by George Reitz
One urban missions leader shares lessons from a six-year ministry outreach to Bengali immigrants.
HISTORY OF JESUS HALL
Start-up. A friend of mine called me on the phone and said, “George, I have a few people I would like you to meet.” He had been lobbying the United States federal government to take a more active role in protecting religious freedom globally after having heard some distressing testimonies. He gave me the names of three people, all of whom I followed up with.
One of these individuals was from Bangladesh. When I met with Kamal* he was severely handicapped due to a massive stroke he suffered while on the run from extremist leaders in Bangladesh. Despite what he had been through, Kamal was determined to move on and had begun networking with Korean Presbyterians in New York City. He had established a seminary through which he and his students developed a church planting movement which resulted in 111 church plants in ten years. Kamal’s heart for God and his people amazed me. I started to probe for signs of ministry reentry interests. “Kamal, the numbers I have seen indicate a growing Bengali community in New York City of thirty-five thousand people,” I said.
“Oh no,” he countered, “community people are saying it’s more like 100,000.” After further discussion, a partnership was developed. This led to the beginning of Jesus Hall in January 1998.
Philosophy. Having had a variety of cross-cultural experiences, I knew that a key to success would be our ability to contextualize ministry into a New York Bengali Muslim culture. My standard question to the indigenous worker is, “What might the church look like in your culture?” I intentionally frame the question for two reasons. First, as a representative of a predominantly white organization, I am giving them permission to establish relevant cultural forms. Second, I am challenging them to begin grappling with indigenous ministry which is not generally considered on this domestic front.
Westerners have great difficulty submitting themselves to others. Yet, when we are on strange cultural turf, the indigenous person needs to be in the driver’s seat. Walking with indigenous apostolic-type people can be one of the most exhilarating adventures a person can have.
Model of ministry. What would the contextualized Bengali ministry among Muslims in New York City look like? Kamal felt a bookstore would be an advantageous way of making the gospel appealing in a religiously distant neighborhood. We discussed locations which were accessible but which didn’t have a high profile. This would allow inquiring individuals to explore Jesus without immediate social and religious resistance. The bookstore would be a place where initial contacts were made and where follow-up discipleship could occur. In addition, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes could be conducted as an outreach service. Children’s ministry, counseling and perhaps the sponsoring of a soccer team could be included as well. Discipling would take an apologetic approach by using the Koranic view of Jesus as a bridge to the Bible.
There were questions as to how believers would be gathered and what shape the congregation would take. Due to the hostility between Christians and Muslims historically, Kamal felt that developing a house church movement would be most effective. In January 1998 Jesus Hall was opened in Queens, New York.
Development. The ministry grew slowly, with individuals dropping by the inconspicuous storefront for ESL information or to ask questions about Jesus. As contacts were made, parents sought counseling for their children as the family began assimilating to their new culture. English classes became popular with two or three groups which met weekly. A group of young teenagers would play indigenous games at the center. Men and women stopped in to purchase a wide variety of books in their native language. These were sold at cost to buyers.
Efforts were made with very little success to recruit other indigenous workers. A former missionary to Bangladesh visited only a couple times. A few Bengali men put in short stints of service. Contact was made with a few denominations in an effort to broaden a partnership, but little progress was made. However, volunteers from an area Bible college and a local church came regularly to teach ESL.
Individuals desiring to follow Jesus slowly came in. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center there was a rise in fundamentalist opposition and neighborhood confrontation; however, there was also an increase in new believers. By the end of 2002, there were ten baptized believers meeting occasionally to worship Jesus. One house church was meeting and a second was starting up. Efforts were made to make the gatherings indigenous. It was a very exciting time in the ministry’s history.
Continual outreach efforts were made through home visitations, spending time at a taxicab driver’s eatery and contextually designed special events. There was talk about sponsoring a soccer team in the area Bengali league. Apologetic articles were also written for the local Bengali newspaper.
