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Some people may have thought Southern Baptists were biting off more of the Big Apple than they could chew with their Paint the Town project.

But nearly two thousand volunteers proved any skeptics wrong.

"Paint the Town is proving to be what I call the doorway to the soul of the city," said Gary Frost, director of missions for the Metro New York Baptist Association. "Southern Baptists are perceived by many in the Northeast to be fundamentalist Bible-thumpers. This project really allows us to be seen as who we are: compassionate people who love Christ and each other."

By the time school started the first week of September last year, Southern Baptists, in two months, had painted the interiors of nine schools in the Bronx, one in Harlem, and two on Long Island. Less visible are the hundreds of New Yorkers' lives changed as a result of connecting on the subways and streets of the nation's largest city with SBC volunteers.

"Only on the other side of heaven will we see the lasting impact these volunteers had on New York City," said Roy Mallory, volunteer Paint the Town project foreman. "I know directly there have been at least two hundred who have professed Christ that we've heard about, and we haven't begun to get all our data back."

The question — What are you doing here? — is an open invitation to share the Good News of God's love for all people, said Mallory, a member of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Woodstock.

"We've actually had people ask, 'What have you people done to have to come out and paint in the schools?'" Mallory said. "They're even more astonished when we tell them we have paid our way to come and be here."

In addition to travel and lodging expenses, each Paint the Town volunteer gave one hundred dollars to help offset the cost of paint and supplies, said Sandra Mallory, the project's volunteer coordinator.

"It's not a fee; it's a contribution," she said. "Every mission trip I've ever been on, I have spent money on supplies and materials …. We used that same philosophy and, with other donations, that's how we're able to paint as many schools as we are."

Benjamin Moore paint company donated two thousand gallons of paint, which was enough to complete two schools, and made additional paint available at reduced cost.

But painting the schools — as daunting a task as that can be, when hallways sometimes are one hundred and twenty-five feet long and ceilings in school gyms thirty feet high — is only a part of Paint the Town. The summer included six block parties and twenty-five sports camps, even a Twin Towers mural painted on the side of a building. And each school was "adopted" by a local church.

"Our goal is that if the school needs anything, the church will be their first call," Roy Mallory explained. "It will be a way the church can better serve its community, serving children and families in need."

Paint the Town is part of New Hope New York, a Strategic Focus Cities evangelism and church planting thrust sponsored by the North American Mission Board (NAMB), now in its second implementation year in NYC. The painting project's genesis was in the wistful dream of a Bronx middle school principal to have her one hundred-year-old school building painted in the summer of 2004.

Though ordinarily a much smaller project would be a year or two in the planning, the Bronx painting project was organized in less than a month, and completed in less than two.

The 2004 effort involved more than five hundred volunteers from at least seventy churches in fifteen states.

"What can we do now?" painting project leaders then asked. Connections were made with the school superintendent of Region One, "the most high-risk region in the Bronx, the poorest, the most gangs," said church planter Steve Kelly, who facilitated the contacts with government officials.

"We chose the schools in the worst condition, where we could make the biggest impact," Kelly said.

But the painting jobs could not be started until July 5 and needed to be done by August 29 to give the teachers a week before school started to get their rooms in order.

"Our [school] superintendent is impressed, so we're hoping Paint the Town will spread across New York City," Mallory said. "We go into a school and say, 'What do you need?' We patch small holes, but we tell them we don't do restoration. We're here to paint."

That "we" included people of all ages from across the country.

"They came from everywhere," Sandra Mallory said. "They'd seen the information on The Bridge, NAMB's construction volunteers' project website. They understood how painting the schools and giving to the community with a service project like this could be used to till the soil and plant the seeds so we can share Christ with people."

By the end of August, the volunteers had spent about a half-million man-hours completely painting the inside of five schools in the Bronx — teachers' offices, cafeterias, halls, rooms, bathrooms — while four other Bronx schools had freshly painted halls, classrooms, and bathrooms.

And in Harlem, volunteers aided Albert Tibbs in starting the I AM Christian Center. Having received permission to use the cafeteria at Rice High School, a Catholic school for boys, as a meeting place, Tibbs requested a contingent of Paint the Town volunteers, who freshened up everything at the school but the headmaster's office with paint donated by World Vision.

Meanwhile, Rick Crews, pastor of North Shore Baptist Church on Long Island, arranged for Paint the Town volunteers to paint two North Shore schools the church had adopted.

One long-distance caller got so excited over the Paint the Town efforts that rather than volunteering his church members to paint in New York City, he said they would do the same type of thing in his city, Sandra Mallory said.

As summer drew to a close, plans already were being made to continue Paint the Town next year, said Shane Critser, associate director of New Hope New York.

"It went so well this summer," Critser said. "We saw God moving. We saw teachers, principals, and parents welcome us, and people being reached with the Gospel."

The blessings rolled in because the goal never was simply to paint some school buildings, Roy Mallory said.

"Sandra and I didn't come to be involved in painting schools," the project foreman said. "I'm a building contractor. I could have stayed in Atlanta and painted.

"We came to be involved in evangelism and church planting through servant evangelism," Mallory continued. "We came to put ourselves in a position where we can tell people why we're here and who sent us here."

He and his wife and about two thousand others responded to God's call, Mallory said.

"Most of the team leaders felt a real draw to ministry in New York, even those who maybe didn't completely understand all the outreach that was being done and the things we hoped would happen," Mallory said. "While they were out and about in the city, maybe going home or coming in on the subway, maybe going to a ball game, they had the opportunity to lead someone to faith in Christ."

For more information on NAMB's partnership to reach New York City go to www.NewHopeNewYork.com and to find a Southern Baptist volunteer mission project go to thebridge.namb.net.