Rev. Samuel Ling
Covenant Church sits today on a shady corner along Francis Lewis Boulevard in Whitestone, Queens. Thirty years ago, however, on a quiet street in Flushing (Oak Ave.) across from Kissena Park, between 158th and 159th Streets, was an old red brick building. (It is the site of several new townhouses now.) It was the home of Flushing Christian Day School (Miss Ruth Georgia Beck was the principal). In the backyard was a one-classroom “garage,” where 15 people gathered for worship on Sundays throughout 1981. That was the first home of Covenant Church.
Each Sunday morning I would get up early to come to this “garage” (later we moved into the basement of the main building), and lay out our NIV Bibles and the Trinity Hymnal, and then wonder how many would come this morning. Later in the morning I would go to Roosevelt Ave (west of Main Street) to pick up some of our people for the 10am worship service. Thomas Mak and Anna Lai were some of the earliest regular passengers! Jenny Wong would bring flowers too. We were small, steady and growing. In fact, one Sunday we grew to an all-time high of … 7! After worship, lunch was served to about a dozen people at the pastor’s home on 210th Street in Bayside.
That was how Covenant Church began.
In 1980, Mildred and I were sent by the Committee on Mission to the United States (now Mission to North America) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to begin a work among the English-speaking Chinese in Queens, New York City. That was a pretty new idea back then: an English-speaking church for Chinese people in Queens. In January and February 1980, we began to conduct a series of six classes on “Introduction to the Ministry,” which met at Queens Christian Reformed Church basement in Jamaica. One series was in Cantonese, one in English. In June, the Lings moved into our first New York home at 47-16 210 Street and began Bible studies on weeknights. In October, Sam began Bible studies among several Hispanic families along Hillside Avenue in Jamaica. The Chinese students at Queens College and St. John’s University invited Sam to lead Bible studies and advise their outreach. Thus, Sam had Bible studies at home on Tuesday evenings and in Jamaica on Wednesday evenings.
The Tuesday evening Bible study was made up of David and Judy Wong, David and Susan Louie, Arnold and Doris Wong (and perhaps one or two other individuals). The Wednesday evening Bible study was held in various homes.
On Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, 1980, and New Year’s Day 1981, worship services were held. Then on the 3rd Sunday of January 1981, the first Sunday worship service was conducted. We conducted some of our first baptisms during this period, including that of Ingrid our daughter.
The Lord blessed the work with the coming of Christians and inquirers. Since we were not near the Flushing subway station, people had to be pretty motivated to choose to come to church! There were no dim sum restaurants near Oak Avenue (unlike now, when we can just walk out to Kissena and voila! neon signs beg us to devour Chinese food). Seminary students from Westminster and Gordon-Conwell did their internships in this small, growing congregation. Ministries in Christian education (Sunday School), fellowships, evangelism and discipleship were launched. In March 1983, we were organized as a particular church of the Presbyterian Church in America. David Wong and David Louie were ordained as ruling elders, and Sam Ling became the first pastor of Covenant Church.
We had our organizing service at the First Presbyterian Church of Flushing, at Murray and Sanford Avenues. We also had several wedding services there as well. Many of us have fond memories of Saturday afternoon services in that colonial building.
Another thing which we need to remember and give thanks to God for, was the fact that churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and elsewhere in the PCA were praying for and supporting our church planting efforts. These included Briarwood Presbyterian Church, founded by Frank Barker; First Presbyterian Church of Coral Springs, Florida; Trinity Presbyterian, Eastwood Presbyterian and First Presbyterian churches of Montgomery Alabama; and others. Our first communion set (wooden trays) were donated by Harvester Presbyterian Church (indirectly … I don’t remember how we received them).
Another good friend of Covenant Church and the Ling family was Manhattan Presbyterian Church, started by Rev. Wayne Jamison, and later pastured by Rev. Jim Pickett. Jim and Michelle became good friends of Covenant Church throughout the yearsGod sent us to plant seeds. Then He caused growth. At Covenant Church, I could not have imagined the “White Castle Hamburger” crew of high school students and graduates to show up, long after I left the church. Nor all our children, Chinese School, Covenant of Grace … God is good.
Throughout Covenant Church’s early years, the theme verse which appeared on our Sunday bulletins was: “We preach Christ crucified… the power of God and the wisdom of God,” from I Corinthians, Chapter 1. It is by God’s power that this church came into being. By the same power, we press forward. One distinctive feature of Covenant’s worship service from the very beginning was we would teach our people the Westminster Confession and Catechisms during the service. When we became organized, the ruling elders took over this duty. As a result, our elders are well versed in our doctrinal standards, and our people catch a “morsel” of solid doctrine every Sunday morning.
It was also through the dedication of God’s people that the church grew in number and in structure. The outreach of Covenant Church was distinct, compared to the evangelistic-crusade tradition of older Chinese churches. We held coffeehouses (the menu was …exquisite! We had tablecloth, candles at tables, waiters and waitresses…) followed by a picnic at a Long Island beach a couple of weeks later. Back then, Dr. Win Arn and Dr. Charles Arn of the Institute for American Church Growth (Monrovia, California) found that, if a person joins the church and remains in the church six months later, he/she would have made 6 friends. Those who drop out after 6 months had befriended 1.6 members in the church. We followed this principle by trying to befriend the inquirers and friends who come to our church. After a while, I discovered that, certain people (I won’t name names…) who have maintained live contacts among their Christian friends, would bring just a slew of people to our picnics and other outreach events. The rest of us served as waiters and waitresses, etc., welcoming our guests. The teamwork was beautiful to behold, and sheer joy to participate in.
I could probably write a book – at least a very long article, entitled “100 Mistakes I Made in Church Planting.” And I could not have imagined the direction in which Covenant Church grew in the subsequent decades. God has been at work in New York, in Queens, and through Covenant Church. In the coming years, I would pray that our Reformed heritage of strong Bible doctrine would be grounded in the hearts and minds of our people, and that a vision for global Chinese outreach may be caught by more of our brothers and sisters. It is an exciting time to be a Reformed Chinese Christian.