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Manhattan congregation reflects melting pot nature of New York City

NEW YORK — No fried chicken. No hamburger casserole. No Jell-O salad.
The titillating smells emanating from the fourth floor of the Manhattan Church of Christ on a recent Sunday reflected a more international flavor.
The menu included Korean-style scallion pancakes, English scones and cucumber sandwiches, Nigerian bean cakes and Guyanese fish cakes.
At the church’s International Day, members representing two dozen nationalities donned native attire and set up displays showcasing their home countries.
“One thing brings you together, and that’s the blood of Christ,” said Effiong Akpan, a Nigerian wearing a light blue robe known as an agbada. “This is exactly what God intended when he said that all nations should flow unto him.”

Almost 83, John Rainbow couldn’t help but smile as children and adults marched into the first-floor auditorium carrying signs of their native lands.
As the congregation sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” in English and Spanish, there were plenty of “red and yellow, black and white” faces to match the words of the song.
“I thank God,” Rainbow said.
An African-American who made a living in his younger years singing ballads and love songs, Rainbow first came to the congregation in 1957 hoping to meet entertainer Pat Boone, then the church’s song leader.
But in the church, Rainbow encountered the prejudice of that era. A white elder’s wife would change pews if a black man such as Rainbow sat down beside her. One man hurled racial slurs.
However, the late Burton Coffman, the minister from 1954 to 1971, gripped Rainbow’s hand, looked him in the eye and told him to keep coming back.
“Don’t let anybody drive you away,” Rainbow recalls Coffman telling him.
And Rainbow didn’t.
He later served 10 years as the church’s song leader and remains a faithful member.
At International Day, the congregation applauded as Rainbow stood to be recognized for the barriers that he helped break down.
Just a short walk from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $13.5 million townhouse, the Upper East Side church occupies one of America’s richest ZIP codes.
Yet, through a ministry called Community of Hope, the congregation welcomes homeless people into the building each Friday and the second Saturday of each month. The guests shower, eat, rest, study the Bible and watch movies at the church.
“Even though it’s a very wealthy area, there’s a lot of homeless people that live in the area,” said Thomas L. Robinson, senior minister and one of five elders. “As far as breaking down barriers, that kind of barrier — the socioeconomic barrier — is at least as difficult as the racial and ethnic barriers.”
Believing God calls all people unto him, the church works actively to build a community that overcomes the ethnic, socioeconomic, gender and racial barriers that divide humankind, church leaders said.
The church’s two English services and separate Spanish assembly draw nearly 400 worshipers each Sunday morning. A bilingual service is conducted on the third Sunday of each month.
Member Selina Law, who organized International Day, said she expects heaven to look a lot like the Manhattan church.
“When people come here, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from,” said Law, a Hong Kong native. “You just feel comfortable and you fit in, and that’s a good feeling.”
The congregation mixes investment bankers, lawyers and heart surgeons with taxi drivers, police officers and computer specialists. Well-known attendees include Lester Holt of NBC News and, when he’s in town, Yankees broadcaster Bobby Murcer.
“Our overall membership includes only some 100-125 members who were raised within the Church of Christ,” said elder David Swearingen, a third-generation member from Idaho and vice president of corporate communications with Johnson & Johnson.
“Virtually all of the others converted from other faiths — principally Catholics, with a few Jewish conversions, as well as Hindu, one former Muslim and several Christian denominations,” said Swearingen, a graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
Colombian-born minister Hugo Monroy, who works with New York area church planters and the Manhattan church’s Hispanic ministry, touted the blessings of diversity.
“We have the opportunity to taste different foods, to hear of different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking and behaving,” said Monroy, who grew up Catholic and became an atheist before his baptism at a Church of Christ.
A graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas, he described getting to know a Jewish family who converted to Christianity and how that relationship helped him learn more about Hebrew culture.
Four years ago, he started joining the Jewish family for Passover celebrations.
“My wife Sandra and I have not missed one Passover since then,” Monroy said.
Christian Francis, a 22-year-old African-American who grew up in Brooklyn, flashed a wide smile as he greeted South Korean natives Bok-Hee Meixner and Lauren Hook — both adopted as children by Americans.
Francis filled his plate with kimchi — pickled cabbage with hot chili and peppers — and hugged Hook, who wore a bright pink and yellow hanbok, a traditional Korean dress.
Francis, a senior biochemistry major at Abilene Christian, has attended the Manhattan church since age 6.
He said the “melting pot” nature of New York City — where the Statue of Liberty still inspires hope and more than a third of the 8.2 million residents are foreign born — offers a tremendous opportunity for the church.
The 43 birth nations of active Manhattan church members range from China to Cuba, Germany to Guyana, Japan to Jamaica.
“I mean, you walk outside on the streets of New York and you may hear 15 languages all at once, depending on what location you’re in,” he said.
In all, New Yorkers speak roughly 170 languages.
At the U.S.A. display, Whitney Pettyjohn helped serve red-white-and-blue cake and “pigs in a blanket.”
Pettyjohn, a white woman in her 20s, moved to the Big Apple from Oklahoma to work for a public relations company.
“Especially going to my grandparents’ churches growing up — all older people, all Caucasian — I love being able to see that everyone of all shapes, all sizes, all kinds can get along as part of the church,” said Pettyjohn, an Oklahoma Christian University graduate.
On Friday nights, Pettyjohn helps with the Alpha Course, a program at the church that introduces people to Christianity in a friendly, no-pressure environment.
“I know a lot of churches have a problem with driving people away,” Pettyjohn said. “I feel like this congregation really pulls people to them. It’s like an attraction that you can’t explain.”
In a sermon titled “From Every Tribe and Tongue and People and Nation,” based on passages in Revelation, Robinson focused on God’s vision for diversity. God, he said, made all colors and body types, communicates in all languages and understands the worship of every human culture.
But in human hands, diversity too often leads to brokenness, hatred, oppression and violence, he said.
“Just the fact that we’re together does not mean that we break down the barriers between us, that we make real friends or that we understand each other,” the Abilene Christian graduate preached as he urged members to heed God’s plan for renewal, peace and justice.

  • Feedback
    America has a long history of bringing out the best in people. It is beautiful to see a church so dedicated to fulfilling not only Christ’s Gethsemane prayer for unity but also the eloquent, simple American ideal of e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”). As Reginald Heber penned in 1819, “Shall we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high, shall we to man benighted the lamp of life deny? Salvation! O Salvation! The joyful sound proclaim, till earth’s remotest nation has heard Messiah’s Name.”
    June, 20 2008

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