Sunday, August 30, 2015

195. Religion in New York

    “We have here Papists, Mennonites and Lutherans among the Dutch and also many Puritans or Independents and many atheists and various other servants of Baal.”  So wrote a Dutch citizen of New Amsterdam to officials in Holland in 1655, complaining of the diversity of religious faiths in the colony.  He supported Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s attempt to impose the Dutch Reformed faith on the colonists, but the population was too diverse both ethnically and religiously to be made to conform.  When the British seized the colony in 1664, they in turn tried to impose the Anglican faith, but with the same result: the city simply could not be made to conform.  Right from the start New Amsterdam, and subsequently New York, attracted such a mix of peoples that a policy of mutual tolerance was practiced, with occasional attempts at conformity that never had even a ghost of a chance.  Many residents were too busy making money to find time for religion, and those who did find time went their separate ways. 

     And since then?  As of 1990 – the latest comprehensive figures I have access to – the city’s places of worship ranged in number from 471 Baptist, 457 Jewish, 403 Roman Catholic, and 391 Pentecostal at the high end, to 69 Russian Orthodox, 60 Moslem, 40 Greek Orthodox, and finally, at the low end, 3 Quaker and 1 Baha’i.  But in the quarter century since, those figures have surely changed, perhaps radically, because, as we shall see, religion in this city is in flux.

     Precisely because New York was a place of many faiths – faiths that might squabble among themselves but that didn’t try to wipe each other out  -- the city became a place of refuge for the persecuted.  New Amsterdam had been founded in 1624 by a group of Huguenot Walloons sponsored by the Dutch West India Company.  More Huguenots from the Netherlands and Germany followed, including Peter Minuit, famous for buying the island of Manhattan from the native peoples.  By 1650 Huguenots were about a fifth of the settlement’s population, and when, in 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed French Protestants certain protections, many more French Huguenots fled the Sun King’s radiating splendor to find sanctuary in New York.  So welcoming was the city that the Huguenots assimilated readily; by the eighteenth century, Huguenot merchants numbered among  the city’s leaders, and members of the Huguenot community gradually became affiliated with other denominations, especially the Anglican Church.  Such is the price of acceptance: loss of identity.

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Expulsion of Huguenots from La Rochelle, 1661.
World Imaging

File:Denkmal Peter Stuyvesant.jpg     Peter Stuyvesant may have cast a sour glance at the Huguenots, but after all, they had long preceded him to New Amsterdam.  But when, in 1654, a group of 23 Sephardic Jews arrived, some of them fleeing the fall of Dutch settlements in Brazil to the Portuguese, he put his gubernatorial foot down: the “deceitful race” were barred from buying land or participating in the citizens’ militia, and were invited to depart.  But the Jews’ leaders, knowing their rights under the laws of the Dutch Republic, which guaranteed freedom of religion to all, appealed to authorities in Holland, and Stuyvesant’s superiors reminded him that “each person shall remain free in his religion.”  He was further advised that certain influential Jews had invested heavily in the Dutch West India Company, which by itself must have settled the matter: the Governor was told to back off.

     But what really ticked Stuyvesant off was the arrival of English Quakers, likewise fleeing discrimination in their homeland.  Their aggressive sermonizing and, when moved by the Holy Spirit, their fits of jiggling or quaking (hence their name), invited his disdain.  These oddballs, he decided, were a threat to the peace and stability of the colony, and probably crazy as well.  When they persisted despite his disapproval, he forbade the settlement of Vlissingen (today’s Flushing, in Queens) to allow their worship, whereupon the townsfolk, all English, signed a remonstrance to the Governor reminding him that Dutch tolerance extended even to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, in consequence of which they must respectfully refuse to obey.  This Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 is now celebrated as a forerunner of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, but Stuyvesant, not being conversant with said Bill, arrested four of the remonstrating townsfolk and clapped two of them in jail for a month.  Only the coming of the British in 1664 ended his antics of intolerance. 

     So much for religious diversity in New Amsterdam; it was there from the start, though not without fitful challenges.  Now let’s fast-forward to the twenty-first century and a vast metropolis that has been fed over the centuries by wave after wave of immigrants.  What kind of religions are here today?  Using the terms loosely, at first glance I’m tempted to divide New York religion into three categories: High Church, Low Church, and No Church, meaning the more formal and traditional, the more informal and upstarty, and the Great Unwashed. 

     The people I have socialized and worked with in Manhattan are white middle-class professionals – writers, directors, editors, artists, bank employees, teachers, librarians, chefs, and attorneys – who for the most part fall into the category of No Church, or the Great Unwashed.  Some of these No Churchers may never have been touched by religion, but most have fallen away, gently or not so gently, from the faith of their childhood.  To really know them, you need to know where they’ve come from religiously, culturally, and geographically.  Being No Churchers, they’re the ones who, no doubt, create the impression that New York is a secular city devoid of religion – a place, in fact, where people go to lose their religion, if they ever had any in the first place.

     My friend Ed was raised a traditional Roman Catholic in Denver, where he served as an altar boy, and then attended a Jesuit university.  When he first came to New York he was an observant Catholic who attended Mass and dutifully went to confession.  But then, as the years passed, he became less dutiful, began questioning his faith, and finally fell away completely, even to the point of denigrating it with, I’m sure, no small amount of bitterness.  If Catholicism left its mark upon him, it was visible, I think, in his courteous, soft-spoken manner, very reserved; he was not one to give himself emotionally, to yield to impulse.  Which reminds me of a French friend whom I knew at Lyons when I was studying in France ; he had attended a Catholic collège, rather than the secular secondary school, the lycée, and showed the same well-mannered, soft-spoken reserve.  We can leave our childhood faith, but it won’t necessarily leave us. 

     My friend John, who is proud of his Finnish descent, was raised a Laestadian Lutheran in Minneapolis and was taken by his mother to a church where the service was in Finnish, of which he understood barely a word.  He describes Laestadianism as a freakish, fundamentalist branch of Lutheranism that flourished in northern Minnesota.  Its aversion to sin and worldliness went so far as to consider going to movies a sin, as well as alcohol consumption, dancing, and women wearing makeup.  When he attended the University of Minnesota, where he majored in English and philosophy, he lost his faith, and upon coming to New York he became a full-fledged atheist and remains one to this day.  Religion for him is simply a distant and unpleasant memory from his childhood, something he can do quite easily without.  But unlike Ed, he feels no biting resentment, no bitterness.
     As for me, as a child in Evanston I was exposed to a gentle Methodism, quite liberal, that imposed no catechism or ideology, no ban on movies or dancing, but instead inculcated a few basic concepts of morality, the need for understanding and compassion, as exemplified by the story of Jesus, retold every Easter by a talk with slides, and celebrated every Christmas with a well-attended Nativity pageant, superbly dramatic, in which the whole church participated.  Even yours truly was involved, musical illiterate though I was, white-garbed and holding my electric candle high, as the triumphant strains of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus brought the whole attendance to their feet, and the high-school and adult choirs marched down the aisles singing lustily, till our resounding hallelujahs climaxed and closed the performance with a whopping big musical bang.

     Because the Methodism I had known was, as I put it, gentle, even in my later – and inevitable – lapsed state, where I felt no immediate need of religion, I nursed no resentment, no bitterness, only warm memories of the Methodists I had known, their principles, their winning love, their faith.  At times I ask myself if I have ever encountered anyone who impressed me as being truly spiritual, and always I recall my junior-year Sunday School teacher, Dr. Edmund D. Soper, white-haired and spectacled, soft-voiced, a teacher and scholar with a mellow wisdom.  What it was about him that was spiritual I cannot define or describe; it was simply an intangible aura that you sensed.  My partner Bob says the same of his mother’s Lutheran pastor in Jersey City, a truly spiritual man such as one rarely encounters today, or perhaps ever. 

     Only on one other occasion have I personally encountered a truly spiritual human being.  While working in the library of the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, I heard a talk by Father Martin D’Arcy, the celebrated English Jesuit, a quirky little black-robed man, sharp-featured and ascetic, with a bright eye, a mischievous smile, and a superb sense of humor, and there again I sensed true spirituality.  Not in the other priests whom I encountered there – some smooth and clever, some prickly and caustic, some diligent and businesslike – but only in him.  His quirkiness was far removed from Dr. Soper’s mellowness, yet they both conveyed spirituality.  A rare quality that even the No Churchers have to esteem.  If it were less rare, maybe there would be fewer No Churchers.  Maybe.  And maybe not.

     Even if I’m not myself a believer, I respect those who are.  Whenever I’m in the Union Square subway station – a huge labyrinth of passageways giving access to any number of subway lines – I give a smile and a friendly wave to the women, often black or Latino, who have a table there with literature and invite people to learn what the Bible really says.  They look so committed, and so ignored by the hurrying commuters, that I can’t resist this gesture, which always provokes a warm smile and a friendly wave back.  Maybe someday I’ll stop and tell them that I still have the Bible I was given by my mother at age sixteen, a bit decrepit but still usable.  (The Bible, not my mother.)

