The South Bronx of New York City is filled with loud, creative, proud, and resilient people. Yet it’s still an incredibly poor neighborhood where we do all we can to get by from one week to the next. Our community is host to countless liquor stores, check-cashing spots, and methadone clinics. You’ll also find a church or two, but despite the presence of a few older churches, our people don’t often see Jesus as precious. Finding joy in the cross is a foreign idea. All we can see are the hard truths we face on a daily basis:
- Surveys reveal 37 percent of our families cannot provide enough food to feed their families because of a lack of financial resources.
- Median annual income for Melrose and Morrisania is $8,694. Yes, you read that right.
- One out of three South Bronx residents lives in subsidized housing (the projects).
- As many as 98 percent of homeless families in the South Bronx are black and Latino.
These statistics give you a small idea of the daily hardships we’ve faced for as long as I can remember.
The question I’ve begun asking myself is this: What would the South Bronx look like if everybody who “made it out” didn’t leave but instead made their home in the same neighborhood that formed them, where they grew up? What if instead of placing our children in a private school (that we can’t afford in the first place), my wife and I got to know the teachers and parents in the school across the street? What if it were possible for a church to be “present” on the block, bodega, and parks of the South Bronx? What if the local church were actually local?
Of course, the hardships would persist. After all, no one knows the hardships our community faces better than we do. But would our neighborhood and community be better equipped to serve those needs if the local church truly became local? Would we be able to face them—hand-in-hand with our neighbors—with a stronger united force for good? Although overwhelming and monstrous to undertake, this strategy is the only way to face these needs.
Real and Hard
Contemplating that scenario ultimately instigated my desire to plant Restoration Church in the South Bronx. I read Matthew 9:36, and I was completely broken. God moved me to understand his grace in a way that I never had before. I began to see the people as Jesus sees them. Because of the real and hard circumstances in our neighborhood, we simply do not see hope or help as viable options. Then God opened my eyes to an incredible truth. Grace is hard to extend if it has never been received. Because the everyday difficulties of living in the South Bronx are indeed real and hard, it’s challenging to grasp God’s grace when life is seemingly absent of grace or second chances. We need someone to point us toward the real hope and help we so desperately need. I knew immediately that God was calling me to say, “Yeah, I know how you feel, but take a look at Jesus. Do you see what I see?”
So when I walk around my community, I know in my bones that this place was built for the gospel. The hope and help that comes attached to God’s grace is precisely what we need to grab a hold of the good things we’ve made ultimate things and put them back in their proper place. Preaching the power of God’s truth in the same community that I call home makes his undeserved grace even sweeter to my soul.
While there are many organizations doing amazing work around the globe, not many are doing ministry in my neck of the woods. That’s why we need more men who have been called to cultivate the natural resources of a people made to create culture. My dream is that God would use Restoration Community Church to crank out men who are rightly motivated and gracefully equipped to make the South Bronx a cultural stronghold of the Christian faith in New York City.
Call me crazy if you want, but I believe God can make it happen. After all, our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases (Ps. 115:3).
Redeemer City to City helps local leaders start churches in global cities. Rich Rivera is starting Restoration Community Church in the South Bronx. You can follow their progress and give directly to this new church through their projects page on City to City.