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Reunion brings together those who started ministry in N.Y.C.

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–Thirty years ago a group of Samford University students drove 900 miles over two days from Birmingham, Ala., to New York City to renovate an abandoned storefront that would serve as a Southern Baptist community center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They didn’t know they were working on the ministry that would revolutionize a neighborhood.

“It was something we did when we were foolish college kids and didn’t know what we were biting off, but it’s had such a lasting impact for Christ in this neighborhood,” said Karon Bowdre, one of the 19 students who served at what would become the headquarters of Graffiti Community Ministries.

This summer 12 of the 19 students reunited at Graffiti, the umbrella ministry that also served as the beginning of East 7th Street Baptist Church and has been the subject of countless news stories, a book, and the center of Christian outreach to an inner city neighborhood.

The original student group came to New York in 1975 as part of a class held during Samford’s January term. After two weeks of learning about urban ministry, they set off for a week-long hands-on experience on the Lower East Side. Christians ministering in the Northeast had identified the area as a place in need of special attention and outreach, and the Samford students were among the first groups to participate in a ministry that has hosted thousands of volunteers since.

“Without you, more than 500,000 meals wouldn’t have been served, 300,000 tutoring hours wouldn’t have been put in, nine new churches wouldn’t have been sponsored and countless lives wouldn’t have been touched by Jesus,” said Taylor Field, who has served as Graffiti’s pastor and a North American missionary for nearly 20 years.

“A lot of this weekend was spent in awe and shock over the fact that something we did turned into something so significant that it has affected so many lives and an entire neighborhood,” Rex Hammock, one of the original Samford students, said.

Graffiti’s impact was evident when resident Ana Maria Nieves stood to give her testimony. Pointing to a photo of neighborhood children that the Samford group worked with when they returned as summer missionaries, Nieves, who now works with Graffiti, said she was one of those kids.

“I’ve wondered for 30 years what happened to some of those kids,” said Dick Bodenhamer, who was one of the original students and returned later as a summer missionary. “It was proof-positive that something wonderful came out of this.”

Abigail Hastings, another of the Samford students, talked about the relationships the students formed that week, and how Graffiti’s past, current and future volunteers and participants are “instantly connected.” Hastings thanked those who are now working with Graffiti.

“God has a heart for urban ministries; we caught that fire 30 years ago, and you keep it going,” Hastings said.

Throughout the reunion, the group shared how their lives had been impacted by that week-long trip in January 1975. They described how the trip affected some major life decisions, including who they married and what career they chose.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t gone on that trip. At some point after the trip, I made a commitment to go into full-time Christian service,” said Bodenhamer, who now serves as a marketing strategist for the national Woman’s Missionary Union.

Bodenhamer said several other members of the group now are in full-time ministry, and those who work in other fields are still affected daily by what they did and saw in New York in 1975.

Hammock agreed, saying the reunion reminded him how ministry can change people and places, even when those who are ministering aren’t necessarily expecting their actions to have a big impact.

“It’s not always so much the big things we do as the little things,” he said. “… This weekend was about revisiting a time in our lives and rekindling a commitment to what we do today and what impact it could have 20-30 years from today.”

The lasting impact of the group’s ministry in New York is seen and heard daily on the Lower East Side, whenever residents and volunteers talk about Graffiti.

The Samford group had a role in the ministry’s name.

“We had been cautioned that no matter what we did there would be graffiti on the side wall,” Hammock said. “We were sitting there looking at it, and we decided we might as well just call it ‘graffiti’ and invite people to do what they were already going to do. It’s now the name of a ministry that does a lot of incredible things for the neighborhood…. It’s a fitting metaphor for what has taken place and for the community that it’s in, a fitting name for what the ministry has been over the years.”

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  • Meredith Day