Tag Archives: mission

Reality Straight Ahead

Reality Straight Ahead

I snapped this picture leaving Wicked on our last night in New York.
I don’t particularly like it.

The mission/service work we did in NYC felt like a fantasy world.
That sounds strange. I mean, we were in Harlem and the south Bronx. We served people by informing them that they could be tested for free for HIV/AIDS. We got hot, sweaty, sore, and exhausted.

I think what felt fantastical was that my goals and duties were so clearly defined.
Goal: Love God by serving the people of New York.
Duties: Hand out cards, organize books
That’s it.
I was a part of a team focused single-mindedly on advancing God’s Kingdom by serving the people in New York City. This sounds like the great fantasies that enchant my imagination: The Pevensies and friends always work towards one goal (finding Aslan, helping Prince Caspian, seeking out the East, or saving Prince Rilian), and Frodo and Sam seek only to destroy the Ring in Mordor. Simple, direct, and extremely important.

As I came back home, I felt myself descending into the mad, busy, confusing world of Reality. I have DemiDec deadlines, a thesis to write, the GRE to prepare for, volunteering, graduate school to worry about, friends to contact, family to care for, and, of course, thinking way too much about boys and men and my future. I understand so little of what I should be focusing on, and I feel myself pulled in so many directions. What one goal should I be working towards when I have so many things to do?

I suppose it is exactly the same goal as in Narnia and New York.
Goal: Serve and love the King.

It’s the specific duties that are a little harder to figure out.

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People-Watching in NYC

“Oh Brave new world that has such people in’t!”

People in NYC are, well, different. Getting to know some of them on our adventures was fascinating.

Our strategy in passing out HIV cards was to simply be ourselves. We smiled, gave a big, “Good morning!”, and handed passers-by a card. People at City Uprising had told us, “New Yorkers are not rude–in fact, they’re some of the friendliest people you will meet. But they are focused.” Coming from West Texas, I laughed a bit, but tried to accept the advice. When we said Good morning on the street, people would continue walking past us for two steps. As I continued to make eye contact, you could see the thought process of, “Oh, that girl is talking to me.” They would stop, turn around, and reach for the card in my hand, even though I was now three or four feet past them. Quite amusing. The reaction time to “Good morning!” is a good three seconds longer in New York than in the South.

The man at our first clinic taught Rachel and me his strategy. He is familiar with the neighborhood and told people, “Hello! How are you doing today? Free testing down at the clinic–here’s a card. Do you want some more for your co-workers?” It was so comforting to watch him really interact with these people. I suppose I had expected people to give me the same reaction that I often give to people passing out cards: a slight smile and a no-thank-you or complete indifference.

Standing at an intersection in Harlem waiting for the light to change, I handed out cards to people crossing the street. One person was wearing a long, cotton dress with a womanly haircut and a three-day-old beard. I was very relieved to note that I felt no disgust or discomfort; rather, I smiled at this child of God and handed out a card.

New Yorkers were surprisingly open with private tidbits about their life history. As I handed one woman a card, she informed me that she didn’t need a test because she had been celibate for two years. Another informed Rachel that he already had AIDS.

Walking through the housing projects was almost peaceful. Groups of neighbors gathered on benches or in the small yards between tall, red-bricked apartment buildings. Sometimes we were warmly received by these groups; other groups believed that the only reason for our friendliness was to recruit them for testing. Between these buildings one could most clearly see what day-to-day life is like for these people.

One young man walked up to Rachel along a relatively empty street in Harlem. “So, I was wondering, could I get to know you a little better?” (I envisioned her flashing her engagement ring in his face. “Bam!”) She handled it beautifully. “I don’t think so. But there is free HIV testing at the clinic down the street.”
We saw him throw the card in the gutter directly in front of us a few steps later. Oh, well.

The construction workers in Manhattan were quite an interesting group. Of all the people we spoke with, these workers had the most candid reactions.
“HIV testing? I don’t need that.”
“Oh! Here comes Joe. Go give one to him. He needs it.”
“What are you giving out? Free food? Free workouts?” “Actually, free HIV tests, sir!”
“Nah, nah, we don’t need any of that.” One man bravely contradicted him. “I’ll take one.”
“Do I look like I need HIV testing?” “I don’t presume to judge, sir. I have no way of knowing who needs a test, so I hand cards out to everyone.”

While we were in Manhattan, it was sometimes hard to distinguish between tourists and locals. After he had taken a card, I realized one man was definitely touring the city with his wife. Oops, I thought. He turned around to question me about what the card was. He asked if I had been tested.
At our training meeting the first night, the pastor had encouraged all of us to get tested. Whether we had possibly been exposed to the virus or not, it set an example to the people of the city. All who work at the church had been tested. That night, my roommates and I discussed it. There’s no chance I have HIV, but I had decided to take the test if it was offered at the clinics. There was never really a clear opportunity and after we learned that clinics were running out of tests, it seemed selfish and pointless to take a test for myself.

Overall, we learned that we were completely unable to predict who might take a card. After our first few lessons in our ineptitude, we started offering cards to everyone. Only God knew who might need one.
Surprisingly few people declined a card when it was offered to them. Most people who refused were very polite, either responding to our Good morning or saying, “No thank you.”
A few times we passed people without offering a card. They rapidly corrected us by turning around and extending a hand for a card.
Businessmen with one hand on a cell phone and the other around a cup of coffee would take a card.
Women with hands full of groceries would take a card.
A few half-asleep men and women sitting on the sidewalk would take a card.

The pastor at church said something this morning that resonated with these lessons. He said we often don’t strike up a conversation about God with a person because they “don’t look like church people.” He asked, “Well, have you invited them?”
We so often judge by appearance. I definitely judge literal books by their cover, but my meager life experiences are slowly teaching me not to judge people by how they look. Heaven will be filled with people of all nations, tribes, tongues, colors, hair cuts, clothing styles, accents, tattoo preferences, piercings, and smells. God will make us all holy; we are all His children.

“How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beautious mankind is!”

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God is Great, God is Good

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


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

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

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?
Walk Signal
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…”
He does.

Other volunteers passing out cards

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.

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