Rev. Jim King is currently serving as Interim Pastor in All Angels’ Church, New York City.
It is Saturday evening 17 February. As I recline in my aircraft seat en route back to the USA after a few precious days with the family in the Lake District I reflect on the last few months in New York. Sheila and I first arrived in September 2017 and I have been here almost all the time since then, with Sheila splitting her time between New York and Chalfont St Peter to manage her school governor and family responsibilities in the UK. It has been a good few months, very demanding, frequently stressful, occasionally depressing but with many encouragements. Above all it has proved to be a testament to God’s love, care and faithfulness.
I think about the Annual Meeting (APCM) which we have just held. A year ago the church had just been faced with the sudden and unexpected departure of its much loved Rector of 16 years who had become ill and left in challenging, painful and potentially divisive circumstances. The church was hurt and deeply shocked. At its 2017 Annual Meeting the church was told to anticipate a marked reduction in membership as people left and a 40% drop in giving. It was a bleak picture. The wardens, associate clergywoman and vestry (PCC) set about leading a church in crisis. A year on, as I introduced the 2018 Annual Meeting, I was able to say that none of those predictions had come true. People had stayed and had focused on prayerfully building unity and moving forward together. Membership had actually grown and the financial giving was the best ever in the church’s history. God, in His grace, had turned deep problems into growth, leading His people through the wilderness. After we had presented the membership and financial reports we paused the meeting and stood to sing ‘Great is Thy faithfulness’. People left saying that it was the best Annual Meeting they could remember. The worst of times had become the best.
As we land at JFK thick snow swirls round the plane. The pilot announces that it was much heavier than he had been told to expect. My taxi ride into the city is on snow covered roads but I am fortunate to have a very cautious and competent taxi driver, a rare thing in New York. As I check the weather forecast I note that temperatures are set to move from below freezing tonight to 20 degrees Celsius by mid-week: one moment warm winter coats, a few days later shirt and shorts!
It is now Sunday night and I am back from a day at church with morning and evening services. I have missed only one Sunday but a lot has happened. I catch A and L, a married but homeless couple, who have been seeking help with housing, battling New York City bureaucracy. They are a lovely Christian couple. His is a classic story, married for 30 years, successfully employed in petrochemical engineering, his first wife contracted terminal cancer and died. A’s life fell apart until he ended up homeless in New York, arriving at a church shelter where he met L who had been involved in a drug rehabilitation programme. At the shelter they found each other and renewed Christian faith and purpose. They became actively involved with us and we prayed w
ith them as they sought help with housing. Their first efforts were rejected: they were told they should turn to distant family for help, but that was never going to work. They began the appeal process, representing themselves against attorneys funded by public money, and this week they were successful. They will get housing, for which they will willingly pay, and they will then be eligible to seek permanent employment. Both stood up in the evening service to express their thanks to God and to those in the church supporting them. The church broke out in spontaneous applause: winning a victory against the authorities is rare. Many have tried and failed. They are part of the 77,000 homeless in New York.
Whilst the other member of clergy serves communion people line up to me for prayer, always an immense privilege. The first has been arbitrarily made unemployed, along with some 40 others. She has no income and at 65 needs guidance and immediate help. We pray. The next is a lady with disabilities who is seeking help with housing from the city this week. She needs prayer for courage and wisdom as she seeks the help that should be obvious to everyone. But we know it will be hard. The City Council workers will be sympathetic but they are faced with an impossible deluge of demands: they want to help but have few resources. I wonder how these people feel at the end of each day as they have to deliver bad news to people whom they really want to assist. The next in line is C, an intelligent man, but with tragic history. His own worst enemy, he gets rejected from everywhere he goes because he lacks self-control and is disruptive. This is his first Sunday back after a four week ban we placed on him. In the interim he has been removed from two other churches. We welcome him back. I have had a long conversation with him. He is contrite and wants to make a new start. I know he means it, and we pray that he will, but the precedents are not good. The last person in line is an Afro Caribbean lady who has felt God’s call to ordained ministry and to work in deeply challenging areas of New York, where white clergy can rarely be accepted. We pray and ask God to use her mightily.
As I start my sermon a scuffle breaks out between two homeless men. They have to be removed. It is a not uncommon occurrence. These people live life at the margins. They need love and support. Part way through my sermon another homeless man stands up and declares that I should become the permanent rector. I thank him for his kindness but explain that my firm plan is to return to Chalfont St Peter. Over coffee I meet George, an Egyptian Coptic Christian who has left Egypt with his wife and three children and emigrated to New York, fleeing the persecution that is happening to Christians in his home country. He speaks only Arabic: I speak only English. But we have a smartphone with Google translate. I have never used it before but we manage to hold a conversation. He desperately needs work to get money to feed his family. I introduce him to our communities’ minister. I hope we can help but there are so many like him looking for work. I stop to talk with a couple who have just got engaged. They are keen to start pre-marital counselling, They want to lay firm foundations for their marriage, putting God at the centre. We share their joy.
Finally I talk to M, the elderly lady I wrote about in my first article. She looks very unwell. It has been a bitter winter here. The homeless, who litter the streets at night, have almost all gone inside or onto the trains. I ask M where she has gone. ‘Nowhere,’ she says. ‘I have stayed on the streets all winter. I know how to look after myself.’ I sigh inwardly. She is wonderful, a survivor, but I wonder if she will be alive this time next year or whether homelessness with have claimed another victim.
This is a world away from Chalfont St Peter. But God is the same, yesterday, today and forever. He is always with us; he never fails.