The bars blasted out of the boom box: “God, I’m so unashamed. This world thinks we insane, cause we be living like in this life it’s about Christ and to die is gain.” A crew of teenagers nodded to the beat, occasionally rapping along, as they walked up Broadway through the Lower East Side. It was a chilly Saturday morning in October and they had started walking north from Battery Park, the southern tip of Manhattan. As they did, they used chalk to tag the sidewalks with “#GBIMC” and “Jesus @ the center.” A vuvuzela blared. Someone started a chant: “Jesus.”
At the same time, another group was making its way south from Washington Heights. After about three hours of walking, the two met in the middle, filling the TKTS grandstand and surrounding plaza in Times Square, uniting to pray as one family — the unified body of Christ. All together there were some 4,000 people, most of them under the age of 25 and decked out in apparel that proclaimed their shared purpose: God Belongs in My City.
It all began with an ad that ran in a dozen Manhattan subway stations in 2009. It read: “A Million New Yorkers Are Good Without God. Are You?” When Danny Sanabria read about the ad with his youth leadership team in the office at Park Slope Christian Academy, where he’s the principal, he wrote in his journal: “God belongs in my city.” His team agreed. They didn’t want to protest, but they did want to make a statement. They decided to unite the churches and pray for the city that God loves. They drew inspiration from Matthew 5:14 — “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” It was November 2, 2009.
Sanabria called all of the youth pastors he knew from Urban Kingdom Youth Ministries, a network he’d founded. In two weeks, they were going to do a prayer walk. He ordered 300 shirts. That was the goal — to get 300 young people to participate. On November 14, 2009, nearly 2,000 people, many of them high school and college students, turned out to march up and down the streets of the city, praying for New York: for its families, for unity of the churches, for the education system, for the mayor. A movement was born.
“You saw the body of Christ,” said Sanabria. “Different denominations coming together as one body. So, it’s coming. And it’s going to be stronger and stronger. It’s exciting.”
It wasn’t Sanabria’s plan to do anything beyond that first walk in New York City. But then people from across the country started writing to him. They found out about the walk on social media, through word of mouth and wanted to know how they could get the shirts and start a prayer walk in their city. Sanabria said it’s been nonstop since that first day. The following year, the movement spread beyond New York, to places like Chicago, Baltimore, and Orlando. Then it expanded outside of the U.S., with cities like Zurich, Switzerland, Montrouis, Haiti, and Monrovia, Liberia hosting prayer walks. Now, more than 70 cities have joined the God Belongs in My City movement.
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On a recent Saturday evening, the sanctuary at Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s West 83rd Street ministry center had an unusual vibe. A much younger crowd filled the pews, many wearing shirts with “God Belongs in My City” and “You Can’t Stop Me” and “Grateful” printed boldly on the front. The overhead lights were off, replaced by multi-colored stage lighting. A couple hundred (mostly young) people swaggered to “Turn Down for What” and the DJ on stage hit the airhorn sound effect to get the crowd going while they waited.
Seven different Christian artists — specifically, rappers — were performing at the For This City concert series hosted by God Belongs in My City. The show was headlined by Andy Mineo, one of the faces of God Belongs in My City. In 2011, he recorded “In My City,” the rap that is now the anthem for the movement. His are the songs that kids sang along to during last year’s prayer walk in New York, and presumably at more than a few others as well.
“He’s a great supporter, loves what we’re doing, and that song really helped us,” Sanabria said about Mineo. “And I think our movement really helped him in his ministry and what he’s doing now.”
Music is a big part of God Belongs in My City, but it didn’t start out that way.
“The original prayer walk was never intended to worship. It was just quiet, because we didn’t want to make any ruckus — quiet, pray for the city,” Sanabria said. “As we got bigger and bigger and bigger, it’s just so hard to tell people to stop worshipping. So they do whatever they want. But worship is a key part of growth, and a key part to our movement.”
