By Jennifer Colosimo
The past 20-plus months have seen a lot—much more than a quick list could cover. But one thing we can celebrate amidst the chaos is how many people were able to push through hardships, confusion and logistical nightmares to some sort of silver lining.
That includes Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church, a small CBF church in San Francisco’s Sunset District that does big things for its community (and neighbors beyond) with very few resources. So much so, that this year, the congregation was recognized with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s prestigious Missions Excellence Award.
Nominated by their Encourager Church partners, Lita and Rick Sample, Nineteenth Avenue is a congregation that truly reflects the diversity and transience of a city with a big heart.
“Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church has always been the flagship CBF church on the west coast,” Lita Sample said. “Even before the advent of the Encourager Church program, Nineteenth Avenue modeled exemplary mission engagement, missions support and mission encouragement.”
The Samples should know. As CBF field personnel in San Francisco for nearly two decades, they can attest to the immediate benefit that comes from connecting with Senior Pastor Joy Yee and Nineteenth Avenue. Since then, they’ve partnered with Nineteenth Avenue on many volunteer mission opportunities working with the international community they serve, including their engagement in missions once COVID-19 revealed its repercussions.
The church provided more than $2,000 in food and groceries for the Samples’ COVID-19 food distribution ministry among refugees who lost jobs during the pandemic. They often work with one of the groups the Samples serve—Karen refugee families—and have cultivated beloved community with the Bay Area Karen Baptist Church in Oakland (also a CBF congregation). Their biggest project together includes coordinating volunteer efforts for a spring-cleaning event, facilitating purposeful donations of essential household items, clothing and food for the dozens of Karen refugees there.
How, though, has all this happened?
Nineteenth Avenue is a relatively small congregation with limited resources even before the pandemic ever put restraints on its potential. As the Samples said, “Its heart for missions and its skill at turning compassion into action makes this CBF congregation loom large in mission excellence among churches in CBF’s western region.”
“To be honest, I’m not sure we’re different from any other church. I don’t have a secret formula to share,” said Pastor Joy Yee. “But, what I love about our church is that the people have open hearts and, when they see a need, they look at how they can fill that need. They’re very responsive like that, so it was very easy to get a lot of these things going during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Yee also tips her hat to the DNA of the city itself, saying that San Francisco, where she was born and raised, is a generous city when it comes to meeting needs of people around them. They err on the side of care for the other.
“Of course, it takes people who are loving, willing and able,” she said. “But it also has to do with people’s love for God, God’s love for them, and the desire to share that love with others.”
That’s part of Yee’s passion and calling that began during her days in seminary at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary under the mentorship of Dr. Stan Nelson. Missions and the local church’s role in that have been this San Francisco native’s heart, and she has been involved in CBF’s national and regional leadership since 2000. In 2005, Yee was elected to serve as CBF Moderator, the Fellowship’s highest-ranking elected office.
Yee shares that passion with her congregation, igniting in them a similar interest to help the community. They support CBF’s missions globally through financial donations and work regionally with CBF West on various initiatives and missions projects, in addition to their local partnership with Lita and Rick. The Samples recognize humility, compassion and commitment in this congregation, which provides the foundation for mission engagement that has allowed them to truly make a difference.
“I have a deep passion for the local church, its vibrancy, and the space that it offers the community to come and live with God and other people,” said Yee. “Missions helps our church family to concretize our faith when we actually live out what we’re learning in Bible study. It makes faith more real. The experience becomes richer and more vivid when it’s fleshed out instead of just being theoretical. Missions give something for your heart to do, not just desire.”
As Yee will tell you, while the church’s desire for sharing God’s love with everybody has always stayed the same, the expression of it has changed over time depending on what opportunities have arisen. It has included serving in a soup kitchen, helping with refugee transition, providing volunteers for community events, and been as simple as opening up clean restrooms for a local concert series.
“It depends on what comes up and where we sense God’s spirit leading,” Yee said. “It’s a dynamic process of really trying to listen and watch what God’s spirit is doing around us, and see how we can cooperate with that. We have limited resources, but people are willing to try things and sow seeds.”
This past year also saw Nineteenth Avenue open up the church buildings for a neighboring school to provide educational support for children during the shelter-in-place orders when the public schools closed. Wah Mei School was able to teach and tutor kids who would have otherwise struggled to do their schoolwork online at home alone. Nineteenth Avenue also delivered groceries for families in the neighborhood whose children attend Jefferson Elementary School next door to the church. Without the finances to actually purchase groceries, the church leveraged its “people power” to pick up and deliver them, helping families with working parents who didn’t have time to pick up groceries themselves.
“This pandemic brought to the surface the truth of our common humanity,” Yee said. “So, identifying with the needs around the world because you’re actually experiencing it too is kind of an easy connection to make. It’s just basic to look out for the needs of other people. COVID-19 has really called us back to the simple truths that ‘we are a community, together’ and ‘it’s good to live for the wellbeing of all people around us.’”
Currently, Nineteenth Avenue is sowing the field for the future, focusing on those seed-planting mission projects that will help them become a trusted, reliable presence in the Sunset District. Its goals include being a space for community meetings, a resource for input on various community endeavors, like the current affordable housing project and ultimately to build relationships with people in the community. They’ve also remodeled the church’s kitchen (a perk of being closed for so long), and hope to begin using it to offer another space for community dinners as well as a space for people to come in and build friendships.
“I hope that people who come here find a space to belong,” Yee said. “That’s our goal, really. I hope people find a community that seeks to be centered on Christ and all that Christ is about so that our confession of faith in Jesus is the unifying thing—even while we honor political, theological, racial and socioeconomic diversity. That’s what I hope Nineteenth Avenue can be and provide. “I also hope our little story can inspire others to have some hope in the world for what God is able to do through us,” she added. “There can be spaces where people love each other even when they are different, where there’s something beyond yourself to look to for a sense of future, hope and grace. And anybody can be a part of it.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021-2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read the issue online at www.cbf.net/fellowship.