I pastor a church in a tough community in Soundview in the South Bronx. Every so often, people will stop and do a cross symbol as they pass in front of our church.
However, as the expectations rise for the Pope Francis’ imminent arrival into New York City, even teenagers with gang colors are stopping to do cross symbols. For a few moments peace reigns. Even in gang culture it is not cool to do a cross and fire a pistol off minutes later.
In the Bronx Protestants are processing how to respond to this remarkable pope. In my own Infinity Bible Church a fellow pastor and I started a dialogue about St. Francis of Assisi. He was a priest who ministered to Muslims during a religious war! Now, the pope models his life after St. Francis as an example of living with Jesus Christ.
Protestants and Catholics still disagree on important issues like praying to saints and how salvation is obtained. Consequently, some reject working with the Catholic Church.
But in my organization’s (Concerts of Prayer of Greater New York) network of several thousand churches, I have noticed an increase in the number of Protestant churches willing to work with the Catholic Church on the common ground of striving for justice.
The gathering of religious leaders at the September 11 Memorial by the pope will likely provide an opening for spiritual reflection by New Yorkers and that is healthy for a city.
In our overly sexualized culture I know many people who are in awe of the Catholic priests who vow celibacy. They take Pope Francis very seriously for his vows and see them as a sort of guarantee about the genuineness of his actions for justice. Although as a Protestant pastor I don’t see the Bible as commanding celibacy for all pastors, still I appreciate that the pope’s vow says that sexual expression needs to be morally channeled.
Some devout urban Catholics feel so strongly that God has sent Pope Francis to bless New York City that they think that his very presence creates a sacred ground upon which one may receive a blessing. Whether I believe that or not makes no difference to my thankfulness for the pope in bringing faith discussions into the hood (as well as to the board room).
I am particularly thankful that the pope will be meeting with prisoners in Philadelphia. I started a life of crime when I was fourteen. I still remember the popping of gunshots were the first sounds that I heard just before I was initiated into drug dealing. My life started to change when Jesus Christ met me while I was half crazy and had crack in my pocket (you can read more about this long story in my book Street God).
Pope, if you can introduce Jesus to the prisoners, I welcome you to New York City!