Super-love for the City
It’s Wednesday night, and artist Michael Moss is at an easel. His pencil strokes bring life to the page—a fist, a muscled arm, a cape.
Nearby, watching with rapt attention, is a group of elementary and middle school children. They’re crazy about superheroes. And tonight, at the Boulevard Family Shelter where they live, they’re learning how to draw those heroes.
Moss, a cartoonist, is volunteering at the shelter. He’s a member of Reformed Church of Newtown, just a few blocks away from the shelter in Elmhurst, Queens. He knows about the children who live there because of the church’s involvement with City Mission.
City Mission is a Christian nonprofit seeking the transformation of its corner of New York City—Elmhurst—by empowering the people who live there. Right now, it works primarily with the shelter. While this superhero drawing class is outside the norm, it’s completely in line with the City Mission philosophy.
Their work at the shelter isn’t just about meeting needs. It’s about showing love. In this case, it’s about love for children who love superheroes.
Lester Lin founded City Mission. He’s also a businessman, and a volunteer youth leader at Reformed Church of Newtown. He knows the children love superheroes because he knows the children. “When they’re done with their homework, all of them start talking about superheroes,” he says. “They’re so into it. They just start drawing them. As soon as they draw a cape around a stick figure, I know.”
Since the lesson, he says, “these kids are drawing so much better—no more stick figures!”
Rooted in protests
Lin’s first encounter with the Boulevard Family Shelter was at a protest two summers ago. The shelter had just opened, and wasn’t particularly welcome in the rapidly gentrifying community. Rumors spread that drug dealers would be living in the shelter.
This particular day, more than 1,000 people had gathered to protest. Some were throwing things at the building. Community members tried to prevent mothers and babies living at the shelter from getting back in. “There were these kids [inside] at the window, and they were crying,” Lin says.
He struggled through the sea of people and into the building. Children fled, convinced a protestor had gotten inside to hurt them. But Lin introduced himself to shelter staff and asked if he could help.
“From there,” he says, “I was there every single day, every single week.” And he brought students from his youth group along.
One of those students is Carmen Tan. Tan, a 19-year-old graphic design student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, was stirred by the protests.
“My immediate response was, ‘How can I help? How can I be a good neighbor to them?’” she says.
“Especially as a Christian, I want to use my skill and talent to serve in the community and show God’s love through my actions, and provide the same love and grace that I have received toward those who need it.”
The shelter provides food and temporary housing for people with nowhere else to go. But as Lin and Tan and others spent time there, they got to know the people who lived there. And they spotted a few needs they could help with—opportunities to share God’s love.
“We want to create relationships,” Lin says, “and we want to bridge the gap between the shelter and the community.” That’s where simple events like barbecues—or superhero drawing lessons—come in.
“One of my favorite things about helping is definitely the smiles of the children and parents who come through the doors, every time they see us—and hearing them call our names and expressing how much they love what we have planned for them,” Tan says.
That relationship is at the heart of City Mission’s work.
Tan’s not the only student invested in City Mission—there are hundreds. Some students have set up social media accounts for City Mission. They interview residents at the shelter and tell their stories online, so that homelessness becomes human. They also make practical suggestions for how people can get involved to make a difference in that resident’s life. “The second they do that, all their peers start sharing,” Lin says. “It gets on Twitter, and people start commenting, ‘I have a stroller. Can someone come pick it up?’”
Lin also shares a story of teens from his church—three 14-year-olds, a 17-year-old, and a college student. They wanted to hold a barbecue with face painting for families at the shelter, and maybe hand out Bibles. What surprised and delighted Lin, he says, was their desire to bring together the three congregations that make up Reformed Church of Newtown. (The church includes Taiwanese, Chinese, and English-language congregations.)
“Not only do they want to do something for the community, they recognize it’s important to work together with people of different ethnicities and age groups,” Lin says. And they succeeded, drawing adult volunteers from all three congregations for the first time.
Joining with other churches
At first, the volunteering effort was rooted in the youth group of Reformed Church of Newtown’s English-language congregation.
“Our first event was a clothes drive and barbecue,” Lin says. He reached out to other Elmhurst churches about working together, but didn’t get very far.
Elmhurst is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. (Translators at a local hospital speak 500 languages or dialects.) Many of the congregations in the area are made up of one language group and have directed their outreach efforts to people of that same language group. The language barriers and tendency toward denominational insularity prevented local congregations from getting involved at the shelter.
Establishing City Mission as an independent nonprofit—rather than as an outreach of Reformed Church of Newtown—bridged denominational and racial divides. City Mission currently receives volunteer support or donations of goods from 16 neighborhood churches.
Together, these churches serve Boulevard Family Shelter and a newer shelter, the Landing.
Over the last year, they’ve donated school supplies, held monthly family events, supported a group for fathers in the shelter, held holiday events and health fairs, and organized tutoring. They even partnered with the mayor’s office to offer free legal services for immigrants. Hundreds of volunteers have spent time at the shelters; many more have donated goods.
Now, Lin says, many churches are on board, and the diversity gives City Mission a broader perspective on needs in the neighborhood, since each congregation sees things through a different lens. Pastors from 15 local churches now meet monthly to share their perspectives about needs in the area and plan how to respond.
Relationships make the difference
“When we are at the shelter now, the children run to you and they hug you, and they know your name,” Lin says. “The parents say ‘thank you’ for doing these care groups. They are so much more welcoming now.
“These are single mothers who are abused, or these are fathers who are sticking with their children and trying to make it work. Or older sisters who have younger siblings that have nowhere to go because their parents aren’t here anymore. Or they have an autistic child, and they spent all their savings for the child, and they’re immigrants and don’t have health insurance.”
Lin and Tan—and many other volunteers—are now in relationship with these neighbors and know their stories.
“Most importantly, it changes us—the volunteers,” Lin says. “This is in my own backyard. We’re always on the other side of the neighborhood where it’s more gentrified. We forget the other side of the neighborhood that’s really hurting. … Our main thing is to build relationships so we can share the gospel.”
“This is exactly what we want to be,” he says of Reformed Church of Newtown’s involvement in City Mission. “We want to be a gospel-centered church for the city.”
Download the RCA Today app for more features, including a time-lapse video of the drawing lesson. [add link to Google Play store and app store]
Get a glimpse of some City Mission projects on Facebook at www.facebook.com/CityMissionNYC.
Wondering how to involve young people in mission? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for ideas.