EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.
NEW YORK (BP)–Walking down Houston Street in Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Gloria Burgos thought she heard thunder.
“Ba-BOOM!” she said, recalling the sound. “But I didn’t think too much about it.”
Burgos kept walking to one of her two jobs when she saw smoke and then was able to see the World Trade Center’s north tower ablaze.
“I just started crying. I just started crying. I felt it. I had friends who worked there. And then I saw the second jet hit,” she recounted to Baptist Press.
Oddly enough, Burgos experienced gratitude mixed with sorrow because she realized that if she had accepted a job there she could have died on that tragic day, leaving behind twin her daughters.
When looking for a second job, Burgos had applied at the World Trade Center. Upon discovering she’d have to work on Sundays, Burgos told her prospective employer: “I want a job here, but I can’t give you my Sundays because I need my Sundays for church.”
Which church? The one its members affectionately call Graffiti Church, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side community.
Though Burgos successfully changed her own life with a bootstrap effort after incarceration related to drug abuse, the WTC tragedy caused her to take a deeper, inward look, fostering spiritual change.
Burgos had hardly ever read the Bible and never had studied it. The only religious training she had was when she was a young girl. The young Burgos tried to escape an abusive stepfather and the abject poverty resulting from her parents’ slavery to heroin by running away from home and staying with nearby nuns.
A nun once asked Burgos if she knew Jesus. “Who is Jesus?” she answered. Burgos said the nun agreed to teach her about Jesus, if, in return, Burgos would help in a church-sponsored daycare for children. That was the sparse extent of Burgos’ spiritual background until she attended Graffiti Church, where she joined a women’s Bible study. Five years later, Burgos will be leading that study starting this fall. She’s also accepted the leadership role of directing worship for children’s church.
Life was not always this way for Burgos. As a young teen, Burgos became a drug addict just like her parents. The heroin they injected represented groceries for the younger Burgos, whose hunger pangs powered her angry query of God as to why she was born to such people. But just a few years later, Burgos began soothing her childhood pain in the fleeting euphoria of marijuana and cocaine.
Burgos went from asking God the “why me?” question to wondering where she would find drugs to stay high. Her constant search for drugs, or for the money for drugs, led Burgos to jail. While there, she realized she needed to change her life.
Soon after gaining her freedom and continuing to maintain a sober lifestyle, Burgos gave birth to Jasmine and Jessica, her twins. When the father of the girls refused to quit drugs, Burgos believes she had no choice but to separate herself and her girls from him.
Driven by her desire to stay off welfare and provide a better life for her girls, Burgos began working toward earning her GED, sometimes taking her twins in a stroller to school with her. She got work where and when she could. Upon receiving her diploma, she also earned certification as a home health provider. But the income was meager, so she had to take a second job as a concession worker in a local theater. Her days began at 5:30 a.m. and concluded at 2 a.m.
Her work ethic earned Burgos consideration for a promotion at the theater, but her criminal history not only prevented the promotion, she also got fired for it.
“I was so upset. It doesn’t matter what you do in life. They’re always going to smack you down and bring up your past,” Burgos said, reflecting on her feelings at that time.
“I was really upset. I wanted to buy some drugs and get high.” But, she said, she has never relapsed and has been sober for 15 years.
“I was talking to God while I was pacing the streets when something said, ‘Maybe this is the best thing that could happen to you,’” Burgos recounted.
This was the beginning of her relationship with Graffiti Church.
Before Burgos attended Graffiti, she and her twin girls were the benefactors of a Graffiti Church ministry that aided working parents. As a single parent with two jobs and two children, Burgos quickly developed an appreciation for the ministry that provided transportation for school-aged children as well as tutoring and other logistical aid as needed.
As her daughters grew older, she wanted them to attend a Roman Catholic church. But since the twins subsequently had become involved in other ministries at Graffiti, they resisted, saying they were happy and comfortable where they were. So, instead, her daughters asked Burgos to go to church with them.
“I got to see what my daughters were experiencing at the church,” said Burgos, who soon began volunteering for jobs at Graffiti.
Burgos now is not only a volunteer, she is employed as an office worker there. However, she still maintains two jobs. In a homeless shelter two blocks from Times Square, she works the 3-to-11 shift teaching art and cooking classes. She also walks a serpentine route through Midtown Manhattan, looking street-to-street for homeless people who might want a shower, a meal, and a clean bed for the night.
But Burgos has Saturdays and Sundays off to spend with her girls and attend church.
Relating what Graffiti means to her, Burgos said, “I just love Graffiti. It’s been a very big blessing for me to be here.”
Burgos said she didn’t think God could ever forgive her for all her sins, “but at Graffiti, I learned about God and how He could love me again.”
Looking back on her life, she knew God was always there, “because I was always angry at Him, fussing at Him, asking Him why I had to be the child of dope fiends.” But Burgos now believes that God was always “trying to catch my attention.”
“I feel important at Graffiti,” Burgos said.
“And this is what makes me feel good, too -– that someone could actually trust me and I could do something honest without people having to second-think about me because of my past.”