Squeezed between the Harlem River and the old Yankee Stadium lies the mostly-forgotten neighborhood of Mott Haven. For decades, this South Bronx community has borne the brunt of crime, drugs and poverty, against the back-drop of a city that is home to the luxuriously rich and the desperately poor.
Mott Haven is a hodge-podge of storefronts, public housing, abandoned buildings and turn-of-the-century brownstones and was recently was ranked by the Daily News as one of the worst neighborhoods in New York City to raise kids – based on statistics for education, crime and health risks such as asthma, diabetes and teenage pregnancy.
It’s because of the depth of these problems that the red brick building with the bright green door at Brook Avenue and 141st Street stands out amid similar structures.
The building is home to Graffiti 2 Church and Community Ministries, and on this particular Monday morning, the building is quiet. It’s the calm before the storm of activity that takes place here every afternoon. As soon as the last bell rings at the elementary school around the corner, some 25 first- through fifth-graders will fill the room for Graffiti 2’s after-school program.
Missionary Andrew Mann takes advantage of the quiet to prepare for the week ahead. Sitting at his laptop, he reaches down and scratches the head of the yellow Labrador Retriever at his feet. The slumbering dog peeks one eye in recognition of her master’s touch. “Proof” seems to know that now is the time to catch some Z’s before the after-school crowd rushes in and the real work begins.
Gone to the dogs
The five-year-old Lab is not your average pooch. She’s a Canine Assistance Animal trained as a professional therapy dog and has become instrumental in Mann’s Life at Graffiti 2. Proof’s calm and friendly presence makes her a natural draw to people in the neighborhood.
“More people in the neighborhood know Proof than know me,” Mann says. ‘I have strangers who come up and greet Proof by name and I have no idea who they are.”
No doubt they’ve heard of Proof from the kids at the after-school program where she earns her dog treats. Proof serves as a reading incentive, de-escalation tool and is a source of unconditional love for the children.
“For kids who struggle to read, it’s good for them to read out loud,” Mann explains.
“Sometimes they’re embarrassed to read to an adult because we know the mistakes they’re making. Proof doesn’t know their mistakes, and they’re comfortable reading out loud to her.”
Mann also uses Proof as an anger management tool. If a kid is mad or upset, Mann hands over Proof’s leash and asks them to watch her. And then he walks away and lets Proof work her magic on the troubled child.
“I wait until they are calm and petting Proof, then I can walk over and talk to them,” Mann says.
Pretty cool “tricks” for a dog, but what’s amazing is her uncanny ability to evaluate a situation and problem-solve to find a solution.
Mann tells the story of a kid who was having a particularly bad day – “screaming at the top of his lungs, interrupting the rest of the program and making it difficult for the other kids.”
“With no cue from me, Proof got up and walked toward us. She walked right up to the kid and started licking his hands. Like a light switch being flipped off, he stopped screaming and started petting Proof. He was calm the rest of the day.”
“She’s a very special dog,’ Mann says with a proud smile. “We call her the first missionary dog. For the kids, there’s few better examples in our natural world of God’s unconditional love than what comes through a dog.”
When God calls
It’s been five years since Mann moved into the South Bronx neighborhood – a far cry from the Missouri farm where he grew up. What started as a weeklong basketball camp has grown into a thriving after-school program, an expanded summer sports and fine arts program and – most important – a church that’s primed to minister in the neighborhood.
God first brought Mann to New York as a percussion major studying at New York University. While in school, he attended East Seventh Baptist Church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. That’s where he met North American Mission Board missionary, Taylor Field, pastor of the church and director of Graffiti Community Ministries. Mann began volunteering at Graffiti between classes and rehearsal time. Soon he was hooked on urban Life .
Although he eventually transferred to Wheaton College in Chicago, Mann continued to return to New York as a North American Mission Board summer missionary and to serve at Graffiti.
Mann cites his three summers as a student missionary as a time when God honed his calling to Life . He’d just started his third summer with Graffiti when Field showed him a map pinpointing five neighborhoods – considered the most difficult and most at risk – where he wanted to start other Graffiti ministries.
One of those neighborhoods was Mott Haven.