     But things aren’t always so simple.  When, some years back, I renewed contact by mail with a woman I had dated in junior high and high school, we exchanged several letters and seemed to be beginning a warm and cordial relationship.  Living now in Nashville, she told me she attended a Bible-based church and some years ago had experienced a Damascus Road experience similar to that of the apostle Paul.  Interested, I asked her to relate it, and finally she did, telling how she had fallen into the blackest of depressions and, desperate, finally surrendered herself to God, following which her depression lifted and she felt a joy like she had never known before. 

File:Hans Speckaert - Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus - WGA21655.jpg
Conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, a painting by Hans Speckaert, 1570s.  Never was 
a conversion more dramatic or more crowded; no room for quiet contemplation here.

     This account fascinated me then and still does now; not for anything would I dismiss lightly or demean in any way what is obviously the most important event in her life.  So far, so good.  But after that she urged me to give up being gay – as if it were something you could turn on and off at will – and finally she put the question, “What do you do about Jesus?”  I replied honestly, “I leave him alone and he leaves me alone.  This way we get along fine.”  Which ended the relationship; no more letters, nothing, kaput.  I truly regret it, but I’m leery of a faith that cuts you off from others; I know several Catholics who share their faith but don’t try to convert me, and we all have a rewarding relationship.

     So much for the No Churchers.  So what about the High and Low Churchers?  In supposedly godless New York they’re all over the place.  For instance: 

     In a former vaudeville theater in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, some six hundred worshipers leap to their feet to join a Latino band in song, shaking their tambourines.  Then a preacher gives a fiery sermon and speaks in tongues, and parishioners with tear-streaked faces raise their arms heavenward, eyes shut, in collective rapture.  Nothing quiet or meditative here.  It is noisy, it is public, it is passionate.  And it is definitely Low Church.

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A Pentecostal service.
Peter van der Sluijs

     But what is it?  It’s the Sunday morning service of the Pentecostal megachurch Aliento de Vida (Breath of Life), founded twelve years ago by the pastor, Victor Tiburcio, and his wife, immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  Who are the worshipers?  Immigrants from Ecuador and Argentina and El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago and just about any country in Latin America, some of them legal and some not: ordinary people from the bottom of the social heap who want passion in their services, as well as help in learning English and navigating the complexities, legal and otherwise, of realizing the American dream.  So great is the demand for Aliento de Vida’s services, simulcasts are offered by the church’s own TV network. 

     But this is nothing, compared to the Pentecostal festival in Central Park on July 11 featuring Luis Palau, the “Hispanic Billy Graham,” one of the world’s leading evangelical Christian figures, a gathering that drew 60,000 worshipers – the limit allowed on the Great Lawn -- for the largest evangelical Christian gathering in the city since Billy Graham’s crusade in Queens in 2005.  Of the 1700 churches participating, 900 were Hispanic, reflecting the surging growth of immigrant-led churches in the boroughs outside Manhattan.  Yet participants weren’t just Hispanic, but Korean-American and African-American as well.  The mayor himself was present to offer a few welcoming words and get prayed for, and the crowd danced and cheered and leaped and prayed, and listened to white-haired Luis Palau preaching in shirtsleeves in both English and Spanish, as everyone present expressed the collective joy of being Christian and proud of it.  And this in the heart of godless New York!  Most definitely and exuberantly Low Church.

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Luis Palau preaching.
Asociación Luis Palau

     If Pentecostalism is sweeping New York and the nation and much of the Third World, gathering new converts by the thousands and tens of thousands, who is losing out?  That most High Church of all High Churches, Roman Catholicism.  Some years ago the Archdiocese of New York, faced with declining attendance, aging priests, and mounting maintenance costs, initiated a broad reorganization that led to the closing of dozens of churches in the metropolitan region.  Thus Our Lady Queen of Angels parish in East Harlem closed in 2007, and its church on East 113th Street was boarded up.  But that’s not the end of the story, for a handful of parishioners refused to accept this change, which some denounced as “betrayal” by the Church, and ever since have met on park benches in East Harlem housing projects to sing hymns and join hands in prayer.  They do this every Sunday, despite raucous sounds of children playing and dogs yipping nearby, braving the scorching heat of summer and the icy rigors of winter.  Yet the closing of this and other parishes in East Harlem is understandable, since the Puerto Ricans who once filled the pews have left for other parts of the city, replaced by Dominicans and Mexicans who are drawn to the storefront Pentecostal churches that have popped up in the area.

