Life in Community

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Life in Community

Jesus In Harlem

February 12, 2019 by

A few years ago my wife and I were driving along a road in Montana when we passed a car going the other direction. It was a big deal – we hadn’t seen a sign of human life for over twenty minutes. We were passing through countryside with a population density of one person per square mile.

It’s funny to think of it now. Today we live in an area with over 83,000 people per square mile: Harlem, New York City. So does José Humphreys, pastor of Metro Hope Covenant Church in East Harlem.

It can seem difficult to do God’s work in such an intensely populated place, like a minnow swimming in a big ocean. It’s tempting to get discouraged, to think that only a megachurch could make a difference, but José knows a different measure of success that lies in simply following the call and being faithful. And so he embraces the challenge and opportunity of the diverse masses that surround him.

Cover of the book Seeing Jesus In Harlem

In his book Seeing Jesus in East Harlem: What Happens When Churches Show Up and Stay Put, José sets out three steps for such a church: show up, stay put, and see. José says he followed Christ’s invitation to come follow him and fish for men, which he translates simply as “showing up.” Staying put is a call to be “God’s experiment in how people stay together in a divided world” – it means not walking away when things get tough. The third step on this mission path requires using what José describes as the divine lens of the Spirit, which allows us to behold people in their fuller humanity as image bearers of Christ. José uses stories from the Gospel to illustrate this point, including the sinful woman who, after wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears, had her sins forgiven. The disciple Simon needed help truly “seeing” the woman – perceiving her humanity that is in common with our own brokenness and beauty.

No matter how much you decide to ignore it, race and social difference always seem to intrude into conversation and relationships in Harlem. Sociologists say that people unite best around class, race, and other commonalities. Sure enough, when José and his wife, Mayra, moved into this pluralistic terrain they encountered these strong headwinds. But by persevering through these emotional landscapes by using “good conversation” and “continual repentance” – essentially, learning from each other with love, and being ready to humbly change when we’re wrong – they found that Christian formation actually thrived.

Humphreys notes that in New York City many church planting efforts have tended to work around race and class boundaries instead of right in them. This has sadly perpetuated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s observation that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. Metro Hope Church has managed in a small way to change that by letting the Spirit “provide oxygen to those fatigued by a gospel story too narrow for a complex and ever changing world.”

Members of the Harlem community house singing and praising with some of their neighbors

Here at Harlem House we try to follow a similar path of outreaching discipleship, so after reading the book I went to visit José at his work around the corner from his church. He’s part of a program to help people re-enter society after prison, addiction, or joblessness. José shared his visions for more such efforts, inviting me to join a group of mentors that meets regularly to help convicts start a new life after prison. This is mission in action. As we toured I was reminded of a line in José’s book where he quotes Stanley Haurwas: “The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” Nothing like that here, just active love.

If it is through people that God is present then the population density of Harlem is a place of great potential activity for Jesus. I pray that along with the many other churches here we can be used to bring his light and hope to all. For this we promise to stay put and try to truly see, and then put our call into action.

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About the author

TimMaendel

Tim Maendel

Tim Maendel lives at the Bruderhof house in Harlem, NY where he and his wife are house parents to a number of college...

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