NEW YORK CITY- The languages are French, Arabic, Pulaar, Fulani, Wolof, and Mandinka-but not English. The vendors sell African clothing and Arabic pastries. The local mosque calls for prayer five times a day. Morocco? No, this is Fulton Street on the southern edge of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, and the front line for a new ministry, Urban Impact.
"Bed-Stuy" has a recent past filled with violence, racial tension, drugs, and poverty. It used to be called the largest ghetto in the United States, and "the Harlem of Brooklyn" because of its 70 percent African-American population. Billy Joel mentioned it in his 1980s hit song "You May Be Right," singing, "I've been stranded in the combat zone / I walked through Bedford Stuy alone." Decreased crime and slow re-gentrification have changed Bed-Stuy, but dirty streets and rundown convenience stores remain, and so do many ethnic microcosms. Today, most of the residents of Bed-Stuy's southern edge are recent immigrants from North Africa.
Churches are also returning to Bed-Stuy, and the network of African-American churches and Christian evangelism efforts is growing, but Fulton Street-"Muslim Street"-is like a cultural cocoon, preserving within it the language, customs, and religion of its residents and remaining fairly closed to outside influence and outreach. And that's why Pastor Larry Holcomb waited on many Monday nights last year in front of the Pulaar Speaking Association, an African-language meeting hall on Fulton Street.
The door of the hall was padlocked on many nights and covered with a weathered curtain of corrugated iron to guard against vandals and thieves. Inside was little more than a green-carpeted room equipped with folding tables and glossy wall posters in several languages. But on Monday nights the place became an enthusiastic multi-level English class, free to anyone bold enough to walk through the door. The class was a part of Urban Impact, a Christian ministry for new immigrants that Holcomb manages and directs.
Inside, about a dozen men from Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Cameroon, Benin, and other countries laughed and quibbled about their various customs as they waited for the classes to start. But as Holcomb passed photocopied worksheets around the long foldout table, the students grew silent and focused intently on the material. Classes continued for perhaps two hours, though students might quietly come and go for the duration.
This year, classes have moved to a bi-level residential space several blocks away because of scheduling and administrative conflicts with the meeting hall administration. But no matter how cramped, chilly, or distant the locale, students find their way nearly every weeknight, and classes grow via word-of-mouth and Holcomb's friendly inquiries in the community.
Holcomb, with his pale complexion, Southern drawl, and collared cotton shirt, doesn't blend with his surroundings. But as he stands in the street in the evenings, greeting everyone in sight by name, locals shake his hand in quick recognition of the years he has spent acquiring the status of a neighborhood fixture.
The students vary in dedication. One of the more consistent, Jimmy, a native of Senegal, wears a Yankees cap and is proud of his new American name. Probably in his mid-30s, Jimmy labors patiently through elementary English words in children's picture books and basic grammar exercises, assimilating the information rapidly and responding appreciatively to any instruction. He explains what the class means to him in broadly accented but straightforward English: "This language . . . it is the key to every place. To get into school, to get a good job . . . and all over the world, it is the same. . . . You go to Africa, and everyone wants to speak English. It's the most important language."
The realization that English was his key to an otherwise closed community helped Holcomb begin Urban Impact five years ago in a South Asian community in Queens. Men's and women's ESL classes and weekly after-school classes for the children of immigrants provide opportunities to build personal relationships and introduce simple presentations of the gospel.
The organized classes and activities facilitate friendships for which the workers open their own homes and base their availability on individual needs, not ministry schedules or hour quotas. The strategy is to rent apartments within the neighborhood for mission workers, volunteers, and the groups of Christian teenagers who visit for weeklong stays throughout the year.
Urban Impact has a simple and concise mission statement: "to reach unreached people groups in New York City." Holcomb now focuses on ethnic Muslim communities around the city-there are, he notes, 600,000 Muslims in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx alone-and he would someday like to include Sikh and Hindu immigrants as well.
Why choose this approach to evangelism? Holcomb explains: "When these immigrants first come to the U.S., there is a sort of honeymoon stage. They are impressed by America and open to American friendships. They work insanely hard-not the 40-hour-a-week jobs that most Americans work. Jobs like standing on street corners selling purses from dawn till dusk, seven days a week. They are earning money for their wives and children back in Africa as well as for themselves."
ESL night may be the only free evening of the week for some of the regular students. Like Jimmy, the young men realize that knowledge of the English language represents their gateway to education and economic prosperity. For several of the older men, Urban Impact represents the first formal education of their lives-in any language.
But this phase of openness, Holcomb notes, typically ends within a year. As the men adapt, form connections to other immigrants, and grow accustomed to their new lifestyle, they lose the need for American assistance and gradually break off connections with their original outside contacts. Their Islamic religion also may push them away from a culture they increasingly see as corrupt and impure.
Holcomb hopes that the relationship built between immigrant and worker, and some part of the scriptural message delivered with the ESL instruction, will remain and continue to work long after the student has moved on. While it's hard to know how successful the ministry's approach is, spiritually or economically, Holcomb has begun to keep careful attendance sheets and experiment with motivational techniques like certificates and graduation parties to retain students for a full class session. So far, however, the formula remains difficult to change: People come when they are needy. They leave when they perceive that their need is no longer urgent.
Holcomb has rented several apartments for workers in Jackson Heights, Queens, and is now working to open a teaching center for South Asian Muslims in that neighborhood. He is also exploring the possibility of a branch of the ministry in Philadelphia, and later a branch in either London or Paris, both with big Muslim populations. Every two years, Holcomb hopes to open a new center in a different immigrant community.
-Hope Hodge is a student in New York City