A diverse church full of conversion stories – Christian Chronicle

wp header logo 1380

LINDENHURST, N.Y. — Prayer kneelers and organ pipes aren’t typical in a Church of Christ.
Then again, the Long Island Church of Christ — a diverse body with members representing roughly two dozen nationalities — isn’t an ordinary congregation.
Far from the Bible Belt, the growing church meets for now in space rented from St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, about 45 miles east of New York City. Thus, the aforementioned kneelers and pipes.
More than four decades after its founding, the Long Island church recently appointed its first five elders — all first-generation Christians, just like the majority of the congregation — along with 11 deacons.
“We always longed for having elders and deacons, but because of the nature of the congregation, we had to grow into that,” said evangelist Pedro Gelabert, a former atheist who grew up in Puerto Rico.
The church, which each Sunday draws about 250 worshipers to its English assembly and 100 to its Spanish service, launched in 1980 in Kent Field’s basement. Field returned to his native Long Island to plant the church after studying preaching at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas.
Elder Kevin Booker, left, holds hands with a Long Island Church of Christ member as he prays with her after the invitation song.
Later, the congregation met in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, two YMCA facilities and a rented chapel before leasing the Lutheran church about five years ago.
By now, church members had intended to move into their own building, but the pandemic delayed construction in Hauppauge, N.Y., about 20 miles from Lindenhurst.
“We took out a loan in 2019 to start building the church,” elder Steve Aponte Sr. said. “COVID hit and halted everything, which caused inflation and the rising cost of materials. This left us $500,000 short.”
Elder Steve Aponte Sr., center, joins fellow Christians in prayer before a Sunday afternoon assembly of the Long Island Church of Christ.
Rather than take out a second mortgage, the church is asking the congregation and fellow Christians across the nation to contribute to the building fund, Aponte said. 
The total cost of construction is estimated at $3.6 million. Long Island is not an inexpensive place to build.
United Nations of Faith: Read all the stories in the series
“We’re not going to build just for the sake of building,” Aponte said. “We’re going to do it right. We’re going to put it in a neighborhood where we can grow and evangelize.”
Even after the relocation, leaders pray the church will maintain its original DNA — an outreach-focused approach emphasizing door knocking and personal Bible studies.
“It’s a beautiful thing to have people from all walks of life come together for one common goal, and that’s to share a life in Christ here on Earth and then afterward when we’re living in heaven. I love that everyone can come together in peace and harmony.”
Tyrone Shaw, 40, was working at a Home Depot store when he first encountered Rob Young, now one of the Long Island elders.
“He happened to be preaching the Gospel to one of my co-workers,” said Shaw, who was searching for spiritual answers. “I was actually interested in studying the Bible, so I asked Rob how much he charged. He kind of laughed it off and said, ‘There’s no fee. It’s free.’ So I jumped on that.”
Nearly two decades after his baptism, the African American father of four said he relishes the Long Island church’s diversity.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Shaw said, “to have people from all walks of life come together for one common goal, and that’s to share a life in Christ here on Earth and then afterward when we’re living in heaven. I love that everyone can come together in peace and harmony.”
One Friday night a month, Long Island members gather for a trilingual devotional — in English, Spanish and American Sign Language.
At a recent devo, the congregation sang hymns such as “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less” (“Mi Esperanza Firme Está”), “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” (“Cuando Allá Se Pase Lista”) and “I’ll Fly Away” (“Yo Volaré”).
Charlie Gomez, the congregation’s Spanish-language minister and one of its elders, preached in English and Spanish. Gelabert, whose wife, Clary, is deaf, provided the sign language interpretation.
Clary Gelabert, right, and Cynthia Scott sign the words of a hymn during a worship assembly of the Long Island Church of Christ.
In his sermon, Gomez showed a picture of the Empire State Building, the camera gazing up from the bottom.
“It just looks overwhelming,” he told the church. “That’s the view from below.”
But peer down from the top of the 102-story skyscraper, and the people and buildings of New York City shrink, he noted as he switched images.
Related: Upper West Side Story
That’s the difference, the minister suggested, between how humans experience the world and how God sees it.
“Every situation in life, every trial, whatever it is, you have been invited — you have been given the privilege — to look at it from God’s point of view,” he said.
To Gomez, the heavenly point of view seemed unimaginable three decades ago.
Charlie Gomez, a Long island church elder and minister, preaches during a recent assembly as Pedro Gelabert and Michael Chan provide American Sign Language interpretation.
“They used to call me Saul,” he told The Christian Chronicle, referring to the future apostle who persecuted Jesus’ disciples.
