I'm a New York City-based pastor with a deep interest in the history of my city. This week, I learned that there used to be a large church on my block. Every Sunday from 1885 until 1958, New Yorkers gathered at the Broome Street Tabernacle to worship God. The original minister, Rev. John Dooley, was orphaned when his mother died of yellow fever. A police officer found the six-year-old boy wandering the streets and took him to his own apartment at Broome and Centre Streets.
In the coming years, God changed his life and called him into the ministry. His passion became helping people who were lonely and disconnected — perhaps from family, perhaps from their heavenly Father. Eventually, the exact building he was taken into went up for sale, and Rev. Dooley bought it for his church. In the cornerstone was placed a Bible turned to Psalm 27:10: “When my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.”
On the first Sunday of worship, the doors were opened, the organ rang out into the streets, and hundreds of people flocked. Just like that, a church was planted.
Today, this block is emblematic of a diverse, global city. What was once Little Italy is now a melting pot of Italian-Americans, Chinese, creative-class professionals, and hundreds of other demographics that aren’t easily classified. On our street, you’ll find tomorrow’s leaders living in an NYU dorm and wealthy executives living in lofts. You can get a banh mi sandwich for $3.99 and a one-bedroom apartment for $11,250/month.
But urban ministry now is not so different from what it was in Rev. Dooley’s era.
The last couple of years, I’ve gathered with some friends to live out the gospel in our neighborhood. We decided to call it Dwell Church, because we were looking for a foundation upon which to build our lives. We felt disconnected. One friend aptly described New York as a city of eight million lonely people.
We dreamed of dwelling in Christ, together and for the city. Here’s a picture of our church: we join with our neighbors, other churches, people of other faiths or no faith. We bring a hot meal to the homeless and hurting. We make awkward conversation with those who are vastly different from us. We gather around the Word and communion every Sunday. We fight for widows and orphans ravaged by horrific housing practices. In short, we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed.
And in that time, we’ve discovered that the ancient text and rituals of the Christian faith have become real to us. We have met Christ in the bread and wine, but also in the faces of our neighbors. The residents of the Bowery still call out to my friends and I. We continue to pray for it. We long to bring transformation not only to individuals but the entire community.
As we grow this church, we’re reflecting on this question: After a generation or more of regional (mega)churches and large-scale Christian movements, can the parish-based church and pastor make a comeback?
Recently, a friend published The New Parish, a book about churches with a sense of place. I’m also reading a lot about the downturn of the celebrity pastor and the desire for people to connect with those who guide them spiritually.
The Broome Street Tabernacle was razed in 1959. Now that spot is occupied by my favorite bodega and a New York University dorm. But the Holy Spirit is still on the move in this community. And I believe the church of New York City will grow and be transformed one neighborhood at a time.
I look forward to sharing with you the questions I am wrestling with as I minister to the Bowery. Just another pastor to the parish, much as Rev. Dooley back in 1885.