Thursday started early. And by early I mean we had to be leaving the hostel by 6AM.
We had contacted a local soup kitchen to volunteer our time serving the homeless for the morning. So we all piled into the subway, half-awake to make the trek to St. Paul’s House.
St. Paul’s House is not just another soup kitchen that serves the homeless. In fact, it is not really just for the homeless. Their mission is not just to serve the homeless, their mission is bigger than that. They want to serve the neighborhood and community they are in. That means serving businessmen who stop in before work to the homeless who live on the streets. It is a beautiful picture of the city and how it comes together. It is a beautiful picture of the church and how she does not discriminate.
When we got there we were split into a couple groups. One group was going to help set up the room in the basement for the people who were coming in. Another group was going to help pass out drinks and food. The last group was going to fix the food and put it on plates for others to hand out downstairs.
I was part of the group that helped fix the food and the plates. We ended up fixing spaghetti and sandwiches for everyone who showed up–which I found a little odd since they were eating it around breakfast time. But, nonetheless, we fixed a whole mess of spaghetti, sauce, salads, and sandwiches for people to take downstairs.
The people who were helping downstairs were supposed to just interact with the people who came in. Because our group was larger than the groups St. Paul’s usually had, there were more people available to sit down and have conversations with those who walked in than most of the time. It allowed for members of our groups to hear the stories of those who came for the meal.
Before all the food was passed out, they held a short chapel service. We had someone who was able to play guitar and another who sang, and they led worship for a couple songs just to set the tone of the time. After that, Tyler stood up and shared a brief talk that God had laid on his heart for this moment. He brought the Word. Then one of their staff members preached for a few minutes while the food was finishing up.
While we were putting plates together, the people downstairs were pulling out tables and extra chairs to set up for what we were fixing upstairs. People came in and out of the kitchen carrying trays full of spaghetti. Each person had a job, and we worked like a well-oiled machine.
The guests ate while our team members had more and more conversations. Upstairs, we were cleaning up the kitchen from the mess we made with the spaghetti.
After everyone left, we felt like we should give back to St. Paul’s for everything they do for the community on a daily basis. The easiest way that we thought we could do that was to deep clean their kitchen and reorganize their pantries. With everybody in our group doing a small part it actually did not take that long, but when we finished, you could really tell a difference.
We all gathered around in the common room to talk with some of the volunteers and staff members. We asked them questions about the city and its people, and they asked us questions about Georgia, Wesley, and our stories. While we were all tired from the lack of sleep, I think most enjoyed those moments to hear about ministry in the city from the inside.
There was one point where it felt like the Holy Spirit was convicting us though.
There was a guy from South Carolina who was ecstatic to talk to “real Southerners.” We talked about Chik-fil-a, Sweet Tea, and the sun for the better part of an hour. Then he asked us all a question that took a lot of us by surprise,
“Are you guys here really doing mission work, or is it just a glorified sight-seeing trip?”
I could feel the tension in the room rise. I could feel the atmosphere change. He had just voiced something that had been lingering in the air the past couple days.
Were we really here for the right reasons? Did we really come on a glorified sight-seeing trip? Sure, we were not doing the traditional American Christian mission trip (i.e. building houses in third-world countries, playing with kids in orphanages, etc.), but had we gotten caught up in the idea of being so different we missed what missions actually was?
I could feel the hearts of everyone in our group sink as the question followed us back to the hostel. It was like a nagging fly that kept buzzing around our heads. I could also tell it hit our leaders hard, too. They gave us permission to go take a nap for an hour or so to reenergize while they sorted through what our plan would be for the rest of the day. We gladly took them up on the nap offer and passed out for an hour or so until we reconvened in the lobby of the hostel.
A detail I did not mention at the begin: it was Thursday, St. Patrick’s Day.
For those of you who are not of Irish decent, New York City has the oldest (since 1762) and largest–sorry Savannah, you guys hold the largest unofficial count–parade in America, with over 150,000 participants and 2 million spectators. That means NYC swelled the whole day due to the number of people in the city for the parade.
We knew we God had us in New York for a reason when we saw that St. Patrick’s Day would fall while we were up there. More people equals more opportunities.
