My friend Manuel “Manny” Ortiz died two years ago. But I’m reminded of him every time I walk down the street in our Harlem neighborhood and see a tree covered in crocheted and knitted swatches of green yarn.
This piece of community-created “yarn bomb” art is dedicated to Manny. It stands next to City Seminary’s community art gallery, named for Manny and our friend Andrew Walls, and is a reminder of how he walked with us -- how he showed us the importance of not just leadership but friendship for the future of the urban church.
Manny’s imprint is deep in my life; nearly everything I know about leadership for the urban church I learned from Manny Ortiz.
It was during my pastorate in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore that I began to see leadership as one of the most crucial questions we face about the future. While our church was growing and making a difference in our neighborhood, I recognized there was more I needed to do to develop the next generation of pastoral leaders. Manny would help me name this challenge and, by both his teaching and his example, enable me to reflect on leadership in the urban church in fresh ways.
Manny, who died in 2017 at 78, was born and raised in New York City, where he met his wife, Blanca. He loved baseball and nearly pursued a career as a catcher. As an adult, he was baptized at a Baptist church.
Manny and Blanca eventually made their way to Chicago, where he began graduate work at Wheaton and immersed himself in urban ministry. Over a decade and a half, he planted five urban congregations, including Spirit and Truth Fellowship, part of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). From the beginning, Manny made it a priority to develop leadership training programs for both Hispanic pastors and young people in high school.
Moving to Philadelphia, where he became professor of ministry and urban mission at Westminster Theological Seminary, Manny again poured his energies into the city, into community ministries and the next generation of leaders for the urban church. He soon established another Spirit and Truth Fellowship (CRC), aided by longtime colleagues Sue and Randy Baker, and served as its senior pastor until his death. He also wrote about urban ministry.
I first met Manny many years ago during a seminar he taught on urban church leadership. He was an urban Eugene Peterson, planting many seeds in the formation of my pastoral imagination. Among the seeds Manny planted was that leadership development should be a priority for the church and indeed shapes its future.
But what I needed to learn from Manny didn’t fully sink in until we launched City Seminary of New York. With Maria Liu Wong, who had the vision for the community gallery and the yarn bomb, and with all of our colleagues at City Seminary, I continue to draw on his lessons and life for urban church leadership.
Thinking about his journey and what he lived out, I can identify three of his core teachings for leadership development in the city.
Christian leadership development takes place in community. In Philadelphia, Manny and Sue helped begin nine congregations, each small-scale and multiethnic. To support the new churches, they began a monthly gathering for pastors. There were regular times for prayer, for sharing and for Scripture. It was organic and communal, distinct from approaches that focused on teaching “the leader” information. And it took place over the long haul, a life together through ups and downs, learning in a way that Manny thought was vital to sustaining ministry. The group still meets today.
Leadership development attends to both the person and the context. This means that the calling of pastoral leadership, as Manny saw it, is grounded in an understanding of the unique gifts God has given to each person and the specificities of context. It is vital, therefore, to listen both to God’s call and to the city -- to engage in lifelong formation and learning about the city. In this way, Manny was like a spiritual director for both pastors and the city.
As Manny taught and practiced, “it is best to have someone walk with you.” I think he considered this the most important lesson for flourishing in pastoral ministry. Leaders need a friend, a mentor, a peer: someone they trust to walk alongside them through different seasons in ministry.
I experienced this firsthand as Manny walked with me and offered me the gift of his friendship and care for my family. We spoke regularly about our lives, theology, seminary education and ministry, and our friendship deepened. We talked about why missiology is important and worked on themes of a book. Manny shared with me his dreams for a new seminary in Philadelphia.
And when City Seminary was getting started, Manny and Sue jumped in to help get us off the ground and stayed connected for nearly two decades. They often traveled from Philadelphia to New York to be with us -- we just had to provide a lunch of Manny’s favorite New York knishes and corned beef sandwiches.
As the work of City Seminary grew, and so did the challenges, Manny would call me, encouraging me, praying for me, expressing his trust and confidence. He listened and helped me find the right path. It was always dialogical -- a conversation, never advice.
Manny believed in City Seminary and our focus on leadership for a rapidly changing reality of church and city. Even when his health was failing, he continued to invest in us, praying for and shaping our faculty, our board and our students. He pressed us to “keep at it,” knowing that the work we were doing would bear fruit in time.
A key initiative we have launched at City Seminary is WE LEAD NYC, a youth seminary for high schoolers and those starting college. Here we bring together young people and youth leaders from different churches and neighborhoods to build friendships and grow together in community. It is our way of investing in the next generation, just as Manny invested in us.
And with the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., we have a program for pastors called Thriving in Ministry. The goal of the Thriving in Ministry initiative at City Seminary of New York is to walk alongside pastors from the diverse body of Christ in the complex and ever-changing urban context. We do this by nurturing networks of mutual support, care and well-being. Using collaborative inquiry, the program emphasizes local questions and knowledge, echoing the community gatherings in Philadelphia.
As I look at the beautiful mix of crocheted and knitted patches on the tree outside our community art gallery, I think of the extraordinary gift of Manny, of the way he helped me see ministry as a call from God, an invitation to serve together for the work of the gospel.
Because of Manny, we at the seminary know not only that “it is best to have someone walk with you” but also that we are called to continue to walk together.