I can't quite describe my feelings when I walked through Jackson Heights the first time.
It was several years ago now. Julie, Molly, and I were spending the weekend in New York, and we met up with Larry Holcomb for lunch. Larry had been one of my seminary students many years ago. He wanted to show us his little corner of the world, and we were excited to experience it. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant on the main drag in Jackson Heights, one of the ministry hubs of Urban Nations Outreach.
It is fair to say that we loved the neighborhood immediately. But we also felt that we had been magically transported to another place, another country, another world. The entire world, it seems, lives in Jackson Heights. Indeed, simply walking down the street, we were bombarded with sounds, smells, and languages from around the globe. Almost no one was speaking English.
That meeting with Larry was the beginning of our church's ongoing relationship with Urban Nations Outreach and Jackson Heights. Over the past three years, our small church has sent dozens of people to serve there, primarily teaching English to immigrants. Something more than teaching has taken place, however; as we taught classes, we quickly fell in love with our students.
In this moment of worldwide suffering, it is many of these same students who are dealing with sickness, death, and the sheer impossibility of surviving the ravages of this pandemic. Along with nearby Elmhurst, Jackson Heights has been called "the epicenter of the epicenter." A large percentage of both the cases and the deaths in New York City come from this neighborhood that has become so dear to many of us who live in northern Michigan.
Think about how hard it has been for you to endure these past couple of months.
Now add to that: the struggle of not being able to understand or speak English well, the pain of being separated from family, the absence of sufficient money to buy food, difficult living conditions where large numbers of people might be sharing a single apartment, and devastating loneliness that most of us cannot even imagine.
To say that it is hard simply to survive in Jackson Heights right now would be a massive understatement.
We pray for our friends, of course. We hope that you will pray for them too. The week before the pandemic arrived in full force, we were working hard on our plans to return to Jackson Heights this summer. Two full teams (including young people, slightly older people, and people in the middle) had made commitments to go. Obviously, those plans have been put on hold now; we have no idea when we might be able to return to New York.
But we are willing to go . . . whenever the time is right.
In the meantime, we pray and we wait for news and we hope . . . on behalf of our beloved friends in Jackson Heights.
By the way, this is one of the reasons we go out on mission. It is one thing to read about a place. It is one thing to study a place. It is one thing to hear about a place.
It is another thing altogether to allow a place . . . to become real. Since we have been going to Jackson Heights, that neighborhood has become real to us. The people who live there have become real to us. And our love for them has become real.
I know you are praying about so many things these days.. But I would love for you to add to your prayer list our dear friends who live in Jackson Heights.
In the best of times, their lives are hard. And these are not the best of times.