Walking down the crowded New York City sidewalk on the way to First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, most people would have passed by an ordinary bank parking lot and thought nothing of it. But the leaders of FPC Jamaica and their head pastor, Rev. Patrick O’Connor, saw something else: an opportunity for renewal.
This parking lot, next to FPC Jamaica, was at the center of Jamaica, Queens—a diverse working-class neighborhood with ethnic backgrounds ranging from Jamaica to Guyana to Kenya. If you were to zoom out to a bird’s-eye view, you would also see the parking lot surrounded by construction sites dotting the landscape: new developments promising economic growth along with fears of gentrification and rising housing prices.
“What if,” the church leaders dreamed, “we, the church, could plant a seed for the future of Jamaica, Queens?” What if the church baptized this seemingly ordinary piece of property into a place where people could empower themselves and find affordable places to call home?
Nine years later, FPC Jamaica has broken ground on the Tree of Life Center, a 12-story building with 174 affordable housing units and a community center which includes a health clinic and other social services. The center, which will open in the latter half of 2019, will be a hub for various local programs—providing financial literacy training, counseling services, childcare, and more.
Since I became Associate Pastor of FPC Jamaica two years ago, I have learned so much about the incredible leadership and passion of my church in pursuit of this project. The church, which is over 350 years old, reflects the diversity of the neighborhood—with over 35 nations represented in our congregation. This diversity fuels our church’s passion to ensure in our work that all people are treated as children of God made in God’s own image, and this vision is embodied in the Tree of Life Center.
“We drew our inspiration from Nehemiah and the call to rebuild the city,” said Rev. O’ Connor, an immigrant from Jamaica. “The Church is called not to simply look inwards at itself, but to ensure that, like in Nehemiah’s day, there is safety, opportunity and equality for all so that people in community can aspire to and achieve their highest potential. As a downtown church, our vision through the Tree of Life is to give people a sense of community by creating a space where the dignity and connectedness of human beings is affirmed.”
It should be noted that FPC Jamaica, while certainly not without resources as a 400+-member church, is not wealthy enough to have funded this project on its own. Many members are working class and live within modest means.
Rather, the project is only possible because the church intentionally sought out partnerships with businesses, banks, politicians, and non-profits in the area. It is a model of Church that is purposefully intertwined with the health and life of the community through concrete, tangible relationship-building.
Precisely because FPC Jamaica is a church in community, it also embodies a model of Church that isn’t afraid to speak to power in order to harness it for the benefit of the people. For nine long years, Rev. O’Connor and church leaders took their case into countless boardrooms, sat down in many politicians’ offices, and held conference phone calls with plenty of skeptical influencers. These church leaders have heard the words “no” and “that’s impossible” too many times to count.
Think of Nehemiah asking the king to funnel a grand empire’s resources to “ordinary” Israel. Similarly, who did this pastor, or this church account, or church secretary, think they were that they had any right coming to executives and politicians with such an audacious request?
While, in many ways, the Tree of Life Center reflects FPC Jamaica’s striving to be the church of the 21st century, Rev. O’ Connor says it’s really nothing new. “It’s actually a return to what the church did in previous generations when it saw itself as the soul of a community and had a spirituality that embraced all of life.”
Rev. O’Connor also had specific words of advice for any church leader inspired by the Tree of Life to do their own project for their neighborhood:
“Engage the community by having real conversations with real people so you know what is important to them.”
“Develop a team comprised of different perspectives and expertise.”
“Think entrepreneurially and invite people to join you who want to have an impact in the world.”
“Build the team and develop the program before you launch. Sustainability is more significant than having a great start.”
In Luke 13:19, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God like this: “It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
The Tree of Life Center is what can happen when the Church sees itself as essential to the life of its community, living into its calling to be a light to the nations and a place for rest. For FPC Jamaica, it was a small seed planted in an ordinary parking lot. What could it be for your church?
To read more about the Tree of Life Center, visit its website here.
Chris serves as Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, NY. Prior to First Church, Chris served as the Director of Christian Formation at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, overseeing children’s, youth, and adult Christian education.
Chris is the American-born son of Filipino immigrants and a New Jersey native. A fierce atheist for much of his adolescence, he came back to faith during his time at Rutgers University. Chris worked for a number of years at The Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey, as a reporter and then a web editor. During this time, while serving as a lay leader for the high school and outreach ministries at Park Church in Red Bank, NJ, the call to church leadership became too strong for him to ignore.
Chris graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity. He has also served in ministry leadership at Kingston United Methodist Church and Rutgers Episcopal Campus Ministry, both in New Jersey.
He and his wife, Amanda, have a 4-year old daughter, Amelia, and a 1-year-old son, Jasper.