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."
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.
An older man walked in and apologized to Pastor Devlin for the alcohol on his breath with the excuse that it helps him cope with his wife's death. "One day at a time," he said. Devlin corrected him: "One moment at a time. A day is too long." He prayed for the man just before a mother walked in to have a meal with her third-grade daughter.
Jones' vision has spread downtown. A couple of weeks later, two New York University students inspired and mentored by MBC made snickerdoodles in the kitchen of All Angel's Episcopal Church 125 blocks away. Since the beginning of February, they have started work on Jones' next vision-a bakery that can provide job training and job skills to the homeless along with revenue to sustain the Love Kitchen. Jon Kwan (a student in hotel management) and Derrick See (a business student) rolled balls of dough and dipped them in a bowl of cinnamon sugar, baking 100 cookies they would serve to the homeless at All Angel's ministry that night. Kwan pulled out a big baking sheet of perfect Red Velvet cupcakes and frosted them with a dollop of frosting made from blended buttercream icing and whipped cream. Jones provided the recipes-including his famous carrot cake recipe that will become the bakery's signature.
In addition to these ministries, Devlin also wants MBC to "infiltrate" the community. As part of that effort, Devlin is the pastoral liaison for the local police precinct, a certified Department of Corrections chaplain, and an applicant for the community board. He said the beauty of MBC is people like Jewel Jones, who have been working and living in the community for decades: "This is where they live. They see this as an oasis in a dry and thirsty land." Devlin, who has worked in urban ministry for 25 years, said thanks to them, pastoring MBC is "the easiest job I've ever had."
Not long ago, most diets consisted of food grown, raised, and prepared on one's own land or a neighbor's farm. Now, buying food from local sources is work. But health and nutrition, distrust of factory farms, and a fashionable desire to pursue sustainable agriculture and reduce dependence on foreign oil-all are turning local consumption into a trend.
The varieties of locavores seeking local food sources are as plentiful as tomatoes in August. Many shop at farmers' markets or participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. They grow food in backyard gardens or band together with neighbors to work in community beds. Their meat, eggs, and honey may come from local farmers. Some adjust their diet, concentrating on readily available products, in order to make the lifestyle more affordable.
And some locavores are extreme. They stick to a strict diet that includes only food produced within a fixed distance, 100 or even 50 miles. This can mean giving up wheat, olive oil, and sugar. Within this movement there are factions: Some allow items that would have historically been transported from far away-like salt. Others might allow indulgences like coffee or chocolate.
One middle-of-the-road variety could be called a "glocavore"-those who try to be locavores with an eye on the globe. Jamison Galt, a pastor in Brooklyn, likes locavore activities that preserve local cultures, but he also tries to share in global exchanges that allow him to try "ingredients and dishes from faraway places."
Eating local can be hard. Climate is a problem. In areas that spend half the year under snow, residents tire of eating root vegetables. Dry regions have insufficient natural irrigation. Even those in temperate climates occasionally yearn for strawberry shortcake in January, or prefer not to buy an enormous freezer or can food for storage through the barren months. Cost also is an issue. Local produce and meat may be cheaper than grocery-store fare, but often is not.
Not everyone agrees that food raised on small farms makes for more sustainable agriculture. While food bought at the farmstand down the road may require little fuel to transport, produce carried in many small shipments from a farm 50 miles away could use up more fuel than a single shipment from farther away that includes a larger quantity.
Scientists and industry experts also point out that large farms often can afford to invest in food safety measures, technologies that help reduce pesticide and fertilizer use, and energy-efficient machinery. Small farms may find all of that too costly. And, food shipped from far away creates jobs for those along the supply chain.
But most locavores agree on obvious benefits. Going to farmers' markets and meeting the people who raise the food is fun. Gardening in the backyard is good for physical and mental health. And tomatoes just taste better when they were picked yesterday.