Last week I went on my first mission trip, on which I learned the many melodies to the lyrics, “God is Great, God is Good.”
A group from my church partnered with The Gallery Church in New York City. Gallery Church hosted an event called City Uprising, with the motto, “Propel the Church to Prosper the City.” About 270 volunteers from New York, Texas, and Tennessee came to the three-day event.
Gallery’s focus is the HIV/AIDS problem in New York.
New York has more HIV cases than Miami, LA, San Fransisco, and Chicago combined. Nearly 100,000 New Yorkers have HIV/AIDS, and researchers estimate another 40,000 have the disease but are unaware of it. In Chelsea, the region of Manhattan in which I stayed, 25% of the men have HIV.
One of the reasons Gallery is trying so hard to help with the HIV problem is that the church as a whole has a poor record of dealing with HIV. We stigmatize people who contract the disease through drug needles or sex. One thinks of men and women on New York street corners holding signs that claim “God hates fags” or “AIDS victims deserve it.” One woman who works with HIV/AIDS patients said, “To me, Christians are the same as terrorists.” (Consider what the people of New York have gone through at the hands of religious extremists.)
Though God does not support the drug use or the sex outside of marriage that can lead to contracting HIV, God loves people. So does His Church. It’s time to show it.
Gallery does not combat HIV/AIDS simply because it is an epidemic; Gallery confronts the disease to show the people–the victims of the disease and the doctors, nurses, and volunteers who help them–the love of Jesus. Plain and simple.
City Uprising’s main goal was to help NYC’s many HIV/AIDS clinics tell men and women that free HIV tests are available. If one man were to find out he was positive and change his behavior, over 2,000 people could be saved from infection!
We handed out thousands of these cards. It is a perfect mirror of the gospel message for people whose hearts are hardened to the Good News: “We’re here to tell you about the free help that has been provided to you; all you have to do is accept!”
HIV testing card
HIV testing card
Sunday night my group found out that our duty on Monday would be to pass out cards, and we determined where to meet in the morning.
Monday morning I rolled out of bed. Sick. The kind of cramping that makes me want to lie in bed with a heating pad and sleep all day. Near a toilet, preferably, because I’ll likely revisit any medicine I take.
For once, my prayers started as soon as I woke up.
Lord, I’m not gonna make it without some help. Lord, I really, really don’t want to throw up on a New York street. Lord, help!
A song lyric replayed in my head: “When the strength you need is the strength you lack, I’m right where I’ve always been: right by your side.”
One of the blessings of being under the weather so often is I now know what to take. I took my best medicines, walked with my partner to grab breakfast, and went to wait at our designated meeting spot. I crumpled on the dirty New York street to eat and rest. I made it on the subway–got a seat. We made it to the clinic–found out we were in Spanish Harlem. Praying with every step.
I know God was there. My medicine should have kicked in within 30 minutes. It was an hour and a half before I started feeling better. The instant I stepped out on that New York street to hand out cards, all thought of my earlier illness completely fled. Completely!
The timing was God saying, “Hey, this is me, not anything you did.”
Being sick reminded me that I do everything through God’s strength, not mine.
My partner and I had a blessed morning. Many, many people took cards from us. When we returned to “base,” our contact at the clinic said we had done a great job. Maybe too great–they were running out of test kits!
This contact kept referring to “The Universe”: “The Universe has brought us together,” “The Universe will show you where to go.” I hope our small group of Jesus-followers pointed him to the Maker of the Universe.
Mailbox directly in front of our first clinic
In the afternoon, we had limited success because we were asked to target teenagers. Our mantra was that all of our walking would be completely worth it for one person to get tested, and that God knew who that person was. My partner Rachel and I descended into a playground and saw two teenagers sitting on a bench, to whom we passed out cards. A young man on a bike approached us, asked for a card, and asked for directions to the clinic.
That night at City Uprising’s worship and training session we found out that about 300 people were tested for HIV on Monday. Many of the clinics had completely run out of tests! 3 people tested positive for HIV; one was a teenager. Rachel and I believe we met that teenager on a bicycle. We thanked God that so many people had gone to get tested, prayed for those whose lives had been completely changed, and asked Him to provide more test kits.
Because most of the clinics Gallery knew of were out of test kits, my group volunteered at a thrift store on Tuesday. The store’s proceeds go to purchase more test kits. This store receives a high volume of books, so I got to spend a whole day reorganizing hundreds of books!! The woman supervising us was so excited to have help and had no idea who we were or where we were from. We got to explain that we’re a bunch of kids from Texas and Tennessee working with a church who paid to come and help her out. I hope our conversations and our work lead her eventually to Him.