Some interesting developments occurred that showed the potential of the ministry. One mission agency sent their in-training candidates who were going to Muslim countries to the center for a month-long training program. Another group sent a couple who was going to Bangladesh to the center to receive training and entry help. Other potential workers also came to view the model of ministry and consider its value for implementation in other appropriate areas.
However, due to the slowness of Jesus Hall’s development, its own budget struggles and other priorities, mission groups stopped supporting the center. The Jesus Hall storefront closed on September 31, 2004. After this happened, different alternative funding options were sought with little or no success.
ISSUES WHICH LED TO THE CLOSING OF JESUS HALL
Personnel. As already discussed, the failure to recruit a team of individuals stunted Jesus Hall’s development. Kamal was responsible for nearly everything—ministry at the center, outreach, discipleship, indigenous congregationalization, recruitment, administration and fundraising. This was nearly impossible as no one person has the giftings to run an entire ministry.
There is something of a reverse culture shock for many in American immigrant communities. As a recent immigrant seeking asylum, Kamal was fighting an uphill battle. Personal and family adjustments were difficult and his physical disability caused additional stress. While highly educated, Kamal often felt himself sidelined for a North American missionary, without opportunity to utilize his indigenous knowledge base.
Funding. The denomination that partnered with Jesus Hall was financially very supportive throughout the partnership term. Of course there were misunderstandings in dealing with agreements and promises, but that’s often normal in cross-cultural relations. The group carried the cost of the storefront center, workers’ salaries, benefits and ministry. It was believed that Kamal, who had an apostolic-type history, would set up the Jesus Hall model in the New York area and in Bengali communities across the country.
But the slow pace of the development (not uncommon in this line of work) brought a soul-searching process regarding both the ministry’s effectiveness and the denomination’s priorities.
Once the apostolic idea was seen as too idealistic, not enough was done to build alternative funding sources that would allow for continuous indigeneity without dependence on the mission group. Balancing freedom to contextualize ministry and freedom from dependency is difficult in an immigrant setting.
Often, when we consider the cost of a project, it is viewed solely from a budgetary perspective. Little thought is given to the credibility a unique ministry like this brings to the overall ministry program and the resulting support for the group’s entire program. Vision carriers of these missional ministries often raise money that goes into group coffers that are unseen and unidentified.
Vision and ministry development. It is not unusual for Muslim ministry development to be slow. Many mission agencies have had their people in 10/40 Window countries for decades with little to no response. Although recent implementation of new contextualization methods has improved our effectiveness, it continues to be a laboriously slow task.
Immigration sometimes encourages an openness to a new way of doing ministry in American communities. Yet we still need to address how the transition from another country to the United States changes the playing field. How does this transition change the individual as well as the ministry? Ministry looks different in Dhaka as opposed to New York City.
There are many questions we must consider: How do we contextualize Bengali ministry in American immigrant communities? How does outreach occur? In what form is discipleship training developed? How is leadership raised up? What will be our worship and congregationalizing forms? What does ministry ownership mean to indigenous people?
The fact that we are treading in new waters only makes it more important that we learn from these early efforts.
Support structures. Originally, a strategic plan was devised. First, there would be a local governing board to help in the regular direction of Jesus Hall. Second, there would be an advisory board that would consist of Muslim ministry experts who would offer input bi-annually into Jesus Hall’s development and contextualization process. Third, there would be a coaching relationship that would be established to foster development and translate cultural uniqueness to the mission group.
Unfortunately, the governing board, filled with mission group personnel, eventually became more of an administrative oversight group than a supportive team of co-workers. The advisory board, which could have been an incredible sounding board offering credibility to the project, never formed. The coaching piece functioned quite well through monthly on-site visits. The coach had experience as a board member of a similar center in another city. His responsibilities for Jesus Hall included explaining the uniqueness of the model, lobbying the halls of the mission office and protecting the center’s development.
