown in our commitment to be on the ground in the community. A great lesson in planting has been the need to be a part of the community and not parachute in from a safe outside context. If we truly are going to love people we must be willing to be with them and feel the weight of their burdens. For years I did ministries in churches that taught me I needed to live far from the people we tried reaching. I was told I needed to have a place I can be alone and be myself, which is unbiblical. The more I find myself serving in Red Hook the more convinced and convicted I am that Jesus was intentional in being born from a 16yr virgin in an undesirable hood and living among the broken and marginalized. For the first time in over 20yrs I find myself doing ministry in a way that the Bible speaks of. It’s messy, ugly, difficult and challenging to say the least yet it is the most fulfilling, the most dynamic, and the most joyful time of my life. I am seeing God in ways and in placed I never had in the past. I get to see God on the street corner of Lorrain Street when I stand waiting for the bus in front of the Spanish food restaurant and someone calls out “Yo Pastor, will you guys be at the park tonight?”, I get to see God when I serve at my daughters school teaching Robotics to 4th graders and another parent tells me that “Shawna (one of our members) had just invited her out to our Life Groups this week and she is considering coming because she needs direction in life although she is an Atheist.” I get to see God when that mother who was praying and asking God to answer her prayers breaks down in tears because we just gave her kid a backpack full of school supplies that she didn’t have money for. I see God when we are able to prayer walk our community and get approached by the NYPD who share with us that crimes are down in the community and they believe us being out every week plays a part in it. I get to see God when we are able to baptize former, drug addicts, people who formerly wrestled with depression and suicide, couples who had been separated and now have been reconciled and living for the Lord, and even the blessing of seeing my 12yr old come to faith in Jesus as a result of understanding that Gospel by way of a VBS lesson at the park.
It matters that we, as a church are on the ground love and serving our community. It matters that when people see us they know we are invested in the real issues of Red Hook. Not that we “come in” but rather that we are “Living in It”. Jesus left heaven and came and dwelt among the very people He was called to. Proximity Matters. Being present matters. Living with the lost matters. Loving your community matters. Don’t fall for the lie that you need to be above those you’re called to serve. You will find the greatest joy and see God the greatest when you are right in the cut of it all. People will trust you and pull out of you what God has already put up in you. In the words of the prophet Kendrick Lamar I would encourage you to “Sit down, Be Humble.”
As we serve, love, and reach the people of Red Hook the goal is not to have bigger better Sunday services. The goal is to make disciples. We believe that if we make disciples they Church will take shape. People with gifts will put them on the table and serve. Leaders will lead, people will evangelize, others will serve, and the Church will be the church. Too often we begin by building churches and incorporating “Discipleship” as a ministry of the church. However, this thinking is backward, the church exists to make disciples. It cannot be a ministry of the church, it must be the reason for existing as a church. Discipleship is not a 1hour class at church, it’s life with others, people different than you for the glory of God. It’s taking the time, energy and effort to invest into others so that in doing so God can be made more real to them and those looking into their lives. Discipleship is thinking of others more than yourself, it’s putting God’s name on display while at the same time taking yourself out the picture and point people to the saving work of Jesus and not our own church. It’s calling people to live on mission with others, it’s paying the price of the Christian, its extending grace and mercy when and where we don’t want to, yet do it so we can become more like Jesus and less like our old self.
I pray you will live your life with purpose and passion to see people be reconciled to God and to one another. Don’t let the mediocrity of a self-seeking Christianity kill the call of God over your life. There is great joy in serving others, especially serving those who live on the margins of our social constructs. There is a blessing in being a voice for the voiceless. In standing for justice when it is difficult, holding fast to Truth when compromise is a much easier response. Make this life count and know there is a great reward that awaits those who are willing to lose this life, for the life that is to come will outweigh the glory of this one.