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Pedestrians cross the street in front of the hostel where the Upper West Manhattan Church of Christ meets.
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Upper West Side Story

Diverse congregation in Manhattan counts members from five continents — but no Jets or Sharks.

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NEW YORK — A rap song by Eminem played in the lobby of a hostel where guests from around the world stay while visiting this city of 8.5 million.

In a nearby hallway, the hip-hop beat gave way to the four-part harmony of Christians singing “The Old Rugged Cross,” “To Christ Be True” and “I Am Mine No More.”

The Upper West Manhattan Church of Christ worships God in rented space at Hostelling International’s Victorian-style building at the corner of West 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Traffic speeds past the Hostelling International’s Victorian-style building.

Traffic speeds past Hostelling International’s Victorian-style building.

The 25-year-old congregation began meeting in a small karate studio in 1998 — in the community that, four decades earlier, inspired the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim musical “West Side Story.” 

Don’t look for any Jets or Sharks in Upper West Manhattan’s pews, but the church counts members from every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

“It’s ethnically and culturally a very diverse congregation,” said Tim Norman, a domestic missionary who moved to New York with his wife, Tammy, in 2019. “We have five continents represented, and that’s a blessing.

“One thing you learn in New York City, if you come from the South, is that the church is not a Southern White institution,” he added. “It’s a worldwide institution with people of all colors and races and backgrounds, and that’s a refreshing insight.”

More than 3 million foreign-born residents call New York City home, according to the city government. Those residents speak more than 200 languages.


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The Normans and their missionary partners, Bill and Judy Robinson, see the nation’s largest city as a field “ripe for harvest,” as Jesus described the opportunity for making disciples in John 4:35.

“In a city of 8 million people, there are a lot of lonely people,” Bill Robinson said. “There are a lot of people who are just looking and searching. And their lives are just empty, even though they’re around millions of people and going to work and hustling and bustling.”

Pedestrians cross the street in front of the hostel where the Upper West Manhattan Church of Christ meets.

Pedestrians cross the street in front of the hostel where the Upper West Manhattan Church of Christ meets.

Evangelism in a metropolis

Juliet Gaengan, the daughter of a Filipino preacher, immigrated to the U.S. 40 years ago to work as a nurse. 

Gaengan, now 65 and retired, has worshiped with the Upper West Manhattan church since 2000.

“It’s a congregation where we strive to teach the Bible and the Bible only,” she said. “We try to do whatever the Bible tells us to do. We try to evangelize and teach people out there, especially the community where we are.”

The hostel is across the street from a 24-hour grocery store, a Chinese takeout restaurant and a bicycle shop. 

Bill and Judy Robinson, at left, pray during a Tuesday night Bible study.

Bill and Judy Robinson, at left, pray during a Tuesday night Bible study.

Upper West Manhattan’s Sunday worship averages between 50 and 60 attendees. A smaller group gathers for Tuesday night Bible study. 

Years ago, the congregation chose to meet on Tuesday because other area Churches of Christ had midweek services on Wednesday.


Related: A diverse church full of conversion stories


“So we figured, if we would like to visit the other congregations, then Tuesday would be good for us,” Gaengan recalled. “It has worked really well for us.”

On Saturdays, members often pass out flyers inviting neighbors — including those who reside in nearby low-income housing projects — to attend Sunday worship.

Church member Desiree Wilson, left, helps Kim, a visitor, find the right song selection.

Church member Desiree Wilson, left, helps Kim, a visitor, find the right song selection.

“We get a lot of visitors off the street,” Bill Robinson said. “They’ll walk by, and they’ll see our sign. And then some hostel guests will see our sign, and they’ll come and worship. … And what the visitors find most intriguing, I think, about our services is just the simplicity of it.”

The missionaries stay busy during the week studying the Bible with seekers.

“You don’t have to go looking for people to study with,” Tim Norman said. “They come to you.”


Related: A blessed visit to a Ghanaian immigrant church


While a few Upper West Manhattan members drive to worship, most take a bus or subway — the church is a block from a train station at Broadway and a 10-minute ride from Times Square. 

The membership roll can be transitory as people move in and out of the city.

“It’s a very friendly group. It’s a very warm group,” said Bill Robinson, 69, who has preached for 50 years — from California to Alabama. “I would say that 90 percent of our members greet every visitor that comes through. So I think that’s a big appeal.”

NAME NAME prays during Tuesday night Bible study with the Upper West Manhattan Church of Christ.

Anthony Wilson prays during a Tuesday night Bible study by the Upper West Manhattan Church of Christ.

