Coats for the city helping reach nations for Christby Mike Creswell
Mention New York City and you get Richard Odom's full attention.
The pastor of 1,325-member First Baptist Church, Summerfield, N.C., has felt a special burden for America's most populous city since his members first sent coats there three years ago.
That first year the coats went just to Queens, one of New York's five boroughs. In December of 2013 the effort was expanded to all five boroughs. Coats for the City was set up to both get warm coats to needy people and, by having pastors and church planters lead in distribution, provide a way for new churches to meet local residents and share the gospel.
North Carolina Baptists have an on-going partnership with the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association that has focused on church planting but includes other efforts as well. Thousands of North Carolina Baptists have served in New York over recent years.
Some other American cities encompass more land area, but New York's eight million plus population is twice that of Los Angeles, the nation's second most populous city. Further, more than 500 language/culture groups live in New York, making it one of America's most diverse cities.
Sadly, seen through Christian eyes, New York also leads in lostness. It is estimated that only about three New Yorkers in every 100 have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Coats for the City is one many partnership efforts set up by North Carolina Baptists through their state convention, association and local churches to impact lostness in New York.
Last December Odom took a team of church members who set up tables under falling snow and handed out coats, working in the Richmond Hill area of Queens on Saturday. Then they worked with missionary church planter Boto Joseph in the Jackson Heights area on Sunday. Odom was so stirred by the results of that trip that he gave a report to the Baptist State Convention's Executive Committee during its January at Caraway.
"We took 250 coats, plus the ladies in the church got together and knit 100 sets of scarves, gloves and hats. They were so excited to be helping like this," he said, adding that the need for coats was very evident.
As they set up tables on icy sidewalks on Saturday afternoon, he said, "It was extremely cold and snowing." People started lining up for coats two hours before the distribution started.
While the Summerfield volunteers met hundreds of needy people, Odom said he was most moved by his conversation in Richmond Hill with a family recently arrived from Guatemala. "They were much too lightly dressed for the snow," he said.
The man said he, his wife and their five children live with 20 other people in a two-room apartment that has no furniture. "We have nothing," he told Odom.
All seven family members left with a coat and they were put in touch with a Spanish-speaking church in the area. "As far as I’m concerned it made every effort by North Carolina Baptists worth it to see that. North Carolina Baptists had an impact on that family. How can we say it's not worth our time or our effort? I understand that some people in North Carolina need coats, but through this program we are able to go to the nations, to be able to literally connect with the world in New York City," he said.
"When you stand in Jackson Heights, you can walk less than a mile in any direction and go to any country in the world you want to go to. Boto is from India himself, and he's reaching Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs," he said.
The coats project made a very positive impression on local people of other faiths, Odom said.
When they began setting up, a Muslim shopkeeper loaned them shovels to clear the sidewalk. Another Muslim shopkeeper even provided them a platform to stand on as they preached the gospel on the sidewalk. A third Muslim shopkeeper brought them hot coffee as they set up.
That evening Odom and some of the volunteers joined Boto Joseph and a local Muslim shopkeeper for dinner. "The man, not a believer in Jesus Christ, thanked me and North Carolina Baptists for coming and caring about his people," Odom said.
Many of the people Baptists will reach for Christ in New York will return to their home countries after a couple of years, and many of these countries are ones closed to missionaries. "But we'll have these new believers as missionaries there in those places we cannot get into," Odom said.
Odom was also delighted with the effect the New York trip had on his members. "Some were fearful of going overseas, but going to New York is much like going to a foreign country. The signs were not English, the language spoken was not English and the people did not look like them. Yet they found out there was nothing to be afraid of, they're people just like us," he said. After going to New York, more First Baptist members are willing to sign on for overseas missions trips his church arranges every year.
"I just want you to know it's a great program. It's a wonderful way to plug people into missions and yet it's easy to get people to New York," he said.