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Fasting for 42 days to protest New York’s ban on churches renting worship space at public schools was right up Manhattan pastor Bill Devlin’s alley
NEW YORK CITY – At first glance, it was hard to believe that Bill Devlin hadn’t eaten for 41 days. On a crisp Tuesday morning he was sporting trendy black glasses, bouncing back and forth in a room full of students, teaching them about forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is not being a hater!” he exclaimed.
Devlin had been fasting and praying on behalf of New York City churches fighting a ban on renting unused public school space for worship, even though the churches have been actively serving their communities for decades. Devlin had lost 50 pounds in that time. Up close, you could tell that his shirt was fitting loosely. But along the short walk from the school to his office, he stopped almost every two steps to greet a student or staffer with a vigorous handshake or hug.
Settled in his office with its view of the Harlem River, Devlin answered a question about the many pictures of his wife of 32 years, Nancy: “I still romance and stalk her every day,” he boasted.
Devlin pastors Manhattan Bible, located in Inwood, an upper Manhattan neighborhood. The church boasts a membership of more than 500 and the accompanying school, Manhattan Christian Academy, serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade with a 100 percent graduation rate.
During the past two months, as Devlin has worked with other pastors to overturn the worship ban, he’s held press conferences, participated in protests and court hearings, and been arrested for disturbing the peace. On Jan. 18 he started his fast, picking up the baton from Dimas Salaberrios, pastor of Infinity Church, who fasted for two weeks until health complications forced him to stop.
Devlin said he took on the fast “to raise awareness about the poor and low-income congregations. I knew the forces we were up against … [that] there had to be some kind of supernatural spiritual power that we had to tap into.”
The arrest was nothing new for Devlin. During 40 years of ministry he has been arrested 26 times and criticized often for his pro-life and pro-marriage positions. As he recalls his stories-most involving risky situations-Devlin’s face lights up and he waves his hands in enthusiastic gestures. Some call him “Indiana Jones for Jesus.”
Devlin dabbled in atheism and a little in Eastern religions before hearing the gospel as a sailor in the U.S. Navy. During leave one summer and hitchhiking in California, a man wearing bell-bottoms and tie-dye gave him a tract and told him about Jesus. That same week, he slipped into a Christian ministry hoping to grab free food without notice, but didn’t get away before an older man also told him about Jesus and led him in prayer.
Since becoming a Christian in 1971, Devlin has lived with what he calls reckless prudence. In 1985, he and Nancy traded their suburban lifestyle for residence in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Many people thought the young parents were crazy, especially when they started taking in single, pregnant, HIV-positive women in need of shelter.
But they didn’t leave, not even when an assailant took a butcher’s knife to Devlin’s head one night after a church meeting. The assailant stabbed him once in the arm and once in the head, where he left the knife, all because Devlin didn’t have any money. He fell into a ditch and stumbled home, lying at his door in a pool of his own blood.
Bill and Nancy Devlin didn’t turn back when their 2-year-old son Luke was diagnosed with leukemia and they struggled financially. They stayed in that neighborhood and raised all five of their children there. (Luke, now 25, beat the disease and remains cancer-free.)
It took Devlin seven years to finish at Westminster Seminary while Luke went through chemotherapy. He then launched Urban Family, a pro-life, pro-marriage, character development program for inner-city communities. In New York City he has worked alongside Councilman Fernando Cabrera on hot issues, including the defense of pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, the defense of traditional marriage and, most recently, for the right to worship freely.
When city officials last year threatened to evict more than 60 churches from the public schools they used for worship, Devlin on Dec. 30 at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s inter-faith breakfast publicly pleaded with the mayor. Bloomberg remained silent, but Devlin and Cabrera continued to spearhead efforts to overturn the ban. They staged two public arrests, protests, and public marches.
Five years ago Devlin fasted for 40 days on behalf of Philadelphia, when the city was faced with extremely high violence and murders. But fasting for Devlin is more than a tactic. He’s fasted at least one day a week for almost all of his Christian life. He says it challenges him to grow deeper in his relationship with Jesus. It isn’t his only extreme practice: Three nights a week, he sleeps on the floor of his office to identify with the poor, to remember the thousands throughout the city who are doing the same.
“God has equipped him to be out there preaching, teaching, trying to be salt and light to a lost world,” said Jim Oestreich, Devlin’s accountability partner. The two of them get together for coffee at least twice a month to pray and discuss life choices. Oestreich likens Devlin to John the Baptist: a man called to preach repentance while adopting extreme measures.
Devlin finds joy in his calling, but there are challenges. It’s been hard for his family at times to understand his ministry-he recalled one time when his children’s classmates came to school waving photos of him arrested. It’s also been hard for him to foster unity among church leaders. During the two months Devlin worked to overturn the ban, many of the larger and wealthier churches didn’t get publicly involved, opting to pray behind the scenes rather than attend a protest or rally. The movement has been powered largely by low-income, multi-ethnic churches that had much to lose.
During the fast, Devlin supported legislative efforts to overturn the ban. One bill passed the state Senate, but state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has bottled up legislation in his chamber.
Those in favor of the ban claimed that allowing churches to use public schools violated the separation of church and state. They said it would confuse students into thinking that the state endorsed the religious views presented during worship services.
Devlin’s fast ended the morning of Feb. 29 after 42 days; he ended it with Corn Flakes and apple sauce.
Later that day, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the city’s appeal, allowing Circuit Judge Loretta Preska’s most recent injunction-that churches can continue to meet in schools-to remain in effect. Preska has until June to make a final decision. In the meantime, churches can resume meeting in public schools like every other community organization. Some had found new locations, but others-like Abounding Grace Ministries on the Lower East Side-will stay in schools.
Devlin is overjoyed. He will continue pushing for the bill to go to the Assembly, and in the meantime will continue serving Manhattan Bible Church and giving Tuesday morning pep talks to students. When it comes to living for Jesus, he recalls a piece of advice he heard about raising teens as a Christian parent: “Just be weirder in your walk with Jesus than they are!”