NEW YORK (BP) -- Cheryl Kelley likens New York City's East 7th Baptist Church to "a warm embrace," considering the love and support of the congregation since Hurricane Sandy and the unrelated death of her husband months later.

Kelley became aware of Graffiti Church, as the Lower East Side congregation is called, in February during its ongoing ministry to help Sandy survivors restore their homes. One week later, Kelley's husband Oakley died.

" died the week after I met and the church was nice enough to open up their doors so that could have his home-going service there," said Kelley, who says her husband accepted the Lord at the "11th hour."

"They check in on me just about every day," Kelley said. "They pray for me and they've been very supportive in terms of helping me find other resources that my daughter and I might need."

Johnny Johnson, in charge of the church's Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, said Graffiti received a $20,000 Hope for New York grant to help Sandy survivors clean damaged properties and another $20,000 in various donations to help survivors rebuild. The church is giving families and individuals grants of up to $500 each, Johnson said, to reimburse them for clean-up costs, including replacing lost possessions and wages.

Graffiti's Sandy outreach has opened many doors for ministry and new relationships, Johnson said.

"It's definitely an opportunity to minister and witness to people, especially if they don't know God or they don't know Jesus Christ," Johnson said. He called it a blessing "when I help people and I see them standing and scratching their head and waiting for the punch line or the hammer to fall: 'Now you owe us X amount of dollars or ... you have to attend church here.'

"A lot of people have expressed it, 'You know there's a lot of churches in the community, but you guys really exemplify servant Christ is,'" Johnson said, "because we serve with no strings attached."

Graffiti has used funding to clean a number of homes and apartments and has interacted with more than 100 families and individuals through the church's Sandy recovery outreach, said Christy Dyer, Graffiti's flood recovery coordinator. Graffiti is in the process of responding to additional requests for relief and expects other residents to apply, Dyer said.

After four feet of water flooded Kelley's ground-floor apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, she asked Graffiti for funds to replace the stove she lost in the storm. In turn, Graffiti visited her home for an on-site inspection.

"At the time they came out to meet me, my husband was hospitalized. I was going back and forth to the hospital and trying to work, and trying to see if my contractor was doing anything in my house and trying to get funding from wherever I could to piece my home back together," Kelley recounted. "When they walked in my house, they were like, 'Oh my goodness, you need some walls too I guess, everything.' I explained to them what I was going through at that time and, ever since then, they've just adopted me as their family."

Kelley's damages are more than $100,000 but she has only received $9,000 from FEMA, she said, with negotiations ongoing.

When her husband died Feb. 6 of congestive heart failure, Graffiti's kindness in hosting the funeral resonated among Kelley's friends.

"People ... I've known who ... had stopped going to church and just through this, my tragedy and going into Graffiti Church, they're like, 'You know what, I want to go back. Let me go there and fellowship,'" Kelley said. "You know, it's just a warm embrace. It's a very supportive, very loving church. I get to fellowship at my home church on Saturday and walk to Graffiti's church on Sunday."

Graffiti's Sandy outreach has included free community training in mold removal and disaster relief recovery and a weekly counseling support group for Sandy survivors.

Graffiti, whose pastor Taylor Field receives financial support from the North American Mission Board, has ministered to Manhattan's Lower East Side for 40 years, mobilizing the church's approximately 100 active members in ministry to those in need. The church has a second site in the Bronx and a free legal services center in Brooklyn.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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