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    front red door of the Bowery Mission

    The Whole World Smells Like That to Me

    Learning to love like Jesus on the Bowery, Manhattan’s boulevard of broken dreams

    By Jim Cymbala

    August 16, 2021
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    From the foreword: Bowery Mission: Grit and Grace on Manhattan’s Oldest Street.


    I have always felt that the ultimate spiritual deception we can experience as believers in Jesus is to emphasize our relationship with God, with little concern for the less fortunate around us. That was exactly the problem in ancient Israel when the prophet Isaiah lifted his voice on behalf of the living God:

    They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. … They ask me to take action on their behalf pretending they want to be near me. “We have fasted before!” they say. “Why aren’t you impressed?” … No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Share your food with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those that need them. … Feed the hungry and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness. … You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.” (Isaiah 58, NLT)

    Those words have challenged me throughout the years I have pastored in the inner city of downtown Brooklyn. But it hasn’t always been easy to put them into practice.

    photo from the 1930s of men at the Bowery Mission

    Lewis W. Hine, Bowery Mission Breadline, 1906

    One Sunday years ago, after I ended a service, I looked up and there was a guy standing in the aisle about four rows back with a filthy cap in his hand, his hands crossed in front of him, just looking at me. At the time, we had a lot of people coming in begging for money. Like many churches, we had a protocol for how to help them.

    This guy looks like he wants to talk to me, so I say, “Come on up.” When he gets close to me, I’m hit with the worst smell – feces, urine, sweat, street – overwhelming to the point that it seems to me I cannot inhale facing him. So I look to the side and say, “What’s your name?”

    “David.”

    “Where’d you sleep last night?”

    “Abandoned truck.”

    “Why aren’t you in the shelter?”

    “Too dangerous, almost got killed in the last one.” There is alcohol on his breath, and his eyes are slightly glazed. I look around, but there’s nobody to help me. I’m tired, so I think: forget the protocol, let me just give him some money, I gotta get home. He steps forward, pushes the money down, and says, “I don’t want your money. I want this Jesus you were just talking about.”

    I say, “Take the money.”

    He says, “No, I don’t want your money. I’m going to die out there. I want Jesus.”

    At that moment I realized the one who was really in need was not David, it was Jim Cymbala. I stood there and started weeping and praying, “God, would you please forgive me. I have turned into my own worst nightmare. I have become what I dread thinking about: a preacher.” I had been in and around church since I was a kid, so that was my ultimate nightmare, some phony guy who just talks: “Well Praise God, JC’s in the house.” I had become that. I wanted to buy him off, because I was tired.

    As God began to break me and fill me with his love, David knew it in a second. He knew it and came close to me; he fell against me, put his head on my chest, and started crying. I put my arms around him and he put his arms around me, and we rocked back and forth. I’m crying because I need Jesus, he’s crying because he needs Jesus. We all need Jesus. And I felt the Lord speak to me and say, “If you can’t embrace that smell, I can’t use you, because the whole world smells like that to me and I still sent my son. So if you can’t accommodate yourself to that smell and embrace it, I’ll put you on a shelf. I don’t need to use you. I can use anybody. I’m God.”

    No, I don’t want your money. I’m going to die out there. I want Jesus.

    There are people who are very hard to be around. If you don’t want to be around not-nice people, you need to resign from following Jesus. Jesus didn’t come for nice people, he came for the whole world and we’re all in need of him. The Bowery Mission has been blessed with a special kind of love that allows for transformative relationships between not-nice people. The Bowery Mission shows this love every day – and joining with them in this love, in this mission, is exactly what God has called us to do.

    An associate pastor recently asked me if we could hold a wedding ceremony for a couple who wanted to get married but were impoverished. I agreed. The day before the event I learned that not only was the groom living in a shelter but they had no money for the bride’s corsage or a wedding cake. Less than an hour before the service began, I met the groom for the first time and asked him about the exchange of rings. He sheepishly looked down at the floor and confessed they had no rings due to a lack of funds.

    But despite all of that, what followed was a night to remember! The audience cheered when I announced the surprise wedding and they showered the couple with love all the way through the ceremony. I was deeply moved as the two of them stood before me, so poor by worldly standards, yet so rich spiritually in Jesus and now part of a huge family that embraced them. Multiply that story by the thousands, and you will get an idea of the impact of the Bowery Mission.

    Bowery Mission: Grit and Grace on Manhattan’s Oldest Street recounts the original vision and ongoing saga of the Bowery Mission as it continues to help the neediest among us on the streets of New York City. Jason Storbakken has written with skill and transparency as he relates one poignant story after another. Read this with an open heart to God and a readiness to do your part in showing the love of Jesus to the world around you.

    Contributed By

    Jim Cymbala has been the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle for more than 50 years. The bestselling author of Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, he lives in New York City with his wife, Carol Cymbala, who directs the Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.

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