NYC Pastors Bring School Worship Fight to Legislator’s Home

NYC Pastors Bring School Worship Fight to Legislator’s Home

Taking Worship Ban fight to NY Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's Home

A small group of protesters took their school worship ban fight to the home of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Two New York City pastors took their ongoing protest of the city’s ban on worship in public schools to the home of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath last night. They charged that the Jewish lawmaker has disrespected their “Sabbath” by failing to bring a bill to the House floor that would permanently restore public school access to affected houses of worship. A similar bill has already passed the New York Senate and supporters say there are enough votes in the House for Bill #A8800 to pass in the House. More than 60 churches won a temporary reprieve in February when U.S. Chief District Judge Loretta A. Preska issued an injunction against the city’s Board of Education, but a city attorney has said the city will appeal if Preska rules permanently in their favor.

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The Rev. Rick Del Rio, senior pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries, organized the Sabbath eve demonstration and lives four blocks from Silver. He has ministered in their Lower East Side neighborhood for two decades.

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Members of Rev. Del Rio’s church spoke to UrbanFaith about the school worship ban, saying it represents a threat to their religious freedom. They were joined by the Rev. Dimas Salaberrios, pastor of Infinity Church in the Bronx. Salaberrios said the worship ban inordinately affects economically disadvantaged communities and accused Silver of lying and double-dealing in regard to the bill.

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A Security guard at Silver’s building barred UrbanFaith from ringing his buzzer for a response to the demonstration, saying Silver was not at home. Del Rio said the Speaker knew about the protest in advance. He promised to return next week with a larger group if Silver fails to act. The current legislative session ends June 21.

*Note: For more of our exclusive reporting on this story, see the links below. For more video and photos from the protest, go to Explorations Media’s Flickr and YouTube channels.
A Praise and Worship Jubilee

A Praise and Worship Jubilee

PARADIGM SHIFT: Jason Nelson and company during the live recording of 'Shifting the Atmosphere.'

In an endless sea of new music, sometimes it’s easy to put your ears on autopilot and just allow one song to blend into another, one artist into the next. That would be a mistake with the music of pastor and worship leader Jason Nelson. Nelson’s new CD, Shifting the Atmosphere, recorded live in Baltimore, Maryland, is a 12-track gift of praise and worship that you don’t want to consign to that “generic music” category.

A Baltimore native, Nelson understands his music ministry as a “complement to his pastoral assignment” at the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church in Randallstown, Maryland. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that he participates within the worship moment he facilitates for others. At unpredictable moments, he slips into an intimate interval of thanksgiving or a vulnerable profession of love for God. The earnestness of such moments gives credibility to Nelson’s project. Witnessing his “shift” from the posture of worship leader to worshiper invites the listener to undergo a similar internal transition.

The new album has a taut feel — there are no throwaway tracks. Nelson comments on this dynamic, stating that he “worked hard to put together a CD with no fillers.” Each song advances the theme of shifting the atmosphere. “Don’t Count Me Out” is a hopeful affirmation, rooting positive expectation in the conviction that because God doesn’t count us out, neither should we count ourselves out. “No Words” merits special mention. The song elegantly captures an enduring paradox of faith: no concepts adequately describe God’s grandeur, yet we must speak to give voice to the hope of glory that lies within us. “Dominion” is another standout. It acknowledges that external conditions impact our lives, but denies that such circumstances exhaustively determine our lives. Finally, I must note that midway through the project, the listener is treated to a resplendent rendition of the hymn “Love Lifted Me.”

Months ago, I heard Mr. Nelson perform “Jubilee,” one of the album’s opening songs, at Allen Cathedral. He introduced the song by explaining the biblical tradition of Jubilee. Nelson mentioned that Jubilee represents a communal announcement of liberation: forgiving debts, returning land to its original holders, and setting the captives free. Next, he transitioned into a personal — and soul-stirring — appropriation of that tradition with a song of empowerment in the midst of impediments to fulfilling God’s purposes for our lives.

Calling his family his “greatest accomplishment,” Nelson speaks proudly of his wife  Tonya and their children, Jaelyn and Jason Christopher. A skilled singer-songwriter, he composed the majority of the songs on Shifting the Atmosphere. Shifting is an engaging, well-executed, and uplifting album. The Verity Records project was released earlier this week. I wholeheartedly recommend the album to music lovers everywhere, particularly those who appreciate contemporary gospel music.

Check out a recent interview with Pastor Nelson below:

Pastor on the Roof

Pastor on the Roof

SHOUTING FROM THE ROOFTOP: Pastor Corey Brooks sits on the roof of the abandoned motel where he's camping out, across the street from his New Beginnings Church in Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago. Brooks is on the roof to raise $450,000 to buy the motel, tear it down, and turn it into a community center. (Photo: Brian Cassella/Newscom)

Pastor Corey Brooks has been living on the roof of a dilapidated motel building for seven weeks, coming down only when another young black male from his neighborhood dies.

Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church on Chicago’s Southside, just officiated his twelfth funeral for a young black male in the past year. His church is in the middle of two violent neighborhoods, Englewood and Woodlawn, which have seen an increasing number of homicides. The murder rate rose about 40 percent in the past year in Englewood, and about 30 percent in Woodlawn.

It was this violence that drove Brooks to the roof. Gunfire erupted at the tenth funeral in November, and after that incident, Brooks decided to take more drastic action. He vowed to fundraise $450,000 to knock down the vacant Super Motel across the street and build a community development center.

He envisions the center as two buildings: one with a community focus — including classrooms, a music and TV studio for youth and Christian counseling services — and the other with an economic development focus—including restaurants on the first floor and a few floors of mixed income housing.

Brooks has fundraised more than half his goal and has until March 30 to purchase the land. But in the meantime, Brooks spends his days reading, praying, taking phone calls and tweeting from his tent on the roof. UrbanFaith went up to the motel roof to talk to Brooks about inner-city Christianity and youth violence when he was celebrating his birthday last Monday. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: How would you describe the violence in Woodlawn and Englewood right now?

COREY BROOKS: I would describe it as abnormal, a humanitarian issue we all need to be concerned about. One of the problems is that people don’t see it as a humanitarian issue. They see it as a black issue, a hood issue. Even though the city of Chicago claims the murder rate is going down, in African American areas, it’s either staying the same or going up. It’s like we have two Chicago’s.

Why is a community center for youth such a critical need here?

This neighborhood is a desert. You don’t have recreational facilities, you have poor educational facilities, you don’t have any grocery stores for nutrition, you don’t have any safe environments where kids can play basketball, do theater or music. It becomes essential because if these children don’t have anything to do, then we turn them over to the streets. They’ll learn crime and learn how to live on the streets.

Somewhere along the line, we need to break that cycle of violence. These kids, they’re not going to be street kids or be in gangs. We need to provide a safe environment for them to grow, be mentored, and reach their full potential.

You came down from the rooftop to officiate two funerals last week, and you later tweeted that over 150 youth came to Christ during these services. How did that happen?

At funerals of young people, I always try to give an invitation to Christ and present the gospel, clear and precise, so people are challenged with the opportunity to become a Christian. Now we’re trying to develop what we call a spiritual detox, when we take kids away for three days, get them out of the environment and really make sure we get Christ in them. We’ve never done that before, but that’s what we want to do. So now I’m tweeting, “Hey, I need a place for a retreat.”

But at the end of the day, I believe the church is the hope of the world, so I want them to have Jesus. A child that has Jesus in their life can make it on little education, in a bad family, with a whole lot working against them.

We have a lot that we’re working against. It’s hard to present Jesus in this neighborhood where Christians don’t have must to show for. But if we can establish that we have schools, facilities, jobs, it’ll be attractive. I want Christianity in the urban area to look more attractive. Who wants to just go to church, and that’s it? The extent of my Christianity is church?

What’s it going to take to make Christianity more attractive in the inner-city, something that young people will want to join?

In the inner-city, one, our churches need makeovers. If you go to our church, it looks contemporary, you’ll see murals and things that draw interest, so when kids come in it gives them the wow effect. A lot of our churches are antiquated, and they’re built that way. They need a major overhaul internally, how they look. Secondly, our systems and structures are outdated. How we do church has to change. And finally, what we do outside church, the extension of our outreach, has to be updated as well. I think the inner-city churches of America need a serious revival in order for neighborhoods to change.

What would that revival look like?

It would look like it did Thursday and Friday, when all those kids were coming down the aisle and people were getting saved. I went to Grace Theological Seminary and studied Billy Sunday. They would say Billy Sunday would do these revivals and crusades, and they would last weeks and people would get saved.

I’ve never seen that happen in an inner-city area. They say it happened in the ‘30s in Los Angeles with Azusa, but I don’t know any contemporary movement where there’s such a power and movement of God. And at the end of the day, that’s what I long for. I’m on this roof, and I want to purchase this hotel and turn it into a community development center. But more than that, I want to see people come into relationship with Jesus, because at the end of all this, that’s all that will matter.

During the funeral services, you didn’t give a traditional eulogy, but instead talked more about urban violence. Why did you decide to take that approach?

For me, those are traditional eulogies. Every funeral I’ve ever done, I don’t talk about the deceased because I don’t have a heaven or a hell to put them in. How they lived their life is their testimony. I preach to people who are alive, not to people who are dead. I talk about Jesus and the Bible, how you handle your pain, how you can live from this moment on. For another pastor, eulogy means to speak highly of the one who died. But in most of our bulletins, it says sermon or message, because I’m not giving a eulogy.

Are you getting any backing from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel?

I sent him a message. I try to be very respectful, but at the same time, I want to hold him accountable. We’re not trying to tell him what to do, but we are trying to make sure that he understands we’re part of Chicago, and he’s responsible for the challenges of our neighborhood as well. As it relates to this particular issue with gun violence and young people being killed prematurely, he is silent.

We need more than anything in the world for him to look at the situation and give us some real true solutions, and the resources to implement his solution. He has a great team of educated people who study this. So they should be able to look at this neighborhood and say, these are the problems, this is how we can fix it. But you just can’t ignore it. That’s the part that hurts the most, that you have people who could and should do something, but won’t.