Organization. The American Church works off a dichotomous model between its domestic ministry structure and its overseas, missional expression. It is often less missional and model-diverse on the home front. Contributing to this difficulty is the lack of cross-cultural experience which limits new wineskin development, perpetuates cultural misunderstanding and quiets motivation or enthusiasm for a new model. The American Church is beginning to see that the world is right here in its own cities. However, the Church also finds it difficult to make the adjustments to missional experimentation and to change its functioning paradigm.
LESSONS FROM JESUS HALL
There are four lessons we can learn from the development of Jesus Hall.
1. Ministry needs to be team-oriented. There is little doubt that with a complex and labor intensive ministry such as this in an urban immigrant community, a team is imperative. There are countless considerations in undertaking this type of ministry: putting in long hours each day, counseling entry-level immigrants, directing and overseeing the program, vision-casting and recruiting, outreaching in multiple settings, discipling new believers, fundraising, fulfilling administrative responsibilities, contextualizing ministry forms of outreach and discipleship, developing strong leaders and congregationalizing in a transitional context. It can be overwhelming. A center like this demands a multigifted and multidenominational team approach (in some settings a multiethnic aspect would also be required).
2. Ministry needs to be contextualized. In contexts that are so culturally distant from the mainstream American church, it is a challenge to indigenize ministry in a Muslim immigrant culture. The white, suburban, dominant culture grid is almost always an overlay to any model and its ministry development. Somehow our contextualized, missional structures must have freedom to develop independently of structured, managerial oversight. If they are not able to have this freedom, they will be stifled. The job of contextualizing or making a ministry indigenous is a struggle only the insiders of the culture can read and implement. My repeated question, “What will the church look like in your culture?,” must echo freedom to our indigenous teams working on the forefront of kingdom ministry.
3. Ministry needs to be sustainable, not dependent. True partnership implies a deep reciprocal relationship. It does not develop by means of some in-kind exchange; rather, it requires bringing to the table the unique gifts that are valued. A discussion of dependency cannot start with an ideology that the dominant culture’s funding has greater value. Seldom is dependency an issue if both parties and their giftings are valued. Breakdown occurs when there is devaluation and a loss of respect. Getting to the point of sustainability depends on multiple factors: a committed indigenous team, a relevant contextualization process and an alternative supportive structure that nurtures self-sustaining development.
4. Ministry needs to have supportive structures. The Western mentality immediately focuses on finances when addressing the support issue. It is not uncommon for administrative types to assume that others are looking for money in approaching them for ministry opportunities. Let me suggest four levels needed for a strong support structure. First, the ministry team is the immediate first-level support environment. It nurtures personal growth, fosters shared burdens and enjoys the joint venture mentality. Second, a trainer-coach can ask contextual questions, help keep the focus clear, assure the placement of infrastructure systems and track the next steps of development. He or she might even be the translator, lobbyist and protector of the model within a mission organization. Third, boards, both operational and advisory, provide a broader team with expertise, joint commitment and pooled resources to walk with the on-site team. The boards, if properly functioning, can jump-start the ministry in its development. Fourth, the placement of a resource-generating structure can assure a form of sustainability which relieves pressure and promotes freedom of vision development.
Many North American cities have such diversity that we could almost boast of having the world in our backyard. These urban centers could be incredible learning labs for cross-cultural ministry development globally. They allow us the strategic advantage of connecting with unreached or resistant people groups in a more receptive multicultural setting. However, the challenge for many of our predominantly white ministry groups is to remove the dichotomy between overseas and home. This necessary reframing allows for the use of the collective learning of the group for a more effective partnership with apostolic types like Kamal. And in the end, this will help us develop indigenous ministries in countless cities.
George Reitz is a Church Resource Ministries (CRM) trainer-coach among ethnic apostolic leaders in various American cities. He also serves as part-time urban director for the South Pacific District of the Christian & Missionary Alliance (CMA). George resides with his wife Judy in New York City.
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