The religious landscape

Religiously, New York City breaks down this way: 59 percent Christian, 16 percent non-Christian (such as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu), 24 percent with no faith and 1 percent who “don’t know,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Catholics (33 percent of the population) constitute the largest share of Christians, followed by evangelical Protestants (9 percent), mainline Protestants (8 percent) and historically Black Protestants (6 percent), based on Pew’s Religious Landscape Study, conducted in 2007 and 2014.

Members of a cappella Churches of Christ — with about 1.4 million men, women and children in the pews nationwide — make up just a tiny fraction of New York City residents.

Graffiti drips down a New York City sign outside of Hostelling International.

Graffiti drips down a New York City sign outside of Hostelling International.

Thirty or so congregations with roughly 2,200 adherents are scattered throughout the city’s five boroughs, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian. Reflecting the Big Apple’s diversity, those churches include Ghanaian, Haitian, Korean, Russian and Spanish groups.

Robinson lights up when talking about the Upper West Manhattan church’s diversity.

“We’ve got Filipinos, Indians, Nigerians, Puerto Ricans, Caucasians,” he said. “I mean, we have a little bit of everything — and we all just get along, and we love each other, and it’s just really great.”

That love takes precedence over minor theological differences, church leaders said.

“It’s neat being in New York because the number of New Testament Christians is so much fewer than other places,” said Tim Norman, 62, a former CPA who previously preached in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. “You really value each other a lot more than you do sometimes in other places.”

Upper West Manhattan characterizes itself as a non-institutional church. 

In general, such churches oppose congregational funding of orphanages and Christian colleges as well as missionary cooperatives that make use of a “sponsoring church.”


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The institutional vs. non-institutional debate raged among Churches of Christ in the 1950s, but the fight loses relevance in a mission setting such as New York.

“The brethren are a lot more willing to sacrifice what they consider expediencies for fellowship and unity,” Norman said. “And a lot of the things that become issues that disrupt fellowship in other places are just not allowed to take root here.”

Church member John Tillman leaves the Soho Room, where the church meets.

Church member John Tillman leaves the Soho Room, where the church meets.

Beyond the Bible Belt

Tim and Tammy Norman are the parents of three and grandparents of six. The couple moved from Arkansas to New York in 2019.

They live on the fifth floor of a 27-story apartment building. They’ve had to adjust to public transportation.

“We had three cars before we moved, and we haven’t had a car for four and a half years,” Tim Norman said with a chuckle. “It’s a strange thing being carless, but leaving the driving to somebody else is not a bad thing.”

The move, he joked, fulfilled Tammy Norman’s dream of “living in a place where she could just go downstairs to the street, and all the shopping that she would need would be right there.”

People wait to board at the nearest subway stop to the Upper West Manhattan church.

People wait to board at the nearest subway stop to the Upper West Manhattan church.

That convenience is nice, his wife said. 

But she also noted, “Whatever you purchase while you’re out, you have to carry home.”

On a more serious note, Tammy Norman said working with the Upper West Manhattan church has widened her view of global Christianity.

“It’s just been a huge blessing just to be around the diversity,” she said. “Not everybody looks and acts and thinks like the Bible Belt of America. So it’s been wonderful.”

They ❤️ New York

For Bill and Judy Robinson, moving to New York brought the opportunity to win souls — and embed themselves in one of the world’s most remarkable cities.

“I love history and museums and that kind of stuff,” Judy Robinson said, “so this is the place for it.” 

The Robinsons have two adult daughters and four grandsons. This past February, they sold all their belongings, except for a few pieces of furniture, and moved into a 700-square-foot Manhattan apartment. It’s about a third of the size of their previous home.

The couple has enjoyed taking out-of-town guests — such as their grandsons — to the top of the 102-story Empire State Building, not to mention New York Yankees and Mets games.

“The church here — I mean, they have just welcomed us and made us feel like family.”

But their first priority is doing the Lord’s work.

“The church here — I mean, they have just welcomed us and made us feel like family,” Judy Robinson said. 

“It’s like foreign work in a lot of ways,” Bill Robinson said of seeking to evangelize New York City.

Before the move, he made 17 mission trips to India. Those trips, he believes, helped prepare him for his latest ministry.

“We love New York City,” he said. “I wasn’t sure about it, but I have really learned to love it.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. He has written about diverse churches in Chicago, Houston and beyond. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: domestic missionaries domestic missions National New York New York City News noninstitutional churches northern Churches of Christ Partners Top Stories Upper West Manhattan Church of Christ

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