View outside the thrift store
Tuesday night we received incredible news. Clinics and hospitals from all over the city, many of whom have viewed Christians as terrorists, called City Uprising offering free test kits and asking for help advertising. Praise Jesus!
Wednesday morning, Rachel and I were set loose near Columbus Circle on Broadway. What a change from the neighborhood of Spanish Harlem just two days before!
At first, we didn’t know what to do. There was a temptation to target people who might benefit from HIV testing. We quickly corrected ourselves: how can we presume to judge who needs an HIV test based on how they look? Only God knows, and He is directing our steps. We proceeded to hand out cards to everyone we passed, including a few surprised tourists.
Rachel’s and my strategy is to walk along a block and to offer cards to people passing the opposite way. Most of our thoughts are focused on which street we should walk down next. I begin to pray with each beat of my foot upon the hard pavement:
Guide us in the right direction. You know which street contains the people You need to reach. Lord, give us direction. Lord, give us people to hand cards to. Lord, make these people receptive. Lord, let these people actually go get tested. Lord, keep us safe. Lord, be glorified. Show us where to go.
I share my prayer with Rachel. She smiles. We decide to follow the Walk signs at each intersection: whichever way says, “Go,” we go.
We look at each other and giggle. This may be silly, or it may be following the will of God. And who says the two are mutually exclusive?
We plod ahead with huge stacks of cards in our hand and dwindling time. How can we give away so many cards?!
Within a few turns after deciding to follow God’s directions, we come upon a huge line of people waiting for a show. We laugh and say, “Let’s do it.” In about two minutes, we hand out over 70 cards. People seem interested; we give directions.
We turn two more corners. Before us stretch two blocks of construction workers on lunch break. Thank you, Jesus! Every worker gets a card, though some take it more seriously than others.
Smiling, we survey our relatively small stack of cards and the twenty minutes we have remaining. “Oh yeah, we can do it,” says Rachel. We correct ourselves: “We can’t do it, God can.”
The lilting song the mice sing in Cinderella echoes through my head: “God can do it, God can do it, God can help us hand our cards out…”
Other volunteers passing out cards
After lunch we take the subway to the south Bronx. We emerge looking like lost, white tourists. (Lost and white we are; tourists, we are not.) I hear men talking. “Where’d all these white tourists come from?” “Man, that white chick in the front with the glasses is the hottest.” I huddle closer to my group and pray. “Oh, Lord, what am I getting into? … Well, this does feel like real mission work, whatever that means.”
After speaking with the clinic manager, Rachel and I go. I am scared at first. The people, however, are friendly. I can almost see Jesus walking step-by-step with us, putting His hand on the shoulder of each person that passes. It is beautiful.
I comment to Rachel that, strange as it sounds, I feel safer as just the two of us out doing mission work rather than in a large, lost tourist group. Maybe it’s because we don’t look like tourists, or because we’re doing good work, or because now I am praying with each step and each card.
Near the end of our time in the Bronx, we see some of our group sitting on the steps of the park. We point at groups of people, asking if people have already been approached, if streets have already been walked. Rachel and I don’t want to stop until we have to–we believe that we have good news to share with these people.
Walking into a park, a group of black men sitting on a bench stops us. “I just wanted to tell you that we believe in what you’re doing. Thanks for coming out here. You’re doing good work. May the Lord bless you.” I smile as my heart warms. “May He bless you too, sir!”
I approach a couple on a bench with some cards. “The HIV clinic across the street is offering free movie tickets if you go!” I announce as I give a big West Texas smile. The young couple decides they’d like free movie tickets, so they yell to their child that they will be right back. Rachel and I have to leave soon, so we walk them to the clinic. We got to see the girl leave a short time later–she is negative.
As we walk out of the clinic, a light drizzle starts.
As it pours the next day, our sight-seeing day, we marvel at God’s providence: all Monday, all Tuesday, and Wednesday until that last card was handed out–not a drop in sight. Saturday, Sunday, Thursday, and Friday are filled with rain. Thank you Jesus.
Nearly 1300 people were tested for HIV in these three days, and we still have not heard from 6 sites.
Update: All sites have reported in, for a total of 1847 people tested in New York City in three days, 1221 of those on the last day. Praise God!
Though nothing can quite do justice to all the things I saw and learned last week, these are a few of the many things God showed me. He is Great and He is Good.
More entries will follow.