Encounter. New York City. Times Square. Hungry.
“Welcome to McDonald’s, CAN I HELP YOU!” said the young lady behind the counter as she rolled her eyes. It wasn’t spoken as a question, but as an expression of anger and annoyance for having her life interrupted. As a Neuyorican, a bicultural Puerto Rican raised in the New York City, you learn to not take it personally—that’s just the way it was in many places. How dare I presume upon her time working at McDonald’s by ordering lunch? Who did I think I was anyway, a customer? In my mind I rained judgment down upon her for her nasty attitude. “Lord I thank you I’m not like those people…”
I have lived in New York ‘s Spanish Harlem for 10 years and am working to plant Open Door Fellowship of East Harlem. My son David and I stopped by our neighbor’s apartment down the hall to check out their son Jade’s new robot. While I was there drooling over the cool new toy, Jade’s super-fit dad, Michael, invited us to go play tennis at Riverbank State Park in nearby upper Manhattan. Riverbank is the only park of its kind that I know of in the country. Okay, it sits atop a sewage treatment facility on the Hudson River (cool, right?), yet somehow it manages to disguise that fact with really great facilities.
But as soon as I heard Michael’s invitation I found myself morphing into McDonald’s mode, “Welcome to Open Door Fellowship, CAN I HELP YOU!” as a hefty list of all the things on my Very Important pastor’s ‘To Do” list popped into my mind. I could envision myself as the young lady behind that fast-food counter, rolling my eyes and treating Michael like he just an interruption. Even though I know that building relationships is an essential part of church planting (I know, I know!), I often want to do that on my own terms (sigh). So just as I prepared to politely say thanks but no thanks and maybe next time, my son David asked excitedly if we could all bike there. Gulp. I wanted to run home to my office, curl into a fetal position and hide. But God wanted me to understand that now I was the one in line for a major attitude adjustment.
The next thing you know three adults and four boys aged nine to 11 were all inching our way to the west side of Manhattan—uphill—to Riverbank. Needless to say, I bit off way more than I could chew. (Yikes, I’m out of shape!)
I told myself to shut-up and let my super-fit dad neighbor, Michael, take the lead in this cat-herding, bike-riding adventure. If you could track our circuitous route on a map, we looked like we were drawing a pretzel. One hour, countless swirls, two dead ends and many hills later, we arrived hot, sweaty and thirsty. Tennis anyone?! When we finally walk onto the courts we are gruffly informed by the park’s tennis instructor (who I’m certain must have been related to that young lady behind the counter at Mickey D’s) that there was only one court available—for 20 minutes. Somehow, I was okay with that.
All in all, we had a fun NYC adventure that we would remember for some time. During that convoluted journey we built another layer of friendship. These kinds of spontaneous outings are so important for us in our work to establish a new fellowship here in East Harlem . And it is also important in the life of any follower of Christ.
We can begin to do justice to Jesus’ command to be a good neighbor by simply being available.
This is a big challenge for bi-vocational pastors and ministry leaders. Are my days so jam-packed that I have squeezed out being available for a neighbor’s invitation? How do I even attempt to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” if I cocoon myself in an urban bubble?
Recently, during one of our prayer walks, we noticed a man with a t-shirt that pictured a cartoon devil. It said, “God’s busy. Can I help you?” At Open Door we are striving to live lives that proclaim: “GOD’S NOT BUSY. HE CAN HELP YOU!”
We have been grateful to see God continue to lead us in divine spontaneity.