CBF Field Personnel / COVID-19 / Feature / Fellowship! Magazine

To Hell’s Kitchen and Back (…Virtually): How CBF and Student.Go helped make urban immersion possible in the pandemic

By Jennifer Colosimo

In the midst of the global pandemic, many things were pushed aside to make room for front-line priorities. We’ve had to weather the effects of the pandemic, in certain cases, hoping to come out the same on the other side. But for CBF’s front-line workers in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, the same wasn’t going to be good enough—whether they knew it at first, or not.

An Urban Immersion group gets an in-person tour of the rooftop farm of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries before the pandemic made it necessary to move these experiences to a virtual format.

When the world went digital in March of 2020, CBF field personnel Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey, serving with Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries (RMM) in NYC, had to get creative in the ways they serve local survivors of domestic violence, food insecurity and homelessness. This was also true of connecting with youth and college groups who visit the city through the RMM Urban Immersion program, which is designed to provide a holistic experience of missions for visiting groups through a combination of work, prayer and play in the city.

“One of the beautiful things about NYC is that it is a laboratory of sorts for the rest of the country. It’s a place where things are happening on a huge scale,” said Hix Tommey. “The aim of the Urban Immersion Program is to encourage students out of their comfort zones, awaken their senses and renew their vision so that when they return to their home contexts, they see a little bit differently.”

But in 2020, it wasn’t happening. In fact, CLUE Camp, RMM’s summer camp that utilizes CBF’s Student.Go internship program to run the camp, wasn’t operating either. And there were no groups meeting at the church, since not much of anything was happening face-to-face. Without any of that, would they even need a student this year?

Dual-degree graduate student Kathleen Post was asking similar questions from the other side of the fence. Post, who is studying at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary and the Diana Garland School of Social Work, wondered what she would do during the summer too.

“Working with Lesley-Ann was already at the top of my list,” said Post, a former high school theater teacher. “It would be a perfect pairing of what I want to do, blending the church and social work. Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries does a really beautiful job of serving people where they are. I was excited about the prospect of joining them.”

Without summer camp, Hix Tommey rewrote the job description to be more administrative, helping RMM manage their social media or possibly write grant proposals. But when Student.Go paired them with Post, it was immediately apparent that they could really start dreaming up something incredible.

“Because of her awesome education background, we saw a clear connection to our Urban Immersion Program which wasn’t running at the time,” said Hix Tommey. “In fact, we quickly realized what a gift she was, and, because of her creativity and skills, we were able to do things we would have never been able to otherwise.”

In a normal year, the program provides deep learning experiences through immersion into the work at RMM (serving in the food pantry, clothes closet, after-school program, etc.) as well as working with other service providers around the city for volunteer experiences.

“We realized that the best use of her skills would be to create something that would provide those groups with a connection to NYC at a time when they can’t come visit us, but could still have the same kind of learning experience,” said Hix Tommey. “She wrote a virtual version of the program that they could do on their own, in their hometowns.”

The result was incredibly creative content like videos spotlighting Kay, one of their lead farmers, giving a tour of the rooftop garden, or performers of all experience levels from RMM congregation adding to the learning.

“The Urban Immersion curriculum was a very special project for so many reasons,” Post explained. “Helping churches find a way to serve people in similar ways in the middle of this pandemic was really cool. We’re all looking for a piece of normalcy; so, to be able to say to people, ‘you can’t come to us, but we can help you get some education’ was awesome. We were hoping this curriculum would help people see that this work can be done right where they are, from their pew, from the corner of their house. It doesn’t have to be done in a big city, far away. That was really special to discover and share.”

The virtual curriculum is a six-week package, leveraging the spiritual gifts from RMM with informational videos, testimonials and insight from local practitioners and pastors.

Farmer Kay gives a virtual video tour of the rooftop farm at Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries in New York City.

“Finding purpose in this internship has actually helped me be healthier,” said Post, who also attended the church’s virtual services online and met with community groups via Zoom calls. “I was struggling with feeling sad about the state of the world, feeling helpless. Lesley-Ann really helped me put a boogie in my step—that’s the best way I can describe it. She reminded me that my skills are still really useful right now, even if I am sad. There is still much work to be done and it’s possible to get it done. There’s something special about being connected with people from different places who are all seeking the same things. I definitely think it prepared me to go back into another semester of grad school in a way that I am not sure would have been possible otherwise.”

It has prepared Hix Tommey and her team at RMM for a brighter future, too.

“There have been so many things we started doing because we were suddenly only able to do certain things,” she said. “Having to muster creativity and reach out in new ways, noticing how important community is and that it is more than just an in-person group—that’s what we’ve learned. I keep catching myself when I say I’m ready to return to normal. Certainly, I want to hug my people and visit my family; but I don’t want to go back to our cultures being so independent. We need to carry on while clinging to each other. Our salvation and healing, our hope, peace and joy are bound up in each other. We need each other. That’s what we have to have to participate in creating the world again.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.  

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