EDITORS’ NOTE: Taylor Field is pastor of New York City’s East Seventh Baptist Ministry, nicknamed the Graffiti Church because its building is constantly vandalized. Most recently, he and his church helped minister to the people of New York following the Sept. 11 tragedy. A divinity and doctoral graduate from Princeton and Golden Gate Theological Seminary, Mill Valley, Calif., respectively, Field and his family have lived on the Lower East Side of New York since 1986 where he serves as a missionary with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. In his new book, “A Church Called Graffiti: Finding Grace on the Lower East Side,” excerpted below, Field writes about such church’s ministries as emergency help for the homeless and Christian discipleship, education opportunities and job development programs. The book is published by Broadman & Holman, trade-publishing arm of LifeWay Christian Resources. Royalties from the book go back into Graffiti’s ministry.
NEW YORK CITY (BP)–I remember hearing a preacher talk once about an intense word study he was involved in concerning the word “Hallelujah!” Of course, literally we know “Hallelujah” means “praise God.” But this man wanted to find a true equivalent in our own language and culture. After great pains and much research, he boiled down all his studies to this one solitary phrase: “Hot dog, this is it!”
So, we at Graffiti began borrowing his contemporary phrase. No matter how hard or depressing the day turned, we would try to find one good thing that happened and shout, “Hot dog, this is it!” As we saw the number of victories begin to outnumber the defeats, we would cheer, “Hot dog, this is it!” We even began to shout it in the middle of church services. Sometimes Victor, who spoke mostly Spanish, stood up in the middle of my sermon and shouted, “Hallelujah, this is a hot dog!” The words weren’t exactly right, but we all knew what he meant.
Today, as I walk through the streets of our neighborhood, I know there is a real battle still going on. Thankfully, there have been some hard-won victories, but there have also been real casualties. Yet, even with so much difficulty, I can’t help but walk with a spring in my step. And on most days, I really do hear myself saying, “Hot dog, this is it!”
Why? I suppose it’s because I’m realizing that the “it” at the end of our hot dog exclamation really is a brilliant and enormous kingdom that does not fit neatly into my traditional Christian categories; God’s kingdom is a big kingdom!
After 15 years of urban ministry, I have begun to believe — really believe — that God is the only one who can do far more than we can ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Sure, I can imagine a lot of things in New York City.
For instance, I can imagine well-dressed professionals on Wall Street sitting down and talking with people who have no place to lay their heads for the night. I can imagine groups of individuals who happen to believe that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, meeting in the parks and tenement buildings of our toughest streets to sit down and encourage one another. I can imagine drug dealers, child abusers, overzealous realtors and angry anarchists with their arms around each other and the stunned look of repentance on their faces.
I can imagine these things because I have watched God make them happen.
I can also imagine a place where every child, teenager and adult can read, where every inner-city young person has the same opportunities his friends in the suburbs have. I can imagine a truly rebuilt city, not just bricks and mortar, but one where people’s hearts have been rebuilt and knit together through Christ’s tenderness. I can imagine groups of people on every floor of the housing projects gathering together — excited to worship Christ, read his Word and pray for one another. I can imagine spontaneous praise — people in thousands of apartments lifting their windows and praising God as loudly as they can, some even yelling, “Hot dog, this is it!” I can imagine a revival of sorts in which no one says, “Look what this church did” or “Look what this person did,” but where everyone says, “Look what God has done!”
I can imagine a lot of things. But God can do far more.
In our work we have seen that the “beyond-imaginable” things often come to us in little ways. “Do not despise the day of small things,” the Bible says in Zechariah 4:10. He has reminded us that we cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.
And so, in the midst of a vast and complex city, I have found that the little things God has shown me have kept me going. I’ve learned from being here that whatever success we can claim is not based on how spiritual we are or how much we know the Bible or even how long we’ve been Christians. I think any successes have happened simply because people have chosen to stay here and have been available for God’s use. Our neighbors have told us more times than I can remember that if you want to see things change, stick around a good long while. It might just happen.
As a result of “sticking around,” we’ve learned a whole lot more from reading the Bible. We’ve learned about a fugitive with a shepherd’s staff, a boy with five little stones, a widow with some pennies, a child with five hamburger buns and two sardines and a woman looking for a lost coin. We have also learned by reading the human heart: about a frightened man with a butcher knife, a squatter with a mail-order ordination, an old man with nothing but his dogs and an old woman with everything but a dog, and a group of two or three kids in a hot storefront. We’ve learned how to be a church called Graffiti.
Hot dog, this is it!