"If Christ came to Queens," says Pete Scazzero, senior pastor at the New Life Fellowship -- a multiracial, interdenominational church housed in the boxy, concrete Elks Lodge on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst -- "he probably would create this kind of church: very grassroots and kind of messy." Scazzero, a fit, articulate 42-year-old New Yorker who went to both the Princeton Theological Seminary and the Gordon Conwell seminary outside Boston, explains that New Life is for "rejects, the lowest of the low, the outcasts -- the people the world doesn't have time for but God does."
But what I find when I walk into the auditorium at the Elks Lodge, where services are held on Sundays, is average folks: the white guy in his Yankees cap (keys hanging from his belt loop) who fixes cars, the Hispanic kid who pedals the D'Agostino delivery bike, the Indian couple strolling through the Greenmarket, the middle-aged black man sitting next to his blonde wife at the movies. They look anything but broken -- they look comfortably jubilant, sitting with their babies up on radiators, dancing with their folding chairs pushed out behind them.
This jubilation has to do, mainly, with Scazzero himself. He found Christ through a girl at a college party in New Jersey one 3 a.m. in the early seventies. He'd wanted to be a lawyer but instead went to seminary, where God told him to learn Spanish and move back to New York. About eleven years ago, while Scazzero was praying, God spoke to him again. This time, He told him to start a church.
"Now, understand, everybody's freaking out" -- that is, Scazzero's Italian Roman Catholic parents, his in-laws, everyone who thought he would be a lawyer, doctor, or investment banker. "Three years post-college, I'm not making any money, waiting on God, just learned Spanish . . . but I was aware that there were 2 million Spanish-speaking people here. And it would be very critical for a long-term ministry among the poor."
Scazzero says that he alone from his days at Princeton didn't join a traditional, mainline denominational church. "Interdenominational? Go among the inner city? Without guarantee of anything?" he says, laughing. "I tried to get some of my classmates to go with me, and there wasn't a lot of interest. I don't blame them -- looking back, I was a little crazy."
Scazzero sometimes leads services with Tim Keller at Keller's very popular Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which meets in the Hunter College auditorium every Sunday. Keller's approach to Christianity is more intellectual than Scazzero's -- calm and professional where Scazzero's is loud and mayoral. (I was told by Keller's wife that Scazzero was one of those Pentecostal speakers, like Robert Duvall in The Apostle, who seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit -- but Scazzero says that's not right. "We're not Pentecostal," he says defensively. "We're evangelical." So why did Keller's wife say that? "Well," he replies, emphasizing the understatement, "we're not Presbyterian.")
In fact, Scazzero's congregation is made up of poor and middle-class from some 60 nations. You can find Hindus at the Elks Lodge on Sunday, Rastafarians, Muslims, Catholics, and Jews. Scazzero is speaking to the multitudes.
"This is what it means to follow Jesus," Scazzero says, "to work through your racism, your bigotry, your arrogance -- if you're new at New Life, you will be challenged culturally, no matter what culture you come from. We're a mix of so many, everybody's a bit out of their comfort zone."
Tim Keller says that New Life "defies categorization." "It really is one of the 'new paradigm' churches that don't fit into the old boxes of 'conservative,' 'liberal,' and 'moderate,'" he says. "It's deeply committed to fighting poverty and racism, yet just as committed to orthodox doctrines of sin, atonement, grace, and a new birth."
"My style," Scazzero says, "has developed over time to very much a New York audience. I'm an in-your-face kind of speaker. I'll just lay it out, speak very bluntly, and I don't pull punches."
Sometimes when Scazzero's up there at the front of his congregation at the Elks Lodge, he starts to yell, and his voice cracks up an octave, but only when he's describing things like how humiliated God must have felt on the cross, naked. "That's God up there," Scazzero yelled one Sunday, while kids played tag on the periphery and couples held hands. "God! That's how desperate he is for your love!" More desperate, Scazzero yells, than the woman at Caldor who lost her son, Mikey, in the aisles, and, hysterical, was screaming his name, even while the manager was calling for Mikey over his loudspeaker. "No one will ever love you as much as God does," yells Scazzero, and couples squeeze each other's hands hard and hold their babies tighter.
