New York's New Hope
Acting on a tip, FBI agents in early October began digging up a vacant, swampy lot in Queens with a backhoe, searching for bodies of Mafia victims. One person the agents were seeking disappeared 24 years ago after he accidentally killed the 12-year-old son of John Gotti, the late "Teflon Don" mobster.
I knew exactly where they were digging. I had been on that lonely dead end on Easter. For the past two years, I have been searching hundreds of streets and alleyways to discover the civilizing effect of Christ on New York City. I could have told them where to find the unusual slab of concrete I had noticed. There were no churches nearby, but there were a few toy Easter bunnies around. In this neighborhood that some call "Mafiaville," no civilizing effect was to be found.
But on another New York street, a different story unfolded. Shortly before midnight on a Thursday along Livonia Avenue, a ribbon of darkness in Brooklyn, I met a menacing drug dealer named Jackson in front of the New Grace Center Christian School.
"Do you know the pastor of the church that sponsors this school?" I asked.
"Hah!" he laughed. His 6-foot-4-inch frame loomed over me and his gold chains dangled down. I heard an exchange of gunfire in the distance. The city's rough edge drew closer around me.
I stalled for time. "Is this church any good?"
Jackson paused and glared at me. "Mister, any church around here is good!" Then he marched away abruptly, presumably to his next drug deal.
I later discovered that the gunfire was a fatal shootout between police and two suspects. But I was under the protective influence of that church.
In this area of East New York at Brooklyn's eastern edge, pastors and other Christian leaders are starting up many neighborhood Christian schools like New Grace Center. They locate them strategically near a subway stop and mark the schools with brightly painted murals of students reciting Scripture. So far, three schools are in operation along an 18-block section. It is clear evidence that something fresh, spiritually and culturally, is happening in New York.
As I interviewed hundreds of Big Apple church leaders for my upcoming book To Change New York, I discovered many more examples of hidden-gem ministries committed to wondrous works. I heard many pastors talk with conviction about how they were using the gospel to save individuals and defeat the back-alley evils that snare countless lives. Each new discovery rewrites the old story of godless Gotham.
Rot in the Big Apple
For good reason, when Americans think of New York, their minds hark back to gothic images of violence and chaos.
From the high point of the 1964 World's Fair to the 1975 headline, "Ford to City: Drop Dead," New York's reputation plummeted to new lows. The city was a frenzied scene of screaming fire trucks, grafters, murder victims, and looting. The 1977 blackout and resulting riots in Harlem shut the city down. The Son of Sam serial killer still roamed the streets. Pastors told me they kept shotguns under their pulpits because robbers were going from church to church on Sundays to loot the collection plates. In the South Bronx, 100,000 units of housing burned down and murder increased 900 percent.
Later, between 1985 and 2000, 5,386 Bronx residents were murdered, 5,000 died of drug overdoses and 12,460 of full-blown aids. One year, Morris Park High School graduated a mere 24 students out of an entering class of 1,200.
In East New York, police wore T-shirts that said "The Killing Fields" to signify that the borough had the highest-proof cocktail of violence and mayhem in the nation.