Bowery Mission, Jason Storbakken. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.
Summary: A history of the Bowery Mission’s 140 year history of working with those down on their luck on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The Bowery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has often been the last stop for many in New York who are down on their luck: homeless, drug or alcohol addicted, jobless, or broke, sufferers of PTSD and mental illness. In the background of many is abuse and abandonment from an early age. It is thought that the word, “hobo” derives from the intersection of Houston and Bowery.
For many, the Bowery Mission has meant the difference between the end of the road and a turnaround for 140 years. In this book, Jason Storbakken, a former Bowery Mission director who continues to work with the Mission, offers both a history and inspiring description of the ministry of the Bowery Mission that aims to “serve like you are serving a King,” affording tremendous dignity to people who come hungry, dirty, and often times smelly. They receive meals, clothing, hot showers, and for at least some, clean beds.
More than this, they hear what for a number has been a transforming message. Through both chapel services and personal ministry, the book narrates stories of people whose lives have been transformed by Christ. The author describes one of these, Mr. Wynn, addicted to crack cocaine who had attended Bible studies, and had asked about baptism, but when the day came, lingered outside the chapel.
Just as the last person was stepping from the water, Mr. Wynn dashed down the aisle, pulling a pipe from his pocket and calling, “Baptize me, baptize me!” Shattering his crack pipe on the altar, he leapt into the pool. His splash further soaked my already wet clothes, but my spirit soared, and I could not suppress my emotion as I asked if he was ready to start a new life and if he believed that God forgave and loved him. “Yes,” he declared.
Since then, he has found a home, returned to his work as an accountant, and remained drug and alcohol free. Storbakken also tells the hard stories of those who turn back to old habits, and those who never change, but are nevertheless loved and cared for.
The history is fascinating. In 1879 Albert and Ellen Rullifson began in a rented room at 14 Bowery, gathering with a group of men and women in prayer to launch the Mission. We of the critical role of Louis Klopsch and The Christian Herald in providing funding and leadership that put the Bowery Mission on a firm footing, of the critical role played by Superintendent Hallimond in shaping the character of the Bowery Mission’s work, how J. C. Penney became a key patron, and the connection hymn-writer Fanny Crosby had with the Bowery Mission. We learn why the doors of every Bowery Mission facility are painted red.
Storbakken takes us through the changing times and transformations in the Bowery and how the Mission continued to adapt while staying true to its gospel message and servant ministry. In the present, the combination of gentrification and the needy results in fascinating contrasts, as well as unusual donations from basketball shoes to sushi. All of this is fitting, Storbakken asserts, for those who they would serve as kings. The theme of how they have consistently treated those on the margins with dignity is a takeaway all of us might consider.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.