Making a Difference: Community Partnership Brings New Life to the Congregation

by Rev. Dr. Thomas Tewell

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is located in the heart of midtown Manhattan, and one of the unique things about our church is its diversity. We are located on one of the most expensive blocks of real estate in the world in the richest congressional district in the country, but 36 stops north on subway number 6 is the countryís poorest congregational district. One of the main things that has enabled our church to make a difference has been the recognition that both the rich and the poor are part of our parish.

I came to New York after serving as pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, where we gave away a dollar for the needs of the world for every dollar we spent on ourselves. This experience taught me the importance of mission and ministry in the world. So, when I came to New York, I was already attuned to wanting to be involved in mission and ministry. I knew from my experience in Texas that there were people in the area who would understand the communityís needs and know how the church could help. I sought out other local clergy members for their insights about the city, its citizens, its problems, and its resources. My clerical colleagues cautioned me not to tackle too many issues at once, but to focus my efforts on one or two issues.

Building Homesóand Bridges

We chose homelessness and housing for the poor as our primary focuses, realizing that, in order to serve effectively, we needed to prepare ourselves to tackle these challenges. One of the things that I believe has made our ministry to the homeless strong in New York is that we took the time to understand these people and their plight. We made a study of it. We read the prophetic narratives of Isaiah and Amos and Jonathan Kozolís Amazing Grace, which showed us the many faces of homelessness. We talked to homeless people and got to know them.

Out of our recognition that we needed this preparation grew another ministry, the Center for Christian Studies, which offers courses in the Bible, theology, practical Christianity, arts and literature, and church history to support members in their faith and in their community outreach. We view the Center as a way to inhale Godís love so that we can exhale Godís love in ministry in the world. If we try to exhale without inhaling, we burn out. If we inhale but give nothing away, we suffocate. Both are essential.

Another factor that has made our ministry to the homeless so successful and meaningful is our partnership with other congregations and organizations in the city. Neighboring clergy helped us identify resources in the city. Members of the Midtown Clergy Association supported an effort I headed on the Faith Steering Committee for Habitat for Humanity to build 15 homes. Providing homes to people in need was a moving experience for all of the 2,000 volunteers who assisted in this project, but what was perhaps even more wonderful was that this experience involved faith communities throughout New York. Jews, Muslims, and Christians worked together on this project, alongside the people who would ultimately reside in these homes. This shared experience erased many stereotypes and built bridges between faith communities and between the poorer and wealthier members of our community.

What we have discovered in our ministry is that members of other congregations and organizations are not only willing to help, they are thrilled to be called upon. The clergy in midtown Manhattan have realized that although the problems we face are bigger than any of us can address alone, in partnership we can make a difference. Even faculty members from Columbia and New York Universities have become involved, with several teaching courses in our Center for Christian Studies. We didnít realize so much help was available until we started asking, but when we did we found that people wanted to be in partnership with us, and it has helped our congregation come to life. We feel that we are making a difference not only in the lives of our members, but also in New York City, and itís exciting!

Making a Difference

To congregations who want to make a difference in their communities, my advice is to look first at where God has placed you. Then find out about the community that exists within a one-mile radius of your church. What are the issues and needs of the people in that area? What can the church offer them?

Next, limit your focus. You canít do multiple things well, so try to do a few things well, so try to do a few things with excellence. And donít try to do them alone. When you explore your community to determine its problems, investigate its resources as well.

Finally, keep in mind that what has worked in one setting will not necessarily work in another. I believe that ministry is organic, that you have to grow it. That is what we have done at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Our worship attendance is booming, our programs are expanding, and our people are changing because there is organic spiritual growth at the center of all we do.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Tewell is Senior Pastor at The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.

January/February 2001
Copyright © 2001 by The Alban Institute