Rehab Center? Prison? Not Your Average Church

BRONX, NY (August 13, 2010) – Like an increasing number of congregations, The Promised Land Covenant Church is adding satellite campuses. Unlike most congregations, however, these satellites are not in the usual places – one in the South Bronx is in a drug rehabilitation center and the other is located in a local prison.

Churches also are reaching out to poor neighborhoods. Promised Land is extending grace in Mott Haven, the poorest neighborhood in the poorest congressional district in the country. Half of the adults do not have a high school diploma, the lowest percentage in the state. Of recent students receiving a diploma, only one percent indicated plans to pursue a college degree. More than half of the population resides in 17 public housing developments.

“The Promised Land Church was birthed to set the captive free, feed the hungry, clothe the rejected with kindness and provide a safe place for restoration and rest,” says Pastor Michael Carrion. “We are not called to choose the captives and decipher what is politically correct or socially acceptable. Jesus was neither.”

Carrion understands the needs of the community to which the church ministers. He is the eldest of nine children whose parents were both drug addicts and spent years in prison. Carrion became hooked on drugs. He was able to enter and graduate Teen Challenge, a program that ministers to addicted youth.

The church was formed in 2008 by several people, most of whom were on staff with Urban Youth Alliance (UYW), a grassroots parachurch organization. Much of the organization’s ministry includes helping prisoners re-integrate into society. Former inmates were encouraged to attend church, but most had bad experiences.

“We were sending all these young adults and adolescents to churches, but they were coming back because the churches wouldn’t accept them. They were too gangbanger looking,” says Carrion. “They felt judged.”

As a result, the leaders and teenagers began meeting in 2006 on Friday nights for chapel services. By December 2007, they began renting space from a Hispanic Pentecostal church. The first prayer service at the location had to be postponed to another date, however, because two people were shot – one fatally – outside the church just before the service was to start.

The congregation now meets in a renovated storefront and is being adopted into the Evangelical Covenant Church. About 60 families attend the main site, but the church already has begun two satellite services. The first was at Casa Promesa, a residential drug treatment program. Many of the people in the program suffer from AIDS. About 300 people attend the services.

“What began as a chapel service for a few residents has developed into a full-blown congregation with a weekly Sunday attendance of more than 50 residents,” says Carrion. Some attendees come from outside the program.

The church subsequently launched a satellite service at a youth prison in the Bronx. Youth ages 14-18 are incarcerated in the 25-bed facility. Ruben Austria, a Promised Land associate pastor, oversees the service. Austria also has launched Community Connections for Youth, a nonprofit organization to assist youth in the justice system. As church members lead worship services, they also are developing mentoring relationships that will continue after the teenagers are released from incarceration.

The satellite services are not formally a church, “but the people there will tell you this is their church,” says Carrion. The services at both places must be fully subsidized.

“There’s no budget for this – these people can’t tithe,” says Carrion. “This is so missional, so incarnational.”

The congregation also is partnering with a pastor in Orlando, Florida, who went through Teen Challenge with Carrion and is now starting a church in that city.

The congregation is starting more than church services. In 2008, the church launched a charter school, the Bronx Academy of Promise. Currently the school serves students in grades K-4. The school hopes to eventually serve students K-8, adding a new grade each year.

“All of the students are 200 percent below poverty level,” Carrion says.

Other ministries include coffeehouse night every other month that enables up and coming Christian hip hop artists and worship bands to perform, free music instruction programs, and block parties.

The church has formed partnerships with various organizations to help with a variety of outreaches. The New York Yankees have provided funding to help fund a food pantry that has fed more than 300 families.

Carrion is thrilled with the partnership that has developed with the Covenant. “I’ve never seen a denomination or community of faith that has balanced the liberal and conservative so well – you’ve got high church and low church. You are intentional in being diverse,” Carrion says.

He adds that the technical assistance provided by the Covenant will be invaluable.
“Only through the grace of God have we had powerful growth and expansion of the ministry,” he explains. “There were lessons that didn’t need to be learned.”

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