My family took a day trip to New York City during summer break. We usually make this trip once every two to three months. Our children adore exploring the city’s playgrounds and small parks, while my wife and I enjoy engaging in movie tourism, seeking out places we’ve seen in films.
However, that’s not the only reason we visit the city. We’ll always remember New York because we first came to the United States through this city. Our second child was born here, and we started our ministry in the U.S. here. We lived in New York for a few years before we moved to Philadelphia. Our trip to New York City feels like a pilgrimage.
Strange as it might sound, I came to learn about and embrace Anabaptist beliefs right here in New York City. My memories of the commute to Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Lancaster, Pa., with the scenery transitioning from skyscrapers to farms and back, are still vivid.
I used to pray for my ministry to be a blessing to nations and generations, but it never occurred to me that God wanted to send me this far, let alone become a Mennonite minister. God is surely able to exceed all expectations, as the Apostle Paul wrote: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
One thing I have learned from becoming a Mennonite in the city and living in Philadelphia is how to be a mission-oriented person — to heal what has been broken in our relationships, neighborhoods and the world by sharing and living out the Good News of Jesus.
In the city, social problems are prominently visible. It’s common to come across stark contrasts, like a Mercedes G-Class SUV parked near a homeless person. A fellow Mennonite minister here experienced a close call when a bullet ricocheted into his church office, fortunately causing no harm. The city grapples with mental health issues, immigration complexities, drug abuse and crime.
You can also tell how a neighborhood looks by its ZIP code, be it Black, white, Asian or Hispanic. In some ways, we are still segregated, and there is less intentional interaction across communities.
Many see this as a problem to avoid, but I believe it is an opportunity that requires our presence. Jeremiah 29:7 speaks to me personally, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.”
When the Israelites were in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah spoke to them to pray for their city and bring peace to it. As followers of Jesus who embrace Mennonite values, we are called to be agents of reconciliation. Peace is the center of our work.
I encourage people to stay in the city and give back to the community and neighborhood. Many people see the city as a steppingstone and not a bedrock where they can build. Many see urban spaces as locations to multiply profits and not a place to build family and community. This thinking must change.
Among the urban population of millions, there are not many Mennonites. But if you are one of them: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
Continue to do good, foster relationships and spread peace throughout every corner of the city.
I invite Mennonites from the suburbs and rural areas to come and minister in the city and see it not as a place to avoid because of sinful connotations but as a place where the grace and miracles of Jesus will come to fruition.