Mission for the City: A Pastor Remembers His Dream Job


(system) #1

Adventist Church President Ted Wilson used his Annual Council sermon to launch a new initiative: "Mission for the Cities." Much of the message reprises quotes and methods connected to his work in New York City in the 1980s—the same place that Wilson has chosen to kickoff this new evangelism push. Thanks to some astute commenters, I was made aware of Pastor John McLarty's written reflections on being a new pastor in Manhattan during this episode in Elder Wilson's past. Pastor McLarty graciously agreed to revise them for publication here. —A.C.

Author's note: This is taken from my memoir-in-progress: God, Rocks, and Souls. It has been written entirely from memory without consulting notes or other actors in the story. The reader is advised to keep in mind the “creativity” of memory.

———————

Out of the blue I got a call from Ted Wilson. It was spring, 1978. I had finished my last test. Graduation was on Sunday. Ted was calling from Metropolitan Ministries in New York City. He had heard I was interested in working for God in Manhattan. He thought maybe they could make a place for me. Was I interested?

I had been dreaming of ministry in New York ever since spending a year there between my freshman and sophomore years at Southern Adventist University. A year working with Colin Cook in the New York Center in Times Square. The year nearly killed me. I lost thirty pounds. But the City had set its hooks in me. From then on my sense of call to ministry was inseparable from my dreams of service in Manhattan. At seminary, I gravitated toward philosophy and theology. The only “practical ministry” class I enjoyed was Benjamin Reeves' class in urban ministry. It was mesmerizing. The books about practical ministry that fascinated me most were written by or about city pastors and parishes. Even church history pointed toward the city of God. Early Christianity was an urban movement. Pagans were country folk.

It seemed to me most of my fellow students regarded my fascination with New York as odd. There was no denominational vision for doing ministry in the heart of cities. In those days “urban ministry” was the province of (non-Adventist) liberals. Proper Adventists lived and worked and dreamed in the suburbs. While at seminary I never met another Anglo student who had the slightest interest in going to New York City. In fact, I had never met any Adventist pastor anywhere outside New York who had any interest in moving to an urban environment. So, while I was eccentric—a maverick as one of my professors put it—I did have this going for me: I had a demonstrated ability to draw people together in spiritual work. I had lived in the City before, so my dreams of ministry there had some anchor in reality. And I wanted to live and work in New York.

Ted's invitation was a bold move. Metro Ministries was just getting started. They did not have a budget for newly minted seminary student. They weren't sure what I would do. It didn't hurt that my father was a generous supporter of the church and a long-time acquaintance of Ted’s father. I'm sure it didn’t hurt that my name was recommended to Ted by a woman who gone to grade school and high school with him. (After getting the job, I married her!) Still, I think the decision to hire me evinced Ted's commitment to reaching New York City. He was himself pursuing a radical vision of institutional ministry. And he was willing to give another dreamer of urban ministry a chance, even if that visionary did not fit the usual profile of Adventist clergy.

In the 1970s, a pastor in upstate New York, John Luppens, self-published book titled, New York City: A Symbol. It detailed the history of Adventist work in the city, especially its early days when White was alive and speaking directly to the persons involved. It also reproduced all of Ellen White's comments pertaining to ministry in the city. He took his title from White's statement,

Those who bear the burden of the work in Greater New York should have the help of the best workers that can be secured. Here let a center for God’s work be made, and let all that is done be a symbol of the work the Lord desires to see done in the world. Evangelism 384-385.

White outlined a specific strategy for working New York City. It included in-town vegetarian restaurants and treatment centers and housing compounds and medical facilities in rural areas outside the city. Among a cadre of devout Adventists with a passion for evangelizing the City, these details became known as “the blue print.”

In the 1970s there were over a hundred Adventist congregations in NYC, some with over a thousand members. Most of these congregations had distinct ethnic identities. In the first half of the 20th Century, Italians, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, French, Japanese Adventists all had their own congregations. Over the decades as immigration patterns changed, these congregations switched to English as the language of worship. New ethnic groups coalesced. In the second half of the 20th Century, the ethnic makeup of the Adventist Church in New York City shifted dramatically, becoming largely Black and Brown—West Indian and Hispanic. All of this happened without any significant structural adjustments by the denomination. Congregations developed as they usually do. Pastors preached and conducted evangelistic meetings. People invited their friends and co-workers and sent their children to Adventist schools. It was church as usual and bore no resemblance to “the blue print."

Occasionally, someone (usually white, usually from the West Coast) would read Ellen White's comments and feel called to come to New York to implement the prophet’s vision. Over the years these dreamers had established vegetarian restaurants and holistic health centers. They didn’t last—neither the people nor the institutions. They never had much impact on the city. But the history of failure appeared to have no impact on subsequent efforts.

Ted had several things going for him when he came to New York. He was not from the West Coast. His father was president of the world-wide Adventist Church and had ambitions for his son. And his base of operations was going to be the New York Center in Times Square.

In the mid-twentieth century, the denomination purchased buildings in the center of several large cities to serve as evangelistic centers. New York Center in Times Square was perhaps the most famous of these centers. (The New Gallery Center in London was the other well-known center.)

While in seminary, I had read all the articles in the Atlantic Union Gleaner and the Adventist Review that mentioned the New York Center. They followed a pattern. A new director would arrive. The papers would publish glowing articles detailing his plans for creative outreach to the city. A few years later, another set of articles would appear detailing another incoming director's dreams and plans. There were never any articles about the realization of any of these dreams.

The New York Center did play a useful role in Adventist life in the Greater New York Conference. It was home to the Crossroads Church, a congregation conceived of as an outreach to "the better classes." The Center also housed two or three tiny eastern European congregations—Hungarian and Ukrainian and one other, I think. There was an Adventist Book Center in the basement. The third floor provided office space for several different Adventist agencies. The fifth and sixth floors were apartments and guest rooms for Adventist workers and missionaries. Greater New York Academy sometimes held its graduation services at the Center. Many Adventist New Yorkers saw the Center as a symbol of their church's engagement with the city. (The conference office was in a wealthy suburb out on Long Island, a universe away from the five boroughs.)

When Metropolitan Ministries was created, its offices were on the third floor of the Center. Its director reported directly to the General Conference, bypassing the territorial jealousies created by the administrative lines that bisected the region. (The New York City metro area was divided among two unions and five conferences.) Ted was appointed head of this organization. He came to his position absolutely persuaded that the key to doing effective outreach in New York City was “the blue print” mapped out by Ellen White (and reiterated in Luppen's book). If we would only implement her vision, the church would experience dramatic, sustained growth. It would become a movement recognized by civic and business leaders as a boon to the well-being of NYC. Ted was assisted by a vice-president and treasurer and the usual secretaries.

I was the first non-administrative person hired. My job was to give Bible studies, assist in the monthly 5-Day Plans to Stop Smoking, do outreach in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood east of the Center and whatever else I was assigned. Ted arranged with the Greater New York Conference president for me to serve unofficially as an assistant pastor at the German New York Adventist Church on East 87th Street. (This is the Upper East Side, some of the wealthiest residential real estate in the city.) I lived in an apartment on the sixth floor of the Center just down the hall from where I had lived in 1972.

I immediately felt at home. The crazy mix of people. Prostitutes and dealers on the corners on Eighth Avenue to the west. The people in tuxedos and evening gowns outside the theater across the street. The kerplunck of the taxis bouncing across metal plates covering excavations in the street. The tiny stores. My windows looked down on the 46th Street Theater which was running “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” The perfect place for ministry.

My first Sabbath at the German Church, I counted the people. Forty two. The occupancy notice posted on the rear wall read 455. The place looked empty. The building was very plain with a very high ceiling. The walls consisted of painted concrete block punctuated by cheap, aluminum-frame windows. The pews were white-blond oak with red cushions on a few of them toward the front. (Why buy cushions for pews that no one will sit on?)

The five English-speaking people there had their own Sabbath School class. During the worship service we sat in the back and Kurt Paulien, the head elder, translated for us. Actually, it was a loose paraphrase. I had no way of knowing whether the preacher was as boring as the translation.

The two things the church had going for it were the warmth of the old Germans—they were delighted to have visitors and made their delight evident—and the warm light flooding through the east windows.

