Step onto Roosevelt Avenue where it intersects Seventy-third Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, and the clanking screech of the 7 train overhead will periodically drown out the melodic stream of conversations in Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and other South Asian languages that fill the streets. The closer you get to the courtyard between Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth at Broadway, the stronger the smells become from Kabab King and Kashmir Grill — aromas of pungent curries, cumin and chai. And if you walk these streets at night, the fluorescent store signs and white string lights draped from one building to another make it feel like the area never darkens.
One Friday last year around 7:30 p.m., Caleb Cobb strolled through Little India, as he called it, to see where God would lead him. At twenty-four years old, Cobb was working as a staff member at Urban Impact, an evangelistic ministry that reaches out to immigrant groups in the city. Its South Asian Center is located on the second floor of a building on Roosevelt Avenue. Crossing underneath the subway tracks, Cobb explained that as a missionary here, you must speak slowly, use simple words and know that you’re bringing the Kingdom of God to the area by getting to know the locals and praying for them. Cobb, six-foot-four, appeared to be a foot taller than everyone we passed. His pale skin made him stand out even more, and among the sea of kurtas and taqiyahs, so did his outfit: Maxima Nike sneakers, a bleach-stained gray hoodie and straight-leg jeans.
We passed a lone food vendor — A&G Himalayan Fresh Food — then Cobb abruptly whipped around and approached the short, bulky man seated in the warm aluminum cart.
“Hey man, my name is Caleb and I work right over here. We have free English classes if you’re interested.”
The man was bald and wore a plain white T-shirt even though it was thirty-something degrees outside. He seemed interested enough, so Cobb gave him a Bible tract, in Tibetan, with the center’s address printed on its back. As the man flipped through the pages, Cobb explained that it contained some Holy Scriptures.
“So, if you want to get better at English, come on by,” Cobb offered.
He asked how long the man had been here (“Since 1998, but I’m from Eastern Tibet,” the man replied) — and it turns out Cobb had guessed correctly. Then he asked the man his name — Amchu — and followed up with a question about the Tibet/China conflict.
“My father and brother still live in Tibet,” Amchu replied. “They’re doing OK … but there is trouble over there, man.” They sounded like casual acquaintances catching up after some time apart — until Cobb asked if he could pray for Amchu. For his health, his finances, for anything Amchu might want Cobb to pray for. The silence heightened. Amchu leaned out of the Plexiglas window of his truck, arms folded, and lightly tapped the fingers of his left hand against his thick right bicep. He remained silent, tilting his head slowly from right to left, as if he was turning the idea over in his head. After what felt like thirty minutes but was more likely only two, Cobb accepted Amchu’s tacit refusal. He reminded Amchu to stop by the English class on Monday, then walked north on Seventy-third, not at all defeated.
* * *
Cobb is not surprised when he gets rejected, and he doesn’t really mind it anymore. He says he would rather come to the end of his life having tried and been rejected than feeling worse for not speaking the truth when he had the opportunity.
“It’s not really fair for Muslims, or just anybody, anybody in the world, to go their whole life without having a chance to hear the real truth of who God is and what God did,” Cobb told me one snowy Thursday evening in his Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, apartment.
Cobb moved from his hometown in southern Illinois to New York in early 2012 to work with Urban Impact. But the gig doesn’t pay, so Cobb supported his ministry work by also working full-time at the secular Project HOPE, a New York state crisis counseling program that offers services to those impacted by Hurricane Sandy. He also went back to Illinois one summer to fundraise — in other words, to ask friends, family and church members to financially support his missionary work.
Being a missionary wasn’t always his plan. Cobb grew up going to church and was raised by parents whom he called “nominal Christians,” people who identify as Christians, but don’t necessarily practice it. He doesn’t consider that time in his life to be one of true belief. That came later, when he was eighteen years old, studying physical therapy and playing baseball at Blackburn College in Illinois. That was when the dreams started. In the dreams, Cobb says, he found himself speaking to people about scripture that he’d never heard before. It was those dreams that pushed Cobb to become a true believer, a born-again Christian. It was also those dreams that drew him into ministry. He wasn’t sure what kind of ministry or where it would take him, but he knew that God had greater plans for his life. So he moved to Tennessee to attend Lee University, described on its website as “a Christ-centered liberal arts campus.” He was baptized in the Lee school fountain one night, along with a few friends from his dorm.
Cobb says that when he visited mosques as part of his undergraduate program, he got the feeling that God was guiding him toward Muslim ministry. He explained that he would rather minister to a Muslim or Hindu than to those who already share his faith.
“I just feel like there is a connection with me being able to understand them and relate the Gospel to them,” Cobb says. He also reminded me that Islam and Christianity share prophets—Moses and David, for example.
He told me all of this in the sparsely decorated apartment he shared with Mike Goodwin, a friend from Lee who had recently moved to New York to work with Urban Impact. At the time, they lived two lopsided flights of stairs above Urban Impact’s West African Center. A bunk bed was pushed against one wall. Goodwin slept on the top bunk, Cobb on the bottom.
“The biggest way you can make an impact in a place is living in the community. If you’re not there, then how are the people going to get to know who you are? You’re an outsider. You have to become an insider if you’re going to reach them,” Cobb said. “I’m getting to know a lot of the people in the stores and the different restaurants. They know me now.”
While sharing a community works to bridge one gap, learning the language makes all the difference, Cobb says. He previously took a six-month Bengali course and at the time was trying to learn Quranic Arabic from a student who had been in one of his English classes.
“There’s just so many more walls that break down when you learn a little bit of Arabic,” Cobb says. “They respect you a lot more when you know their religious language.”
Cobb contrasts his kind of evangelizing with what he sees Jehovah’s Witnesses as doing. The Witnesses, he says, pass out pamphlets and pound people with doctrine, without regard for those on the receiving end. He sees his process as more relational. He says that if they get a chance to share the Gospel, that’s great. If not, that’s O.K., too. He wants God to lead him.
“You have to come in not worried about you. It’s not about you,” Cobb says. “You have to be kind, be genuine, and if it’s not even talking about God the first time, then that’s what you do. You have to really get to know the person.” After all, Cobb explained, Jesus didn’t go around telling people that He was God and that they needed to listen to Him tell them what to believe. “He was very kind, and that’s how we’re supposed to be.”
* * *
Just beyond the courtyard in Jackson Heights, which Cobb referred to as Athens Square because all types of people congregate there (a reference to the Athenian marketplace where the apostle Paul preaches in Acts 17): a Muslim street vendor was selling Qur’ans, miswaks (teeth-cleaning twigs) and Islamic prayer beads. Cobb stopped to have the man explain the significance of the taqiyahs (prayer caps) covering the table. Cobb asked if the man was from Bangladesh (“Yes, I’ve been here six years”) and if he was usually at that spot. He said he was, so Cobb promised to see him again. As we walked away, Cobb told me that building a connection would make it easier to bring up the Gospel the next time, since the man would remember him. And he probably would. Cobb stood out.
We wound down the streets branching off Roosevelt Avenue and turned into an inconspicuous passageway that ended at the local mosque. There we met Babul. Cobb approached and asked his name, where he was from (“Bangladesh, but I’ve been here for two-and-a-half years”) and if he lived here (“I live in Jamaica [Queens], but I come here sometimes”). Then, without further introduction, Cobb asked for Babul’s phone number, suggesting they should hang out sometime (“Sure, sure. It’s…”).
Babul, who is fifty years old, wore a black “NYC” beanie. He said he worked in security, adding, “In my country, I’m a hero. Here I’m a zero.” Four or five times he mentioned that he was lonely, which is likely why he agreed to come with Cobb back to the South Asian Center to see where they offer English classes — which Babul agreed he should attend, so as not to remain a zero.
Back at the center, eight other evangelists from a visiting missionary group awaited our return. Cobb pulled out an acoustic guitar and passed around song lyrics. Babul read the words aloud: Lord of all creation/ of water, earth and sky/ the heavens are Your tabernacle/ Glory to the Lord on High. Cobb asked if Babul knew what “glory” meant.
“Sunshine spreading, am I right?” Babul answered with a wide-mouthed smile.
“He is glory,” Goodwin, Cobb’s roommate, added.
“Yeah,” Babul agreed. “It means God’s blessing.”
After the song ended, Goodwin recited a few verses from Jude: To the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!
“You Christian?” Babul asked the group. “I’m Hindu. I’m not Muslim. Lord is one. I have no embargo regarding religion. I have lots of friends — Muslims, Hindus, Christians…”
Babul was cordial, so much so that he asked permission to leave. His face said he was comfortable singing to God, but maybe not as interested in staying to pray to Jesus. Still, he kept smiling and shook hands with each person before leaving. As the door closed behind him and he stepped onto Roosevelt Avenue, Cobb told each of us to remember Babul in our prayers.
* * *
Larry Holcomb, originally from Alabama, founded Urban Impact in 2003 as a ministry to immigrants who had come to New York City from countries in the “10/40 window.” This phrase, coined by a Christian missionary, refers to the nations positioned between ten and forty degrees north of the equator in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Originally from Alabama, Holcomb moved to New York more than twenty years ago, after graduating from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, to “plant” (start) a church. He’s since helped plant a number of churches in the city, including New Hope Journey, Crossroads, All Nations Hispanic Baptist and Beach Church. He lives in Woodhaven, Queens, with his wife and four kids in one of his organization’s missionary houses. Now, he frequently speaks at churches and mission conferences across the country on ministering to immigrants across religious traditions.
As a video on the organization’s website explains, missionaries are often unable to reach these countries due to restricted access. India, Bangladesh and Nigeria are “closed” countries that restrict entrance to missionaries, though some devise ways of gaining “creative access.” But Holcomb and his staff believe God brought these immigrants to New York City so that they would hear the Gospel. Urban Impact strategically situated its two outreach centers in Jackson Heights, which has a large South Asian community of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, and in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which has a large West African community of Muslims.
At the beginning of this year, Urban Impact changed its name to Urban Nations Outreach, in part because the organization was incorporating and needed a unique name (Urban Impact was taken), but also because Holcomb felt it was a good time for the group to redefine itself. The original name, he said, suggested their work is urban, aimed at creating change in areas of poverty. While that’s still true, the new name is more pointed — they work in cities, but specifically with internationals.
* * *
The next time I accompanied Cobb to Athens Square, on a brisk Saturday afternoon, he headed down the stairs to the Roosevelt Avenue subway station, took a right and opened the door to an underground store simply named “Tibetan Shop.” Inside, two men who looked to be in their thirties or forties were sitting on colorful plastic footstools, about one foot off the ground. They offered us a pair of stools as Cobb started with the usual barrage of questions: Where are you guys from? (“Tibet”). How long have you been here? (“Three years”). He asked how their English was. (“Ehh … so-so”), and if business was good. (“So-so”). For the most part, Cobb had to answer the questions for them based on their facial expressions, and they nodded their heads in agreement.
“Me and my friend are going around praying for blessing over the businesses,” Cobb, crouched on his short stool, told them. “We follow Jesus.”
At first it seemed that they had no idea who Jesus was, so Cobb tried explaining the shortened version of the story to them. He started out with God creating the world.
“Oh — God? We are Buddhist,” said one of the men, resting his black Yankees hat on his knee.
By this time Camille Samuel, the director of the South Asian Center, had joined us. Later that day she told me that one of the biggest problems when evangelizing in Jackson Heights is the language barrier. It’s nearly impossible to connect with someone over matters of religion when neither side understands the other. This was one of those cases.
Then a young man wearing a red Phillies hat and ear buds walked in. As he pulled up a chair, Cobb asked him if he spoke English. He did. He told us he was also born in Tibet, and he agreed to translate for Cobb, who explained to him that he wanted to pray over them for the blessing of the store in the name of Jesus. Cobb asked if they had heard the story of Jesus.
“We don’t pray, really,” Phillies hat said. “A lot of people heard the story, but they don’t care. We’re not saying it’s bad. We do respect your religion. But my religion and Jesus are totally different. But I’m not saying it’s not good. We are Tibetan. We are Buddhist. We are peaceful men.”
Then he turned to ask the two older men if they’d heard the story of Jesus.
“He said he heard bits of the story,” the young man translated for Cobb. “In short, can you tell him? They’re told every (religion) is good. And there’s benefit to being religious for all people. They never distinguish between the religious. In their mind, all the (religions are) the same.”
Cobb told him to ask the men if they would like to be blessed with the power of Jesus.
They wanted to know what that was, how it would help them.
“Jesus came to the earth to bring freedom. The power of Jesus brings healing to the mind and soul. It gives them a relationship with God,” Cobb said.
“He says that’s the same way of thinking with him,” the young Tibetan replied after translating back and forth. Samuel told him that there are Bibles printed in Tibetan. The man said he had one, but hadn’t read it.
“I don’t feel to know,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have time to learn about my personal religion, too.”
“Do you pray?” Samuel asked.
“Well I would just challenge you to pray for thirty days, to understand who Jesus is.”
The young man sort of shook his head, and said he worked at a club where everyone believes in Jesus. “John, I always hang out with him. He goes to church. I’m not saying church is bad, but I don’t feel to go. I tell him go ahead. Pray. Do what you want. I’ll be here when you’re done.”
Samuel responded, “It sounds to me like Jesus is really pursuing you. I don’t think it’s by chance. God is pursuing you. He loves you.”
“It’s like the seed’s been planted in him,” Cobb said as we stepped back out into the midday sun covering Athens Square. “We’re just watering it.”
* * *
When I asked Cobb if anyone from his English classes at the West African Center had converted to Christianity, he was quick to respond.
“I’ve only been here for a little over a year,” he said. “With Muslim ministry, it takes a long time. I have guys in here that are interested now, but weren’t at all when they first came. That’s progress.”
After about a year and a half at the organization, Cobb got married and moved with his wife to Atlanta, in part because it’s more affordable. Holcomb says most staff members work with Urban Nations Outreach for around two or three months, and a few stay on for a full year. Samuel is still there, but the other staff members continue to rotate: A missionary from Mississippi joined late last year to teach English classes, and a pastor’s wife from one of the churches Holcomb helped start has taken over Cobb’s former role of organizing and training visiting missions teams.
Urban Nations Outreach is also planting a church in Jackson Heights, which will begin holding services in the late summer. It will be a multi-congregational Christian church, meaning it will hold three separate services: one geared toward Muslims, another toward Buddhists and another toward Hindus. Holcomb says the idea is to be culturally sensitive, incorporating worship and teaching styles to contextualize the gospel to people from those religious traditions.
Even away from New York, Cobb has been able to continue the evangelistic work he considers his life’s calling. He is now working in a place that has been called the most diverse square mile in the United States — Clarkston, Georgia. He and his wife spread the news of Jesus to the neighborhood through the local missions department at their church, but they also work nine-to-fives to support themselves.
Cobb maintains that his main purpose in urban ministry is not to convert people so much as it is to build relationships with them. For him, evangelism is a process of consistently meeting with people, making connections and cultivating seekers.
“We want to be focused in prayer and not be so anxious, just kind of be relaxed and go out and let God guide you,” Cobb says. He feels forever commanded to share the gospel with people, but then lets God take it from there. “Let him speak to you.”
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Steven Weissman is the author of “Barack Hussein Obama” (Fantagraphics, 2012). He lives in Hollywood, California.