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Ministry to NYC’s poor an ‘adventure’ for missionary couple


NEW YORK (BP)–You might say Taylor and Susan Field’s commitment to inner city missions was sealed with a kiss 23 years ago.

That’s when the couple got married — just a year after both served as summer missionaries in New York. Taylor, then a seminary student at neighboring Princeton Theological Seminary, served at a Baptist ministry center in Harlem. Susan, a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, led children’s day camps in nearby Queens.

About a year into their marriage, the Fields moved to Hong Kong where they served two years with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board — now International Mission Board — teaching at a Baptist college. Then it was back to the U.S., this time on the West Coast, where the Fields again served in inner city missions in San Francisco while Taylor earned a Ph.D. in biblical studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Missions, to me, is just another word for getting where God wants you to be,” Susan said.

And for Taylor and Susan, and their two teenage sons, Freeman and Owen, that has meant being on mission with God in Manhattan’s Lower East Side for the past 17 years — worlds apart from Taylor and Susan’s respective hometowns in Oklahoma and North Carolina.

The Fields are among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured during the 2003 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 2-9.

Early in their marriage, while questioning God’s call to serve in New York City, Taylor and Susan said they meditated on Isaiah 61:4, a passage of Scripture through which God spoke when they first met as summer missionaries: “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”

“I really like it,” Susan said of the opportunity to serve God in New York City. “It’s an adventure to me. I could never live in suburbia. God is good. That’s all I can say.”

Taylor and Susan say they are privileged to share God’s goodness in small ways in a city that often seems larger than life. “Our motto has been the ministry of small things,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to do great things for God, just small things with great love.”

As director of East Seventh Baptist Ministry, also called Graffiti, a ministry of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association and the North American Mission Board (NAMB), Taylor oversees nearly 30 ministries aimed at meeting the physical and spiritual needs of families on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Meanwhile, three days a week Susan takes a 40-minute subway ride northeast of the family’s small Manhattan apartment to Columbia University, where she serves as the school’s Baptist chaplain. One day a week she also leads the Baptist campus ministry at neighboring New York University and Barnard College.

Whether it’s ministering to the homeless and poor through the Graffiti Baptist Center or mentoring some of the brightest minds on the campuses of the premiere academic institutions in the country, Taylor and Susan say they have learned that “weakness is the envelope for God’s power.”

Both have written books about their missions experiences to testify of God’s faithfulness over the years, as well as to inspire others to be on mission for God in their lives.

“The greatest challenge in my work here is that evangelical Christianity is a small minority group in the culture,” Susan said.

She enjoys sharing her faith in Christ during a monthly meeting with other chaplains on campus, but the most fulfilling aspect of her ministry is the one-on-one interaction she has with students during Bible study or over a cup of coffee.

“Knowing that campus ministry has made a difference in someone’s relationship with God, especially when they have let this change influence major life decisions,” makes the effort worthwhile, she said. “My calling is to be a shepherd.”

And like the Good Shepherd described in Scripture, who left the 99 sheep to retrieve the one that went astray, Taylor also strives to focus his attention on individuals.

“We say the bigger the city, the more personal we need to become,” Taylor said. And that’s a God-sized task in a metropolitan area brimming with 18 million inhabitants.

“When you talk about a dehumanizing institution, I think New York can be a prime example of that in terms of public assistance. You’re just a number.”

But that’s not the case for those who visit Graffiti’s storefront on East Seventh Avenue. The ministry center, which has operated in lower Manhattan since 1974, was appropriately named after repeated efforts to remove the graffiti from the storefront proved to be no match for the local artists.

The center became a spiritual safe-haven for its neighbors in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In the weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center towers just 30 blocks away, Taylor and his 17-member staff helped feed, counsel and console hundreds of people who felt helpless and hopeless.

Taylor said he shared the same message of hope following the terrorist attacks that he’s been sharing since he became director of the ministry center 17 years ago.

“Every experience can either drive you away from God or bring you closer to God,” he said. “Let’s let this bring us closer to God. What was meant to fragment is unifying. What was meant to bring fear is bringing peace in God.”

Yet long before the terrorist attacks in New York City, Taylor was helping rebuild lives in The Big Apple – one heart at a time. And the results are evident.

More than 60 teenagers have become Christians through the center’s ministry, and consequently more kids are graduating from high school. Taylor also pastors a church made up largely of former drug addicts, prostitutes and those who were once homeless. About 50 children in grades one through six participate in Graffiti’s after-school program.

Taylor will be the first to admit that inner city missions can get messy. Several times he’s been physically attacked or threatened by drug addicts. Once he was jailed for participating in a non-violent protest against a city-imposed eviction of the homeless from a local park. Through it all, he said, prayer has been his refuge.

“God has provided every step, so I’m just resting in Him,” Taylor said.

And across the street from the old Graffiti storefront stands a powerful symbol of God’s faithfulness. There, a new four-story, 13,000-square foot building scheduled to open by fall 2003 will house East Seventh Baptist Ministries’ new headquarters. The center includes a daycare, kitchen, worship center, offices, multipurpose rooms and two apartments.

“To see God do this in our area has been a miracle and a great joy,” Taylor said. “Here we tangibly get to be a part of rebuilding the city. When they started laying the foundation on the building, people were just standing on the sidewalk crying.

“A storefront is all we had, and to have this is such a dramatic change,” he said. “We want it to be a springboard, not a sofa. We want it to be a launching pad for a lot of different ministries.”

Currently, East Seventh Baptist Ministries has about 20 different groups worshipping in various locations on the Lower East Side, and Taylor’s goal is to start 50 multi-ethnic church-type missions throughout the area.

Taylor and Susan said they have been amazed by what God has used to transform their community over the years — small things like blankets, toothbrushes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

You’d be surprised, Taylor said, how God can use a simple act of kindness to change someone’s life for eternity. One Saturday afternoon, for instance, a prison escapee was so impacted by a free sandwich East Seventh Baptist Ministries provided at a local park that he became a Christian and then voluntarily returned to jail. While back in prison, the man led several other inmates to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.

“It all started with giving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, saying a kind word to him, and looking him in the eye,” Taylor said.

The Fields believe God is doing a special work in New York City, and they are excited for the future. Southern Baptists’ support of the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering has contributed greatly to the spiritual transformation currently underway in Manhattan, the Fields said.

“Southern Baptists have made a commitment for us long-term here,” Taylor said.
Susan agrees.
“Our whole family has benefited from the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering because it enables us to bring the message of who Christ is to New York City in ways God is leading us,” she said.

And despite the terrorist attacks of 2001, Taylor and Susan said they are convinced — now more than ever — that God has called them to serve him in New York City.

“What’s God’s treasure?” Taylor asked. “God’s treasure is people. And so if that’s true, this must be a very precious place to God. To be a part of what he is doing here is such a privilege. … God’s agenda is the mending of the universe. I sense his great pleasure in mending a city.”
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— Taylor Field is one of 210 church and community ministries missionaries under NAMB appointment in the United States, Canada and U.S. territories.

— Graffiti Baptist Center is one of 87 Baptist centers jointly funded by a state convention and NAMB. A total of 7,601 professions of faith were reported by Baptist Center missionaries from January to November of 2002.

— Susan Field is one of 231 North American Missionaries involved in collegiate evangelism, serving as campus ministers, metro collegiate evangelism directors, collegiate evangelism specialists and other roles. Campus evangelism has become a priority for the North American Mission Board since its founding in 1997.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: REACHING OUT, LOVING OTHERS, SERVING THOSE IN NEED, SPREADING GOD’S WORD and BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS.

    About the Author

  • Lee Weeks