NEW YORK (ABP) – Metro Baptist Church in New York is neither very big nor housed in a very impressive facility. But the small, scrappy worshiping community and its associated ministry center have an impact far beyond its gritty urban sanctuary in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
And its identity as a servant home to and for the down-and-out in a city built by titans of industry and mega-corporations is inspired by the story of a long-dead Baptist theologian — Walter Rauschenbusch — who once shepherded a similar congregation just three blocks away.
Metro members and supporters from around the country gathered Oct. 9-10 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries (RMM), a non-profit group closely associated with the church, and honor the legacy of the group’s namesake.
In 1886 Rauschenbusch, a brilliant and talented young graduate of Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School), accepted a call as pastor of Second German Baptist Church in Hell’s Kitchen. The neighborhood then was aptly named — crowded with tenements and poor immigrant workers and beset by a number of social woes.
Serving in an impoverished setting began to challenge Rauschenbusch’s theology. Like most mainline Protestant leaders at the time, he had been influenced by his bourgeois roots and focused on personal piety rather than social transformation.
“Rauschenbusch’s big revelation was that … in his pews he had people coming in whose children he had buried — who were dying just because they were poor,” said Paul Raushenbush, the theologian’s great-grandson (the family changed the spelling of their last name), in the keynote address at a gala celebrating RMM’s anniversary. “What does it mean to be a pastor when these kids are dying just because their parents can’t afford to give them medicine?”
The so-called Gilded Age during which the theologian lived and the city where he ministered demonstrated the starkest contrasts of fabulous wealth and numbing poverty. Governmental and societal structures often served the interests of the wealthy side. Rauschenbusch began developing his theology into a system — dubbed the “Social Gospel” — emphasizing that the gospel was intended not just to save individual souls bound for hell, but also to redeem societies and structures that create hell on Earth for the poor and oppressed.
The younger Raushenbush — himself a Baptist minister and associate dean of religious life at Princeton University — said his great-grandfather’s theology and RMM’s modern-day work embody Jesus’ parable of Lazarus, the poor beggar who dies and go to heaven while the rich man who ignored him goes to hell.
“What was fundamentally important about Lazarus is that Lazarus represents salvation that was present to the rich man every day at the gate,” he said. “Lazarus was there; God was helping that rich man every day with that opportunity to change the way he viewed the world, to change his relationship. And the rich man ignores him; the rich man was ignorant of him.
“What I see is happening at Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries and what I love about all of you and the work you’re doing … it’s about relieving ourselves of ignorance and really seeing one another — really seeing our neighbor, loving our neighbor. And for me, that’s what salvation is.”
Metro and RMM’s neighbors today reflect the diversity of the city and area in which the ministries are located.
In contrast to Rauschenbusch’s day, today's Hell’s Kitchen has gentrified rapidly to become one of Manhattan’s most fashionable areas. But the church is still surrounded by social challenges, and the artists, struggling actors, homeless people and successful lawyers who make up its congregation strive to live out Rauschenbusch’s mantra of applying the gospel to individuals, neighborhoods and societies.
Alan Sherouse, who has been Metro’s pastor for a year and a half, said the church's newest dream is starting a green-farming project on the building’s roof.
“We have a roof that serves as sort of a de facto patio space used by our staff,” he noted. Sherouse and other area non-profit leaders have a significant interest in environmentally sustainable urban farms, and lack of access to healthy produce is a problem that plagues low-income communities nationwide.
So, putting the roof to better use seemed, to Sherouse, the perfect idea.
“It combines sustainability, environmental education and food-justice issues,” he said. “It would be a place that produces crops particularly for families that might need access to that. And we’ve found that food brings everybody together, and there’s maybe no better place to cross boundaries but where it comes to that place of finding healthy food.”
RMM already operates nine longstanding programs — ranging from a daily tutoring-and-enrichment program for kids from two local elementary schools to ESOL classes for diplomats and day-laborers alike to toiletry kits and food items for the poor and homeless.
About 1,300 people regularly benefit from — and upwards of 500 volunteer for — RMM programs annually, according to Tiffany Triplett Henkel, RMM’s executive director and Metro’s other pastor. The church, meanwhile, averages between 40 and 50 in Sunday attendance.
“One of the big things about Rauschenbusch that makes it effective … is our value on partnerships,” Henkel said. “Because we realize we can’t do much by ourselves. We could do a lot for a small group of people, but nothing in comparison to what we are able to do when we open up our doors, when we partner with this organization or that organization.”
Those organizations include a panoply of local service agencies and churches around the country that regularly send mission teams to bunk in Metro’s facilities and volunteer with RMM ministries. Many of the teams come from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-affiliated churches, and the Fellowship's missionary assigned to New York, Ronnie Adams, offices at Metro and serves as RMM’s program consultant.
One program, the RMM Teen Center, offers an after-school hangout four days a week and occasional special events. Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, who serves as the center’s director, said the vast majority of the participants live in the projects or other subsidized housing. The center provides a safe and consistent presence in the teens’ often-tumultuous lives.
“I feel like consistency is important in people’s lives where so many things are inconsistent — like rent, somebody being there for them, their health, food, all that sort of stuff — I think it’s important to have a consistent presence,” she said. “I think that is an important quality of God, consistency.”
College is “not an option” for most of the teens, Ashcraft said. Many of them are children of undocumented immigrants. Nonetheless, she helps introduce high-school seniors to the college-application process.
“Almost all of the boys have been asked to join gangs. And that almost sounds cliché, but it still happens,” she said.
Sherouse said he moved from the comfortable environs of a staff position at a suburban church in Tennessee to take the job at Metro because he wanted to experience what spreading God's Kingdom looked like in a diverse urban community — even though Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel fell somewhat out of favor in the years after he died.
“That sort of belief of God’s people to achieve; that didn’t survive two wars and a Holocaust,” he said. “But while it can’t survive in the same way or can’t exist in the same way, I think what we are is part of a larger effort to reinterpret that vision…. We want to try as hard as they did and we want to believe as imaginatively as they did and we want to hope as boldly as they did.
“And I want to think that’s a part of who we are as we’ve linked ourselves to that heritage, that we would want to see God’s Kingdom come on earth.”
Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.