NEW YORK CITY – East 7th Baptist Church has prayed for the toughest assignments in serving the neediest people. In God’s care, the church has ministered through 9/11 and now is a healing balm to survivors of Hurricane Sandy.
Three weeks after the superstorm killed 110 people along the East Coast – nearly half of them in New York – the church known as Graffiti is busy helping people recover by meeting physical and spiritual needs.
The 40-year-old church that typically draws 100 to Sunday worship has served thousands in the wake of the hurricane through partnerships God has provided, said adult ministries director Kareem Goubran.
“When a disaster hits … the needs will be long-term [and] the response will be long-term. So pastor Taylor [Field], our director, always said we want to be light, not just lightning,” Goubran said. “We know God’s called us … as a local church to be light, to give ongoing ministry to people who have been affected.”
In post-Sandy ministry, the effectiveness of cooperation is evident, Goubran said.
“We try to do everything in ministry in partnership because we can’t do it by ourselves,” he said. As New York struggles to return to normalcy, Graffiti Church is helping residents clean their homes, eat and stay warm, working with partners in the Southern Baptist Convention and beyond.
East 7th Baptist Church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side continued its clothing closet ministry (right), even as trash accumulated (left) from the church’s flooded basement after superstorm Sandy. North Carolina Baptist Men and other disaster relief volunteers have cleaned several basements in the community, stripping them of damaged drywall, sheetrock, furnishings and debris.
“We did have kind of unprecedented ‘neighbors helping neighbors’” in tandem with ministries offering to help “because there was such a specific need for every building around us. I think we had at one time nine different churches helping us,” Goubran said.
The church is incorporating recovery within its longstanding ministries. While power has been restored to the majority of local residents, many people are still in the cold and dark. Graffiti’s Internet and phone service still had not been restored the day before Thanksgiving, but the church has electricity.
Wednesday’s annual Thanksgiving meal will take the place of the weekly Wednesday night soup kitchen, likely drawing 150 residents who will not only find a traditional Thanksgiving meal, Goubran said, but will benefit from fellowship and chaplaincy care.
Graffiti’s free lunch in the park Nov. 17 became a Thanksgiving in the park when the church distributed hats, gloves, socks and blankets with freshly packaged Thanksgiving meals to go. The Saturday meal, served three weekends each month, drew some who never before had a need to attend, Goubran said.
“It was notable this year when we were doing this, we asked people, ‘What are you thankful for?’ So many people are just talking about that experience with Hurricane Sandy,” Goubran said. “We’ve been hearing people just say, ‘Thank you that you’re reaching out to us.’ People need kind of a listener, a chaplain, a caregiver to [hear] ‘how I was affected, how I’m still affected,’ and you know, ‘Where is God and where is hope in all of this?’”
The church’s afterschool program and computer, ESL and GED classes are all settings for fellowship and healing. The Lower East Side used to be called a ghetto, Goubran said, but is now a dichotomy.
“Now it’s really a tale of two cities. We have the richest and the poorest living right next to each other in the Lower East Side,” he said. “The population that was hit this time was not just people who are in poverty or struggling with addiction, or homeless, or dealing with a mental illness, which is the population we are used to serving. [These are] people who are young professionals who live in the community who just got flooded basements and don’t know what to do.”
Many new faces were evident at Grafitti’s post-Sandy seminar on preventing mold from festering in damaged basements.
“We had over a hundred people that we’d never met before, even though we’re always doing ministry in our community,” Goubran said. “We feel like the neighbors know us and we know them.”
The church also held a “listening” seminar to teach church members chaplaincy skills.
“Let people tell the story. Don’t tell them how to feel. Be pleasant. The same way when you pray you don’t always hear an audible voice, that’s a sign that God is listening to you when you have something to say,” Goubran said in describing the church’s advice. “That’s the posture we take when we engage people. We just ask people, ‘How are you doing since Hurricane Sandy?’ And people will tell their story.”
People have said, “I can’t believe the water came this high. I can’t believe we were out of power for so long.’ Or ‘We still don’t have heat,’” Goubran recounted. “A lot of people say, ‘I’m still cold’ or ‘I still don’t have hot water.’”
Longtime Graffiti minister Johnny Johnson, serving as the church’s flood recovery coordinator, also noted how Hurricane Sandy has allowed a wider reach within the community.
“It’s allowed us to cross racial boundaries and kind of engage Muslims, Asians, Buddhists,” Johnson said, “because when something like that happens, there are no more color lines. The color lines just disappear. It’s about a need and fulfilling that need.”
Johnson, a lifelong New York resident and trained social worker, said Sandy’s storm surge surprised fellow residents.
“This is a historical thing for Manhattan on the Lower East Side, because I’ve lived here all my life. If it ever flooded, it came out of the river maybe about four feet onto the pavement. This time … it came about three blocks out of the river. People just weren’t prepared for it,” he said, noting that the affected blocks comprise an extensive number of structures.
Johnson has been working with North Carolina Baptist Men and other volunteers to help Lower East Side residents clean flooded basements. His firsthand knowledge has made it easier for out-of-state volunteers to respond, said Gary Holland, onsite coordinator for the North Carolina volunteers.
Holland’s group has completed about 12 projects in the Lower East Side and is still working on three other requests to clear flooded basements. North Carolina’s outreach in New York’s five boroughs could extend into next year, Holland said, depending on requests for help.
“We, the Baptist Men of North Carolina, have worked with the metropolitan area of New York for several years. It’s a good relationship that’s been going on for years and we just wanted to continue that,” Holland said. “About everybody [who] comes to Graffiti falls in love with Graffiti Church. It’s hard to forget them.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer.)