NEW YORK — Rubbing graffiti from a public school desktop, scraping chewing gum from under a table, preparing a wall for painting or enlisting individuals for HIV testing may not sound like the best way to spend a few vacation days, but that’s how some people put feet to their faith this summer.
On a Monday leading up to the Fourth of July weekend, Beth McCart found herself in the Bronx, putty knife and can of spackle in hand, as she filled holes in a wall in a clinic that provides mentoring support to children of parents living with HIV/AIDS.
A few miles away in the heart of Manhattan, college student Sarah Beth Clark was painting a stairwell in a four-story apartment building. And over in Harlem, Jim Bass and Hill Boyett were standing on a sidewalk passing out brochures and encouraging passersby to enter a clinic for free HIV testing.
The volunteers from Ingleside Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., and First Baptist Church of Snellville, Ga., were among 270 volunteers from several states who responded to a call to minister in the five boroughs of New York City. The outreach was sponsored by Gallery Church, an up-and-coming inner city congregation sponsored by Ingleside and others nationwide.
Gallery’s pastor, Aaron Coe, and his staff worked for most of the past year to identify ministry sites throughout the city where volunteers could provide community service in the name of Christ. Georgians who participated said seeds were sown that will help the church develop a higher profile among those with whom they served.
“Events like ‘City Uprising’ — what we are calling this week’s outreach — have a strong future with our congregation,” Coe said as he drove between ministry sites citywide. “We already have dates for 2010 on the calendar and are hoping to have even larger groups from Georgia and other states next summer.”
In addition to the New York event, the congregation sponsored a similar City Uprising in late July in Baltimore, where the church has planted a second congregation.
“Whether we are scraping gum or performing arts ministry in Central Park, we are leaving New Yorkers with a sense of the presence of Gallery Church and that we love them but, more importantly, Jesus loves them. That’s the bottom line in what we are wanting to accomplish,” Coe, a Kentucky native, added.
Gallery members were scattered among more than 40 ministry sites the first week of July. Among the most grateful were the health clinics that strive to test residents for HIV/AIDS. Coe said he and other members determined the clinics were ideal places for the volunteers to offer their services.
The spread of HIV/AIDS is explosive in portions of New York City. The Bronx, with an estimated 20,000 cases, has the highest death rate of any of the five boroughs because of the poverty among minority populations such as Hispanics and Latinos. The sharing of needles through widespread drug use spreads the virus as much as unprotected sex.
“We discovered that one of the biggest needs of the clinics was to get people in off the streets to receive the free tests. So many individuals are living with the disease and have never been tested. … You can’t do an adequate job of stopping the spread of the disease if those who have it do not change their risky behavior,” Coe said.
“The clinics are there to help the physical need, but we want to be there to help with the spiritual care that comes when individuals are told they are HIV positive. There is probably no greater life-changing event for some people than to be told they have the virus. We, as the church, feel we need to be there when an individual’s world suddenly changes when they get that diagnosis,” Coe said. “We want to be part of that conversation when people begin to ask the hard questions about life.”
The volunteers provided a simple yet priceless community service. They stood on sidewalks and handed out leaflets urging individuals to stop briefly for a free HIV screening. At some point, if the opportunity presented itself, they said they were from a local church and invited people to attend a worship service.
The clinics test up to 10 individuals in an average month, while providing other services. When they are given funding to pay someone to distribute the leaflets, they may administer 10 tests a day. But experience has shown that when volunteers from Gallery pass out the leaflets, the clinics test up to 40 a day, Coe said.
There was more to City Uprising than HIV testing. Volunteers worked in public schools to move furniture and scrape bubble gum, paint walls in social services centers like Health People in the South Bronx, and provide arts ministries in Central Park and Battery Park, overlooking the harbor and the Statue of Liberty.
Wherever they went, volunteers told strangers about Gallery’s ministry and invited them to attend worship services or small group meetings. Jonathan Rich, pastor of the arts at Atlanta’s 1027 Church, was right at home engaging tourists and city residents in conversation about art in some of the city’s parks.
Armed with a simple notepad and pencil, he asked individuals to make a quick sketch and to explain what they attempted to draw. Then he invited them to visit the church later that week when the sketch and others from throughout the city would be displayed as community art.
“New York City is very arts-centered and people love to view and discuss art in various forms. Gallery’s presence in one of the arts neighborhoods plays into that and is a natural way to reach into the community,” Rich said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. For more information on Gallery Church or next year’s “City Uprising,” visit gallerychurch.com.)