Volunteers Hit Streets as Way to 'Rethink Church'

May 08, 2009

By Linda Bloom*



Madeleine Evelyn says she performs a random act of kindness every day.


A member of Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church in Harlem, she often moves around the city in her motorized wheelchair. When she sees someone struggling with a map or spots a tourist looking hesitantly at a guidebook, she offers to lend a hand. "I tell them which way to go and how to get there," she explains. "I enjoy that."


Evelyn (at left) joined fellow volunteers from the United Methodist New York Annual Conference on May 6 as they prepared for a large-scale demonstration of such acts of kindness, part of the launch of a new denominational campaign called "Rethink Church."


Working in morning and afternoon shifts, about 160 church members gathered at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, United Methodist, and then spread across various locations in Manhattan, including Harlem, Grand Central Station, Times Square, and Bryant Park.


Standing near her cane in the sanctuary - her wheelchair was parked outside - Evelyn says she likes the idea of the campaign. "We need to spread the word. We need to get more young people in our church so we can grow."


Rethink Church, which features the new 10thousanddoors.org website, targets 18- to 34-year-olds in an effort to lift up the many opportunities for involvement through United Methodist churches. The campaign is designed to raise awareness of how the church is making a difference in the world and to invite others to do the same.


Uptown to Harlem

On a chartered bus heading uptown to Harlem, the Rev. Bill Shillady, a launch event leader and director of the United Methodist-related City Society, gives some pointers, both practical and inspirational, to volunteers. "Our goal today is to demonstrate to New Yorkers and the world how interconnected we are as people," he explains.


In their white T-shirts, red jackets, and red caps, the volunteers fan out along 125th Street, the main commercial hub of Harlem. They carry cards with the 10thousanddoors.org Web address and an offer for a free music download, and fliers about neighborhood food resources for any homeless or hungry person who might approach them. Some volunteers tote a small broom and dustpan; others have handfuls of dog biscuits.


The acts of kindness are small - holding a door open at a bank, sweeping up litter in front of a store, helping load bottled water into a delivery van. More important are the kind words as the volunteers greet passers-by on the street.


Robin Schmidt, a member of Smithtown United Methodist Church on Long Island, stops to speak with Djibril Ouedraogo, a native of Burkina Faso, West Africa, and shares a music download card with him.


Walking down the street, she says she was excited when she heard about the Rethink Church campaign. "I thought it was the perfect way to break out of our churches and make a difference," she explains. "I'm hoping we can do this on the streets of Smithtown sometime this summer."


Making the approach

For the most part, responses to the brief encounters are friendly. "Good luck to you," one woman calls out as she continues to walk. "I'll definitely take a look at it," one young man says, waving a download card, as he turns to cross the street. A young woman on her way to Bible study at her church promises to pray for the volunteers.


The Rev. Snehlata Patel, pastor of Woodrow United Methodist Church on Staten Island, first thought she was too shy to participate in such an event. Stopping strangers on the street also was discouraged in the culture she grew up in. "In India, when you approach people, they do not welcome you," she explains.


But she finds the people of Harlem much more approachable and thinks the bright red hat and jacket add to her determination. "I didn't know I had this courage to talk to people," she says.


Patel (at right in photo above, chatting with fruit vendor Alam Muhammad) and her visiting niece, Norma Kunjravia, a medical student in the Philippines, chat up Alam Muhammad, a fruit vendor stationed near the intersection of Morningside Avenue, sometimes speaking in Hindi. "I was telling him, 'Yes, you are Muslim, we are not here to convert you. We are here to encourage you to make the world a better place to live,'" she translates.


Muhammad says he likes to read the Bible and is interested in knowing more about United Methodists - but not now. He is working.


The Rev. Huibing He, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Port Jefferson (at right, giving music download card to Jason Wright), moves along 125th Street with the same determination, stopping often for a brief encounter at a bus stop, storefront or street corner. Most people, she finds, are willing to listen, and she is particularly pleased with the interest she receives from young people. "When they hear 'make the world a better place,' they're curious," she adds.


Two young people - Dae Soon and Yong Sik - are among the 20 volunteers who came from Plainview United Methodist Church, a Korean congregation on Long Island, to participate in the launch. They aren't quite sure about their results, but Soon reports that 70 percent of the people they approached took the download card.


Their pastor, the Rev. Kenny Yi, says some of his encounters in Harlem resulted in serious conversations about faith. "Some people were talking that they wanted to go to church," he adds.


"Rethink Church" is part of the denomination's "Open Hearts" welcoming and advertising campaign. The latest evolution in the campaign includes $20 million in new advertising over the next four years on television, radio, and in new media, including banner and keyword advertising on major secular websites.


*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.