BRONX, N.Y. — Until recently, Kazembe Balagun was not much for reading the Bible or attending worship regularly. It’s not that he didn’t believe in God or long for a spiritual home. It was just that the native New Yorker and community activist had never experienced a church where the Word of God and his calling to effect social justice were seamlessly combined.
“Church seemed so hierarchical and the leaders seemed so apart from the people,” said Balagun, 37.
Three years ago, a friend invited Balagun and his partner, Claudia Copeland, to a worship service held in a school building. This was New Day United Methodist Church.
As they walked in, they found people laughing and even cheering during the morning message. The music reflected Balagun’s eclectic, North Bronx surroundings: African and Caribbean rhythms, African-American praise songs, Latin American folk songs, and upbeat renderings of traditional hymns.
Most memorable for Balagun, the sermon by Pastor Doug Cunningham was powerful, but it was just the start of discerning God’s Word. After communion, worshipers from 15 to 20 different national/ethnic groups formed small circles where each person reflected on the sermon, the scripture, and how they all planned to take the Sunday spiritual into their Monday-through-Friday challenges.
“I knew I was witnessing an authentic faith community, and I immediately felt at home,” Balagun said. “We’ve been at New Day since, and I rarely miss a Sunday.” He and his son, Miles, now 18 months old, were baptized together last fall.
New Day is among a handful of United Methodist congregations around the world that is deliberate in its mission to cross boundaries — racial, cultural, gender, class, generational, etc. — to be a place of Christian welcoming, healing, wholeness and transformation.
It is home to many people who had all but given up on church as a place to experience the love, justice and acceptance of God.
Founded four years ago as a new church under Cunningham’s leadership, New Day’s worshiping congregation has grown to about 75 people each week. Although the congregation has no permanent building of its own, it is home to many people who had all but given up on church as a place to experience the love, justice and acceptance of God.
“Crossing boundaries is central to who we are at New Day,” Cunningham explained. “We wanted to create a new place where people who had been turned away or turned off by more traditional churches would feel welcome.
“We also wanted to move from talking about being ‘inclusive,’ to being a faith community where we are all invited to cross boundaries of race, class, sexual orientation and age, to become a community of reconciliation and hope.”
That idea resonated with Balagun. “A lot of time, when people talk about ‘inclusive,’ what they really mean is, ‘This is our church, but we will include you if you don’t change anything,’” he said. “But as I read Scripture, Jesus and the early church was all about this radical notion of community and justice that is supposed to bring about change.”
A found community
It was that spirit of welcome and connection to community that also drew Wendoly Marte, 24, to New Day. Chairwoman of the congregation’s connecting council, Marte was born in the Dominican Republic and came to New York as an adolescent.
Reared in the Catholic Church, Marte drifted away because she could not reconcile the Catholic Church’s stances with her “belief in gender equality and equality of people of other sexual orientations.”
Four years ago, Marte recalls, she was in a meeting with the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, when Pastor Cunningham walked in. “He told us he was creating a new church, and that it would be open to all people, rooted in diversity and shared leadership, and focused on racial, gender and economic justice,” she said.
Marte said that was a wake-up call for her. “I felt God was calling me back to the church, and this was a place I could find community,” she said. “And I have. New Day is my family.”
Marte, her mother and several cousins all joined New Day, where it is the norm to pray, sing and celebrate in English and Spanish on Sunday morning. “God has called us together to be supportive of each other, to challenge each other and to accept one another,” Marte said. “That’s what church is supposed to be.”
Marte is a community organizer working on national policy issues, from economic justice to gun control laws. She finds that New Day models for her what the world could be like: A place where everyone is valued for who they are.
“As an immigrant, I had to struggle to learn English and to learn U.S. culture, but I also had to struggle just as hard to maintain my cultural identity,” Marte said. “So it is wonderful to be part of a church where all of who I am is affirmed and welcomed.”
In addition to leading New Day’s coordinating group, Marte is also one of eight laypersons who meets regularly with Cunningham to study scripture, wrestle with the theological meanings and craft Sunday sermons. Marte will preach her first sermon in September.
“I never thought I could preach a sermon, but at New Day we are all encouraged to study and struggle with God’s Word and how it applies to us,” Marte said. “It is very affirming.”
That spirit of shared leadership is attractive to young people who sometimes view mainstream Christianity as too top-down and clergy-centric, according to Cunningham.
Everyone’s voice important
Kazembe Balagun admits that the fact “everyone’s voice is important” is a large part of New Day Church’s appeal. He recalls a particularly moving moment during his first communion there.
“Doug invited several members to set the table, literally,” Balagun recalled. “Some brought the juice, others the bread, and he told us that Holy Communion calls us to create a culture of invitation for all people. It was a powerful statement, especially for a community where many have never been invited, but never welcomed and never included.”
Equally powerful, according to Balagun, are the conversation circles after communion, where worshipers gather in small groups for 15 minutes to reflect on the message and the worship, and to say how they will take the message into the world during the next week.
“The idea is that all of us can and should see that the Body of Christ is not just in the church,” Balagun explained. “God’s kingdom should make an impact on our community.”
The fledgling congregation has made a huge impact in the working-class community where it meets, as well. When developers started eyeing a nearby abandoned armory for renovation, Cunningham and other New Day leaders joined with 29 other church and community organizations to ensure that the project would benefit the people living in the North Bronx.