Scazzero had hated church as a kid in Leonia, New Jersey, and didn't know the first thing about the mechanics of running one. "I didn't know about Good Fridays and Easters and Christmases and baby dedications and baptisms," he says. "There's a lot of stuff that goes into it, and I was pretty clueless. But I was very fired up."
In 1987, the New Life Fellowship consisted of three people: Scazzero, his wife, and their infant daughter, living, he says, "among a subterranean culture of illegal immigrants in Corona," dirt-poor. Even Scazzero's friends didn't want to come: "I'd say, 'Come join us,' and they'd say, 'What, are you crazy?! Join what?! You have no money, no people . . .' "
Scazzero felt embarrassed when his father, a retired baker from Brooklyn, showed up at his first real service, in a Corona school auditorium near Shea Stadium that seated close to 600 people, and there were only 15 people in attendance. But he built his church by running Bible-study classes at Elmhurst Hospital and by talking to anyone open to chat on Roosevelt Avenue. Though the Christian Missionary Alliance promised New Life $18,500 a year for two years, the church had what Scazzero calls a "scratch start-up."
"Tim Keller is a part of the Presbyterian denomination, and had huge support when he started," says Scazzero. "Floyd Flake" -- of the monumental Allen AME Church, also in Queens -- "has tons of government funding, millions and millions of dollars. I was, like, out there: didn't have a core group, and just kind of flung people together. It was very much a high-risk venture."
But it wasn't long before New Life had both Spanish- and English-speaking congregations, and a reputation around the country for being innovative. "We were doing community development, we were very into prayer, we saw God do miracles," he says. "It's a great tragedy to see churches on every corner, but the neighborhood's down the drain. There were homeless people sleeping on our steps, so it wasn't hard to know where to start."
With funds from private donors, Scazzero started, in the fall of 1997, the New Life Learning Academy in Corona, which offers courses in English as a second language, computer literacy, high-school-equivalency prep, and career development, mostly to newly arrived Hispanic immigrants. New Life has also raised $70,000 for a building for the homeless and set up supervised apartments for young adults who leave foster care at 18 and have nowhere to go.
His church may be booming and his parishioners flourishing, but Scazzero himself went through a dark time about five years ago. He didn't have enough help with the church -- which had grown by more than 1,000 people over three separate congregations in Queens -- and his marriage was suffering so much that Scazzero and his wife went into therapy to save it. As a result, love is now the focus of Scazzero's Sunday talks -- not how to conform in order to make it through the eye of the needle -- and it is his commitment to healthy, loving relationships, for their own sake, for the sake of the community, that sets his sermons and his church apart (Scazzero's wife, Geri, mother of four girls, runs marriage retreats for the church). People come to New Life for Christ's actual teaching, which is simple, even beautiful, when "all the religious stuff," as Scazzero calls it, doesn't get in the way.
One Sunday, women in pastel dresses were dancing in the aisles and up on the stage while congregants tapped tambourines against their hips and hopped around to the sound of two drummers beating out a rhythm guaranteed to raise sleeping spirits. Scazzero got up and told the story of how Elijah went to an outcast's house and, by praying, brought the woman's son back from the dead. Elijah did this with what Scazzero calls "resurrection power." Resurrection power, according to Scazzero, is what his congregation has. And the only way to make it work is through prayer.
"We pray small prayers," Scazzero tells his audience. " 'God, if you can't make me thin, then make everybody else fat.' " Scazzero looks around at all the smiling faces and starts to yell: "There are a lot of dead people around! At work, you're around corpses! The corpses of your family, neighborhood, schools!" Now Scazzero yells louder, getting to his point. "Nobody gets resurrected, unless somebody prays for you. He won't do it for you!"
All bow their heads, clasp their hands, and pray with Scazzero after that, then file out of the room, looking as if they've all been given vitamin B-12 shots. Pastor Pete stands by the front door downstairs a few minutes later, now mild as a lamb, holding each person's hand between his two, before sending them out into the most beautiful of New York days.