The pastor said hello to me and that was the extent of our interaction. He never talked with me about the church or my work. He never invited me to attend board meetings. “Good morning, how are you?” at church on Sabbath morning was as far as we got. After I had been there a few weeks, the head elder asked me to preach once a month. He explained that the German pastor did not feel comfortable preaching in English. I presumed he was speaking on behalf of the pastor, but the pastor never spoke to me about my preaching.

The congregation was wrestling with reality. They could not continue as a German-speaking church. The immigration which had built the church in the 30s and 40s and filled it with members in the 1950s was over. The last German-speaking person to join their church was a Romanian. Most of the kids who had grown up in the church had moved away from New York. Those who remained in the city no longer considered themselves Adventists. The average age of the Germans was somewhere north of 65. The youngest German was a single woman in her fifties. Still they treasured their German identity. They prided themselves on their industry and organization, their financial generosity, their strictness in observing all the Adventist rules. How could they surrender their church to people who would lower the standard? Still, it had to happen. The German identity and culture of the church could not be maintained without Germans. The English-speaking Sabbath School class and the English translation of the German sermon and now an English sermon once a month were their first steps toward a transition they dreaded.

While the pastor completely ignored me, the members made me welcome at church and in their homes. They loved to tell me about their children–adults older than I was. These children of the German Church were engineers and lawyers, doctors and teachers. They were attentive and generous with their parents. Most of the children were significantly better off financially than their parents. And their parents loved to brag about the ways their children helped to ease the challenges they faced as they aged.

Ursala’s daughter, Brita, was a lawyer. She did a fair amount of pro-bono work for indigent clients. Ursala was a brittle diabetic with frequent medical needs. Brita took her to the doctor. Ursala could get around the city by herself. She even had a car, but Brita insisted on driving her mother to the doctor.

Ursala protested she didn’t need Brita to play taxi. She wasn’t helpless. But Brita brushed her protests aside. Ursala’s husband had left her when Brita was only a year and a half old. Together, they had struggled through lean years. Ursala had sent her to the Adventist school in Jackson Heights, then to Greater New York Academy in Flushing. There was never enough money, but somehow they made it through. Now Brita was a lawyer. She was married and had two boys. They were the smartest boys in the whole world. One played the piano. The other liked to tinker with things. He won first prize in his school’s science fair. She thought he was going to be a scientist.

Brita was a good daughter. “I couldn’t ask for a better daughter.” Ursala said. “I pray for her every day. And for her boys and her husband. I pray that she will come back to church.

“I don’t understand. I sent her to Greater New York Academy and Atlantic Union College. When she was young she learned all her memory verses. She used to sing in church. But once she got out of college she just seemed to lose interest. She used to go to church sometimes, ‘just for you’ she would say. But I don’t know what I did wrong.”

What could I say? I had no children of my own. I wasn’t even married. What did I know about why people grow up in Adventist homes then decide to be good people who don’t go to church? In the world I grew up in, people who quit going to church were bad people. They were people with moral problems—liars, cheaters, adulterers, people who were selfish, greedy and disrespectful of parents. I didn’t have a category for people who were good and no longer interested in church.

Over the months other English-speaking people began attending. Vincent and Marilyn Gardner worked for the “Van Ministry.” This was the brain child of Juanita Kretschmar, the conference president’s wife. Pairs of volunteers drove remodeled RVs to neighborhoods all over the city to offer free blood pressure checks to passers-by. They visited Wall Street and midtown Manhattan and desperate neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. They offered health information to everyone and urged people with elevated blood pressure to see their physicians. They looked for opportunities to pray with people and offered Bible study guides to those who seemed receptive.

It was the most effective outreach the church had ever done, touching far more people than the New York Center and the Adventist-owned vegetarian restaurants and book stores combined. Not that a lot of people joined the church through this ministry, though some did. The Van Ministry made friends for the church and helped the church turn its face outward.

Vincent Gardner had left a comfortable practice in Colorado to serve God in New York. In New York he did not practice medicine, instead he acted as the medical adviser for the Van Ministry and gave health lectures in area churches and in health fairs and any other place that gave him an audience. He offered Christian counseling by appointment at the Van Center.

