All Nations Sing in Astoria

Kevin Mungons and Darrell Goemaat March 19, 2012




Pastor Rob Rodríguez and Pastor Max Pera

Ken Davis drives us through a neighborhood in Astoria, N.Y., passing three-story brownstones and noting a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall sign printed in five different languages. “The issue in the city is not having too few churches,” Ken says. “The issue is the lack of gospel-centered, gospel-preaching churches.”

Ken leads Project Jerusalem, a training program sponsored by Baptist Bible Seminary to give students real-world experience in planting churches. Three of them have formed a new team to reach one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States, more than 100 nations together in the five-mile-square neighborhood on the northwest end of Queens. Having recruited a multiethnic team, Ken is convinced that leadership diversity is the best model for urban ministry. “God is raising up a multiethnic church. I’m convinced that these churches will be exceedingly attractive to the next generation,” he says.

After pastoring Christ Baptist Church, Columbia, N.J., for six years, Pastor Rob Rodríguez stepped down in January to lead the Astoria team. He and his wife, Rebecca, have several years of experience in urban and multiethnic ministry. He grew up in Brooklyn as the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, still fluent in Spanish but more comfortable preaching in English.

Alex and Gloria Morris made a leap of faith when they recently sold their home in Pennsylvania, moving to Astoria to become the first of the team to arrive on-site. Alex gave up a job as a computer programmer to enter seminary; he’ll lead worship in the newly organized church. Gloria, a medical doctor, left a successful oncology practice to follow the couple’s call to church planting. “We had three garage sales to downsize, and the funds miraculously paid for my New York State medical license,” she says.

Pastor Max Pera and his wife, Priscila, had been working in Astoria for about two years, teaching Bible seminars in Portuguese on Tuesday nights. They were born in São Paulo but did not meet until both moved to New York. The seminars grew to the point where a core group began meeting on Sunday mornings. Learning that Project Jerusalem was interested in planting a multiethnic church in Astoria, the two groups decided it was natural to merge their efforts.

The leadership team relies heavily on the help of other churches. Alex recently finished an internship with Pastor Matthew Hoskinson at First Baptist Church in Manhattan. Grace Baptist Church, Tonawanda, N.Y., supports the church as part of its missions budget and has sent teams to help with outreach and projects, as does Brooklyn Baptist Church, Brooklyn, N.Y. Pastor Rob, as team leader, continues to raise support from other churches through Project Jerusalem. All of these groups, working together, illustrate partnership church planting, a model that relies on the cooperative effort of one or more churches aided by a mission agency (see “Lots of Ways to Plant a Church,” January/February ).

Ken continues to mentor the group. Alex graduates from Baptist Bible Seminary with an MDiv this spring, while Rob and Max continue to take classes. The group looks forward to a busy summer of ministry, hosting several church groups and mission teams.

Pastor Rob takes his out-of-town guests on a walking tour of Astoria, pointing out the local landmarks. But the most famous address can’t be seen at street level. Big Bird lives here, in a nest behind 123 Sesame Street, actually a television set somewhere inside the Kaufman Astoria Studios. For children growing up in suburbs and rural towns across the U.S., the depiction of life on Sesame Street was probably their first exposure to urban life.

Perhaps their parents learned about social change from another fictional Astoria resident, Archie Bunker. Back in the 1970s, America would watch All in the Family for another episode in the life of a middle aged white guy who was fru-strated by his rapidly changing world. Not only were people of color moving into Astoria, they were moving right next door.

Bunker’s response, frequently profane and bigoted, focused attention on America’s changing demographics. But solutions? Not from Archie Bunker, not from television.

“The only way to combat racism and classism is with a multiethnic church,” says Pastor Rob Rodríguez. “We have to be multiethnic because the second and third generations are being lost—they leave the church entirely, fall into complete secularism, or fall into false doctrine.”

Today, turning the corner in Astoria is like turning into a new continent. Pastor Max takes us inside a Brazilian grocery to meet Claudio Rocha, the store manager and one of the core group helping start the Astoria church. The next block seems to be Pakistani and Bengali, followed by Greek, Indian, and North African. Despite the diversity, Ken Davis calls Astoria one of the least-reached neighborhoods in New York. On any given Sunday, maybe 5 percent attend an evangelical church.

Pastor Max responded by focusing on the Brazilian community, emphasizing basic Bible teaching during Tuesday night seminars. This grew to the point where they began meeting on Sundays in a rented storefront building. On the morning we visit, he teaches a Sunday School lesson on the doctrine of inspiration.

“Inspiração Verbal e Plenária,” Pastor Max says, a point that is well understood by his Anglo visitors. For the rest of the lesson, Carlos Heckler leans over and translates for us. He’s 14, the son of an American father and Brazilian mother, completely bilingual.

“Pastor Max knows everything about the Bible, and he answers all my questions,” Carlos says.

Max understands the life of an urban seeker. He was a dentist in Brazil who came to the U.S. for additional training. Along the way he attended a Mormon seminary, became vice president of his Mormon church, studied with a Roman Catholic priest for a bit, and then landed at a charismatic church. “That’s where the leaders of the church kept accusing me of being Baptist,” Max tells us. “I arrived at those Baptist convictions by studying the Bible.”

Despite their roots in bilingual churches, Rob and Max do not believe this model has long-term effectiveness. “Those churches will last until the last old people die,” Max says. So the leadership team continues to focus on the second and third generations, guys like Carlos, as they make plans for the future.

Gathering in Alex and Gloria’s high-rise apartment, the leadership team riffs on a song they each know too well, offering funny Christian illustrations that don’t work so well in urban ministry: “I was out mowing my grass this morning,” “Last fall I was on a hunting trip,” and “Let’s have a God and Country Sunday and break out the banjos!”

Everyone laughs, but Pastor Rob adds a more thoughtful assessment, suggesting that American churches sometimes mix the gospel with an unhealthy dose of American suburban expectations. “In order to be an American church, you have to get the white picket fence,” he says. “Is that right?”

Their response is a church-planting model that fits an urban location, but they’re learning to mix careful plans with a healthy dose of flexibility. The group is committed to growing the church through cell groups that meet throughout the week. After a year or two of Bible studies, they were hoping to begin meeting together for a Sunday “celebration” service. But when Rob and Alex met Max—who already had a solid core group and a storefront meeting location—their plans took an exciting turn.

In the wild world of New York real estate, location is still a hot topic for church planters. Last fall, New York City offi-cials banned churches from renting public school space, forcing dozens of groups to cobble together last-minute ar-rangements in other temporary locations. Then a federal appeals court delayed the decision and temporarily allowed the public school access. Now groups are waiting for a final court decision this summer. In the meantime, some missions groups are taking a second look at the once-maligned storefront church. For a time, these were viewed as obstacles to the church planter’s goal of a permanent community presence. And if you are trying to reach the whole community (not just one segment), would an urban hipster with a high-paying studio job be willing to visit?

Forty people gather in the 20-by-20-foot room, singing “Gente de toda lengua y nación,” a chorus familiar to many of the Portuguese-speaking Brazilian immigrants. Then the group sings the same words in English: “People from every nation and tongue, from generation to generation, We worship You.”

The service is exuberant, perhaps a bit different for someone raised in middle America. But the developing church is committed to modeling multiethnic ministry from the start. Everyone participates. Singing “Levanto mis manos” without raising your hands is like singing “Stand Up for Jesus” while sitting down.

Back in the Sunday morning service, Pastor Rob is telling the Sunday morning guests about three universal words that mean the same in any language: “Amen, Hallelujah . . . and Coca-Cola.” Pastor Max laughs with everyone else, temporarily skipping the translation.

Then Rob continues with his testimony: “When I was growing up I said amen when everyone else said amen. I even got baptized when my mom and dad said I should be baptized. But it wasn’t until I was 17 years old that I started to receive the gospel—when things started to make sense spiritually.”

He uses a good portion of his sermon to explain the gospel carefully, understanding that some in the room are not yet believers.

Preaching from James 1:18–25, Pastor Rob explains why people in the city are not “quick to hear” the gospel. “New York is a city that never sleeps, never stops moving. Everywhere we look there is something new, something differing, something better.” Right on cue, a motorcycle roars by outside, rumbling an urban “Amen” that momentarily distracts those who came to hear.

Pastor Rob describes those who attend the first meeting as being “the core group of CityView Baptist Church,” a happy occasion marked by a photo after the morning service. A day earlier, the team applied for fellowship with the GARBC, to be approved by messengers to the GARBC Conference in June.

Surveying the diversity represented on their first Sunday, Pastor Rob injects one more reminder of their developing mission: “This church will not be a little Brazil or a little San Juan, but a church for all nations.”

Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.

Core group of CityView Baptist Church, Astoria, N.Y.