Leave it to the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team to discover a divine parking spot in a city where parking isn’t often associated with joy.
When the team’s chaplains pulled up to the curb on Fifth Avenue at E. 98th Street at the start of April, they didn’t know they’d be sharing the block with a pizza shop on wheels. The Neapolitan Express food truck appeared a few hours later and has been drawing New Yorkers to pizza and prayer ever since.
“We’ve been able to minister to a lot of people,” said Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplain Tim Denmark, who served New York City as a Metro Transit Authority Police officer for 29 years.
“People stop for pizza and then they come to our prayer tent to talk to the chaplains while they’re there,” Denmark said.
He and his wife, Yvonne, are part of a team of six crisis-trained chaplains who chose to travel to the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak to share God’s love with New Yorkers. The Denmarks live in Putnam County, New York, about 60 miles north of the city.
“They’ve got a bad reputation, but New Yorkers can be the most giving and friendly people,” Denmark said. “A little rough around the edges, you’ve gotta get past that.”
Since arriving at Central Park’s East Meadow to serve alongside a Samaritan’s Purse emergency field hospital, the Denmarks have been walking the hills and valleys of the park each day, praying for the city.
“When we do our walks around, we just pray that the light would shine out of this place, because there’s darkness in the city,” Denmark said. “There’s a spirit at work in the city, and now there’s fear and anxiety, and we just pray that there would be hope and peace as people walk by, that it would just flow over them.”
Yvonne has been spending hours inside the field hospital, in head-to-toe personal protective equipment (PPE), by the side of COVID-19 patients who need extra support. Since the patients can’t be near family and friends at a time when they need it most, the chaplains are hoping to fill some of that void with a ministry of presence for those who are suffering.
‘We’re Gonna Come Back Swinging’
On the edge of Central Park’s East Meadow, a lifelong New Yorker is serving doctors and nurses from Mt. Sinai Hospital and the Samaritan’s Purse emergency field hospital by providing free personal pan pizzas from his food truck, Neapolitan Express. Max Crespo has been setting up shop in the same location every day since the field hospital opened April 1.
“Everyone heard about the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital,” Crespo said. “Everyone knows what’s happening here, so I said, ‘Well, I know Central Park, and I know there’s no food in Central Park. They’re gonna be hungry, so send the truck and feed ’em.'”
Born and raised in Manhattan, Crespo embodies the fighting New York spirit. When asked how he feels about the crisis that has gripped his city, he answers immediately—in the New York accent you’ve seen in the movies—while continuing to dish out pizzas like he’s dealing cards.
“Oh that’s easy,” Crespo said. “So you know, we got punched really hard, but I didn’t hear no bell. We’re gonna come back swinging, so don’t worry about that.”
He takes a softer tone when he looks over at the white tents of the field hospital, where ambulances pull up sporadically to unload stretchers carrying COVID-19 patients. He’s thought about how the hospital is down in a little valley, and Psalm 23 has been coming to mind.
“I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I fear no evil because God’s with me. There it is right there,” Crespo says as he looks down at the tents. “So if the doctors and nurses are willing to go into that, why am I not willing to make pizza? They’re the ones doing the saving; all I’m doing is giving ’em food, giving ’em two minutes of happiness hopefully.”
‘I Need Prayer’
The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team’s prayer tent is just a few feet away from the pizza truck. Each day around lunch and dinner, the chaplains encounter doctors, nurses and local residents, many of whom are curious about the red and black “Sharing Hope in Crisis” tent.
“Many people that would normally walk this path, their everyday walk with their dogs or whatever, they bypass us and then they come back,” said Kevin Williams, who’s leading the chaplain team in NYC. He compared some of the people he’s encountered to Nicodemus from the Bible, a powerful man who had questions for Jesus and came to talk to Him at night, possibly to keep from being spotted by his peers.
“People are wondering,” Williams said. “And I really believe they know that going back to the normal way that they were living and believing up to this point is not sufficient.”
“Many of them are like Nicodemuses,” Williams said. “They have an idea what this is all about, they have an idea about that hope. They want it, but they’re watching who’s watching them.”
Others don’t hesitate to approach a chaplain—like the health care worker from Mt. Sinai who walked right up to chaplain Charlie Clark.
“I’m standing there as some have gotten their pizza, and she walks over and says, ‘I need prayer,'” Clark said.
“Her friend was standing off to the side a little. After I prayed with her, the friend walked straight up and said, ‘I’m next.’ We had prayer for their peace, their safety, for blessings for their service.'”
Hoping New Yorkers Will ‘Really Think About It’
Jennifer Armitage has lived in New York for almost 30 years. Her apartment is just across the street from the emergency field hospital. One weekend when she was heading into the park for her daily walk, she stopped to thank the chaplains for being there.
“I was thrilled to see you all,” she said. “You know, it’s so easy in our everyday normal lives to just sort of ‘pooh pooh’ the Lord especially in New York. We have a lot working against us here, but there are a lot of active Christians at the same time. I really hope that this will give more New Yorkers the time to really think about it.”
Jennifer’s husband, David, became a Christian eight years ago after following another faith for his whole life. He watched the field hospital go up as he walked the couple’s two dogs each day.
Jennifer said the field hospital and the presence of the chaplains has had a “tremendous effect” on her husband.
“He just came upstairs and said, ‘You know, I feel so proud to be a Christian, because the help is there for everybody … that Jesus loves everybody.’
“Even though it’s been eight years, I think because of this horrible situation, he is having sort of a second coming to Christ moment,” Jennifer said. “It’s making him understand the Christian message in reality. It’s one thing to read about it in the Bible … but this is the best example.”
Chaplain Charlie Clark took a few minutes to pray for Jennifer and her husband—that their faith would continue to be strengthened during this time of trial for New York and the world.
It’s one of many prayers going up from E. 98th Street & Fifth Avenue, a place that’s becoming a pocket of hope in the midst of crisis.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Jennifer said. “I wish you guys were here every day.”
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