Now 50, Gomez was a 19-year-old “militant atheist” when Christians eager to share the Gospel first knocked on his dorm room door at Stony Brook University.
“Sometimes I would slam the door in their faces,” he recalled. “Sometimes I would cuss them out. And sometimes I would just let them in and give them a piece of my mind and make fun of them.”
But a health scare that required a kidney biopsy softened his heart. He suddenly accepted an invitation to the Long Island church. 
When he first showed up, he recognized the faces of Christians who had tried to tell him about Jesus.
“I was super embarrassed,” he said. “I felt so ashamed about the way that I treated them.”
But his presence did not discourage his former targets.
It gave them hope.
“There was so much rejection that they faced every single day. I wasn’t the only one; I was just the nastiest,” Gomez said. “But to see someone like me come to Christ, it had to inspire them and really motivate them.”
“There was so much rejection that they faced every single day. I wasn’t the only one; I was just the nastiest. But to see someone like me come to Christ, it had to inspire them and really motivate them.”
Baptized in 1981, Bob Carr was one of the first college students converted by the fledgling Long Island church. 
He later served as the congregation’s minister for 22 years.
“The church in the book of Acts was a multiplying, thriving ministry that went beyond taking the Lord’s Supper and singing a cappella,” said Carr, who remains active in personal Bible studies. 
Another influential convert was Rebecca Aponte Young, who attended Stony Brook University with Charlie Gomez.
Rob Young, an elder of the Long Island Church of Christ in Lindenhurst, N.Y., prays with two women after the invitation song on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Unlike Gomez, Young wanted to learn more about Jesus. She tells how she chased after the Christians who knocked on his door and became a disciple herself. 
She later taught the Gospel to her parents, Steve and Laura Aponte, as well as her future husband, Rob Young. 
Little did she know that both her father and her husband would become church elders.
“The fact that God used me … in their coming to Christ is miraculous in and of itself,” Rebecca Young said. “I was the worst of sinners.”
Related: A blessed visit to a Ghanaian immigrant church
Her father recalls that she started bringing groups of Christians to the family’s Staten Island home — more than 60 miles from the church — for barbecues.
“They came, and they were encouraging, loving people,” Steve said. “And there were a lot of them. One day, Laura said, ‘What are we going to do? We don’t have enough hamburgers and hot dogs.’ I said, ‘I’ll put on a pot of pasta and spaghetti sauce.’”
Despite enjoying the fellowship, the Apontes, who were culturally Catholic, resisted their daughter’s evangelistic efforts.
For a while, anyway.
“We gave God a good laugh for a couple of years,” Steve said, “until 1995 when Laura and I got baptized the same day. So we’re twins.”
In the Long Island church, powerful stories of conversion abound.
Transformed lives fuel new Christians’ passion to share their hope.
“Because we all come from darkness, we all have stories,” said Bernadette Gomez, Charlie’s wife of 25 years. 
The daughter of Italian immigrants, she was baptized after studying with Deborah Tomengo, a Long Island member and fellow student at Suffolk County Community College.
“We’ve all been healed from so much,” Bernadette said, “and the church is such a safe place for us.”
A Long Island Church of Christ member is reflected in the glass separating the auditorium from the lobby of the St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church building.
There’s no place she’d rather be than in the house of the Lord.
“And it’s hard for us to understand,” she said, “when we visit another congregation, and everyone is at a football game or a baseball game instead of the devo.”
At the Long Island church, hugging fellow Christians is a deeply ingrained part of the culture — a way to greet one another and convey love.
“It’s a place where you can feel at home,” Bernadette said. “It’s a place where you’re going to be loved. We do hold each other accountable. It’s just a very special place.”
With about 100 boys and girls in the children’s program, the adult Christians face a new challenge: imparting their zealous faith to the next generation.
That’s definitely the congregation’s goal, said elder Ray Gomez, an immigrant from Costa Rica and the father of two daughters. (He is not related to fellow elder Charlie Gomez.)
“We have to train our kids … because we’re not getting any younger,” Ray Gomez said. “We have to see that God is going to take care of the church going forward.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
TO CONTRIBUTE to the Long Island building fund, click the “Giving” button on the church’s website. Checks can be mailed to: Long Island Church of Christ, P.O. Box 607M, Bay Shore, NY 11706.
Filed under: American Sign Language ASL diversity first-generation Christians multilingual service National News northern Churches of Christ Partners racial diversity Top Stories
NEW YORK — A rap song by Eminem played in the…
NEW YORK — I didn’t understand the words as the…
CHICAGO — To a visitor entering the Northwest Church of…
OKLAHOMA CITY — The chaos at the end of a long…
FAIRFAX, Va. — Sunday morning at the Fairfax Church of…
HOUSTON — On a blue-sky afternoon in this diverse Texas…
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.

Donation Total: $3 One Time
{amount} donation plus {fee_amount} to help cover fees.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *