The Heart of Harlem: Summer Mission 2019
One week ago, a team of leaders and students drove thirteen hours northeast to serve with the Salvation Army in New York. Our host site and home for the week was Harlem. I have led many mission trips in the past, and I have even served in New York and New Jersey in past years, but never in the neighborhood of Harlem. Before our trip I had more than a few folks warn me about Harlem. “You better be careful” they said. “Harlem is notoriously dangerous! I would choose a different location. Are you sure it’s a good idea to serve there?” they questioned. Granted, most people saying these things had never been to Harlem, their impressions taken from movies and TV shows over the years, or the news reels they saw growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s. Like every neighborhood, in every city, Harlem has its issues. The homeless rate is extremely high, as is the rate of drug use. Even if you are able to find and hold down a job the average income is between $20,000-25,000 a year (in a city with extremely high cost of living). Upon arriving it was clear we had stepped outside our bubble and into a world none of us knew, a world we were now living in for seven days whether we were comfortable or not.
Our main hub for the week was the Salvation Army Manhattan Citadel that serves the community of central Harlem. We participated in preparing and serving meals, organizing Kid’s Club events at local parks, and repairing and renovating the building through which most of their services are provided. These sound like pretty straightforward tasks; pack some sandwiches, play with kids, mop some floors. What we were not prepared for was the emotional and spiritual toll these tasks would take on each of us. It was not uncommon to find a corner away from everyone and cry for a few moments, taking in the pain and hopelessness, and yet joy, felt by many of those we were serving. Hundreds of people lined up each day to receive a sandwich and a cup of juice. That would be the only food they would have for the day. We joyfully watched kids from the community as they came and played with us in the parks, places that they couldn’t play without Kid’s Club because drug and gang violence prevented them from playing by themselves. Even the most mundane tasks like mopping and cleaning classrooms freed up Salvation Army staff to complete assignments they wouldn’t normally be able to accomplish. In all of this, whether handing out cold cups of water to folks on the street, or praying with people who just needed a kind soul to care and listen, God was being glorified on the streets of Harlem. By the end of the trip we were seeing the beauty in the neighborhood, the potential, the impact that God was making each and every day. This wasn’t some dark, scary place that should be avoided at all costs. This was a place where God was bringing growth and renewal. The Kingdom was present and we were entering into a sacred space full of love, hope, and generosity. We laughed with folks we were serving, we shared meals together, we told stories. We were getting a small glimpse into Heaven and the marriage supper of the Lamb where old friends fellowship and new friends feel like old friends. We thought we were going to New York to make an impact, and we left realizing the impact was made on us.
There is a sense that most people have before they embark on any kind of mission trip, especially to a part of the world that is foreign to them, and that is that we are bringing God with us. We imagine that God must think He is so lucky to have us on his team and bring Him along with us into this dark and scary place. It’s in those moments we have to snap ourselves out of lofty thoughts about ourselves and realize that God is already there, working and impacting the world, and that we are merely instruments, coming alongside Him and His work, to be used for His glory.