With that in mind, our leaders laid out a couple different ideas of what the rest of the day could look like. Each leader was going to be responsible for a group, and each group was going to spread out across the city and minister in different ways.
Brittney bought a bunch of white flowers that had been soaking in green water so that the petals were tinged green. She asked the whole team to write Bible verses or encouraging notes slips of paper and tie them to the stems of the flowers. Then, her group was going to walk towards the parade route and hand out flowers, reminding people that God loves them, He thinks their beautiful, and just to encourage them. As with the other outreach opportunities, Brittney wanted to give something tangible to people so that they could have a reminder after the conversation had come and gone.
Alan’s group was going to just walk around the city and pray for anyone they saw that had a broken appendage, in a wheelchair, had a cast, or looked like they were hurting. Alan wanted to encourage his group to emphasize the power of healing prayer by petitioning the throne of God to intercede on behalf of these individuals for a miracle. They wanted to see the power of God displayed as they prayed for people.
Nick pitched the idea of doing prophetic art in Central Park and then asking God who to give those pieces of art to. Like Brittney’s flower idea, giving someone a piece of paper with a painting or words on it is a tangible reminder of the conversation they had. Paintings can be more personal because God can speak specifically through images in ways that words can seemingly fall short. A picture is worth a thousand words.
So these were the ideas that were laid out before us, and we were allowed to choose which group we wanted to be a part of. So we did.
The group split pretty evenly between Brittney and Alan, while Nick only gained two–Andy and me.
Before we went out, Alan felt led to pray over us before we went out. He felt that God had given him a gift of boldness and courage this year as he was interning as an Outreach Intern with Wesley. He wanted to ask God to impart that same spirit on us as we did our various ministries that afternoon. Originally he was just going to walk around our circle and pray for the group, symbolically touching our shoulders or heads. But, it turned out, Alan spent a good three minutes plus praying for each person specifically. He laid hands on each individual on our team. He prayed specifically for courage in our endeavors here but also in the future. It was a beautiful time of encouragement and joy. The Lord was speaking through Alan each time he moved on to the next person.
After Alan had finished, we gathered with our groups and took on the city.
Nick, Andy, and I took the subway to Columbus Circle and entered Central Park at the southwest side. We walked around for a little bit searching for place we could start painting. We finally found a picnic table near a couple multi-purpose fields near where we walked in.
Prophetic art is…art.
That may sound elementary and redundant, but it is completely true. I was part of ArtSpeak this semester which is the artistic arm of the Wesley Foundation. I had my first exposure to prophetic art during a tuesday night meeting. It was one of the most stretching and rewarding experiences. A couple of things about prophetic art before I continue with the narrative:
- Being artistic is not a prerequisite. I have always argued that there is a difference between being artistic and being creative–though now is not the time and place to visit that discussion. You were created to be creative; therefore, creating is something that is inherent to you. Painting and drawing–which have become synonymous with creative in recent history–are just two avenues that that expression takes form. Therefore, because you are creative, you can do prophetic art. It does not have to be the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa; it has to be your best. God works through out imperfections.
- Prophetic art is a lot like the Treasure Hunts I described earlier. Instead of asking God to give you words to speak or write, you ask God for an image for you to draw or paint. Sometimes they include words to help the interpretation, but most of the time they are images or pictures. Then, you draw or paint what God revealed to you–no matter what it was. Then you ask God for the interpretation of that image (i.e. whether the bird symbolizes peace or freedom). Finally, you pray that God will put the person in your path who needs that encouraging picture and ask for the courage to be obedient when prompted.
Nick laid out all the brushes, paint, and water and let us get to work. He put on some chill music to help spark creativity, and we started praying and painting. It had to be one of the most beautiful days of the whole trip. We were in the middle of Central Park, wind blowing, people all around; it was perfect.
We sat at that table for at least an hour talking, laughing, praying, and painting. Each of us painted about three or four pieces. After we finished the final touches, we packed up our stuff, and set out to walk around Central Park looking for the people to whom we would give away our paintings to.
We did not have to go far, actually. There was a lady sitting on benches across the path from us overlooking one of the multi-purpose fields with some luggage by herself. There was an inescapable feeling inside of me that I needed to give her one of my paintings. So, I walked over and had a brief conversation simply saying that I believed that God wanted me to give her this and asked her if there was anything I could pray for her for. As I locked eyes I could see the pain behind them. Her face shown of exhaustion, despair, and fatigue. A faint smile spread across her lips as I handed her a piece that had a bird on it that said, “God loves you more than the birds.” I told her that God loved her and said my goodbye.
That was it. It was that easy. It was that simple.
We wandered around Central Park for another two hours doing a similar thing with all of our art pieces. Andy was definitely the most entertaining to watch. We would be walking down a path and someone would catch his eye. He would look their direction, but we would keep walking. We would see Andy sneaking glances back to that person for the next couple of steps until we would hear at heavy sigh as he would make a 180° bee-line towards that person. Most of the people Andy would seek out would be homeless men or women. We had an abundance of food for the trip, so we made a whole slough of extra PB&J lunches to hand out to homeless people in the city. It never failed for Andy to come back empty handed having to grab more lunches out of backpacks for the next people he would be talking to.
We walked all around one third of Central Park. We actually thought we were taking shortcuts, when in reality, we were just going deeper and deeper into the park. If you have never been to Central Park, you cannot appreciate the sheer magnitude of a forested, green area large enough to, at sometimes, cause you to forget that you are amidst one of the busiest cities in the world. You would find yourself looking up at blue skies and trees instead of skyscrapers. It was a surreal moment for me for sure.
I gave out another piece of art to a man who was sitting by himself on a bench towards the end of our wanderings. It was not anything extravagant or complex. Simple red watercolor with a message of “God loves you” written on it. The man was not too receptive of initiation of a conversation or the thought of me praying for him, but he reluctantly took the piece of paper and quickly returned to staring off into the distance consumed by a lonely aura again.
We ended up holding on to a couple of our paintings for a later time, but by this time, we needed to reconnect with the other groups at the hostel. So we jumped on the subway and headed back uptown.
We were actually the last group to show up, and while everyone was tired because of the long day, there was a new buzz of excitement in the room. A new life had found its way into our bones. We were tired, but it was good tired. We were also hungry, so we found a local Mexican place and had a loud, joyful dinner together as a family–complete with Mariachi Band!
Back at the hostel, we gathered as a group to share our experiences throughout the day, since everyone was eager to hear what God had done through us as we spread throughout the city. We all gathered in one of our small rooms and shared stories for what seemed like hours.
Oh, the stories everyone told. There is no way for me to remember all of them, but what I do remember is that God used our obedience. There had been a complete 180 in the demeanor of our group from the morning. There was a determination in everyone’s eyes. There was a passion in everyone’s voice. There was a heart for this city that was blooming.
And to think, it all started off with a question: “Are you guys here really doing mission work, or is it just a glorified sight-seeing trip?”
To be fair, I truly believe that our motives were pure from the beginning. Our leaders put in months and months of work to work out all the details of our trip. We spent months praying for each aspect of the trip. We spent weeks praying for the people we would meet in the city.
I think that coming off the free-day on Wednesday we were all coasting. There had been little things here and there that had been building up to this feeling, but, of course, God knew this and gave us the jolt we needed to bring us back in line with our mission–he even uses fellow, arrogant Southerners in the middle of Concrete Jungle where dreams are made of.
Isn’t that just like God though? He gives you just the right amount of a wake up call to get you back on track. He does not force you. He gently prods you. He is the Good Shepherd. He leads us to the ares where we can feast and prosper, but He has no problem breaking our legs when He needs to in order to bring us back to the group.
I think that is what our group experienced at St. Paul’s House that Thursday morning. God was breaking us of our coasting complacency that had creeped in and bringing us back to the fold. There was a lingering feeling of conviction and shame the followed us from there, but God did not allow it to rest on us. He lifted it off, giving us a fresh, second wind that resulted in obedience.
Thursday ended completely different than it started. But that was a good thing.
It set the stage for some incredible things God had in store for Friday. It was as though God was bringing the entire week to a crescendo for the final day.