December 1, 2010

Hope in Manhattan

It’s a crisp Friday evening on a quiet, tree-lined street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Young adults, well-dressed and casually dressed, stream into a small venue a few yards from Lexington Avenue, with its bustling bars and restaurants.
There’s no alcohol, no five-star cuisine, no dancing. Yet these urban professionals are happy to be in this place. The next morning, many of them—and dozens more—will return, bright-eyed and eager, for a day of prayer, Bible study, and worship.
2010 1538 page18This is the scene one encounters at Church of the Advent Hope, a onetime German-focused congregation that now draws some of this city’s best and brightest.
It’s almost accepted as dogma among American Seventh-day Adventists: our nation’s big cities are tough, unyielding “fields” in which to work. Lots of effort can be expended, with very little in return. To paraphrase Nathanael’s sarcasm about Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, in John 1:46: “Can anything good come out of New York City?”
Ask the young adults who worship weekly at Church of the Advent Hope—a group almost entirely in their 20s and 30s—why they ignore the temptations so close at hand, the “singles scene” that has so easily mesmerized thousands, and you get strikingly similar answers: they let me participate right away, the teaching is sound, the fellowship really means something.
Marca Wilson, 37, moved to New York with her husband, Matt, 39, so he could complete a medical residency. She homeschools their 7-year-old daughter.
“From the moment we walked in, I felt welcome,” Marca said. “We knew we were home. People were genuinely welcoming and friendly.” Marca hopes to see the church start a school, for both the congregation’s children and the community.
2010 1538 page18Added Matt, who attended numerous churches around the country growing up, Advent Hope “is probably the best church I’ve ever been to.”
Samia Rahman, 23, and a premed biology student, is the first in her family to be Adventist, or even Christian. A friend from a chemistry class invited her to Advent Hope, which she said has a “very warm and welcoming atmosphere. Worshipping with people your age is completely different. It’s great to have friends you can hang with and talk about God.”
For Carrie Bobenhausen, 36, something about the church has to draw her from her Westchester County home every week—especially after five days of a three-hour bus-and-subway round trip to her counseling job at Greater New York Academy in Woodside, Queens.
“It’s the opportunity to join a community with these people,” she said. “It lifts my soul so much. Even if you don’t feel like it, you bring yourself [here] and the joy is found.”
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Another 36-year-old, Tony Sebro, is a patent attorney in Manhattan and has attended Advent Hope for 11 years: “This church is my core spiritual and social community. We do take advantage of the programs” available in New York, he said, adding, “We can experience all of the great things the city has to offer. I can think of no better place to be and participate in ministry.”
Tony, who is an elder in the congregation and coordinator of its men’s ministries, says the tactic of involving newcomers is deliberate: “We try to work hard so people can become integrated into the community very quickly,” he explained. That’s because many of Advent Hope’s congregants come to New York for two or three years, to attend graduate school, take a job, or undertake a medical residency. Thus, he said, “we have a spirit of spiritual ‘entrepreneurship.’ There’s not a lot of red tape.”
Alex España, 38, is accustomed to working with young adults: he’s an assistant dean of student affairs at Columbia University, one of this nation’s top schools. He’s also been a member of Advent Hope since 2001.
2010 1538 page18“I’m really excited about the direction this church is going,” he said, with its “focus on young adults. Every Sabbath there are more and more young people coming to Advent Hope for the first time ever.” Alex said these were Adventist-raised young adults who are now “trying to find out if this is their own faith, or the ‘faith of their fathers.’”
And while Alex’s age puts him at the top end of the church’s demographic, he doesn’t mind: “When you’re around young people, it keeps you young, current, and relevant,” he explained.
Johanna Ramirez, 28, confronts death almost daily: she’s a trauma nurse at Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs. Although crime has declined substantially there over the past 20 years, the challenges remain.
For solace and renewal, Johanna comes to Advent Hope: “When I came back to New York, I attended my mother’s church, but there were no young adults,” she recalled. “I didn’t have a sense of fellowship [there].”
This congregation is different, she asserted.
“I liked it from the beginning. As I started coming more regularly, I found such a dynamic and vibrant group of young people on fire for God,” she said. “I found a sense of belonging. God allowed me to find Advent Hope to give me a job to do in New York City,” Johanna, who is now young adult coordinator for the church, added.
Can anything good come from a city as large, impersonal, and imposing as New York? If it’s the Church of the Advent Hope and its outreach to young professionals who could otherwise end up estranged from Adventism, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”
Mark Kellner is news editor of Adventist Review. This article was published November 25, 2010.