FaithStreet sat down with with Jose and Mayra Humphreys, pastors at Metro Hope Church. We had a stirring discussion about Metro Hope, how Jose and Mayra challenge people to develop roots in New York City and why a relationship with Christ is a foundational part of doing social justice work.
By The FaithStreet Team
**What could a newcomer expect on a Sunday morning at Metro Hope Church? **
Jose: Metro Hope is an Evangelical Covenant Church. We meet in a historic theater in East Harlem, so the space communicates elements of history, creativity and culture. On a Sunday morning folks can expect a deep experience of hospitality. At Metro, when we say, “we’re a welcoming church”, we are serious about the words, “come as you are.” While this is often a slogan seen on websites, we attempt our best to create a space that embodies welcome. We also encourage folks to come with their questions about faith, skepticism, and doubt—the questions they might fear asking out loud.
After a typical worship experience, people leave feeling a sense of peace and grounding in Christ. One thing we have done well is to cultivate a space where people can engage the love of Christ in a way that’s practical and relevant.
Mayra: At Metro Hope, it’s very important for us not just to “do to”, but to “do with.” That’s an important piece for us: to do ministry horizontally, because everything we do is undergirded by relationship. We continually work to create a space where we’re actually listening to folks—deeply listening— honoring moments where people can feel affirmed in their identity, and even their questions about faith. At Metro Hope we do a lot of border crossing, and a lot of transacting. When we began, we observed there were very few places where true multicultural dialog was happening, where people could openly discuss issues of race, gender, and class. So we engage folks from all walks of life. Our task at Metro is to be curators. Many enter our doors with diverse gifts and aspirations, how do we put those on display for God’s kingdom? Our job is really to walk with people as they seek Christ. We try to ask ourselves, “What is God doing in people and how can we participate in that?”
How did you two decide to become a husband and wife pastoral team?
Jose: Early on in our marriage we received a wonderful encouragement from a friend. He said, “You and Mayra have a wonderful opportunity to be co-creators with God and one other, in creating a union that is healing and redemptive for you and the world.” This is a quote I now use when I officiate wedding ceremonies. Early on we saw marriage as more than just “getting hitched”. We saw marriage as mission – something that could provide health, healing and meaning to us and to others. We cultivated something in our relationship that today has thankfully flowed into our church.
Mayra: There’s a deep respect and understanding we have about what each of us brings to the table. If I were not at Metro Hope I wouldn’t be a pastor. I am very committed to what we do here. I deeply believe in what Jose is leading us into. We both respect the different gifts brought to the table. I do pieces of multiculturalism and advocacy well, and he supports that. Jose is wonderful at discipleship and leadership. And we really understand why we need each other and why we’re both here.
Jose: It’s like jazz.
So what’s different about Metro Hope?
Mayra: We believe we need a full spectrum of churches. There are churches in Harlem already doing great work. So we’ve asked, “What kind of church would God want us to be, among a community of churches?” So when we thought about starting a church we wanted to come from a different disposition. We observed a group of folks who felt caught betwixt and between. In particular, people of color who felt the church wasn’t relevant to their intellectual identity, but who felt significant ties to their cultural and historical roots. It seemed like there were many churches where their narrative was not represented. Some churches were more about the head, others about the heart. We resonated with that deeply. We wanted to merge the differences and think about both Spirit as well as intellect.
We also knew people would say, “Oh, it’s just another church.” But we were more interested in how our church could partner with others for God’s kingdom in Harlem. We try our best to take on the posture of collaboration with churches and institutions in our neighborhood.
So why another church in New York City when there are so many churches?
Jose: If you look at East Harlem there is no shortage of churches. Per square foot Harlem is saturated. The joke at Metro Hope is, “If it doesn’t work out here, there’s another church just across the hall!” All in all, Metro Hope is finding its place in East Harlem and NYC. The gospel is a grand story with great news. At times certain parts of that narrative may be underrepresented in this community. So we began to imagine starting a church that could grow with the changes happening in Harlem. Our church on a Sunday is now becoming more and more representative of the changing landscape of Harlem. It’s nice to have singles and families that represent different cultures and ethnicities, worshipping together on a Sunday morning.
The second thing I would say is people should be able to bring their whole selves to church. White, black, Asian or Latino, people are not expected to lose themselves. This is really about addressing the idols we all have about culture, putting them in their rightful place in light of Christ. I’m an intellectual being, with a body, a soul and emotions. So we try to integrate that into how we teach, how we facilitate discussions on Sundays. It’s important that people not dichotomize themselves, or “divorce” a part of self when they come to church. If you’re really made in the image of God then your culture matters, your history matters, where you live counts.
