Greeting from New York City!
My name is Stephen Trainer and I am the Pastor of Graffiti Coney Island, a ministry-based church plant in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn. I have been a student/practitioner of kindness outreach for a couple of years now, thanks to my friendship with someone I admire a great deal (who happens to produce this blog) and I’d like to take a few moments to share with you a little about our experiences showing God’s love in a city that has a reputation for impossibly hard hearts.
In New York City, you are told to speak to no one, mind your own business, and for the love of all things do not make eye contact with anyone on the subway. In the largest city in the United States, people are frequently alone even as they stand in a subway car so full the doors have difficulty closing. Headphones are the accessory of choice – everyone dons them each time they leave home, from kids to grandmothers, a strategy designed to ensure they are not forced to interact with anyone.
I’ve been told New Yorkers will never respond well to kindness outreach. I’ve been warned not to try in certain neighborhoods because the culture isn’t conducive and people will just become angry. Coney Island, where we are planting Graffiti, is a challenging neighborhood were violence is all too common, and I’ve been cautioned that kindness outreach is simply not safe in this area. I am convinced that kindness combined with the leading of the Holy Spirit works every time it is tried, regardless of venue, so duly noting the conventional wisdom we elected to advance as we have in many other of life’s areas, we did it anyway.
About an hour ago I was on the subway, and thinking about what I would write here I noticed a poster on the train that said, “Courtesy Counts. Others will thank you. Ok we can’t guarantee a thank you, but they will notice – and appreciate it.”
People are people no matter where they live or where they are from, even New Yorkers. Who cannot appreciate and understand kindness? Let me qualify my words with this disclaimer – I am not claiming to be an expert on any subject. We have been doing ministry full-time in New York City for a grand total of 8 weeks, and I am certain our day is coming when we have a negative experience as we seek to show God’s love in tangible ways with no strings attached. I can only share with you what we have experienced so far; here are three stories.
It snows in New York City, in case you haven’t heard. It’s snowing now as I write this in fact. One of the seasonal outreaches Austin speaks a great deal about is leaf raking from yards in the Autumn months, and although almost no one has a lawn in NYC, business and home owners are required by law to clear the snow from the sidewalks in front of their buildings. We thought a great way to show God’s love to people in our neighborhood would be to do it for them! God used this particular outreach to help us establish a very positive relationship with a prominent business owner in our community. He is a not-yet believer, but knows who we are, why we are here, and every time I go into his store now he engages me in meaningful conversation. Once I was in his store when the phone rang. I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation, and was really moved when I heard him say, “Yeah, my friend Stephen is here…” This new friendship will no doubt continue to lead to gospel conversations.
This past Valentine’s Day, we tried our hand at another outreach Austin has lead many through. We made up 125 small bags of candy and placed an outreach card very similar to the ones Austin has demonstrated here. My wife, our two boys (aged 5 & 2) and I stood on a busy street corner in our neighborhood and gave passers-by the free gifts and very warmly wished them a happy Valentine’s Day. Out of 127 people we encountered, only two refused our gift. Not bad for stone-cold New Yorkers! People’s reactions were priceless, and I could not count how many people hugged our kids when they handed them the little bag. We even saw a spike in traffic at our website that afternoon.
The last experience I will share is my favorite. Some friends from a partnering church of ours and I went out one day for my personal favorite outreach, cleaning restrooms of area businesses. We visited four shops that day, one refused our offer to clean their restrooms, and the other three permitted us. One bodega owner, a Muslim gentleman from Yemen pointed us in the direction of his restroom, scarcely glancing up from his work. We did not know it just then, but because of a language barrier he thought we were there to use his bathroom, not clean it. He came to investigate when the three dudes did not immerge from his single occupancy restroom after several minutes; imagine his surprise when he found us cleaning it! He was at a legitimate loss for words in any language. As my friends finished up, I began to speak to him, and realizing our communication difficulties I asked if he read Arabic. He nodded, and so using my phone and Google Translate, I copied the “Just for You, Just Because” message from our outreach cards and translated it to Arabic for him to read. When he finished, his eyes filled with tears as he said, “We are brothers.”
Is New York City too hard a place for kindness outreach? I do not think so. I am convinced that kindness combined with the leading of the Holy Spirit works, every time it is tried, regardless of venue. It seems to be working in my city, and I believe it will in yours as well.