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A Roman Catholic Mass.  Very High Church, quiet, traditional, dignified.
James Emery
     And the closings go on.  Just recently almost forty Catholic churches were closed in another wave of closings climaxing the biggest overhaul of the diocese in its entire history.  At Our Lady of Peace on the Upper East Side, tearful parishioners gathered for a last Mass on Friday, July 31.  “This is the beginning of our crucifixion,” said a lifelong member of the congregation, “our Good Friday, the nails driven into the coffin of Our Lady of Peace.”  Parishioners of many of the closed parishes have appealed to the Vatican, which will decide their cases after September 1, but in the meantime the archdiocese has denied them any extension that would keep the churches open until the cases are resolved.  The mood of gloom and doom contrasts vividly with the exuberant and joyful services of the Pentecostals.

     Somewhere between Low Church and No Church are the pagans.  Yes, there are pagans in New York City.  I used to think of them as weirdos who emerge periodically to celebrate the vernal equinox or some such occasion, half naked or dressed in outlandish outfits, and who then disappear until the next celebration.  But they are more organized than that.  The Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies at 419 Lafayette Street (between East 4th Street and Astor Place) offers an introduction to the modern pagan witchcraft religion known as Wicca, with classes in magic, the Greater and Lesser Sabbats, the history of witchcraft, god and goddess archetypes, Shamanism, divination, talismans and amulets, voodoo, the use of spells, and countless other topics.  And yes, with the proper training, you can become a witch.  But they don’t worship Satan, they simply want to be in tune with nature and its forces.

A pagan handfasting ceremony, celebrating a wedding or betrothal.
ShahNai Network
     And yes, there are self-proclaimed Satanists too, though often they don’t really believe in Satan or worship him. The Satanic Temple, whose founders hail from Boston but through the Internet have proselytized throughout the country, has been called a sharp thorn in the brow of conservative Christianity.  They mean to be a counterforce to President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and they do this by launching a religion of Satanism that meets all the Bush administration’s criteria for receiving funds.  Their Satanism is really science-based and atheistic, a way of celebrating outsider status, of looking where other people don’t want to look, to find the obscure, the bizarre, the anomalies.  But it is often political.  If a state allows voluntary prayer in public schools, they propose that Satanic children should be allowed to pray in school… to Satan.  And it plans to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to oppose abortion waiting periods, arguing that it violates Satanic doctors’ belief in the sanctity of good science.  A thorn in the brow of conservative Christianity indeed, but to avoid threats to their families the founders use pseudonyms.  With great anticipation I await their intervention here in New York.  But I leave it to others to decide whether they should be categorized as Low Church or No Church.

Saint Patrick's, as seen from Rockefeller Center.
J.M. Luijt

     To do justice to my announced theme of religion in New York, I’d have to do a series of posts, a whole book.  I haven’t even mentioned Saint Pat’s, the looming Fifth Avenue edifice whose slow beginning in the nineteenth century, with walls rising only as finances permitted, signaled the growing influence of Roman Catholicism in what had hitherto been a WASP city.  A prime tourist attraction, it has a souvenir stand inside its sacred walls, which shocks me, a WASP who in his European travels absorbed the notion of the sacredness of Catholic churches, where God is literally present, and souvenir stands are not to be found (not inside, that is, for souvenirs are always to be had).  A crypt under the main altar harbors the remains of numerous cardinals and other prominent Catholics, including Archbishop Francis (“Franny” to some) Spellman, whose presence there may or may not be a scandal.  (See the much-visited post #136, July 20, 2014).

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     And if you google “places of worship in New York,” you’ll come up with pictures of the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue near Columbia University; the Islamic Cultural Center of New York at Third Avenue and East 96th Street, its domed mosque overtopped by a towering minaret; various synagogues; and with a little more poking about, the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem; the Mahayana Buddhist Temple on Canal Street in Chinatown, with an outsized gold statue of a smiling Buddha, his right hand raised in blessing; and the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East 97th Street, its multiple cupolas topped by crosses.  And these are only the biggies; there are smaller sites as well, each with a story to tell. 


     Dazzled by thoughts of minarets, Buddhas, and cross-topped cupolas, I now ask myself what I would most want to see, if visiting an unfamiliar place of worship.  The answer comes immediately: I would most want to see something truly holy, something awe-inspiring, something to take me out of myself, something with a touch -- or a punch -- of mystery.  And this from a No Churcher!

    Coming soon:  How New Yorkers spurned powdered wigs and knee britches and took to pantaloons, and the French language preceded English in Manhattan.  How fifty thousand New Yorkers -- a third of the city -- turned out to greet a visiting Frenchman (and it wasn't General de Gaulle).  Why did the Empress Eugénie adopt the hoopskirt -- what was she trying to hide?  And what did Congress have against french fries?  All this, and more, under the aegis of the tricolore.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder



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