Did the mayor call you at one point?

Yeah, he called. He appreciated that I was standing against the violence. However, he didn’t want me to be on this roof to stand against violence. I’m respectful of the mayor, but I had to disrespect his authority, unfortunately.

What’s your prayer for the neighborhood right now?

My number one prayer is for my neighborhood to be safe. It hurts that my 10-year-old son isn’t able to experience going outside by himself. I’d like an environment where kids can at least go outside and play and not have to worry about being shot or killed. Whenever I pray that, I always hear God saying, “Make it safe.” I need his assistance, but it’s my responsibility too. Someone said you pray like it all depends on God, and then you work like it all depends on you. That’s how I live my life.

Find out more here. Pastor Corey Brooks can be contacted at 312-813-5211.

What Real Persecution Looks Like

What Real Persecution Looks Like

FAITH ON TRIAL: Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.

For most Christians, answering whether they believe Jesus is the Son of God, died and rose again for their sins is an easy question with an obvious answer.

It’s easy, that is, for Christians across the United States. However, the same answer guaranteeing eternal life could elsewhere yield a death sentence.

While we can imagine that scenario in, say, first-century Rome, a modern-day pastor facing martyrdom in 2011 is almost unconscionable. But it’s really happening for Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor imprisoned right now in Iran. Pastor Nadarkhani was arrested two years ago for objecting to the teaching of Islam to Christian children at Iranian schools.

Nadarkhani was convicted of “apostasy” late last month and sentenced to death by the Islamic nation. But the story has taken several strange twists since, with Iranian officials now claiming Nadarkhani actually was convicted of crimes of rape and extortion. This curious 180-degree turn by Iran, in the wake of an international outcry against Nadarkhani’s conviction, has left many observers scratching their heads.

Whatever the latest spin from Iran, it’s clear that Nadarkhani’s commitment to his Christian faith lies at the heart of the case against him. According to the International Business Times, Nadarkhani was deemed an apostate because Iranian clerics determined that his ancestors were followers of Islam and that his professed belief in Christ constituted a rejection of that faith.

Given four chances to “repent and convert to Islam,” the Times reported that Nadarkhani refused. And for that, he was sentenced to die.

 “Repent means to return. What should I return to?” he reportedly said in testimony during his four-day trial last month. “To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ? I cannot.”

And I cannot imagine that level of boldness in the face of actual persecution. This is far beyond being called a “Jesus freak” or a “holy roller.” I’ve even evolved to a point of shakingoff discrimination I experience because I’m black or because I’m a woman. I don’t know what process I’d have to go through mentally to fearlessly stare down death just because I believe Jesus is who He said He is.

Yet we all worship among those who are often quick to call it persecution when they become the subject of the latest church gossip, when others disagree withthem, or even when their bosses require themto work on a Sunday. They’ll sing and shout that “no weapon formed against me shall prosper” from Isaiah 54:17, but the battle cry would assuredly have a lower volume if the weapon were death and prospering meant finally meeting Jesus face to face.

Nadarkhani’s case brings home Jesus’ words to his new disciples, formally introduced in Matthew 10, to expect to suffer in much the way He did. While we remember the ridicule, the scorn, and the disregard Jesus suffered and expect to experience it all as we live out a Christian lifestyle, we forget that as He died, we could die also. Western-dwelling Christians have been fortunate to avoid those more serious consequences, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t or won’t happen.

And the threat for Nadarkhani remains very real, though his lawyer said last week that the sentence could still be overturned. It’s hard to believe, though, considering Iranian officials have more recently accused Nadarkhani of these additional charges. Others argue that even if he evades execution, Nadarkhani could remain in jail.

As much as I am disheartened when I consider Nadarkhani’s plight, I’m encouraged by his faith, which serves as a platform for witnessing to others — just as Jesus said such persecution would. “Physically, he looks weak,” his lawyer said of him last week, as reported by Reuters. “But emotionally his belief in Christ is keeping his spirits high.”

What if it were you in Nadarkhani’s place? Could you be as resolute in your faith?

When you’re Christian and actively trying to live it out past Sunday, you learn that it isn’t as easy to pull off as some make it seem. You risk losing friends because you might not support some of their lifestyle choices. You endure name-calling because you avoid using profanity. Maybe you don’t go out to lunch as often because you’re giving more money to your church. Those are small sacrifices compared to the possibility that Nadarkhani might have to die for just stating and standing by his Christians beliefs. The prospect alone should be a wake-up call for everyone with the freedom to openly proclaim Christ as Savior of the world.

Such a proclamation doesn’t have to come from a bullhorn. It should be evident in the way we live, the way we treat one another, and the way we support various ministries, including our own churches. Above all, though, it should come in how we share with others the ways that Christ’s life has made our lives more meaningful and abundant.

Rather than wavering, our boldness in professing Christ — loving out loud, living to honor Him, and increasing His kingdom — should increase knowing that, at least for the time being, we can do it without the threat of being executed.