Two girls, a guy and a dog offer hope in New York’s toughest neighborhood By Carol Pipes
The bright, green door at Brook Ave and 141st stands out as a beacon to the children and teens who live in New York’s toughest neighborhood. Photo by Peter Peck
Missionary Andrew Mann and his 5-year-old yellow Lab are making an eternal difference in the lives of those living in Mott Haven. Photo by Peter Peck
Proof stays keenly aware of the activities taking place during Graffiti 2’s after-school program. Photo by Peter Peck
Missionary Andrew Mann (middle) checks the work of Axel, a student who attends Graffiti’s after-school program. Axel’s mentor is Jay (left), a senior who serves through the G.S.A.L.T. program at Graffiti 2. Photo by Peter Peck
Squeezed between the Harlem River and the old Yankee Stadium lies the mostly-forgotten neighborhood of Mott Haven. For decades, this South Bronx community has borne the brunt of crime, drugs and poverty in a city known for its luxuriously rich and desperately poor.
Mott Haven is a hodge-podge of storefronts, public housing, abandoned buildings and turn-of-the-century Brownstones and recently was ranked by the Daily News as one of the worst neighborhoods in New York City to raise kids – based on statistics for crime, education, and health risks such as asthma, diabetes and teenage pregnancy.
It’s because of the depth of these problems that the red brick building with the bright green door at Brook Ave and 141st stands out amid similar structures.
It’s home to Graffiti 2 Church and Community Ministries, and on this particular Monday morning, the building is briefly quiet. It’s the calm before the storm of activity that takes place here every afternoon. As soon as the last bell rings at the elementary school around the corner some 25 first- through fifth-graders will fill the room for Graffiti 2’s after-school program.
North American Mission Board missionaries Andrew Mann, Ashley Emmert and Kelsey Townsell take advantage of the quiet to prepare for the week ahead. The three twentysomethings huddle for a quick staff meeting then return to their respective tasks.
Sitting at his laptop, Andrew Mann reaches down and scratches the head of a yellow Labrador Retriever lying at his feet. The slumbering dog peeks one eye in recognition of her master’s touch. “Proof” knows now is the time to catch some Z’s before the after-school crowd rushes in and the real work begins.
Gone to the dogs
The five-year-old Lab is not your average pooch. She’s a Canine Assistance Animal trained as a professional therapy dog that has become instrumental in Andrew’s ministry at Graffiti 2 where she serves as a reading incentive, de-escalation tool and source of unconditional love for the children.
“For kids who struggle to read, it’s good for them to read out loud,” explains Andrew. “Sometimes they’re embarrassed to read to an adult, because we recognize their mistakes. Proof doesn’t know their mistakes and they’re comfortable reading out loud to her.”
Andrew also uses Proof as an anger management tool. If a kid is mad or upset, Andrew hands over Proof’s leash and asks them to watch her.
“I wait until they’re calm and petting Proof, then I can walk over and talk to them,” says Andrew.
Pretty cool “tricks” for a dog, but what’s amazing is her uncanny ability to evaluate a situation and problem-solve to find a solution. Andrew tells the story of a kid who was having a particularly bad day—”screaming at the top of his lungs, interrupting the rest of the program and making it difficult for the other kids.
“With no cue from me, Proof got up and walked toward us. He walked right up to the kid and started licking his hands. Like a light switch being flipped off, he stopped screaming and started petting Proof. He was calm the rest of the day.
“She’s a very special dog,” says Andrew. “We call her the first missionary dog. For the kids, there’s few better examples in our natural world of God’s unconditional love than what comes through a dog.”
Want a revolution
It’s been five years since Andrew moved into the neighborhood—a far cry from the Missouri farm where he grew up. What started as a week-long summer sports camp has grown into a thriving after-school program, an
expanded summer sports and fine arts program and—most important—a church primed to minister in the neighborhood.
Andrew, Ashley and Kelsey have seen the effects of a culture that largely ignores God—crime, vandalism, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, gang activity. You name it they’ve seen it. But that hasn’t kept them from moving in and making Mott Haven home. Like a lot of young people, they see themselves as difference makers, world changers.
“We’ve been impacted by the love of Jesus Christ,” says Andrew. “And that in turn leads us to impact everyone around us.”
Andrew points to the God-given mission of Graffiti 2 written on the wall—Revitalize, Revive and Revolutionize.
“It’s the idea of ministering to the whole person,” says Andrew. “When we’re doing that, we allow the most opportunities for the Holy Spirit to work in someone’s life.
“We can’t draw people to God, only God can do that,” he says. “We can proclaim it, we can share the good news, and we’re just going to keep doing that.”
These three young missionaries have found tangible ways to share the love of God.
“The impact here is not going to be short term,” explains Andrew. “If we look day-to-day, we can get really frustrated. We have to look year-to-year to see change in people’s lives, and eventually it will be decade to decade to really see the impact throughout the community.”
Seeds of change
They are starting to see small seeds of change sprouting from the concrete jungle these three now call home. When Andrew needed more volunteers to work with the kids in the after-school program, he recruited the high school students and middle school students from the neighborhood. Today, 20 teenagers are involved in a ministry called G.S.A.L.T.—Graffiti Serving and Leading Teenagers. They assist every day after school from 2:30-5:30 p.m., teaching and mentoring the younger kids. After they walk the kids home, they come back to the center for Bible study and help with their own homework.
“A GSALT student is not your average Mott Haven student,” says Kelsey, a semester missionary and associate director of youth ministry at Graffiti 2. “Graffiti gives them a safe place after school, they hear the Word of Christ and get loved on, and in return they are affecting the lives of younger kids.”
One of those students is Jay, who only two years ago was failing out of high school. He started coming to church and Bible study at Graffiti. In 2008 he gave his life to Christ. Andrew helped Jay’s parents get him into a better school. Now, the 18-year-old is looking forward to graduation and a future in fulltime ministry.
“Jay is a special guy, a young old soul,” says Andrew. “He’s very dependable, loving and consistent with the kids in the after-school program.”
Andrew has watched God work in the lives of several students and their families.
“I can see how God is strategically planting seeds all over the place,” says Andrew. “I believe the harvest is yet to come, and I believe the harvest is going to be more than we can ever dare ask, dream or imagine.” OM
Carol Pipes is editor of On Mission.
Take a virtual prayerwalk through Mott Haven at graffiti2ministries.org. Visit onmission.com to view a video and slideshow about Andrew Mann and his ministry at Graffiti 2.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC