Bronx ministry sparked by WMU nurture in W.Va.
A ministry named Graffiti 2 Works is imparting hope and faith into their lives as part of Graffiti 2 Community Ministries, which has had a presence in the Bronx since 2005, and the Christian Women's Job Corps outreach of national Woman's Missionary Union.
Kerri Johnson, the founding director of Graffiti 2 Works, said she "grew up in WMU."
Besides learning about missions through her involvement in WMU's Mission Friends, Girls in Action and Acteens programs in her home church in West Virginia, Kerri has served as state WMU president for the Baptist Convention of New York as well as serving on the national WMU Executive Board and WMU Foundation Board.
From small-town USA to NYC
Kerri and her husband Josh along with their children, Paige and Noah, are transplants to New York from their hometown of Princeton, W.Va. The Johnsons were leading mission trips for college students to serve at Graffiti 2 while God was dealing with them about their personal call to missions.
"We were just finding connections in how to get people here from West Virginia" before they finally knew "this is where we were supposed to go," Kerri said.
"Praying this all through, we fell in love with the South Bronx. We fell in love with the people here and the ministry here and the staff here."
As Mission Service Corps workers, Josh has served at Graffiti 2 since 2011 as director of youth and recreation. Kerri, who initially served as the ministry's office manager, said she sensed a burden from God to start Graffiti 2 Works a few years later to help meet practical needs in their neighborhood.
'God's perfect timing'
"Right from the start, I knew God had sent me Diega.... It was just God's perfect timing."
Diega, a native of Honduras, has been living in the United States for nearly 30 years. As Kerri shared her vision for a WorldCrafts artisan group, Diega quickly agreed to join the effort.
Diega, who began sewing at age 16, was able to step in, streamline the sewing process and train new artisans who started with no sewing experience. She teaches her new coworkers how to sew aprons, bags, purses, lanyards and other products to market and sell through WorldCrafts in what she describes as "a wonderful program not only for us, but for the community."
Fellow artisans Johanna Chavez and Carmen Rodriguez readily agree with Diega's assessment.
Johanna had "no experience at all whatsoever" when Kerri invited her to join the WorldCrafts team. "When I got here, Diega taught us. We would just grab any fabric and start practicing on it. Diega was always there if I needed help. We're all a family and we look after each other."
As a result of her work with WorldCrafts, "I was able to provide for my kids," Johanna said. She also is "learning more about the Bible and how to have a better relationship with God," adding that "learning about God has helped me and my kids."
Carmen's involvement in the close-knit WorldCrafts team echoes that of her coworkers. "I learned how to sew. I love it. It's a good trade to know," she said. "Working with the women is great. We are our biggest supporters."
Carmen likewise said she feels "more grounded ever since I started coming to Graffiti 2. They taught us how to pray and have faith. I heard a lot of things about the Bible I didn't know before. I had a lot of questions and they answered the questions that I had."
Kerri affirmed that it's interesting "just to do life with this group of women ... to get to know them and their kids" while also providing "the connection to church and the connection to introducing them to Jesus."
For Gloria Aguilar, "I'm here learning how to read and write. I get with Kerri every Monday at 1 o'clock and we do spelling words and some writing."
Before being tutored at the Adult Learning Center, "I was afraid to look for a job," Gloria acknowledged. "I was afraid to show them that I didn't know how to write and read.
"Now I'm able to do it since I've been with Kerri and I open myself more." She said another benefit of the program is enabling her to help her youngest daughter with homework, including writing and reading assignments.
Kerri also is tutoring Gloria's mother, Maria Pardilla, providing training in English as a Second Language. With her daughter serving as her translator, Maria said, "It is very important to me to learn English as a second language because I can communicate more.
"I love the community of Graffiti Ministries because I have seen the progress of my grandkids while they have been here and have learned a lot," Maria said. "I am very happy, very proud to have them in our community."
Kerri said Graffiti's primary ministry involves "meeting the need first in whatever that need might be -- just loving people for who they are, where they are."
"That could be teaching them job skills or teaching them to read or it could just be sitting down and having a meal with them and making them feel like they're a person and not judging. That's not up to us," Kerri said. "We are to introduce them to Jesus and guide them in that way and follow up with the discipleship.
"The relationships are primary," she said. "No one's going to listen to what you have to say about anything eternal if they're hurting or they're hungry or they're lonely."
Andrew Mann, executive director of Graffiti 2 Community Ministries and pastor of Graffiti 2 Baptist Church, said many neighborhoods in the South Bronx struggle with such challenges as education, employment, family dynamics and violence.
As Graffiti 2 seeks to help address those issues, "meaningful relationships provide strength to individuals and families," Mann said. "Of course, those relationships become opportunities to share the Gospel with people and that's our aim in the end -- to see people changed not just by our work, but by the work of Christ.
"Kerri is very much compassionately caring for the adults that are part of Graffiti 2 Works but also their families," Mann said. "She does that through Graffiti 2 Works but also through a thriving WMU ministry on the church side of things. She is able to bring the women together around the study of missions and share the Gospel in that way too."
Yet, Kerri acknowledged, "I feel a lot of times there is no reason that I should be where I'm at right now ... but God is blessing the obedience.
There are times when it can be "very monotonous, especially in the dead of winter," she said. "And then there are days when you are like, 'Oh, my goodness. How do I get to do this? How do I get to be here? How am I blessed that God gets to use me in these ways?'"
Urging fellow believers to actively pursue their own call from God wherever that leads, Kerri noted, "We aren't doing anything that anyone else can't do anywhere else in the world. We are trying to just focus on loving people." In the South Bronx, that commitment is making a life-changing difference one person at a time.