Cheer Up Chelsea

There is a moment in New York City every year when it feels like winter will never end. In early 2014, the winter was so bad the weather people ran out of superlatives. “Snowmageddon!” “Snowpocalypse!” they proclaimed on Taxi TV. Still we trudged along the avenues through the salty slush, fighting our seasonal affective disorder and longing for the day we would shed our winter coats like an outgrown exoskeleton. By late February, we yearned for spring.

Around that time a few of us were having dinner at Ed and Jenny Huang’s apartment on 21st street. We were talking about what we could do for the neighborhood. I mentioned that I had started buying myself flowers every week just to cheer myself up. In an irrational moment I blurted out, “I wish we could just give everyone flowers.” Something about it resonated in the room in that moment.

In an irrational moment I blurted out, ‘I wish we could just give everyone flowers.’

I worked in advertising at the time and it had all the makings of a great campaign. It was local, emotional, and tangible. Yet I hated the idea of creating just another stunt, another exchange of impressions in a city already wallpapered with ads. So I argued that we should do it anonymously. The arts and the church may be the only entities left who can do something for the sake of beauty, something kind without sales pitch.

So we bought flowers from a guy named Roland in the flower district and attached tags that said, “If you’re holding this flower, it’s for YOU. Why? Because winter is OVER, spring is here. It’s time to cheer up, Chelsea.” We left them on doorsteps, on car windshields next to parking tickets, in bike baskets. By the time we got back to the church the #cheerupchelsea posts were already going up on Instagram, full of surprise and gratitude. Rickey Kraemer captured it all on video (below).

The next year, Roland hooked us up with long-stem roses.  The next day a floral studio got inspired and gave out flowers to strangers around Union Square. This year we signed our name for the first time because we’re longing to build more relationships in the neighborhood. We didn’t ask people to come to church. But we pointed them to a website and explained very simply that the love of God is as free and vulnerable as a rose on a doorstep, waiting to be discovered.

...the love of God is as free and vulnerable as a rose on a doorstep, waiting to be discovered.

Even I will admit Cheer up Chelsea doesn’t totally make sense. It resists capitalist productivity. It’s not exactly evangelism. It’s actually romantic, but in ways that are powerful and important. For our neighbors who have not yet met God, it’s a kind of goodness they can understand. But it’s as much about us as it is about them. To take up the lavish love of God, to patiently woo your neighbors, to give without expectation of return—these have been formational practices for us. It’s a kind of liturgy that I hope beats in the heart of Chelsea for years to come.