Big impact in the Big Apple
In a city where space is at a premium, Metro Baptist has used its upstairs dorm rooms to attract a group of young volunteers to staff the programs that are at the heart of its outreach ministry.
Aside from Sherouse and Henkel, only one other staff member, volunteer coordinator Robert Brunson, is full-time. The majority of the people staffing RMM are volunteers who, in exchange for free living space in the church’s fourth-floor dormitory rooms, give 15 to 20 hours a week of service.
Pope lived in the Metro Baptist dorms from 2003 to 2005, when she served as director of Page Turners, the after-school program. Now married and living in Brooklyn, she has maintained her ties to RMM. Pope also dances with a company in residence at Metro that holds a monthly performance series in the sanctuary.
“In the beginning, we had a few volunteers who were doing most of the work,” said Ronnie Adams, who has been involved with RMM since its inception. “One of the big turns for RMM was providing room for staff members. That helped the program expand, bringing in young adults who wanted to come to New York to explore their dreams.”
The Rauschenbusch legacy
Establishing RMM in 1995 allowed Metro Baptist to provide outreach services to the community around them on an ambitious scale. RMM operates on a limited budget of $440,000 per year, more than half of which is donated in kind from Metro Baptist in the form of staff housing, facility use and supplies.
“We are intentional about being interfaith and ecumenical and partnering with others to meet a common good,” Henkel said. “But there were also practical reasons -- such as kinds of funding you can go after.”
Establishing a nonprofit arm also opened up possibilities to partner with a variety of organizations, such as New York Cares, an NGO that links New Yorkers who want to volunteer with organizations throughout the city. New York Cares sends between 40 and 50 volunteers to RMM weekly.
The other big idea, according to Adams, was bringing on Henkel as executive director of RMM. Until she transitioned into the position in 2008, the pastor of Metro Baptist also headed RMM. For more than 15 years, Metro Baptist and RMM have occupied the same buildings, been fueled by the same staff, and been inspired by the same ideas.
“What is the difference between Metro Baptist and Rauschenbusch Ministries? Nothing,” Henkel explained to a group of college students from Tennessee who came to do a week of service in New York as part of RMM’s urban immersion program. “The people and heart are the same. We want to live out the gospel as we understand it, which means meeting the social needs of the community.”
Even before RMM was created, the founders of Metro Baptist were committed to the social gospel. The church started out in 1974 as a Bible study group on New York’s Upper West Side, where the members rented office space.
“Every Saturday they would make a big pot of soup and go across the street to the park to feed the homeless people. They were building relationships,” Henkel said.
In 1982, the community formally became the Metro Baptist Church of Manhattan and began looking for a home of its own. Some members of the congregation who volunteered in Hell’s Kitchen often passed the boarded-up building on 40th Street -- once home to St. Clement’s, a Polish Catholic church that closed after its parishioners left the neighborhood. One day the inspiration hit: this would be a great place for Metro.
“The move here was really about being part of the community, not about finding a comfortable place to sit,” Henkel said.
In 1984, Metro Baptist acquired the building at 410 W. 40th St. and immediately began providing for the direct needs of the community. The idea to form a nonprofit organization as the umbrella for the church’s outreach services followed in 1995. Then-pastor David Waugh decided to name it after the father of the social gospel -- the Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, the early-20th-century theologian, social reformer and Baptist minister whose New York City church was located just three blocks from where Metro sits today.
In recent years, Metro Baptist has expanded its outreach as well as its congregation. In the past five years, this little church has had a 66 percent increase in active membership, now claiming about 100 parishioners, many of whom are active in RMM’s outreach work. It is affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“They didn’t grow real fast, but they’ve survived and are poised to make a real impact and grow. They’ve accomplished an amazing amount on a small budget, and they are doing it in a very interesting way,” said Tony Carnes, researcher and founder of the online journal A Journey Through NYC Religions. “We might wonder if their time has come.
“The question they face now is, how do they convert some of those beneficiaries into commitments?” Carnes said. “Youthful energy and enthusiasm in New York does go a long way, but they will need to find a way to gain commitment. Then their budget will grow and they’ll be able to do more.”
Gaining those commitments may be a challenge in a church where the approach is based on dialogue rather than conversion.
“We are unapologetic about our faith, but we do not have the expectation of conversion. We don’t want to proselytize to people who benefit from our services,” Sherouse said. “We are building great relationships with the community, and they know we’re not beating their kids over the head with a Bible.”