Saving the City, Saving the World
“New York City is wide open to the Gospel,” Pastor Ron Lewis declared one Sunday at St. George’s Church, a neo-Romanesque building where his Morning Star New York congregation held its evening services until 2007. “There is a hunger for and a desire to experience God.”
Lewis peered through his frameless glasses at the hundreds before him. “Every day people are turning to Jesus,” he continued, much more slowly and with a smile revealing teeth that sparkled under the bright lights. “Every day.”
It was September 11th that brought Ron Lewis to New York City. Moved by how churches filled up “in the wake of tragedy,” as he puts it, Lewis hopped in a car two days later with Rice Broocks—a college friend Lewis met through his involvement with a charismatic, and controversial, campus ministry called Maranatha—and made the drive from North Carolina in order to take advantage of the city’s “spiritually opened hearts.” With the help of the larger Morningstar International organization, Broocks started the Morning Star New York church plant within weeks, while Lewis went back to Durham and committed to his own church, King’s Park International.
“Then one morning in June or July,” Lewis recalled, “I was in prayer and at 4:17, to be exact—the red letter clock said 4:17 am—I remember clearly hearing something on the inside of my soul saying that I needed to go serve in New York City.” He smiled and took an awkwardly long pause. “So I’ve been part of this community ever since.”
Encouraging members to aggressively witness to friends, co-workers, and random acquaintances is just one of Morning Star New York’s strategies for saving the city. The church has developed mentoring programs and started family counseling groups. There are women’s meetings and a group for people in the creative arts.
Ron Lewis is particularly drawn the large Russian Jewish population in Brooklyn. “After I became a follower of Jesus, I began to appreciate Judaism more than ever,” he said. “I don’t believe in two Bibles. There is only one and it begins with the Torah. All sixty-six books are life-changing and point to Christ and what he came to do. The unified covenant is truly amazing.”
For that reason, one of the first things Lewis did when he became senior pastor of MSNY in August 2002 was to incorporate Beth Shalom Center, a then-six-year-old charismatic church in Coney Island whose Russian Jewish members believe Jesus—or Yeshua—is the messiah, into a Morning Star International ministry. “We want to show the power of Yeshua—not just as a rabbi, but as the messiah,” Lewis told me. He takes pride in helping “his people,” he said, because he knows what it’s like to never have heard about Jesus.
Lewis was raised in a liberal Jewish family, first in Atlanta, and later in Greensboro, North Carolina. After his parents divorced during his teenage years, he says they “went into agnosticism” for a while before, one by one, all five members of the family accepted Jesus as their messiah, as their personal savior, and got baptized at a local church. Today they are all part of an evangelical ministry in some capacity—as Pastor Ron proudly described them, “an entire family trying to help people by showing them the love of Christ.”
Personally, Ron accepted Jesus at eighteen, right before heading off to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He learned to pray by reciting what he thought sounded like Bible verses in the mirror, he told the room full of believers at St. George’s that Sunday night. It was as a student that he had become “infected with the virus of the kingdom of God,” and vowed to devote his life to spreading it around the world, infecting everyone he could.
Seven years later, Pastor Ron still splits his weeks between New York and North Carolina, between MSNY and King’s Park. He says it’s not too bad, really, as long as he remains focused. And he doesn’t mind, really, because, as he puts it, “I don’t personally do a lot of the pastoring to people. I just lead the ministry. And that’s a big difference because pastoring can be very tiring.” Comparing himself as senior pastor to a shepherd—the term used within Maranatha ministries—and the other pastors to ranchers, he continued explaining his role at MSNY. “I’m just involved with the staff primarily, and the teaching and the feeding at services.” By teaching and feeding, he means the forty minutes he spends each Sunday in front of his congregation, suit pressed and hair combed neatly to the side. In the end, it is Lewis’ ranchers, his team of hired leaders, who run the church he was called to lead in the middle of the night.
Lewis frequently declares that the church will “stand or fall by the generosity of its people.” Pastor Bruce Ho delivered the weekly ten-minute “offering sermon” one Sunday at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School, where MSNY used to hold its morning services. He spoke about the duty of tithing and, looking at all of the faces in the auditorium, concluded that “God’s people are the most generous in the world.” Almost immediately the synthesizer and the guitar kicked in, cuing the seven singers on stage to begin: “Lord I lift your name on high, Lord I love to sing your praises. I’m so glad you’re in my life, I’m so glad you came to save us.”
People moved up the stairs on either side, passing and collecting baskets from each row of givers. Most put in pre-written checks—some folded, others in envelopes, a few laid flat on top so their generosity could be witnessed. Those with cash put it in envelopes and wrote their names on the front in order to be credited with the offering. One unprepared college-aged woman, seeing the basket headed her way, tried unsuccessfully to find an envelope. Looking annoyed, she quickly counted out four, paused to think, then five crisp twenty-dollar bills and just tossed them in before it was too late.
Adam Burt, a professional hockey player turned Morning Star pastor, ended his sermon one Sunday morning with his eyes closed tightly, his arms stretched to the sides and prayed, “Lord, use us in a mighty way to change this city.” The group of worshipers responded with nods and more prayers, their scrunched faces mirroring Pastor Adam’s. After a few minutes, he looked up and said with a quick laugh, “In New York people just know they’re sinners. There’s not a lot of gray area—either they’re lost and depraved, or they’re saved.” Then, sending the congregation off, he said, “So go out and tell everybody about this guy Jesus. Because even on our best days, we could never save ourselves.” As everyone got up to leave, some racing to get the last cups of Starbucks in the lobby, the ushers were in their usual spots at both exits of the auditorium. But as they said good-bye and wished people well, they handed out stacks MSNY business cards to be given to non-believers, to the sinners in New York waiting to be saved.
Nicole Greenfield is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her research and reporting on equal marriage and LGBT rights in Argentina was supported by a Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion.