Christmas came early for more than 5,000 New Yorkers who took home warm winter coats distributed by about 170 Baptist volunteers from North Carolina during the eighth annual Coats for the City missions project held the first weekend of December around New York City.
The volunteers gave away coats, scarves and hats to New York natives and immigrants from around the world, partnering with 19 local churches or church planters looking to start new churches. Along with Southern-accented “Good mornings,” volunteers also shared Bibles, portions of Scripture, tracts and Jesus videos in multiple languages.
This year’s Coats for the City was the biggest so far, George Russ told a prayer and praise gathering Friday evening ahead of the main distribution Saturday. He meant that this year’s effort was bigger in several ways: 19 North Carolina Baptist churches were joined by three New York area churches and one from Connecticut that provided support.
One new church had volunteers from Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia. The 5,450 coats North Carolina Baptists gathered and shipped by rented truck to New York was just 50 shy of the 5,500 coats requested and some 1,400 more coats than were gathered in 2017. Since some distributing churches also got coats directly from New York churches or partners in other states, it’s likely that closer to 6,000 coats were actually available for giving.
Russ is director of missions for the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association which partners with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina through the convention’s Great Commission Partnerships team led by Zac Lyons.
Lyons was in New York to help other volunteers pack up big bags of coats for participating churches Thursday and then visited several distribution points around the city on Saturday. “At the locations I saw, I felt like the work was carried out well,” he said.
Language was understandably a challenge in some places, considering that more than 500 languages are spoken around New York City. At a church in the neighborhood of Flushing located in the borough of Queens, a team from Englewood Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., found themselves giving coats to Mandarin-speaking Chinese who understood little to no English.
“Still, nearly everyone who got a coat was prayed for and everyone got the Jesus DVD, which included Mandarin,” Lyons said.
The biggest distribution point was at Jackson Heights, Queens, home to thousands of Asians from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and other neighboring countries where the atmosphere was somewhere between a street fair and an evangelistic service.
Two long lines — one for men and one for women — snaked across a crowded plaza as volunteers staffed tables laden with coats, while other volunteers handed out hot chai and gospel tracts in multiple Asian languages. Adults and children alike wanted their photos made with Santa Claus, though one Asian woman seemed unsure what to think about two volunteers dressed as green elves.
It was the seventh Coats for the City for volunteers Jim and Wilma Morgan of First Baptist Church of Summerfield, N.C., who have led in coats collection over the years.
Well-known South Asian church planter Boto Joseph and others preached the gospel over loudspeakers, interspersed by Christmas carols sung in several Asian languages. Salvation is like the coats being given freely, Boto declared. The coats were free today, but someone had to pay the price — salvation is through Jesus Christ.
Local political leader Mr. Agha, who had authorized the day’s events, came by and was favorably impressed and thanked the volunteers. Local churches have built favor with the community through such events. Coats for the City began years ago in this plaza with just a couple of tables set up to hand out some coats.
Saturday evening Joseph borrowed the baptistry of a neighboring church in Queens, to baptize two new Asian believers, since Jackson Heights Community Church where he pastors does not have a baptistry of its own.
Church planters Randy and Debbie Smith moved to the Astoria section of Queens in April with plans to launch house churches in a sprawling complex of 23 apartment buildings with perhaps 6,000 or more multi-ethnic residents.
The Smiths were looking to hand out 500 coats during the weekend and to collect names and addresses for following up later. Previously, Randy Smith was on the staff of Dudley Shoals Baptist Church in Granite Falls, N.C., and earlier he and Debbie served 18 years as Southern Baptist missionaries in two Asian countries. They started house churches in one of those locations, and they think the urban nature of Astoria will work well for multiple house church plants.
It was the second Coats visit for Kyle Lloyd, associate pastor of Dudley Shoals. “It’s especially good since we know Randy and Debbie Smith so well,” Lloyd said.
On a street corner in the heart of Jamaica, Queens, a team from Summit Community Church in Morganton, N.C., handed out coats, hats and scarves to Bangladeshis who lined up around the corner.
“We estimate about 20,000 Bangladeshi are living within less than two square miles of here,” said church planter Russell Islam, who is a former Muslim from Bangladesh whose life was turned around after he came to faith in Jesus Christ.
By the end of the day, Russell said he was overjoyed because he had met a man he is sure will be a “person of peace” to help convey the gospel to a new section of the city.
A neatly-dressed man of 67 was with Russell. A year ago as a Muslim he had stood at a similar coats distribution and was so impressed he asked to help hand out coats. That led to prayer meetings in Russell’s home, then Bible study and finally a decision for Christ, followed by baptism. Russell does not use the man’s real name in public; he calls him Santo. Santo’s face glowed as he recalled receiving Christ as his personal Savior. “I felt the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” he said softly.
That’s part of the hoped-for result of Coats for the City — that many will be warm with a coat, but also changed forever by the gospel.