Christ in the Capital of the World
On a brisk October Saturday in 2012, hundreds of teenagers, young adults, and youth leaders gathered at Battery Park in Manhattan. In earlier days, the historic public park facing New York Harbor was the first place to receive immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. But this morning, it received members of black and Latino Pentecostal churches nestled throughout Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. The crowd donned T-shirts and jerseys proclaiming God Belongs in My City (GBIMC). They were embarking on a rolling prayer meeting that would make its way from the southern tip of Manhattan up to Times Square.
The youth were not tourists. They did not gape at architectural landmarks like the Flatiron and Empire State along the way. Instead, they sang and laughed as they walked and talked, texted, and tweeted about their journey. Many stopped to scribble GBIMC and John 3:16 in chalk on the sidewalks. They walked the city with purpose and possibility. They knew where they were going.
They intermittently bowed their heads and lifted their arms, blessing and praying for "this great city," for "the unity of the church and the city," for "the government and leadership," and for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They prayed for public officials and city employees, especially for teachers, firefighters, and police.
A sister contingent of New York youth started from Central Park up in Harlem. A few hours later, the two groups met in Times Square at the TKTS discount Broadway ticket booth. Cheers, prayers, and improvised signs went up as the youth watched themselves on a giant video screen overlooking the bustling median. Now one entity, they moved eastward to Grand Central Terminal.
The few hundred who had started in Battery Park and Harlem had blossomed into some 1,500 marchers. They overflowed the cavernous hall with its central clock tower, and they spilled out into the passageways and onto the busy streets and sidewalks. Customers at the Apple Store, perched on the mezzanine at Grand Central, stopped to see what was happening.
As they started to kneel in prayer, however, the transit police arrived. "You cannot stay," they announced. And they were serious. The entire station seemed to pause, waiting to see what would happen next.
A World of Faith in the City
There are two ways Christians tend to see the city and God in the city. The first peers through a lens that sees primarily what is wrong with it. It can miss seeing the city as God's good gift, and the church already active in the city. Because it often moves quickly into problem-solving, like a missions trip to "save" or "bring God to" New York, it can overlook what many churches are already doing and the dynamic ways that cities work.
The second way is to try to see the city through the eyes of God. Listening to the Holy Spirit, it seeks to build on what is already happening, working within existing structures and relationships. Change comes from the inside out, through people who know and live there. They can make a longer commitment and deeper difference than those who stop in and just as quickly leave.
Many forces can prevent outsiders from seeing what God is doing in New York. The city's booming media industry, from television to film, to fashion and music, has reinforced for many non–New Yorkers an image of sophistication on one hand or urban grit on the other. But rarely does pop culture capture the religious ferment going on underneath.