By Aaron Earls
In the 1980s and ’90s, Washington Heights was considered the “crack cocaine capital” of New York City.
Much has changed for this community over the past 20 years, but last fall, someone was murdered down the street from Christ Crucified Fellowship, bringing to mind the high murder rates from decades earlier.
“It was a pretty deep hit to the community,” says pastor Rich Perez. “But I could’ve never felt that and been able to minister well if I weren’t here.” And “the Heights” is home for him.
As a kid, Perez shuffled down the sidewalks in Washington Heights past the bodegas and the cars blaring merengue music. Now, he and his wife watch their son do the same.
Much like the church he pastors, he is firmly planted in this New York City neighborhood.
For Perez and Christ Crucified Fellowship, that’s the only way they can reach the community and show their neighbors the love of Christ.
“You have to have a level of rootedness if you are going to have any impact on your community,” he says.
With a highly transient community like Washington Heights, the sense of stability offered by Perez and Christ Crucified can transform residents and the neighborhood.
And as culture moves past institutions and other symbols of permanence, churches that stay and plant themselves deep in a community can bear significant, long-lasting fruit.
In word and deed
One of the most natural ways Perez, author of Mi Casa Uptown, invests himself into his community is with words.
Words flow out of him with care, befitting his current role as pastor, and confidence, evoking his past as a hip-hop artist. He weighs and measures his words before delivering them with rhythm and precision.
Words matter to him because the people hearing them matter, whether it’s over a traditional Dominican breakfast at one of his favorite local spots or delivering God’s word each Sunday to those gathered at Christ Crucified Fellowship.
And words matter because the people speaking them matter. Listening to their ambitions and dreams, fears and history is often the first step to making an impact.
“To have influence with your city, you first have to know your city,” says Perez. “You have to commit to know the whole story of your context, be it rural, suburban, or urban.”
Christians too often want to influence their community but skip the step of knowing and caring for the people who live there.
“Compassion and relationship always precede influence,” he says. “In fact, I would say influence is the byproduct of compassion and relationship.”
That’s what drew Breehan Pfeiffer to move from Tennessee to be a part of Christ Crucified Fellowship, and it’s why she calls Washington Heights home now.
“Relationship is the most vital part of sharing the love of Christ,” she says.
“So many churches are focused on planning activities, but people want to feel safe and loved. They want to know they’re important. When they know those things, they’re more receptive to hearing where our love comes from.”
Words matter, but they are not enough. Relationships need more than love spoken.
They need love lived out, because in a post-Christendom context, people don’t often decide to follow Jesus in one day, says Perez. “It’s usually a path of steps they take with Christians walking with them.”
That was the case for Steven Cruz. He didn’t know Christ, but he started hanging out with Perez because they shared a love for basketball. “I was saved because Rich poured into me like a brother.”
Today Cruz is a deacon at Christ Crucified Fellowship.
As the church looks to build relationships with the community, Perez echoes God’s command in Jeremiah 29:7 to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. “It’s important to seek the good of those around us,” he says.
And that extends beyond the spiritual.
Perez says too many have reduced the church’s responsibilities in a community to only spiritual things. “We should absolutely be concerned with the destiny of a person’s soul, but we shouldn’t reduce our concern to only that,” he says.
“Jesus and the gospel He preached are concerned with the soul and the system, the individual and the institution.”
Christ Crucified Fellowship works with Love Kitchen, a food ministry that provides more than 200 meals a day, partners with a basketball program for local kids, conducts a prison outreach at Rikers Island, mentors schoolchildren, teaches English to Spanish speakers in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood, and helps tenants secure fair treatment with their housing.
Helping people in their daily lives often grants them better understanding of their eternal value, says Perez.
“We are offering people the chance to recognize the dignity they already have,” he says.
“People may think they’ve lost their dignity because they’ve lost their apartment. I want them to recognize their dignity in Christ and then work to affirm their dignity in helping them have a place to live and work.”
Being concerned with the physical and spiritual is a reflection of Jesus, says Perez. “The incarnation affirms that being preoccupied with the human experience matters, but the resurrection affirms that only being preoccupied with the human experience is not faithful.”
This dual approach allows Christ Crucified Fellowship to shine in Washington Heights. “We are to step into the broken world, understanding our own brokenness, and create pockets of God’s kingdom,” Perez says.
Rooted in the Heights
Churches can develop a sense of intimacy from listening to the people in the community and serving them, but there is an investment that flows out of living in the neighborhood.
That is the case for Christ Crucified Fellowship. “In a six-block radius, we have 11 families from our church that live here,” says Perez. “We want to saturate this place with our people, with God’s people.”
Investment requires risk, and loving its community is sometimes risky for a church.
“We are part of the community,” says Cruz. “We have planted ourselves here to love our next-door neighbors.”
Dave Fuentes, an elder at Christ Crucified Fellowship, says to serve in the church, you need to live in the community.
“It’s what we started as—a neighborhood church that wants to love our neighbors,” he says. “We see the people when we go to the bodega or the shopping market. They know we are part of Christ Crucified Fellowship.”
Fuentes was drawn to the church through social media. He saw a picture on Twitter of a small group and thought the faces were inviting and it “looked like a good family” that was meeting in his neighborhood.
The familial ties and love of community have bonded the church through some trying circumstances.
In its brief history, Christ Crucified Fellowship has met in a living room, a boxing ring, a Jewish synagogue, a church basement, a shared space with eight other churches, and now its current location, a gym at a local Christian school.
Reaching out and multiplying
Even with the unsettled past and no permanent location, Fuentes says he and Perez are discussing ways to expand the borders of the church to additional neighborhoods in New York City.
They don’t want to leave Washington Heights. “We want to take what we’ve done here and see that happen in other places in the city,” says Fuentes.
Despite the church’s relatively small size, it has already planted a church in Harlem, sending a third of the congregation there. Fuentes says about 25 percent of the congregation currently lives in the Bronx, so that may be the next location.
The shift is a testimony to the maturity of the congregation. “We used to be a bunch of singles getting together,” says Cruz. “Now we’re families with kids running all over the place. Our mission has changed. We used to be focused on knowing Jesus more ourselves, but now we want to go out and show Him to others. It’s about proclamation and living it out.”
Pfeiffer hopes Christ Crucified Fellowship can be a spark for the city of New York and beyond. “I would love for the way we do community to not be abnormal but be the normal way for the church,” she says.
For Perez, planting deep roots is the only way to do ministry. “When we give of ourselves and our resources to invest in the community, we will have a future return.”
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.
To read more on Perez’ life and ministry, check out his memoir Mi Casa Uptown.