Mark R. Gornik is director of City Seminary of New York. He served previously as the founding pastor of New Song Community Church in Baltimore and is the author of To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City. Here he describes the transcultural, transformational experiences that led to his latest book, Word Made Global.
My book Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City began on the streets of Harlem. In 1998 my wife Rita and I moved to New York City from Baltimore to help begin a sister New Song Community church in Harlem. As we were starting our work in Harlem, I noticed a local car service operated by immigrants from the Ivory Coast, a Senegalese restaurant, and African hair braiding salons. These observations of street life first suggested to me that a significant African community might reside in New York.
Around this time, I also found myself reading Andrew Walls’s Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Here, as elsewhere, this distinguished historian makes the argument that Christianity is shifting its center of gravity from the Western to the non-Western world. As I read Walls, I was struck with the thought that perhaps he was describing New York City. Even though New York City is in the West, through immigration it is connected to Africa, Asia, and Latin America — the new growth centers of Christian faith.
If Africa was experiencing historic Christian growth, would it not follow that at least some of the new African immigrants would be Christian? And if the answer was yes, in what churches were they worshiping?
These questions, and the encouragement of Andrew Walls (who was then teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary), eventually led me to an Ethiopian congregation on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Here I encountered a vibrant Pentecostal church that had converted a bar into a house of worship. Its service was one of great joy, serious praying, a dynamic and practical sermon, and dancing together around the room.
Members of the Ethiopian church told me the location of another African church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Brooklyn, which I visited the next week. This process continued in one form or another, and over a decade of research, my list of African churches in New York City grew to some 150 different congregations.
While I visited and worshiped with many different African congregations, three became very important: the Presbyterian Church of Ghana in Harlem, the Church of the Lord (Aladura) in the Bronx, and the Redeemed Christian Church of God International Chapel in Brooklyn. These churches form the heart of the story I tell in Word Made Global, but so also does the city of New York.
This story is also in part my story, because researching the African churches and writing Word Made Global transformed me. Through this work, not only did I come to really know New York City, but I also came to experience and be challenged by Christianity in the 21st century. My experience also profoundly shaped by understanding of urban ministry and theological education.
So, after a decade of work on Word Made Global, I am glad that others will now have an opportunity to engage in dialogue with what I have learned and am still learning.