City Lights Burn Out Bring them the “Light of the World”
By Ted N. C. Wilson
Intimidating and lonely—those were my first impressions of New York City. Looking up at the tall canyon of skyscrapers towering above me and noticing the constant stream of people everywhere, I wondered what difference a 21-year-old could make in the city that never sleeps.
I had just graduated with a B.A. in religion and business administration from what was then Columbia Union College in May 1971, and the Greater New York Conference sent me to the West Eleventh Street Seventh-day Adventist Church in Greenwich Village for a summer internship.
Greenwich Village is well known for its artists and actors, brownstone buildings, and tree-lined streets, and in 1971 as a rallying place for the anti-war movement and hippie scene. During the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s Greenwich Village also played a major role in the development of American “folk music,” with many songwriters and performers such as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Simon and Garfunkel, Liza Minnelli, James Taylor, and Joan Baez all getting their start in the Village’s nightclubs, theaters, and coffeehouses.
An Adventist “Coffeehouse”
In thinking about how to reach out to the people of this very diverse community, a group of us went down into the basement of that old historic Seventh-day Adventist church and decided it would be the perfect place to start an Adventist “coffeehouse” where people could hang out, listen to music, sing, talk about Christ, and enjoy snacks along with nonalcoholic and noncaffeinated drinks.
As we explored under the nearly century-old church, we found a passageway to the coal bins underneath the sidewalk. Of course the coal bins were no longer in use, but with the old arches in the brickwork it looked quite ancient and looked so hidden, so we named it “The Catacombs.”
We took the coffeehouse idea to the church board, asking for permission to chop out some blocks of concrete and put in a door and steps leading down from the street. There were some board members who were hesitant, but in the end they supported us.
To make The Catacombs inviting and comfortable, some renovations were needed. A few weeks earlier, when I sent out my graduation announcements, I had requested that my friends send me donations for New York City evangelism instead of a gift. Fortunately, I had received a rather generous amount of money, which I turned in to the conference office. These funds paid for the necessary renovations for our underground Adventist “coffeehouse.”
Preparing The Catacombs
The church youth and young adults were excited, working feverishly to get the place ready for opening night.
We put in electrical wiring and placed pieces of carpeting over the dirt floor. We brought in little square card tables, covered them with checkered tablecloths, and added bottles with candles in them. We hung colorful religious posters on the walls, placed lots of interesting literature in various spots, and prepared snacks and drinks, and before long our Adventist “coffeehouse” in Greenwich Village was open. Tony Romeo, an advertising expert at the time (who, interestingly, now is the pastor of this church), drew the sign we put up over the narrow entrance to The Catacombs.
We opened The Catacombs just before I left New York to continue my studies at the field school of evangelism in California, then on to Andrews University and Loma Linda University for graduate studies in theology and health. Although I had to leave when it opened, I heard that The Catacombs was a wonderful success. Later I returned to the amazing and challenging city of New York, where I pastored and worked in urban evangelism for about seven years, using health ministry as an effective outreach.
I learned a very valuable lesson during my first encounter with New York—getting involved in a mission project takes away the harshness and edge of working in an intimidating city. It takes the focus off oneself and puts that energy into reaching others for Christ.
I also learned that while at first the city may seem intimidating, after a while you adapt to the city, learning your way around and feeling more at home.
Most important, I learned how much I had to rely on the Lord for creativity, wisdom, and spiritual protection in how best to use my time and work effectively.
Reaching the Cities
This month I have the wonderful privilege of going back to the church in Greenwich Village, where for three weeks I will be sharing the truth as it is in Jesus in public evangelistic meetings proclaiming the exciting news of His soon return!
These meetings are part of a renewed, comprehensive, integrated outreach to the millions of people living in megacities. New York City has been chosen as the first of about 630 cities where the church plans to hold evangelistic meetings over the next several years. It is an urban center whose population reflects a microcosm of the world. In addition, Ellen White urges that the work done in New York City should be a “symbol of the work the Lord desires to see done in the world.”
Representatives, many of them young adults, from all 13 divisions of the world church are involved in this effort, known as NY13 (www.ny13.org), and the knowledge gained from their participation will allow them to be able to do a similar work back home. Plans are already in place for reaching the major cities scattered across the 13 world divisions, including Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Christchurch, Geneva, Hamburg, Kiev, Kinshasa, Lagos, London, Luanda, Manila, Mexico City, Moscow, Mumbai, Munich, Port Moresby, Prague, Suva, Sydney, Tokyo, and Vienna.
New York 2013
Since the beginning of this year scores of meetings are already in progress in New York, with more than 400 evangelistic meetings to be held throughout 2013, including parts of New Jersey and southern Connecticut. Between 250 to 300 evangelistic speakers and several hundred support personnel, including pastors, local elders, and church members, are participating. Additionally, more than 2,000 Bible workers have been trained to assist in the evangelistic meetings’ visitation program.
Medical ministry plays an integral, vital part in urban outreach. More than 1,500 health workers have been trained to conduct wellness seminars, home visitations, cooking schools, small-group health meetings, health expos, and Let’s Move fitness events in conjunction with the evangelistic meetings. You will be hearing much more about comprehensive health ministry in which all of us can be part of the right arm of the gospel in following Christ’s footsteps by helping with people’s needs and pointing them to the Master Physician and Savior.
Several hundred youth and young adults are engaged in various community projects known as the “Compassion Ministry,” an initiative of the youth departments of the conferences and unions involved in NY13. In March more than 6,000 youth and young adults marched over Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to make a “compassionate statement” against violence in the city of New York. You can visit their Web site at compassion-now.org.
A Life-changing Challenge
Of the more than 7 billion people on earth, more than half live in large cities. One estimate indicates that by 2050 approximately 70 percent of the world’s projected 10 billion people will be living in the cities! Who will reach these masses for Christ? What will drive this mission?
The power is not in human beings, in committees, in policies, in presidents, or in administrative officers. The power and truth presented is found in the Word of God, in the Spirit of Prophecy, in earnest prayer, and in the power of the Holy Spirit (see Zech. 4:6). Our biblical message to the cities will unite us as a worldwide people and guard us from isolating ourselves from society and from each other.
As I prepared for life after college, several conferences offered to sponsor me to attend the seminary; one of them was the Greater New York Conference. In considering the various options, my father told me, “A lot of these places are nice, but if you really want a challenge, go to New York.” By God’s grace it worked out and changed my life forever.
Looking for Light
Friends, the world around us is crumbling and disintegrating—politically, economically, socially, ecumenically, and in the natural world. Jesus is coming very soon. We are living at the end of time, and now is the time to reach the millions upon millions who are crowded into the world’s cities, seeking for something better, but not knowing where to turn.
“A large number of precious souls are groping in darkness, yet longing and weeping and praying for light,” wrote Ellen White in 1900.”1 Her words are even more applicable to today.
Do you want to let your light shine brighter than any city lights? With God’s help you can. Recorded at the end of the book of Daniel, a heavenly being tells the prophet that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3, ESV).2
If you have been thinking about working for God in the city, now is the time to take action. I urge you to contact your church pastor or your local conference office and let them know of your interest.
Ellen White wrote: “There is no change in the messages that God has sent in the past. The work in the cities is the essential work for this time. When the cities are worked as God would have them, the result will be the setting in operation of a mighty movement such as we have not yet witnessed.”3
Let’s move forward and be part of the “mighty movement,” for we are on the very brink of eternity.
1 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), vol. 4, p. 135.
2 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 Ellen G. White, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1932), p. 304.
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.