At the German Church, Vincent and his wife quietly welcomed visitors. She exuded a gentle, magnetic graciousness. Vincent occasionally preached the English sermon. His sermons were thoughtful and ponderous. They had substantial content, but it was work listening to them.

Not long after I began attending, a young woman in her twenties showed up. In hindsight she was the first sign of the future of the German Church. We didn't know it then, of course. We were just thrilled to have young person among us.

My work at the center was diffuse. I visited with people who came in off the street. Once a month I helped with a 5-Day Plan to Stop Smoking. I followed up with participants. None of them ever exhibited serious interest in the church, though they appeared to value my care, inviting me and my new wife to their apartments and taking us out to eat. A small group of them even attended a series of Sunday afternoon gathering at an artist's studio to discuss the Bible, but they always appeared more interested in conversation than in Bible study. (Curiously, literally, as I was editing this for Spectrum, I received a phone call from a woman who had quit smoking through a 5-Day Plan with us at the Center. She said she was calling to say hi after 33 years!) I gave Bible studies to a few people. I visited homes in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. People seemed happy enough to visit. They told me their stories, opening worlds I didn't even know existed. But they showed no serious interest in Bible study.

John Bennedetto walked in off the street because of our advertising offering Bible studies. I was thrilled. He would be my first convert, my first baptism. It turned out that like so many I met he was far hungrier for human contact and a listening ear than he was for the Bible information I was eager to share. He did have serious intellectual questions. It's just that most of the time they got swamped by the latest crisis in his life. I mention him here because his friendship over the years became enormously formative of my vision of ministry. (See his story at God, Rocks and Souls.)

Under Ted's leadership, Metro Ministries opened a lunch shop near Wall Street as the first institutional component of their master plan. Then, Ted and his vice-president began scouring the close-in upstate counties for a location for their country outpost, a compound where city workers could live while providing ministry when visiting the city. It would provide an escape from the noise, filth and decadence of the city. At the same time Ted was working on a dissertation for a Ph.D. in religious education at New York University. His dissertation was a detailed business plan for doing evangelism in New York City based on the visions of Ellen White, a plan that envisioned a denominationally-funded network of city centers and country outposts.

Ted finally found a defunct Catholic college for sale in New Paltz. I was invited along when the Metro board toured the place. Everyone was talking excitedly about how this could be remodeled into the perfect country refuge for church employees and for patients who would come to the health center they imagined. Setting it up would take millions of dollars, but that was God’s problem. All they had to do was to be faithful to the vision God had given his people through the prophet.

I don't recall what happened to the dreams attached to this particular piece of real estate. The church did not buy it, and within a year, the New York Center itself was sold to the Church of Scientology.

That hurt. How could we relinquish our light house in Times Square to a “spiritual” group as weird as the Church of Scientology? But selling was inevitable. The Greater New York Conference was pumping $25,000 a year into maintenance at the Center. The Atlantic Union Conference was spending another fifty thousand for salaries and maintenance. And, as far as I could tell, the Center was making no impact on the city. It was not producing baptisms. It was not raising public awareness of the church and its mission. Even though I regretted losing my place in the heart of Manhattan, closing the Center made sense for the denomination.

The Center had given me a job—in Manhattan! It had been good for my boss, Ted Wilson. It gave him an administrative position, putting him on a fast track escalator within the denomination. It paid for his Ph.D. at New York University. Over the years it had provided opportunity for a wide variety of people to experiment with urban ministry. It had served as a center of Adventist hospitality for traveling school groups and missionaries passing through. But as an evangelistic center it was a flop—like every other evangelistic center the church had funded in cities around the world.

It seemed to me an “evangelistic center” was wrong-headed in its very conception. Evangelism is the movement of the church outward, away from itself. But the idea of a “center” was the ambition to draw people in. It was hoped that the public would come to us. Time had proven that what we offered was not sufficiently attractive for the Center to work.

—John McLarty is the Pastor of the North Hill Adventist Fellowship in Edgewood, Wash. He edited Adventist Today and was the writer/producer of the Voice of Prophecy broadcast.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3475