Many would think that departing Africa headed to New York City would be exciting to the traveler, but we were not quite ready to leave surprisingly beautiful Rwanda for the crowded, dirty, smelly streets of New York. When we landed on American soil, one of the first conversations we had was asking for directions to the Amtrak station in Philadelphia. During this conversation, our intelligence was questioned three times — “Do you know what a ramp looks like?”, the woman asked repeatedly in response to our question of whether we turned left or right outside the airport doors to get to this ramp. Ahhh, home sweet home. It turns out we do know what a ramp looks like. We found it and we boarded the train headed to NYC.
We exited Penn Station and were greeted by Kayla from The Bowery Mission. All we knew about The Bowery Mission was that it was a Christian homeless shelter, but we soon found out — and saw for ourselves — that their work reaches much deeper.
The Bowery Mission has been around for more than 130 years, ministering in New York City to men, women, and children caught in the cycles of poverty, hopelessness and dependencies of many kinds. Once known as a soup kitchen, The Bowery Mission is sometimes referred to as the busiest “restaurant” in New York City, serving over 392,000 meals last year alone. The Bowery Mission’s combined programs serve more than 1,000 meals per day to poor and homeless men, women, and children and more recently, the unemployed who are doing everything possible to make ends meet.
During our week of service we stayed at the historic homeless shelter landmark, where The Bowery Mission serves three hot meals a day, every day of the year. The nutritious meals the cooks prepare are delicious too. Top-notch NYC restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries whose mottos are ‘fresh food daily’ donate all the food. From in-house homemade grape juice from Whole Foods to Panera baked goods to Pret A Manger sandwiches, these homeless may be the most well fed in the world. The Mission also offers three daily chapel services preceding the meals as well as temporary overnight shelter on the chapel’s pews. We stayed upstairs in the volunteer quarters, a room with six bunk beds and walls covered with Sharpie notes, drawings, Bible verses and the always-popular “[insert name] wuz here” from previous volunteer groups. We spent most of our time here, sharing our meals with the guests and attempting to complete our mission of photographing what The Bowery does.
In addition to the meals, clothing and shelter that they provide no questions asked to anyone who walks through their red doors, they also have an outreach program where they go to various locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn four days a week to provide groceries and meals to those in need who can’t easily get to the 227 Bowery flagship location. But most importantly, The Bowery Mission has amazing transitional programs where they provide men and women with addiction recovery, counseling, career training, financial planning and much more, all in a faith-based context. Lives are being transformed to hope, joy, lasting productivity and eternal life through the power of Jesus Christ. We’re blessed to have seen all their areas of outreach and life transformation.
This was the most difficult assignment we’ve ever had in our career as photojournalists — not filming slavery survivors in India, Nepal or Africa, not filming disaster relief efforts in Haiti, but trying to capture the work of a NYC-based homeless outreach nonprofit.
Many times our shutter releases were met with hostility from people who didn’t understand our hearts to serve The Bowery Mission by showing the amazing work that they do, and they didn’t want to hear about it either. It felt like a struggle to go down with our cameras at meal times, but we changed our approach by asking everyone for permission and eventually focused on people who were willing, excited even, to have their picture taken. At first we ate meals in silence, sharing a table with a man whose shirt was covered in vomit, a lady who was struggling to stay awake or a man who talked to an empty chair beside him. It was hard to see these men and women come and go day after day, to see them at their high and their low, most of them missing out on what The Bowery Mission truly has to offer, not just bread alone but the bread of Life. Then we started getting to know the people who are in The Bowery Mission’s Gateway Program — the first step to life transformation at The Mission. Later in the week, we saw The Bowery Misson’s other locations around the city — in Alphabet City, Harlem and the Bronx. Once the Gateway participants graduate to these recovery programs, the new residents enjoy beautifully renovated living spaces, strong leadership and guidance, encouraging fellowship and much more. Photographing these locations was like night and day when compared to The Bowery Mission’s flagship location. These program participants were welcoming our presence, showing us their bedrooms with pride and talking nonstop about their gratefulness to both The Bowery and God for what they’ve overcome. It was beautiful to see the life transformation and humble devotion to God.
Another area of The Bowery Mission’s ministry that we probably had the most fun photographing was their Mont Lawn City Camp in the Bronx. It’s kind of like an afterschool program where kids of all ages come for art or music class and girls participate in Girls on the Run. These classes change the life direction of at-risk youth in New York City, designed to unlock their full potential, transcend cycles of limited opportunity and develop youth into morally grounded, academically accomplished leaders. The Bowery provides these classes for just a small registration fee to not deter low-income families and depends on volunteers to serve as mentors who build relationships with at-risk youth to provide support and encouragement throughout the year.
Hand in hand with their City Camp is Mont Lawn Summer Camp, which began in 1894. Now more than 100 years later tucked away in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains is the 200-acre refuge for New York City’s most at-risk children. Mont Lawn Camp creates new opportunities for children from New York’s toughest neighborhoods. We didn’t get to visit when there were any campers there, but we did see and appreciate the beauty the camp offers and meet the director and his family who are based there, assisting with retreats that they offer year-round. We took pictures of the pastoral landscape and the renovated lodges and even got to paddle around in a rowboat on Paradise Lake.
After getting back and after seeing all The Bowery’s sites, we finally saw the whole picture of the ministry. Every site offers something different to people at different points in their lives, but all with the purpose of reflecting the love of God and how to become men and women of integrity. This blessing goes both ways. Perhaps the 300 people walking into The Mission’s red doors three times a day for a hot meal aren’t the main mission field; maybe that site is more for the people serving. The Gateway program participants graciously serve meals to people who are in the same position that they were in less than 30 days ago, and volunteer groups come from around the country and Canada, most of whom have never seen poverty face to face. All Christians are called to serve the needy regardless of the response they receive. It’s so easy to be kind and gracious to someone when they offer you thanks and praise, but to serve the least of these regardless of their reaction — that truly requires a servant’s heart.
Today, The Bowery Mission is a results-oriented organization that is recognized as one of New York City’s most effective. If you’d like to join them in their mission of transforming lives, visit their website to learn more about the incredible work they are doing. Also, from now until June 15, 2015, donations to The Bowery Mission are being matched, so please consider making a donation to double your impact. Or if you feel called, donate your time and energy and be forever changed by volunteering.
Just in case you miss seeing videos since we only shot photos for this project and we can’t really even share all of those for privacy reasons, here’s a new video made using our footage from Nepal for The Gospel Coalition. You might even recognize the narrator — it’s Tim Keller!