News Articles

Jetliner crash in Queens renews congregation’s memories of crisis

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–Each Sunday, people from 15 nations or more worship together at United Trinity Baptist Church in Queens.

Since Sept. 11, they’ve been clinging together even more closely than usual. They still remember the anguish they shared when then-member Charlotte Bean’s daughter, a flight attendant aboard crash of TWA Flight 800, was killed.

“When are the planes going to crash into our building?” That’s the question one of the teenagers asked Sept. 12 after the World Trade Center disaster. United Trinity — located in a 17-story high rise — sits under the flight path of planes inbound to LaGuardia airport.

Pastor Avery Sayer’s phone rang continually the morning of Nov. 12 after American Airlines Flight 587 outbound from Kennedy crashed into a residential area of southeastern Queens.

Sayer stopped short of saying his members were calling for reassurance. They’re New Yorkers, he said. They’re resilient.

“It’s all a matter of perspective,” the pastor explained. “It’s good for them to be able to go on with their lives.” Less than eight miles from both LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, Sayer said United Trinity concentrates on the needs at hand, rather than the “what-ifs” of nonstop news coverage about airplane disasters.

Attendance at Sunday morning worship spiked the first two weeks after Sept. 11. Since then, it’s the midweek prayer times that have doubled and tripled in attendance.

“Church is basically monologue,” Sayer said. “The prayer service is dialogue. People are making the connection between the sermons and the questions they have — even when that connection was unintentional — because they’re looking for answers.”

The congregation’s diversity and its strength in adversity are gifts from God that show his power, members say.

“In this church you find people from all over the world,” said Patricia McFarlane with her Jamaican accent. “It’s like a fulfillment of the song I sang as a child in my country: ‘The Spirit Is Moving All Over the World.’ We can see from this church that everywhere on God’s earth, God is touching people’s lives.”

United Trinity, one of the most ethnically diverse congregations in the Southern Baptist Convention, was started in 1967 by the SBC’s Home Mission Board, precursor to today’s North American Mission Board, as one of the first churches launched to minister specifically to people who live in an apartment complex.

HMB missionary Don Rhymes started United Trinity as a “ministry center” in one of the apartments in the 5,000-unit LeFrak City complex. Conceived by the billionnaire whose name it bears, the complex was designed to be a complete city, with park-like areas, shopping, restaurants and recreation encircled by 20 17-story buildings — all within a quarter of a square mile.

A year after its formation, the ministry center became a church after Rhymes was given a commendation by the police for his work with youth.

An exclusive enclave when it first opened in 1965, early tenants of LeFrak City included the families of diplomats who worked at the United Nations. After housing discrimination laws were enacted in the late 1970s and a third of the units became government-assisted rentals, the complex fell to near-ghetto status. Drug dealers and gangs proliferated.

United Trinity members in the late 1990s began prayerwalking through the complex. Within weeks Mayor Rudy Guilani began a citywide crackdown on crime that included Queens in general and LeFrak City in particular.

Members continued to do nothing more than prayerwalk through the complex as they were led by the Holy Spirit. In one particularly dark section, United Trinity members prayed for God’s light to shine. In less than a week, city crews replaced shot-out light fixtures in the prayed-for area.

“I’ve seen the difference since we started prayerwalking,” member Hyacinth Bowen said. “I know the [drug] problems are still there, but it’s less visible now.”

United Trinity in the wake of the Twin Towers terrorist attack is more visible than ever to the 25,000 or more residents of LeFrak City. Pastor Sayer and his psychological social worker wife, Myra, counsel on a daily basis with people who lost friends or family members in the attack, or who feel traumatized by their close proximity to the attack, less than 30 miles from the World Trade Center ground zero. For a month after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, brisk fall days carried the stench northeast to the multihousing complex.

“There were some close calls, but we didn’t have anyone killed or hurt” on Sept. 11, said Sayer, who has been pastor at United Trinity since 1973. “However, there is still a lot of shock, fear and grief. We have been dealing with that through sharing and praying, along with some small-group and one-on-one counseling.”

When not involved in Twin Towers trauma, United Trinity concentrates on caring for the spiritual — and often physical — needs of its members and the people in its community, LeFrak City.

In addition to a typical Southern Baptist Sunday morning, with Bible study for all ages and a blended worship service that emphasizes prayer, United Trinity offers an after-school program, recreation at night, Wednesday kids Bible study and a Thursday cooking and sewing class for teens.

United Trinity’s multiple ministries are undergirded by a Thursday morning prayer time supplemented for many with daily prayer partners.

More than 40 youngsters participate in a children’s choir that performs all over the community, including an occasional visit to the Riker’s Island detention center — the infamous New York City jail.

“When they have sung there, convicted murders have tears streaming down their faces when they hear the message of Jesus’ love for them,” the pastor said.

When workers were available in the past, the church also offered weekday morning preschool and three classes of English as a Second Language in which more than 100 students were enrolled at any one time.

Summer and semester missionaries assist church members with four weeks of Vacation Bible School each summer. They also minister to the elderly, often by helping them clean out years of accumulated items. One United Trinity member first visited the church after several youth and summer missionaries saw him moving from one apartment to another and offered to help.

The summer missionaries live in the church, which consists of two now-connected ground-floor apartments. With a dividing wall removed, the two former living rooms are now the worship center. The standing-room-only overflow spills into adjacent hallways and a kitchen for the service that lasts about two hours. Bedroooms have become classrooms, with closet doors removed and bunk beds built in for summer missionaries.

Directly outside the church is one of LeFrak City’s major recreation areas, with space for playground equipment and for basketball courts. There are no restroom facilities nor water fountains, but the kids who play in the area know where the church is.

“We’ll give out 10,000 cups of water in the summer or more,” Sayer said. “It’s a constant stream of kids.” United Trinity members really see Matthew 10:42 at work, the pastor added: “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

Adults tend to visit United Trinity for just as practical a reason.

“People often come to church here for the first time when it’s inconvenient or unseasonable to get to their own church,” Sayer said. “Maybe there’s snow and ice, or rain, or heat that makes it easier to go here than across town to another church. Those who stay talk about the sense of family they feel here.”

United Trinity for more than 25 years was the only religious entity in LeFrak City. About five years ago an Islamic mosque opened within 25 feet of the church. About three years ago a Jewish synagogue opened on the other side of the basketball courts.

“The thrust of our ministry is to reach out and disciple,” Myra Sayer said. “The purpose is to help each Christian develop and become a full person, and experience God in their life.”

One way United Trinity validates each member and builds community is by its “Getting to Know Us” nights during which members describe their home country and its culture. While usually these programs are about other nations, one led by a woman from Mississippi explained life in the South.

Members glean helpful insights from each other, the pastor’s wife said.

“We learn from each other,” Myra Sayer said. “For example, when Americans first come in to worship, they tend to jabber. The African and Asian way is to bow their head first. Because of our diversity, we are all learning ways to be closer to God.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: BAPTISTS IN QUEENS.