It is never easy to step out in faith having no idea of where the journey will lead. Today, the simple act of obedience of the few has grown into a powerful ministry that has embraced the challenge of evangelizing an entire community. It is a clear demonstration of the wonderful things God has wrought in our lives if we only give Him the freedom to do so through obedience to God’s will. As we reflect on our journey, we come to understand it as an unfolding story of faith. While this context does not lend itself to having a detailed account of this story, however, it provides the opportunity to offer a general overview consisting of inception, development and where we have reached so far.
Between 1987-1992 could best be described as the period of our beginning. Emancipation Day is significant in the lives of the people of African descent and world history as it is the day our ancestors were liberated from oppression of slavery. It is not fortuitous but rather providential that it is also the day God proffered a modern-day liberation. August 1, 1987, marks the day that Grace Baptist Chapel came into existence.
It was a bold initiative for the eight adults and three children that pioneered this cause who acted out of simple obedience in response to God’s act through the leading of the Holy Spirit. In retrospect, this was a time of beginning defined by preparation, discovery, learning, and formation.
During the beginning years, infrastructure was laid by clearing the ground, training of members for leadership and becoming a constituted legal organization—as is the practice of establishing new congregation. Grace was established as a “mission-type church” under the auspices of Bronx Baptist Church. As Baptist theology teaches, this relationship culminated into Grace becoming an autonomous and a self-supporting congregation.
While this was taking place, in 1990, we purchased property for the construction of our church home. Immediately, we launched a campaign to raise funds for construction. Our evident maturity and change in status, dictated that plans be formulated to becoming a constituted organization in the State of New York. This became a reality on September 27, 1992, as we adopted our constitution and by-laws under the legal counsel of Chester Henlin, esq.
Growth was taking place steadily. This was evident in the ordination of our first two deacons, Lester Mitchell and Albert Todd. Their ordination symbolized and reinforced the belief that God is establishing us a permanent community of faith. With this act, we acknowledge that God is leading and equipping us to venture into another phase of our growth and development.
We continued as a church to seek God’s leading through the ensuing years of uncertainty, and we were tremendously blessed as God’s plan unfolded before our very eyes! God asked us to plunge in with both feet, and we did when we celebrated our Ground Breaking on Sunday, April 21, 1996, after nine years into ministry!
The Ground Breaking Ceremony was a further break-through for our church. The significance and expectations of this event engendered among us and the local community great hope. From our inception, we harbored and nurtured this hope of acquiring property to build our sanctuary and ministry facility.
During this five-year period, we conducted a series of celebrative events. It was distinctively marked by the beginning of the construction of our church home.
While the building process presented its generous share of struggles and difficulties, there were moments when we wondered how we would come through them. Notwithstanding those challenging times, with God’s help, the realization of the seemingly impossible became a reality. On Sunday, March 8, 1998, we took up residence in our own, newly constructed and elegantly furnished sanctuary. It was, and is, a modern-day miracle! Indeed, this was a momentous occurrence. It signified a milestone and testimony of what God can do, which we celebrated as the dedication of this sanctuary three months later, on Sunday, June 28, 1998.
During our early days of struggle, we dreamed and aspire for the day we would move into our own building. When the day came, we fulfilled that aspect of our dream and our focus as the church was challenged to change as we asked, “Where do we go from here?” We had to make intense adjustment to our orientation and structure of our ministry’s infrastructure.
Nevertheless, Grace Chapel continued to work toward God’s call of action. Thoughtful preaching, dynamic worship and warm fellowship remained core tenets of the church’s ministry. The church also grasped the importance to impact the community through evangelical, cultural, and intellectual witness.
The church also introduced the Fine Arts such as “The Feast of Music,” a concert of expensive taste with a very inexpensive price; and “Culturama,” a series of workshops in art, drama, dance, and music. The church’s youth hosted an annual Garden Party and participated in the production of a play, “A Christmas Nightmare,” directed by Clive Anderson and Noel Lawson. Other ministries of the church include an outspoken and active women’s fellowship, a quarterly newsletter, homeowners’ seminar, a book ministry, and an annual fun and education two-week vacation bible school for all ages.
Indeed, the story of Grace Chapel is a work-in-progress. As such, four key characteristics define the period between 2002 and 2012. One of the characteristics is change. In anything young and new, change is a two-constant factor. We experienced a steady growth—numerically, spiritually, and qualitatively—in membership. Yet, we experienced changes resulting from migration, deaths, economic challenges, to name a few. With these challenges and with our commitment to follow God, we resolved to be steadfast and ever growing in doing the work of the Lord fully confident that our work is not futile.
Another definitive characteristic of our Journey is capacity building. As our journey progressed, we completed the second floor of our building. This gave us additional space to accommodate growth and expansion of more and new ministries. But with this physical development, came the need for further capacity building as well.
In this regard, we turned our attention to the formulation of policies, consolidation of ministries and administrative and diaconal leadership. We were blessed with the appointment of Augustus Davidson and the ordination of the late Roy Wilkins and Voris Walker, the first female to the diaconate. A few years later, one of the organic members of Grace, Winston Farnum, joined this company of leaders. The ordination of Winston to the diaconate is highly significant. It attested to the growth, development, and character of the church we are becoming. Here, we are witnessing one whom the church gave birth becoming one of its leaders.
An additional characteristic of our journey of ministry is our relationships with the various local, national, and international ecclesiastical, social, and civic organizations. These relationships, we believe, are ways of both contributing to the work of the Lord beyond our immediate context and participating in a cause larger than ourselves and advancing the purpose of God throughout the world. The testimonial of the Reverend Dr. George Russ, Executive Director of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, attests to our intra ecclesiastical relationships when he commented:
Jesus summarized the commandments this way: Loving God with our whole soul, strength, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
There is a lot about GBC that you would find in other churches, like worship, study, and ministry. But it is that part about loving God with our whole mind that makes GBC stands out. They are preaching an informed gospel. Dr. Delroy Reid-Salmon is a pastor whose mind is on fire for Jesus. His careful exposition of the gospel, and thoughtful and discerning application of it is to be a Christian in New York, excite me.
A recent visit to GBC in Pastor Delroy Reid-Salmon’s absence conspired this to me: In addition to, study and ministry, I noticed an emphasis on how to express the gospel in the city, some book suggestions, and a commitment to living out the gospel in their community.
Along with the other three definitive characteristics, the establishing of the Caribbean Diasporan Theology initiative is a further distinguishing feature of Grace Chapel. We inaugurated and hosted the first international conference on the Caribbean Diasporan Church (2002). Among other things, this gives an account of the role, some of the struggles, and contributions of Caribbean Diaspora to the American society.
In subsequent years, we hosted another conference of national gathering of clergy, leaders, and churches was billed as a missional event to acknowledge and initiate discussion on the emergence, contribution, and role of Baptists in the continuum of the Caribbean Diaspora (2000…).
The participants encapsulate the central message of the conference. For example, Raymond Anglin, former general secretary of Jamaica Baptist Union (JBU) during the 1980s, stated that he experienced a kind of culture shock upon moving to the United States. The Baptist churches he encountered in Florida and Georgia were different from his experience in Jamaica in terms of authority, leadership, the attitude to the role of women, and in understanding of training, but his background in Jamaica prepared him for his current situation, as it gave him an ecumenical dimension of ministry.
Also, Banmatte Ram, a Baptist pastor from Guyana, said while we experience cultural differences in the diaspora, one must do ministry wherever one is. Despite these challenges, Everton Jackson, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church, Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Baptist World Alliance (BWA) regional executive secretary treasurer of the Caribbean Baptist Fellowship, (CBF) commented: “There are tremendous possibilities for cooperation between CBF and the Caribbean Diaspora churches.” This is possible because Caribbean people, whether in the Caribbean or elsewhere, “share a common history” as well as “Common needs for affirmation, self-actualization, [and] a theology that speaks to our context.”
In addition to the two Caribbean Diasporan conferences, the scholarship of our pastor, Dr. Reid-Salmon, is also an integral factor in the development of Caribbean Diasporan theology and the contribution of the church to the American society. In this regard, our pastor is appointed as a Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, and has authored seminal texts, Home Away From Home: The Caribbean Diaspora Church in the Black Atlantic Tradition (Equinox, 2008) , Burning for Freedom: A Theology for the Black Atlantic Struggle for Liberation (Ian Randle, 2012) , chapters in books, articles in academic journals, and has lectured at conferences, colleges and universities.
As we continue our Journey, three important factors emerge, namely, losses and gains, lessons learned, and endeavoring to go forward.
During our journey, we have not been able to initiate and established many of the things we wanted to do. We have experienced losses and gains in many ways. For example, some of our members have severed relationship with the church, relocated to other places, passed on to the next life, ministry endeavors have not come into fruition, and many other challenges. Yet, we have experienced great gains in our growth in becoming church—congregation, organization, and physical entity. Thus, in a unique and significant way, our growth has been primarily qualitative.
Over the years, we have learned many lessons. Among them, we have learned that the Christian life is a journey. This means it is not linear but meandering, not expedient but a long process. Essentially, it is “long obedience in the same direction” (Frederick Nietzsche/Eugene Peterson).
Another lesson our Journey is teaching us is the value of community. Emerging from our experience, is the centrality of community in our personal and communal living. As a dispersed, alienated, and fragmented people due to slavery, migration, racism, and other structural and ideological oppressive forces, we come to value community as a means of both survival and liberation. Community nurtures, sustains, and supports identity, unity, and solidarity.
“Faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm) is an additional lesson we are learning from our Journey. The lesson is that the Christian faith can be understood and lived thoughtfully. We understand this to mean a call to the life of the mind, which includes the pursuit of truth and demonstrates the relationship between faith and reason, as St. Thomas Aquinas calls it, “the reasonableness of faith.”
Despite where we have reached and what we were able to achieve, the story of Grace Baptist Chapel continues. We thank God for calling us to this most noble purpose as we reflect on God’s goodness and faithfulness. It is with this knowledge we are taking the next step.
Indeed, the story is a work-in-progress. This next step includes completing our unfinished tasks, continuing our growth as a community of faith and as a constitutive element of the society, and pursuing our mission of outreach and community development. While we are uncertain of the path that lies ahead, we are entirely sure that, God who has begun this work in us, will continue and complete it (Philippians 1:6). As such, our philosophy of life and theology of ministry remain: “ALL TO THE GLORY OF GOD: LET THE JOURNEY CONTINUE …”