What’s the difference between compassion ministries and social justice advocacy? And why is it important for Metro Hope to be involved in social justice work?
Jose: Compassion is the posture that we approach justice with. For us there’s no separation between the two. Some folks talk about picketing with signs, or shaping policy versus handouts and alms to the poor. Jesus was all about seeing people and being present with them, whether they were Jewish or Canaanite or Samaritan. With each person Jesus embodied a posture of compassion. When he saw the 5000 plus he had compassion for them because, “they were like sheep with out a shepherd.” God works on our sight first, before we put our hands to the plow so-to-speak.
Without compassion justice becomes pity. Feeling sorry for someone will dehumanize them. When you dehumanize someone they become less. But when you have compassion for someone, you realize they are created in the image of God Almighty, and they possess beauty – they have worth and you can learn from them.
Mayra: It comes from our evangelical roots. It’s having an understanding that our personal relationship with Christ is foundational – and our work is built on that. When I have a relationship with God and I realize how deep his love for me, how deeply he loves humanity, I in turn start to love humanity in the same manner. And when I see people suffer, it breaks my heart because it breaks God’s heart. It is key that ministry not just come from the perspective of humanism. When I do things, I get to participate in what God is doing. I say, “Here’s my pebble. Here’s what I can do.” You can’t do relationship and restorative work with people, without a relationship with God. It’s a lot easier to serve people when you aren’t in relationship with them. It’s another thing to say, “we are a community and your pain is also my pain.” Community then comes with a lot of wonderful complexities!
But in this, the gospel repairs a lot of deep chasms caused by sin, racism, sexism, and classism. Our church provides the landscapes to work through fears, biases, and even neutrality. In NYC certain “isms” aren’t always obvious. When it comes to race in NYC, we tend to be more passive-aggressive. At Metro we’re trying to get beyond the surface toward deeper questions like, “Who am I ignoring? What am I afraid of? Where am I not loving as deeply? And how can God enter that space?”
How do you encourage people to invest in New York City?
Jose: We encourage people to move into or stay in the city. Most of our leadership lives in East Harlem, and some have even moved in together to form an intentional community called Hope House. Seeing people actually take root in the city is important. It is then that people begin to really care about what happens here. For example, Harlem has many food deserts – the proportions of fast food to healthy food options are disparate here. So we’ve started a ministry that deals with urban agriculture. We’re here to cultivate and this is a different rhythm for living in community.
Tim Keller once said, “we need to get beyond pillaging the city”, and start investing back. So we encourage others to become a part of the rhythm and the fabric of the city. Live here. Shop here. Get to know local business owners and restaurateurs. Where you invest your money is a spiritual matter!
What discourages you about the City?
Jose: The transient nature of the city. Folks are busy and have many competing priorities. The cost of living in the city is also an ongoing challenge.
The fact is NYC is still a place where you can raise a family. Imagine allowing your children to be exposed to many different cultures and experiences. What kind of person would they become? People that would be engaged with all of God’s creation – the city after all can be a snapshot of what heaven is like. Thankfully we are seeing a diversity of single people and young families take root in our church and NYC. This is always an encouraging sign of health and growth.
Mayra: It can sometimes be a challenge to be pastors of color leading a multicultural church. There aren’t many models in the city for this. It’s a challenge in the world we live in; it has to do with how people define leadership and authority, and what their often most comfortable with. Jose and I have to walk through some unique places. It’s in many ways a pioneering kind of work.
What gives you hope for the City?
Mayra: We love the City! It breaks my heart when I hear native New Yorkers say, “I just can’t wait to get out.” But I understand, the pace is brutal. If you don’t find ways to set your own pace, you’re going to get swept by the waves. But we love the city. It’s the story of the gospel—it starts in the garden and ends in the city. It’s the place where the gospel propagates. It’s where God works and does miracles as in the the book of Acts. It’s the fertile ground God uses—where commerce leads, where diversity comes. The city is a wonderful catapult for voices of people living out the Gospel.
Jose: Someone once said that hope is, “unknown possibility”. The gospel of Christ brings so many possibilities to the city. We keep in step with the Spirit. Re-imagining how church can be done here. We imagine a church that lives the gospel together in diversity. A church that can be in tension with questions and doubts, but secure in the grace of God, caring about our neighbors, going beyond compassion into social justice. My joy is distilling this truth, and other folks participating with us. We all get to join with God, and we get to witness great art, great beauty and great jazz.