Book review: Bowery Mission

Dec 23, 2019 by

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When Pastor Jason Storbakken began planning his sermon for Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship’s commemoration of Native American Day (Columbus Day), he didn’t know it would be the second sermon he would preach on a text from Lamentations 3 within a week.

Bowery Mission

Bowery Mission

Three days earlier, a congregation made up of Bowery Mission staff, volunteers and guests gathered at Greatheart Chapel of the Bowery Mission and read together:

The thought of my affliction and
my homelessness
is wormwood and gall. . . .
But this I call to mind, and
therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord
never ceases.

The passage from Lamentations was fitting for a memorial service of lament. I was horrified when I learned that an assailant had beaten four homeless men to death and seriously injured another as they slept on sidewalks near the Bowery Mission. Wanting to show solidarity and sympathy, I attended the me­morial service at the Mission chapel.

I went home that day knowing God is healing and transforming our lives, even as we mourned the violent deaths of Chuen Kwok, 83; Nazario Vasquez Villegas, 55; Anthony L. Manson, 49; and a fourth man who has not been identified.

Gabe Herman, writing in The Villager, reported:

“Storbakken said the recent killings of homeless men in Chinatown were ‘heartbreaking,’ and his initial reaction was anger, because the victims were known in the community. But when he learned more about the assailant, ‘that rage turned more into remorse, because even he had come through and broken bread and gotten clothes and a shower here. But his mental health was so fragile. Hurting people sometimes hurt other people.’ ”

Several weeks later, on Nov. 7, I returned to the Bowery for the launch of Storbak­ken’s book on the Mission and a celebration of its 140th anniversary.

People who shared testimonies at the memorial service and the book launch described how serving and receiving help at the Bowery Mission changed their lives.

James Macklin, who at age 80 serves as director of outreach, emphasized the Mission’s priorities: Jesus, number one; personal hygiene, number two. Mission guests are not required to attend the worship services that are held before each meal, but all are welcome.

An invitation for a meal when Macklin was hungry and sleeping in the subway brought him to the Bowery Mission, where he began a new life in Christ in 1987. He and his wife, Debra, who has retired from her work at the women’s center, met through the Bowery Mission, and both attended the anniversary celebration.

As the Mission’s director of the chapel and compassionate care, Storbakken has helped shape the ministry for 10 years. For this book he researched the earlier 13 decades of the Mission’s history. He learned much of it by perusing 100 years of The Christian Herald magazine, which set the Bowery in the context of U.S. and world Christian history and theological developments.

Much of Storbakken’s work “is simply crying out to God, bowing down in solidarity with those who feel beaten.”

He writes much of the book in first person, telling stories. He introduces readers to Shirley, who has been physically and psychologically traumatized ever since an assailant raped her and set her clothes on fire when she was 18.

“At times, [Shirley] emits gut-wrenching wails or rants incoherently — and passersby avert their eyes and quicken their steps,” Storbakken writes. “If I pause to say, ‘Hi, Shirley!’ during one of these frantic episodes, she’ll calm down to respond, ‘Well hello, Pastor Jason,’ becoming lucid through being recognized and named. Authentic relationship and human connection has incredible power to transform.”

Although the name Bowery Mission is widely known, this is only the third book about it and the first since the 1960s.

Storbakken traces the history of Bowery Street back to the Wickquasgeck Trail, which Manhattan Island’s native people used in their hunting, fishing and gathering lifestyle — which the arrival of the Dutch, their Afri­can slaves and the British and Americans changed.

Today the area is becoming gentrified, with the New Museum and upscale restaurants and retailers neighboring the Mission’s 227 Bowery St. address.

Despite the gentrification of the Lower East Side (and likely also because of it), homelessness today is at a level similar to that during the Great Depression. People living on the street include those addicted to drugs and alcohol, veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, people released from mental hospitals and prisons, and people who have lost their jobs and cannot pay their rent.

Storbakken devotes a chapter to The Christian Herald’s role in publicizing the Mission’s ministry and raising funds for it. Editor Charles Sheldon, known for writing In His Steps, proclaimed the social gospel and promoted pacifism.

Daniel Poling edited The Christian Herald from 1927 to 1966. He supported American wars, and the magazine under his leadership leaned toward the prosperity gospel.

Years later, as readership declined, board president Edward Morgan proposed dissolving the magazine and using The Christian Herald organization to develop and grow the Mission’s programs.

Storbakken describes how he continually expresses his vulnerability and solidarity with the Mission’s guests. His pacifism was tested when two drug dealers he confronted came after him with a knife and baseball bat on the street.

Tragedies in the Mission’s history include an 1898 fire in the men’s residence that killed 11 men. Another occurred inside the residence when a police officer shot a man who stabbed him; both died.

Funerals and weddings, laments and celebration continue into the Bowery Mission’s 15th decade. Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish join with people of many faith traditions to share material aid, music programs and conversations with the Mission’s guests.

Readers will learn to know many of these people and be challenged to show compassion to homeless people in their own neighborhoods.

Susan Miller is a freelance writer who lives part-time in New York City and part-time in Hess­ton, Kan.

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