On Higher Ground

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By Bill Horner

New York or LaFollette, underneath we’re all people

New York City is a terrible place. The people are mean and unfriendly. 

Don’t attempt to talk to or even make eye contact with strangers. The crime there is horrible. Some scoundrel with a handgun or razor-sharp switchblade is waiting for you around the next corner. And if the muggers don’t get you, the store clerks will, with exorbitant prices for everything. And they all hate foreigners. The Big Apple is rotten to the core. Yes, it’s not only a southerner’s right—it’s his duty to hate New York.

All of the above are stereotypes. 

And all of these stereotypes are wrong.

I have had the privilege of visiting New York City several times now. I have been amazed every time. The people, while constantly in a rush and not as overtly hospitable as we southerners, are nevertheless quite capable of heartfelt kindness. The crime, while certainly present, is not particularly worse than any other large (or small for that matter) city elsewhere. And touring and dining in the city are surprising affordable.

About two weeks ago a team of us spent a few days in the city on a mission trip in preparation for next summer’s vacation Bible school. Our theme this year is “A Big Apple Adventure” and focuses on New York City. As I noted last week, God is at work there, and we enjoyed worshipping with our brothers and sisters in Christ in rented storefronts and leased office space. Now this week I want to speak about the people themselves.

George Russ, who leads our mission work in NYC, personally guided 24 of us on a tour of the city. He constantly reminded us to “pray with your eyes wide open,” that is, to look at people all around us as we walked, to pray for their salvation, to look for opportunities to speak to them and show them the love of Christ.

Barry Lawrence, who with his wife Lynette runs the mission house in Brooklyn where we stayed, takes such words to heart daily. Having resided there only seven months, he already knows nearly every store clerk within blocks of his house. Gino the pizza proprietor is especially friendly, looking out for Barry’s children and giving a break on his price to mission groups that wander into his establishment.

Riding the subway gave us also ample opportunity to put George’s admonition to work. During the Monday morning rush hour, I found myself standing beside a young orthodox Jewish man who was sitting and studying his Hebrew Scriptures. I leaned over and quoted Genesis 1:1 to him in Hebrew (that’s all the Hebrew I know, honest!). He broke into a broad smile and we conversed a few minutes. It didn’t seem to faze him that I was a Baptist minister. As he got up to leave, he reached over and shook my hand.

Another of our team, Angie, engaged a young sketch artist in conversation.  While they were talking, he whipped out his drawing pen and in moments had sketched a remarkable likeness of her. He handed it to her as he stepped off the subway at the next stop.

On our last subway ride that Monday night, a 40-something man with an unusual red case sat down near me.  He was quiet, subdued, looking at the floor. “What musical instrument is that,” I ventured to ask, hoping he’d respond.  He immediately brightened and began to tell me about his mandolin, about his origins in Roanoke years earlier, about the group he plays with, about New York City.  I gave him my unlimited subway pass—it had four days left on it.  I also handed him a Gospel tract.  He appreciated both and, with a wide grin, shook my hand.

These are a sampling of the people we saw and met in NYC, some from far reaches of the world. Looking at them I had a new appreciation for the words “For God so loved the world.” He loves them. Christ died for them.  Underneath they are just like us. And “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).