In the Big Apple, musicians sang to 'Open Up the Heavens'
NEW YORK (BP) -- Can the still, small voice of God be heard amid the sensory overload of Times Square's bombastic billboards and teeming crowds of people from life's every corner?
That voice was heard by Nick, a young Marine from New Jersey who came to the Big Apple on leave with his buddies.
Listening to the Florida Baptist Worship Choir and Orchestra sing "Open Up the Heavens" at the exact location where the Times Square New Year's Eve Ball drops, Nick heard the message God had for his ears -- and heart.
The Marine asked Wes Ratliff, worship pastor at Wright Baptist Church in Fort Walton Beach, a simple question, "What are you doing?" sparking a conversation that led to eternal life.
"We spoke about why we were in New York City and our desire for God to 'Open Up the Heavens' on this great city and those that were visiting from all over the world," Ratliff said of the flash mob-type rendering of one of the choir's most compelling songs.
"My wife and I explained to him how God speaks to us individually," Ratliff said, "and that his interest in our flash mob performance was no accident, but most likely God was speaking to his heart."
The young soldier who had once been deployed to the Middle East promised to come hear the Florida worship choir in concert the next night at Carnegie Hall.
Near the end of that concert, Bill Hild, pastor of First Baptist Church in Sarasota, who accompanied the choir, extended an invitation for anyone to come and speak to him afterward.
Nick, however, headed straight to Ratliff, who reiterated some of the pastor's message from the Bible. Ratliff noted the "holy" moment occurring in a place like Carnegie Hall where so many special moments have taken place.
Ratliff then asked if Nick wanted "a holy moment that would change his life forever." After the Marine confirmed he did, "I led him in prayer as he admitted his need for Christ's forgiveness, his belief in what Jesus has done for him, and confessed he wanted Jesus to be Lord of his life."
As many as 50,000 people heard the 300-member choir sing in Times Square on Sunday, June 1, their voices resonating even a few blocks away, drawing more and more people who sought a glimpse of the singers. The Floridians visited with the throngs who came, thanking them for their interest, some striking up spiritual conversations and distributing tickets to the next day's performance at Carnegie Hall.
Becky Collins of First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Fla., struck up a conversation with a woman and her daughter. When Collins spoke of her purpose, the mother quickly dissolved into tears, unable to finish the conversation.
"She began crying uncontrollably when I shared with her. I believe she had been in church at one time and God was dealing with her life. I didn't think we could do anything but pray for her, so we did," Collins recounted.
Before the trip, Collins said God shared a verse from Scripture with her -- Matthew 11:18, "Come unto me, all that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" -- and she asked Him to show her those who were "needy and seeking and that their hearts would be open."
Collins found numerous times to share her faith throughout the five-day trip and gave evangelistic tracts to many she met in hotels, shops and restaurants. Others engaged their new mission field in similar ways.
These were "God stories" in the world's fifth largest city, said Terry Williams, the Florida Baptist Convention's music and worship team strategist who organized and coordinated the trip for 350 worship leaders, choir members and musicians from Florida Baptist churches.
The trip began Friday, May 30, as church groups arrived and headed for Central Park. That afternoon, the choir and orchestra performed in Central Park's iconic Naumburg Bandshell as tourists from a world of nationalities and faiths and New Yorkers heard the Florida choir's spiritual music repertoire.
Serving church plants
Choir members visited North America Mission Board "SEND" church plants throughout the city and New Jersey on Sunday to lead worship, provide assistance and provide musical instruments and sound equipment needed by each congregation.
A group of 10 traveled to one of Brooklyn's farthest communities, Canarsie, a working class neighborhood that once was home to mostly Italian and Jewish families. It's now become a haven for Caribbean immigrants, especially Haitians.
