James Allen Walker for WORLD

Concrete purpose

The Rise of Localism | Manhattan Bible Church is not a huge church, but the urban congregation has an outsized impact on its community

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

Manhattan Christian Academy principal Rick Bonifas climbed the stairs of the school, gestured to a group of students lined up in the street outside, and joked about the school's city amenities. "This is our playground," he said, gesturing toward the street. "Asphalt, concrete, a burned-out tree." It's a light moment, but it highlights the hard challenges that MCA faces every day. The school and its parent, Manhattan Bible Church (MBC), show how one church can multiply its impact to meet the needs of an urban community.

I recently visited MBC-a congregation of about 400 that sits at 205th Street, New York, in a neighborhood where 31 percent of residents live in poverty-to record a day in the life of an urban church. MBC houses 40 ministries including Operation Exodus, an after-school program that welcomes local public- and private-school students and provides job experience to community members. The church provides space and an advisor for the Washington Heights-Inwood Youth Council and helps run a community basketball league. A former Black Panther decided to start ESL classes, and the church's soup kitchen just served its millionth meal.

How can one congregation sustain so much activity? Pastor Bill Devlin said he flattens the usual ecclesiastical bureaucracy to increase ministries and decrease complaining. When church members come to him with either a passion or a gripe, he tells them they're now in charge of meeting the need: "I love being here because we're right in the middle of chaos." Devlin, who founded Urban Family Council in Philadelphia, sleeps on the floor of his office three days a week and commutes from Pennsylvania the rest of the week. "You've got to enter the chaos. . . . I always say that this is God's country here."

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The school, which opened in 1978, serves a struggling demographic. When children enter MCA from the public schools, they are often one to four years behind grade level. Some 40 percent of the students are eligible for a free lunch and 60 percent receive tuition scholarships. But MCA has a 95 percent graduation rate in a community where the graduation rate hovers at 23 percent, and students perform slightly above the national average on the Stanford Achievement Test.

In teacher Wendy Middleton's class, students are dramatizing a Bible story or a Christian truth. After three students handed her their script they disappeared behind a makeshift puppet show screen. A puppet named Noah appeared, warning people of a coming flood. "That old man is fanatic-just an old killjoy," said a puppet with brown braids. "I'd rather be laughed at than drowned," her worried puppet husband replied. Middleton praised their memorization and reminded them to follow God even when others laugh. The next student covered her face with her long dark hair to collect her thoughts before giving a memorized speech about how Jesus is her best friend. "I have shivers!" Middleton exclaimed.

The teachers at MCA start at $21,000 per year while a New York City public-school teacher starts at $45,000. They are really missionaries, Bonifas said: "You have to be a little crazy to work here. You have to be extremely mission-minded."

After school ended, we trekked to the gym across the street where the MCA basketball team pounded up and down the court and a burly referee crisscrossed the court with the players. After the game, referee Danny Monge said he spent seven years in prison for assaulting a police officer and drug-related offenses. When he finally got out on probation, determined to act on his newfound faith, his daughter said they should go to the church that gave them presents each year through the Angel Tree program: Manhattan Bible Church.

"There were times I wavered," Monge said. But the church encouraged him, and now he and his wife help lead the Angel Tree ministry and also mentor young couples.

I spoke with Monge in the church's soup kitchen-the work of Jewel Jones, who sang tenor in a doo-wop band in the 1950s and started the Love Kitchen on Dec. 23, 1987, with just a year's worth of funding. He started feeding nine a day and the number quickly climbed to 150 for the meals they served five days a week. When he saw a new generation grow up in poverty just like their parents, he started literacy classes for the children.

Jones, a mild-mannered man who wears a baseball cap and plastic gloves in the kitchen, has stories: A drug addict about to jump off a bridge turns his life around, goes to seminary and becomes a pastor; another finally enrolled himself in a drug program after seven years of coming to the kitchen. "We prayed for meat and He sent us a tractor-trailer of over 100,000 pounds of meat," Jones remembers. The Love Kitchen's food pantry also gives out 450 packages of food per week.


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