The Journey Continues... Making An Impression For Change

The Journey Continues... Making An Impression For Change

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton


“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” —Will Rogers

A few weeks ago I was standing on the street corner of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and 129th Street in Harlem wondering about making a first impression. It was moments before the service of welcome and installation for me as the new bishop of the New York Conference. As I moved among the clergy standing in the processional line, I wondered about how others were feeling about my presence among them, and I was curious about how I would feel during and after this service filled with first impressions.

As I made the way to my place at the back of the line, there were two women who walked by, gazing at the massive structure of Salem UMC and curious about the long line of clergy in white robes and stoles. As they slowed their pace, Bill Shillady, the co-chair of our Episcopacy Committee, and I began to engage the women in a conversation. When they inquired about what was happening, we shared with them about the worship that was about to take place. We talked about the clergy who would process, the diverse music that was about to take place, and the hope we had that this would be a meaningful and blessing-filled service. We found out that they were visiting the United States from Denmark and were just walking the streets of Harlem taking in the sights and culture around them. 

As the procession began to move, Bill and I invited Tina and Henriette to join us in worship. We parted company and headed into the church. Not long after we entered the church, we noticed that the two women were sitting in the balcony! They had taken us up on the offer and had joined us in worship. And as the service ended, they were still sitting among us.

A few days later, Rev. Marvin Moss, the pastor of Salem, received an email from these two visitors from Denmark. Here are some of the words they wrote:

“We had 3 fantastic hours in your beautiful church, and with the most fantastic people!! We will never forget the warm and extremely welcoming atmosphere, all the friendly people, the clear message about everyone is welcome in your church—culture, age, color or nationality—and the joyful and especially wonderful unpretentious, atmosphere. Thank you very much for inviting us in! It was an experience we will never forget. If we had churches and worship like yours in Denmark, it would be wonderful.”—Tina and Henriette from Denmark

I started the day a little bit worried about making a good first impression on the people of my new annual conference and a whole lot curious about the first impression my new annual conference would make on me. I started the day worried about us. I ended the day thankful to be reminded that the work we do and the calling we live out has little to do with us but instead has a whole lot to do with the people who walk and drive by our churches every day. 

How easy it is for us to get consumed with our own “first impressions” and forget about the impression we are called to make on a world where people are looking for a place to feel welcome in a joyous and unpretentious atmosphere! 

How easy it is for us to worry more about the service of worship than about the service we are called to offer to the people of our communities longing for someone to invite them to belong. 

In those moments, when making a good impression on our constituency outweighs making a good impression on the world, we run the risk of losing sight of the mission that drives who we are as a church. 

That mission statement says that we are called to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” On a sunny day in September, that mission statement just may have gotten more specific. By the providence of God, in the spontaneity of the moment, we were called to “make disciples of Jesus Christ in Harlem for the transformation of two women from Denmark.” 

You see, when we make our mission statement personal and live it out in the moment, that’s when we really have a chance to transform the world. That is my hope and my prayer as we begin our new ministry together.

I think Will Rogers was right. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” I’m really glad we had that chance the other day in Harlem. 

And oh, by the way, you’ve made a wonderful first impression on me. Thank you. 

The journey continues . . .