February 2013

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How many people do you know who have ever spent more than just a few minutes on a train, passing through Newark’s Penn Station, but have never ventured out into the 300,000 person city beyond that? I’ve lived in New York City for 20 years now (gulp!) and apart from brunch one Saturday in a soul food restaurant there, I’d never spent any time in Newark either.

Fortunately for me, that changed this past Saturday when the Ministry Fellows cohort from City Seminary (www.cityseminaryny.org) that I’m a part of this academic year went on a pilgrimage to Newark.  Our time began in the Amtrak rest area at New York’s Penn Station as we waited for our train. We reflected on the notion of pilgrimage (going on a journey, entering into a community, being open to what we’d see and learn, and hoping we’d get dust (ok snow) on our feet). We also heard a little bit about the history of the city which was founded in 1666, and 300 years later, nose-dived economically, following a number of riots, the first of which occurred in 1967.  Newark is just starting to get its bearings again after decades of middle-class abandonment and crime.

Ten minutes on the train took us to NJ’s Penn Station, where we boarded a bus to the intersection of streets named after Muhammed Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This seemed fitting since our first stop was the Eagle Academy for Boys (www.eaglenewark.org), the first public school for boys in the whole state. Eagle is part of a consortium; there are 3 Eagle Academies already in New York City. This particular one began last September. There are 80 6th graders enrolled and the goal is to add another grade each year to build a middle & high school. We met a young, dynamic and hip principal (VT), who took time out of a meeting with parent leaders to introduce us to the school.Then we had a presentation from Mr. TO, Operations Director who’s responsible for establishing community partnerships and sports programs. At one point, 3 students came into the classroom where we were meeting to get their coats and Mr. O had them recite their school pledge.  Dressed in navy blue polo shirts and khaki pants, these young men proudly reminded us that among other things they are “globally conscious, globally committed scholar(s).”  Powerful!

The students are at the school 6 days a week, 8-5 Mondays to Fridays and 8.30 – 12.30pm on Saturdays, which gives you a sense of how committed the teachers have to be. The focus is on academics as well as character development.  Both of the men we met were unapologetically Christian. They were committed to loving these students (and telling them so), developing them intellectually, affirming their gifts, and walking alongside them to mature them into godly husbands and fathers and productive members of society.

Following this visit, we ate lunch at a Portuguese restaurant and then walked to the Ironbound section of Newark adjacent to the train station. There, we entered a plain building attached to a small parking lot which turned out to be Christ Community Presbyterian (CCP) church (CCPNewark.org) pastored by Rev Renato, a Brazilian.  He and his wife began the church in 1986 when there was only 3 Portuguese-speaking churches in Newark. Now there are 40 – thanks be to God! At CCP, they have 300 regular attenders, are financially self-sustaining and conduct 3 services every Sunday, one in Spanish, one in Portuguese and one in English.  Besides a vibrant youth group which meets on Friday nights, they have a beautiful day care center in  the basement that serves 70 kids. Every space in the church, including the sanctuary is multi-purpose, yet they have a vision of building upwards, on top of their roof to add another floor –  once God provides them with funds to kick start that $2.5M project. Wow, what vision!

Reflecting on our day, I realized we’d seen two ends of the spectrum: a pastor faithful to the call to love and serve the people of Newark who’d been there for 27 years and whose presence was evidence of how God, in turn, had been faithful to them, and a school 5 months into its infancy designed to rescue a generation of inner-city boys, at the start of what will be a long marathon.

Glimpses of glory, in the shadow of Manhattan.