Field asked Mann if he would start the next Graffiti Life there. “He caught me off-guard,” Mann recounts. “I had a lot of reasons to say no: I was too young, I was still in school, I hadn’t been to seminary.”
“I didn’t say no, but in my head I was thinking it’s not the right time. But I told Taylor I’d pray about it.”
Mann continued with his summer mission assignment and made a point to visit the neighborhood before he left the city that summer.
“I came up here one day and did a prayerwalk through the neighborhood. It was a hot, July summer day,” Mann says. “All the fire hydrants were open and kids were playing in the spraying water.”
He noticed two things: the multitude of children playing in the streets, a clear sign of Life potential, and a flock of birds.
“God drew my attention to all these sparrows on the ground,” Mann says. “I was reminded of Matthew 6, and I knew God was saying, ‘Andrew, I’ve taken care of these birds in this urban environment and I’ll take care of you, just trust Me in this.’ I got an overwhelming sense that this was where I needed to be and not just to invest a short time, but to invest my life.”
Mann began to take steps to move in this new direction. He had lots of questions: How was this going to work? What would this look like? What am I going to do about my student loans? But God started to put the answers in place and in 2005, Mann moved to Mott Haven.
Mann moved into his apartment on a Saturday. A mission team met him on Monday. They passed out fliers for a basketball camp planned for that week. On Tuesday, nearly 100 kids showed up.
He and his mission team made a great splash in the neighborhood. That first week helped lay a foundation for the work they’re currently doing.
Mann remembers a little girl, Nana, who came to the camp that first week. “Nana didn’t really care about basketball, but she followed all the women around and took pictures of everything and everyone with her camera,” Mann recounts. “We all remember her.”
The following weekend was Labor Day. Nana’s family was celebrating with friends and neighbors at the park that Monday night. Nana’s uncle got into an argument with another man, who pulled a gun and shot Nana’s uncle five times in the chest. He survived, but a stray bullet hit and killed Nana.
“I always tell people you never know what kind of impact you’re going to have,” Mann says. “I don’t know if Nana knew Christ or not, but I do know her last week on earth she was loved, and she was shown God’s love in powerful ways. That’s really all we can do, and we trust God with the rest.”
Since that first week of Life back in 2005, Graffiti 2 has become a haven for kids growing up in the neighborhood.
Want a revolution
Mann has seen the effects of a culture that largely ignores God – crime, vandalism, malnutrition, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and gang activity. You name it, he’s seen it. But that hasn’t kept him from moving in and making Mott Haven home.
“We’ve been impacted by the love of Jesus Christ,” Mann says. “And that in turn leads us to impact everyone around us.”
Mann points to the God-given mission of Graffiti 2 written on the wall – Revitalize, Revive and Revolutionize.
“It’s the idea of ministering to the whole person,” Mann says. “When we’re doing that, we allow the most opportunities for the Holy Spirit to work in someone’s life.”
“We can’t draw people to God, only God can do that,” he says. “We can proclaim it, we can share the Good News, and we’re just going to keep doing that.”
Mann is starting to see small seeds of change sprouting from the concrete jungle he calls home. When he needed more volunteers to work with kids in the after-school program, he recruited middle school and high school students from the neighborhood.
Today, 20 teenagers are involved in a Life called G.S.A.L.T. –Graffiti Serving and Leading Teenagers. They assist every day after school from 2:30–5:30 p.m., teaching and mentoring the younger kids. After they walk the kids home, they come back to the center for Bible study and help with their own homework.Graffiti gives them a safe place after school, they hear the Word of God and get loved, and in return they are affecting the lives of younger kids. Mann has watched God work in the lives of several students and their families.
“I can see how God is strategically planting seeds all over the place,” Mann says. “I know the impact here is not going to be short-term. I believe the harvest is yet to come, and I believe the harvest is going to be more than we can ever dare ask, dream or imagine.”
Carol Pipes is editor of On Mission from which this article was adapted. Take a virtual prayerwalk through Mott Haven at graffiti2ministries.org.
To view a video about Andrew Mann and North American Mission Board missionaries like him, visit the video gallery at www.namb.net.