The Witness of the Church in Hurricane Sandy

This week at the 20th anniversary celebration of Hope for New York, Redeemer’s non-profit created to organize Christians to serve the city, Dr. Tim Keller spoke on the value of mercy and justice for the church in an increasingly secular society. His words came in the wake of the worst natural disaster to ever strike our city.

One of the striking statements that he made was that the church must become famous for mercy and justice. He was articulating the seamlessness of word and deed in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. Keller is one of most famous preachers in our day but said that when an increasingly secular society hears him preach, they may hear it as intolerant and narrow-minded; but when they see the church serve their city, society finds it attractive and becomes open to the word connected to the deed.

I watched this firsthand in New York City last week when Sandy caused devastation and destruction through flooding and power outages. The response of the church declared the gospel of Jesus Christ and demonstrated a concern for His name to be lifted high and represented rather than the name of any church.

Church Unity in Proclaiming our One Savior

In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays for the unity of the church in order that our oneness would demonstrate to the world that we know Him. Now, what constitutes unity is always debated, but what I’ve seen in New York City for a while now and demonstrated beautifully recently is exactly that - church unity.

In New York City, pastors, deacons, and parishioners from different churches have been praying together regularly for a while - praying for one another in need and praying for each other’s churches. This praying together has led to celebrating one another and last week it led to serving side by side for the good of our city.

When the power went out in lower Manhattan, the ocean washed away many homes and lives in Staten Island, the South Brooklyn shores and the Rockaways here in New York City, the reflex of the church was to give until we had no more to give and then to repeat the effort the next day. There was confusion for the first couple of days in all of New York City with many not knowing what could or should be done to help, but churches from around the country and locally sprang into action to help however they could.

I live in Manhattan, so I saw many different churches serving together to feed thousands of people in the Lower East Side and East Village. Churches rallying together to organize the distribution of goods, to identify elderly and disabled stuck in their apartments in high-rise buildings, and to clean up places ruined by the storm and its aftermath. The same story was happening in Red Hook, where a church convinced a community center to open and be the primary hub for organized distribution of goods which enabled the local health clinic to maintain its operation. They not only convinced them to open their doors, but were the leadership for the distribution. A number of Brooklyn churches joined them, even rallying older congregations who had not joined the efforts later in the week.

In Chelsea and around the city, government agencies required a mandatory evacuation of the projects, the location of our city’s most vulnerable. Many in the projects refused to evacuate because of past experience and the lack of easy access to shelters. This left them without power and water as well as without assistance as the local government aimed to serve the shelters first. I served alongside five other churches and a few relief organizations, watched as members of the broader church convinced restaurants to feed hundreds for meals costing only $2 (in New York City!).

It’s moving to watch the church be unified in mission and mindset. In mission, to see the church rally to the needs of the city and in mindset to be concerned only that Jesus received the credit. The relief efforts are far from over, FEMA and the National Guard remain throughout the city to help as they can, but the church has the opportunity to provide the long-term relief well after the government is gone. This is one of many opportunities for the church to become famous through demonstrating the love of Christ in order that they may declare the good news of Jesus Christ.

Deeds of Mercy Paving the Way for the Message

The aim of the church was to extend the tangible love of God as we met the tangible needs of those suffering in our city. Leading with this desire and praying for those suffering opened people’s eyes to the message of Christ in new ways. In a city that has aimed to ban churches from meeting in public schools, the church is paving the way for the message of Christ not by protesting, but by posturing ourselves as servants.

This is not merely a disaster relief story, but has been the repeated pattern of mission history, the combination and seamlessness of word and deed being the full declaration and demonstration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Dr. Keller spoke of this as the future reality for the church, it was clear to me that this has been its present and past need.

Dr. Keller cited Portland, OR where churches have organized over 20,000 volunteers and approached the city government and mayor asking where they can do the most good for the city. Can you imagine if churches around the country and the world organized to simply bless their city, not for the agenda of the church, but to demonstrate of God who loves the people of their city?

Our message is good news, and justice makes people feel it as well as hear it.