Into the Heart of New York City

By Amanda Knoke   •   October 22, 2004

Frank Meyer gives new meaning to Christian boldness.

As Meyer and his evangelistic team descend the subway stairs leading beneath New York City’s streets, the late-August heat closes in around them like a damp blanket. Thirteen people are on his core team, but this evening four have gathered to tell subway riders about Jesus. The team stops near a newsstand to pray. Then they board the train through different entrances. Sliding doors shut with a thud; the train lurches forward. Meyer has a ready-made audience.

“I want to thank you for coming tonight,” Meyer announces for all to hear. “I’m glad to see so many new faces at our Sinners Anonymous workshop.” Inviting people to share their testimonies, Meyer requests that they answer two questions: First, “How did you come to realize you’re a sinner?” And second, “Who is your higher power and what has he done for you?”

A passenger pulls himself up from his slouch to see who is speaking.

Amazingly, the first person to respond is not part of the team. The passenger shares briefly how Jesus Christ rescued him from a life of sin. Then, one by one, Meyer’s team members seated throughout the car offer testimonies of how Jesus Christ rescued them from sin.

There are sideways glances. There are snickers. But all listen–they can’t help not to.

Frank Meyer was one of 762 people who came from across New York City–and from 42 states, three Canadian provinces and four foreign countries–to the sixth floor of the Times Square Marriott Marquis Aug.18-20.

Outside, signs like “Most fun on Broadway,” “#1 Show of the year,” “A brilliant musical” and other advertisements–some, 18 stories high–beckon passersby. Camera, computer and souvenir stores galore do the same. A model Cadillac, about 10 times its life size, protrudes from a building; a cash machine three stories tall comes out of another. Fiddler on the Roof is playing across the street from the hotel; on the floor beneath the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, the opening night gala for Dracula, the Musical is underway.

But even as the brilliant musicals, cars, souvenirs and 18-story ads whet desire for the temporal satisfaction of the human heart, Christian leaders came to the School of Evangelism to learn how to better cultivate hearts for eternal satisfaction–ultimately more desirable than ten thousand Times Squares.

What does the Christian need to understand about changing times in order to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that lives might be genuinely transformed? In the School’s opening plenary session, author and teacher Gordon MacDonald addressed that question, emphasizing that one no longer can assume that people who come to a church or to an evangelistic meeting have any understanding of Christian thought. “Teach us, O Lord,” MacDonald prayed, “a willingness to change our old ways to new ones that are fresh and new and fit the moment.”

Inspiring Boldness
Since 1996 Frank Meyer has been bringing the Gospel of Christ into the subways of New York City. An “evangelism trainer,” Meyer often takes church groups out with him to join in his subway ministry, as well as his one-to-one evangelism ministry, which focuses on creating natural dialogue. Meyer has designed a wide array of witnessing cards to help the shy Christian. The Operation Andrew card, used in BGEA Crusades and other events, was presented at the School of Evangelism and is another tool Meyer will add to his collection. “The Operation Andrew method reminded me of the importance of starting inexperienced believers with something non-threatening,” said Meyer. “It provides a very practical way to remind them to pray for their unbelieving friends and then invite them to their church.” Meyer says he often has experienced the joy of watching terrified believers overcome their fears and become inspired when they experience God blessing their attempts to witness.

During the “Sinners Anonymous” skit and ones similar to it, team members share their testimonies. At one point, team member Kathryn asks if anyone on the train would like to know if it’s possible to turn away from a promiscuous lifestyle, and she explains how obtaining such freedom is not impossible with God. A female passenger begins to weep. “When I hit rock bottom, God called out to me through the means of a preacher,” Kathryn tells her fellow passengers. “I told Jesus that I was so sorry and that I wanted Him to be on the throne of my life. Jesus changed my life. I had no life, even though I thought I did.” After the testimony time Meyer and his team, which includes his wife, Lynda, pass out Gospel tracts.

Back on the Streets
James Sloven, leader of the evangelism team at The Brooklyn Tabernacle, met Franklin Meyer at the School of Evangelism and was eager to have his team observe Meyer’s strategy.

Sloven is the son of an Irish gangster and an Italian psychic. He has seen more than one friend murdered before his eyes, and he has experienced addiction to drugs stronger than heroin. Most damaging of all, he says, was the pain of a father who told him that he would never amount to anything.

A large-framed man with a heavy New York accent, Sloven is a softened tough guy whose greatest passion is that the name of the Lord Jesus be known in the streets of New York. His words are full of compassion and of the testimony of God’s grace poured out on him. “I want to set a fire into God’s people and equip them to bring relief to people’s lives, a demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s power,” Sloven says. “I want to be exhausted at the end of my life. He who suffers much, loves much.” Through Brooklyn Tabernacle’s evangelism ministry, God is giving Sloven the opportunity to manifest this love.

Sloven’s evangelism team of about 30 people goes out on Saturdays. “People are hungry,” Sloven says, recalling an 18-degree day when the team gave out 4,000 Bibles in 45 minutes. The team goes to the Projects of Brooklyn, the yuppie business district, Coney Island, the courts district, the wealthy Brooklyn Heights neighborhood and the financial district near Ground Zero. In the Projects–where the smell of urine hangs in the air, and where liquor bottles, drug transactions and shootings are commonplace–the team knocks on doors to offer hurting people the love of Christ. Sloven says that the radically different neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan are within blocks of each other, yet worlds apart. “We want to be all things to all people,” he says.

On a Tuesday afternoon following the School of Evangelism, Sloven and three team members meet for an outreach session. Before beginning, the small band huddles together and clasps hands. “God, we want to do this for Your glory,” Sloven prays passionately. “Touch these people’s hearts that You would be glorified.”

Sloven suggests that the team walk east to the Brooklyn Promenade–through the courts district and down regal Montague Street with its 19th-century brownstones. From the promenade, the full Manhattan skyline is visible, from the Statue of Liberty, on Ellis Island, to the Chrysler building in Midtown. One man, sitting by himself and reading in the late-afternoon sun, is happy to interact. He says he comes from a Middle Eastern country where there is no freedom. He is ecstatic to be in the United States and speaks openly of his religion. He asks two of Sloven’s team members questions about Christianity. Olga Mercado explains to him what it means to be born again, and that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The man is reluctant to embrace this and grows silent as Mercado speaks. But as the team departs, he calls out, “Pray for me.”

Gospel Power
“My world was shaken,” said Robert Johansson, pastor of Evangel Church in Queens, as he reflected on the first School of Evangelism he attended years ago. Johansson had been to Bible school, but he felt ineffective when it came to evangelism. Then, at a 1967 School of Evangelism, he heard about a witnessing strategy that his church has now used for 37 years. “We have seen hundreds come to the Lord,” Johansson said, explaining how his church often holds visitor-friendly events, and then evangelism teams from the church visit those who filled out visitor cards or who have been referred by a friend at the church.

At the 1967 School and from ensuing training, Johansson says he learned to think outside the box and also to live by this motto: “The Gospel is the power. Don’t get deterred.” It’s a message he has passed on to his congregation.

Planes, Trains and the Love of Jesus
Small beads of perspiration collect on Sylvia Bradfield-Mitchell’s soft face as she rocks along in the warm subway train from Manhattan, near the School of Evangelism hotel, to a neighborhood in Queens. Soon she is interacting with five young people from Korea, asking them about their camera. Minutes later she is leading them in a chorus of “God Is So Good” in Korean. Other passengers look on with smiles as Bradfield-Mitchell and her new friends croon the praise tune. She carries a backpack containing a well-used Bible and tracts for different occasions. She wears burgundy clerical clothing, a collar and a cross around her neck. With her tender, soothing demeanor, it’s no wonder the young people on the train lean in to absorb more of this fascinating woman in red.

Bradfield-Mitchell graduated from theological seminary in 1964–the third female to earn a degree from that school. But she says that she didn’t have a personal relationship with the Lord at the time. Rather than pursue a career in ministry, she opted to go to New York City and work for an airline, which she had always wanted to do. “I loved meeting people, and I fell in love with New York,” she says. “I didn’t know that the Lord was making the plan for my life!”

Nearly 40 years later God wrote a vision of “transportation chaplaincy” on her heart, Bradfield-Mitchell says, and she left her comfortable dwelling in Maine to move back to New York City. Bradfield-Mitchell observes that often Christians are locked into the traditional callings of the church and don’t have the encouragement to be creative in forming a more personalized ministry.

Bradfield-Mitchell’s ministry at New York’s airports includes greeting arriving travelers, helping passengers with airport directions, praying for departing missionaries and giving aid to parents with lost or crying children. She also comforts travelers in extreme and potentially traumatic places in life, such as a parent seeing a child off for the first time or someone going to a funeral.

At the School of Evangelism, Bradfield-Mitchell attended Jonathan Olford’s “His Presence in Crisis” seminar, which she said was descriptive of what she does: ministry of the moment. Because she may only have a minute or less with someone, “I had better be saying what God wants me to say and be listening with all my heart to the Holy Spirit,” Bradfield-Mitchell says. She was encouraged by Olford’s message that when Christians are helping someone in a tough situation, the transforming power of prayer and God’s presence works through them in another’s life.

“It’s overwhelming to think that I’m just one and there are so many hurting people,” says Bradfield-Mitchell. “But then I remember that God is more than enough.”

Thinking Outside the Church
Sun filters through the trees and shines on the faces of Neil and Hilda DeGregorio as they walk the brownstone-lined streets of Brooklyn near their church, New Hope Fellowship, on a late-August Sunday afternoon. Walking slowly, the DeGregorios, with voices but a whisper, focus their intercession on each residence as they pass by.

The DeGregorios’ pastor, Roger McPhail, recalled the first School of Evangelism that he and his wife were able to attend on a scholarship 23 years ago. Like his colleague Robert Johansson, McPhail said, “We loved it–it taught us to think outside the box.” He remembered one speaker who had challenged participants about their ministry to seniors. “When I came back, I noted that our congregation was 25 percent seniors,” McPhail said. “We started doing senior lunches, and hundreds came. Through the years, that one thing stuck with us–thinking strategically for different demographics.”

Most recently, McPhail’s church has put an emphasis on prayer. Just before 9/11, he had felt God telling him to move the church prayer meeting into the streets and to pray for the Lord to be enthroned on every block in Brooklyn. Now the church does prayer-walking as a lifestyle. On Saturdays, the church sets up prayer stations around Brooklyn, including one in front of a bar, where volunteers have prayed with as many as 100 people in one hour. When the bar owner was asked if this was bad for business, he replied, “How can prayer be bad for business?” According to McPhail, prayer also has affected the spiritual climate among Christians, and denominations are working together in harmony.

In addition to the prayer-walking, McPhail’s church wants to make sure that all of the 70,000 people who live in the community have the chance to hear the Gospel. “We’re in a wartime mentality for spreading the Gospel,” said McPhail. “We need to go to every house.”

Ready for the New
As they look back on Schools of Evangelism they attended in the past, McPhail and others attest to how God has blessed strategic thinking about evangelism. As well as being refreshed and rekindled for service, hundreds of Christians left Times Square with ideas that fit the places where God is using them to glorify His name: in public places, in neighborhoods, inside churches, outside churches–and often outside the box.

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