HeeSun Lee, who led a corporate prayer in Union Square during last year’s New York City walk, performed at the For This City concert. Lee is signed to God Belongs in My City’s affiliate record label, In My City Records. She’s one of a few artists signed to the label, which officially launched in early 2013, and is headed up by Jeremy Castro, who also works as an artist and repertoire manager at Sony’s RCA Records. Though Lee is a hip-hop artist (as is D Will, who also performed that night), In My City doesn’t bill itself as a hip-hop label.
“In My City Records is laser focused on the diversity of the kingdom,” Castro said. “Different people worship differently, depending upon where they are, what they’ve listened to, what their cultural make up is and we want to provide music as a resource to those people. We’re sounds that connect people to God and invoke change.”
Which means in an urban setting like inner-city New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, that music tends to be rap. All of the performers at the For This City concert (which also included Da’ T.R.U.T.H., Alex Faith, Dre Murray, and Isaiah Tate) got onstage and spit four or five raps before ending their sets with a prayer. The New York show was one of three in the series — the others held in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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Sanabria wants God Belongs in My City to be a grassroots movement, so he doesn’t travel to most of the prayer walks. He wants it to be led by young people — who he says are his biggest passion. He’s been involved in youth ministry since the age of 16 when he was saved (“I was a bad kid. My father still, talk to my father, he’ll say I’m the black sheep of the family,” he says). In particular, Sanabria wants young people from New York — especially kids from the inner city — to not be afraid of the city, to stay here rather than leaving when they get a first chance, and to love their city.
“I believe that if you’re born in city, you’re called to the city,” Sanabria said. Native New Yorkers know the city, they know the community, they have family here, they have connections — so young people are a key part of the movement and their local cities.
The prayer walk is certainly active, with participants intentionally praying and seeking God’s face as they walk the city streets, but it’s also symbolic. It’s how this generation of young people are saying to the city (and the world) that God belongs there.
“We need to get out of our four walls and preach the gospel,” Sanabria said. “Prayer is just the beginning. We need to get out there and preach the gospel, reach your neighborhood, reach your city. People need to know Jesus.”
He tells the kids he works with, the ones who were raised in New York, from some of the hardest neighborhoods, that they are the light in their community. Most of the people you see at a God Belongs in My City event aren’t white, and a lot of them are from the inner city — which is where almost all of the churches Sanabria has worked with in the last 10 years are located. He invites the white churches to his events, but thinks that what they’re doing might be too strong of a statement for a lot of them. Instead, it’s the kids who grew up in neighborhoods like Park Slope, like the South Bronx, like Washington Heights, who are the face of New York. They understand the heartbeat of the city in a way that transplants can’t. They love the city and they’re going to pray for it.
“A lot of young people today want to get their hands dirty. They want to be involved to change culture. They want to rise up and have their voice be counted. They want to be seen. They want to be changed,” Castro said. “They want to be with something that says God belongs. That’s church to them. They want to be involved in something that’s really radical, that pushes forward their passions, but also the kingdom at the same time.”
For Sanabria, God Belongs in My City is about unity, which he says isn’t always popular among churches. It’s about coming together as one body, not under any one church name, to lift up the name of Jesus together — “I’m telling you, if every church in New York City works together, it would turn heads.”
On October 25, God Belongs in My City will hold its sixth New York walk. Sanabria said that one day he’d like to do a worship service in Times Square, just go all out. But for now, it’s about getting young people to fall in love with their city, to pray for it and to serve it — and God Belongs in My City is just the beginning.
“I got a kid wearing the sweater almost every single day. I’m like, ‘Bro, wash it.’ He’s young, junior high school kid, and he’s like, ‘This is what I wear,’” Sanabria said. “I got kids wearing them all the time because they love it, and it’s a conversation starter. And they’re not afraid of wearing it. It’s part of the discipleship. It’s part of growing and being bold.”
All images courtesy of the author.