It is there that First Haitian Baptist Church, led by pastor Joseph Victor, ministers to the community. With nearly 300 in attendance in its French Creole service, the church is beginning a second service for English-speaking adults in the community, to be led by the pastor's son, Woodley Victor, a recent graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Florida team provided help for the church's drummer and revamped the church's sound system, while Wright Baptist Church in Fort Walton Beach donated a drum set, microphones, cables and stands.
Woodley Victor also is assisting Mosaic Church in Brooklyn, where another team of Florida music leaders led a worship service in Brower Park and provided a keyboard, two guitars, an amp, microphone, projector and other equipment for the new church plant. The worship service in Brower Park and the new church's participation in a carnival that weekend led to a record number of persons attending its Monday night Bible study.
The willingness of the Florida Baptist team to "model how to lead a service" was beneficial, Victor said. "It was encouraging that a group of people were interested in our work and being a blessing to us."
The Floridians also assisted NAMB church planter Patrick Thompson and his family, who felt God leading them to leave the comfort of the Bible Belt in Georgia to start New City Church in Long Island City, just a subway stop away from Manhattan. The community has experienced a rapid gentrification in the past decade and now draws young families to more affordable apartments -- by New York City standards -- and to waterfront parks and a thriving arts community. Thousands of families and residents live in the gleaming, new towering apartment buildings along the Hudson River.
New City Church, which has been meeting in the community room of the apartment building where the family of four including two teenagers lives, has signed a lease on a more permanent location.
A 30-plus member team from the Florida Baptist worship choir and orchestra, led by David Shenning, worship pastor at First Baptist Church, Brandon, presented a concert on the oval at Hunters Point Park and prayerwalked throughout the community.
Performing on the Hudson River in the shadow of the Manhattan skyline, the worship choir members sang many of their upbeat songs as young families played on the grassy lawn while others rode skateboards and bikes along the sidewalks. As the residents stopped to listen to the music, Thompson and New City Church members engaged them in conversation and distributed cards inviting their neighbors to church.
The team donated to New City Church acoustic and electric guitars, a bass, a portable sound system, music stands and keyboard, mostly provided by First Baptist Church in Plant City, Fla.
Carnegie Hall and Brooklyn Tabernacle
During the final two nights of the New York trip, the choir and orchestra presented concerts in two of the city's most renowned venues -- Carnegie Hall and Brooklyn Tabernacle. The music leaders had distributed free tickets to the Carnegie Hall performance when they met people on the Manhattan streets, after the flash mob event and singing in churches.
The group performed 14 songs from the choir's CD "Almighty God," which was arranged and orchestrated by Mark Bovee, who accompanied the Florida group.
For many of the choir and orchestra members the opportunity to serve the Lord with their music talents in two such awe-inspiring settings was more than they ever anticipated.
Susan Gibney, instrumental music librarian at Tampa's Idlewild Baptist Church, met family members of her birth father who came to the Carnegie Hall concert, even though they lived out of state. Spending the next two mornings with them, she was able to witness to them and tell of her birth father's story of salvation.
"I believe with no doubt that part of God's purpose in all that has happened over the past 10 months is to allow me to bring His light to their very dark world," Gibney said. "The entire experience of our time together was born of God. I cannot wait to continue the journey to see what He will do next."
Kay Nicol of First Baptist Church in Ocala returned with a renewed vision of what she could be accomplishing for the Kingdom at home. Calling the trip "far beyond expectations" she loved the experience at Brooklyn Tabernacle where the spirit of God was evident during a Tuesday evening prayer service.
"Being in the churches and hearing the testimonies of people working to help their communities find Christ was awesome [and] makes me feel like I am not really doing all I could be doing. Maybe it is time to do a bit of soul-searching and try to find out. I didn't expect to come back feeling this way," she noted.
"God opened doors and it was all so amazing. I hope we pleased Him with our response to the opportunities He provided."
Barbara Denman is the Florida Baptist Convention's director of communications. This article first appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness (www.gofbw.com), newsjournal of the Florida convention.