On March 12, Redeemer Grace & Race, Redeemer City to City and Hope for New York co-sponsored City Walks in neighborhoods across the city. A Redeemer City to City church planter and Hope for New York affiliate staff hosted each walk, exploring the brokenness and beauty of the neighborhood and inviting congregants to talk about issues of justice and race. Hally Chu, a Hope for New York team leader with Exodus Transitional Community, participated in the East Harlem Walk.
For seven years, I have called a stretch of blocks spanning the East 110’s home. I know East Harlem for the community garden next to my building; the excellent, hole-in-the-wall Thai takeout restaurant on my block; and the vibrancy and life that greet me whenever I step into the streets on a sunny day.
This is why I was so excited when City to City, Hope for New York, and Redeemer Grace & Race organized a City Walk in East Harlem. I wanted tour participants to take in the uniqueness of this neighborhood, both its beauty and its brokenness. I wanted to see East Harlem through a new lens. And Redeemer couldn’t have arranged for a better tour guide: Pastor José Humphreys, a 15-year East Harlem resident who started Metro Hope Church, a church committed to serving East Harlem residents.
The tour route was simple: we started at the National Black Theater where Metro Hope Church meets on Sundays, walked east along 125th Street, and ended at Exodus Transitional Community, a Hope for New York affiliate that provides re-entry services to the formerly incarcerated.
The theme that undergirded the City Walk was Jeremiah 29:7 — “Seek the peace (shalom) and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
What does it mean to seek the shalom of East Harlem? Pastor José challenged us to start with identifying areas of brokenness that are around us, for where there is a lack of shalom, there is breakdown in relationships, communities, infrastructures, and systems.
For me, identifying brokenness meant spotting the tragedy within a beautifully painted mural: “Rest in peace, Tynde, Robert, Frederica.” It meant coming face to face with systemic inequality when passing a crowd of shelter dwellers, jobseekers, and displaced seniors gathered beneath the Metro-North viaduct on E 125th Street and Park Avenue. It meant asking where families can go to buy food now that the 125th Street PathMark is closed and the site sold to a luxury housing developer. It meant really seeing the empty storefront I pass by daily for what it is — a narrative of rising commercial rents, a dream deferred for the former business owner, local job losses, and blight in the community for as long as the space remains empty.
Brokenness is also perpetuated on a broader, macro level. The poverty of the neighborhood is partially a function of the 11.5% unemployment rate. 30.7% of low-income households pay more than half their income on rent, and just over 20% of students perform at grade level in math and language arts.
Faced with such brokenness, bringing shalom to the community seems impossible. What can we — broken and sinful people ourselves — do? Pastor José pointed us to Jesus. As God incarnate, Jesus brought shalom wherever he went. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, comforted the brokenhearted, and most importantly, showed people the way to a reconciled relationship with God. He has gifted those of us who are his followers with different skills, passions, and professional capabilities to do his work. Through us, Jesus continues to bring shalom to the city in different ways — whether through supporting local businesses, volunteering with Hope for New York, addressing neighborhood issues through civic engagement, or even advancing justice through policy advocacy.
As I consider these and other ways to bring shalom to East Harlem, it occurs to me that what matters most is to be willing to go where God leads. The list above might not resonate with everyone, and that’s okay, because God calls us to serve in different ways. For me, I feel like one of the disciples who walked with and listened to Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I walk the streets of East Harlem and I feel my heart burn. At times, I am overwhelmed by the brokenness I see all around me. But with each greeting to a neighbor and each community meeting I attend, I am reminded that God can use each act, no matter how small, to bring flourishing to this place that I call home.
Learn more about upcoming Grace & Race events, including “Grace, Justice and Mercy,” a talk with Tim Keller and human rights lawyer Brian Stevenson on May 20, at redeemer.com/graceandrace.