Making the Bronx 'a better city' through discipleship

THE BRONX, New York City (BP) -- You've seen the pictures: burned-out buildings, junk cars littering vacant lots, drug dealers loitering on street corners. You've seen the news: In a single sweep recently, police arrested dozens of gang members accused of multiple murders, including the slaying of a 92-year-old woman.

Church planter Israel Kelly (right) embraces a new member of The Bronx’s ABC Church. The baptism was held at a beach near Westchester, N.Y.
Photo courtesy ABC Church
But the police can't fix the Bronx. Social workers can't heal the New York City borough, located north of Manhattan. Politicians?

Israel Kelly has a better idea: the ABC Movement.

ABC -- "A Better City" -- is a vision for planting neighborhood churches in every one of the New York City borough's 25 zip codes.

"The authorities haven't been able to change the city," Kelly said. "But the Gospel is able to."

Kelly, a native of the Dominican Republic, has started his movement in the heart of the Bronx: zip code 10458. It is home to about 79,000 people, two-thirds of whom are Hispanic. The bivocational church planter's work is assisted by the North American Mission Board's Send City initiative, which seeks to strategically move churches and individuals into 32 of the largest population centers in North America.

Kelly's strategy for making the Bronx a better city wasn't to "launch large" with lots of attenders and a buffet of program options. Instead, he has focused on building deep disciples who will multiply in their own neighborhoods.

NAMB church planter Israel Kelly has focused his church planting efforts in The Bronx on discipleship and community. He hopes to see at least one church planting in every Bronx ZIP Code.
NAMB photo
It has taken seven years of patient work among badly broken people, but Kelly is beginning to see the fruit.

'It's time to go out'

He began with a family Bible study -- just his wife Eunice and their three children. They prayed together and studied God's Word. They stepped out onto the street and talked with the people they met. They asked people how they could pray for them, shared the Gospel and invited them to study the Bible.

It took four years to baptize their first three Christians. It took another two years to baptize the next four. Then in January 2015, in their first meeting as a congregation, Kelly baptized nine. Now the church numbers 75 committed disciples. Since the first of the year, they have baptized four people and now plan to have baptism services every three months.

The method is intentional. Each Sunday, adults and children focus on a passage that church families have been studying all week. Parents read the Bible with their children each day, morning and evening. They memorize a key verse together and discuss a set of questions. Small groups of five people, called "La Mesa" -- in English, "the table" -- study the same passage in their neighborhoods.

"The table is where we sit down with each other," Kelly said. "The table is where we eat, where we celebrate, where we talk about our frustrations and what strengthens us, where we have accountability.

"Our church is a group of families that grows in the Gospel," he added. "We sit at the table and invite others to eat."

And then they get up from the table and go out.

"The last week of the month, our people have to go outside," Kelly said. "Go to a restaurant, sit down and buy food for someone else who goes there. Let them know we are here to serve and to share the faith.

"Some of the guys are giving away tea and coffee and chocolate on the streets. It's not accidental," Kelly said. "We have to stand up and say, 'It's time to go out, to pray and to find somebody to share with.'"

'Our strongest tool is prayer'

When they strike up conversations on the street, people open up about their problems and welcome prayer.

"It's rare that we pray for someone who is not broken and crying," Kelly said. "They call out to you on the street and ask you to pray. So we stand there and pray on the street."

They pray about financial problems and depression. They pray with people who are lonely and feel life is not worth living. They pray with parents who can't control their teenagers and see them taking up with gangs.

Sometimes people respond to the good news that Jesus changes lives. People like Jacqueline, who cried all the time, or Carmen, who was constantly depressed. Now they are Christians who are working their way through the church's yearlong spiritual maturity class.

"Our strongest tool is prayer," Kelly said. "On Tuesdays we have a prayer concert that mixes music and prayer. Every Wednesday we pray for people in different houses."

Little by little, the ABC Movement grows. Kelly dreams of the day when disciples begin to multiply and the Gospel begins transforming the Bronx.

"All our effort is being put into the Scripture and we connect with people outside to bring them into this culture of discipling that we are building," Kelly said. "This kind of church takes time and a lot of prayer, a lot of obedience.

"I say to people I don't want to bring you information. It's not about knowledge. The Gospel brings transformation," he added. "My main concern is to evangelize the entire Bronx, so they know about Jesus."

Mark Kelly is a career Southern Baptist journalist and freelance writer in Marietta, Ga.
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