By Cynthia A. Lovely
The picturesque wooden bridge stands out in the middle of a rough and tumble neighborhood inviting visitors to the The Bridge church property at 735 Crane St. “There is no toll when you cross over this Bridge, because the price was paid over 2000 years ago,” stated Pastor James Bookhout, of Schenectady, New York. In an area known to be crime-ridden, drug-infested and poverty stricken, he admits this was not the ideal place to plant a church work.
James and Bree Bookhout didn’t plan on starting an inner-city work, but everything kept lining up to show them this path. The building used for church services was donated to Bookhout by a local businessman. When it was first offered to him he didn’t even want to go look at the property. “No, I’m not interested in starting a church there,” he told his wife. She had her own doubts but she brought up a good point, “People don’t normally get offered a building rent-free. Maybe we should pray about it.” After much prayer, the Bookhouts both went to look over the property. And both felt in their hearts that God had opened this door for them and they needed to move forward and be obedient to the call of God.
After four and a half years, Bookhout couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. “Out of my three previous churches, my current inner city work is where I find my most fulfillment and joy. This is what I’ve been born for.” The Bridge has developed into a church willing to serve the underserved within their community. The church members are actively involved in outreach and ministry beyond the weekly Sunday service. They believe in the Word of God and take to heart the words in James 2:15-17, “Suppose a brother or sister does not have any clothes or daily food and one of you tells them, “Go in peace! Stay warm and eat heartily.” If you do not provide for their bodily needs, what good does it do? In the same way, faith by itself, if it does not prove itself with actions, is dead.”
Heeding this call, they founded a “Dream Center,” where they offer a Worn-Again Bridge-Wear Clothing Closet, serving the needs of men, women and children. Clean clothing in good condition is available for free. Including business wear to help people prep for future job interviews. They also house a Food Pantry for those in need and have estimated giving away 27,683 pounds of food last year. They budget monthly for this expense, purchasing their food from the Regional Food Bank in Latham for a discounted cost. There are regular visitors to the Pantry who are welcomed and treated with respect and dignity. Because of their kind treatment, they return again and again, grateful for the assistance. The Food Pantry is open two days per month or by appointment.
An unusual service of the Bridge ministry is the use of a washer and dryer for those who have no way to wash their clothes at home. This may be scheduled by appointment and is available mostly for families with children. “Sometimes children are embarrassed to go to school because their clothes are dirty so they skip class. We’re trying to give them an alternative and to build their self-esteem,” said Bree. Laundromats are expensive and to some people are more of a luxury than a necessity. It is also an alternative to those who unexpectedly find themselves homeless.
For the past two years, the Bridge has sponsored sleep-outs in cardboard boxes during the cold months to bring attention to the homeless situation. Pastor Bookhout, and a few brave church members, sleep in front of the building for one night in giant cardboard boxes that used to hold new refrigerators. The participants are not only braving the cold weather, but trusting God to see them through the night on the street where drive-by shootings are not unusual. “We’re not afraid here. There are angels guarding the property,” said Bookhout. During the sleep-out, the church remains open all night, a bright light on the hill in this dark and troubled community. Free hot chili, cornbread, pasta and warm drinks are served to all the walk-ins, who are attracted by the opportunity to find some welcome warmth and hospitality in the middle of a cold and lonely night. Those who stop in are given information about the multiple services of the Bridge, highlighting the Food Pantry and Clothes Closet.
Another unique aspect to the church is the “Lord’s Gym.” This Gym is located in the rear of the building and offers a full Planet Fitness gym with state of the art equipment and…a boxing ring. That’s right. If you’ve ever been angry with a pastor, here is the chance to duke it out with a reverend. Free boxing lessons are offered and the neighborhood children enjoy the individual attention and the ability to learn how to use punching bags in a safe and secure environment. All the equipment was donated when a local Planet Fitness updated their facilities. The Gym is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays with morning and afternoon hours.
Has this church made an impact upon this neighborhood? Absolutely. The building has been used to host neighborhood meetings and the City Council has become involved. The outreach and ministry of the Bridge has attracted attention to the Mont Pleasant business area and contributed to the possibility of receiving finances from the city for needed renovations and upkeep. A brand new library is on the agenda to be built which will be a wonderful addition to the area and another safe place for children to come and study and have the use of computers.
The Bridge continues to move forward and follow after their vision of bringing Christ to their corner of the world. They have purchased an old Victorian house right next to their property which is being renovated and may be used for a Veterans Home in the future.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Crane St? The Bridge is proving to be that “bridge over troubled waters” in the midst of a small city and a forgotten people.