I didn’t realize until I attended a press conference to save Elmhurst Community Garden that Queens is practically barren of community gardens in comparison to the other boroughs. The gardeners shared the news that there are only twelve community gardens in Queens compared with about 100 gardens in Manhattan, Bronx, and Brooklyn. Until a community development group associated with a church kicked off the idea of a garden, there were no community gardens in Elmhurst, Queens.
Located in the elbow bend of a short street just off Queens Boulevard, the garden is in zip code 11373 whose population has grown to 113,000 people who have come from almost as many nations as are in the United Nations. Many of the newcomers love the idea of growing their food, which they often did in their home countries. There is even a high school (John Bowne) nearby in Flushing that could provide expertise through its agricultural and animal husbandry programs! However, the growth boom has created a high competition for space. The search for gardening space hasn’t loomed high in city priorities for Elmhurst. Some ardent gardeners even started planting vegetables along a narrow strip of ground paralleling local train tracks.
The role of New Life Community Development Corporation in kicking off the gardening idea in Elmhurst illustrates the growing role of religious groups in initiating civic and political action in New York City. The group was launched by New Life Fellowship, a nondenominational, evangelical church of about 1400 people that was founded in 1987. Journey doesn’t have a tabulation of the number of faith-based civic activists and political candidates in the city, but most of the people whom we have interviewed believe that the number is increasing.
Delia Kim, who brought a youth leadership group called Young Governors to help build the Elmhurst Community garden, is an example of this new faith-based activism. As a Christian living according to the mantra, “a life out of abundance,” she wanted to use her resources to help the poor and struggling immigrants. So, she founded Young Governors, which is not a religious organization, to teach teens to identify community problems, come up with solutions, and acquire the skills of civic engagement. Kim also attends New Life Fellowship because of its high commitment to civic engagement.
“I see more civic engagement by faith-based groups,” Kim observes. She says that younger people like herself are not satisfied with saved and safe in the four walls of the church while the city goes to hell. “There is a turning away from churches that are surrounded by fences,” she believes. If she was mayor of New York City (“Gosh, that’s a big question!”), she would “spread the idea of sharing resources and empowerment.”
What is happening in a little bend of the road in Queens is happening all over the city. How is this faith-based civic activism translating into city politics?
In the next few weeks we will be publishing profiles of faith-based candidates for city offices along with analysis of opinions of religious leaders about what a new mayor should do for the city. We have interviewed over one thousand religious leaders in all boroughs. By faith-based candidate, we mean those candidates who have made a conscious effort to publicly explain how their faith inspires their political mission, values and goals. This approach allows us to identify the emerging new faith-based tone of grassroots campaigns. Of course, it is likely that many more candidates for NYC offices are profoundly, if less visibly, guided by religious faith. Furthermore, candidates for office now generally recognize that victory must lead through campaign appearances at churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other houses of worship. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer once told me that Reverend A.R. Bernard is “my pastor,” by which the Jewish politician seems to have meant that he trusts Bernard’s judgment and wisdom about faith matters as it relates to politics in the city. The new faith-based activists are still learning from the older generation about how to operate on the public stage.
So far, what we have found is that the new faith-based civic activists are committed to coalitions across faiths and non-faiths, promote platforms that have a cross-religious appeal , and draw a line between church and state. They also downplay hot-button issues like pro-life versus abortion and gay marriage, prayer in public schools and the like; indeed, even the religious leaders in the city seldom list these issues as their priorities in changing the city. These issues tend to come up in our interviews only when the believers feel that they are being forced into someone else’s agenda.
In a recent national poll the nagging professionals like clergy, reporters and politicians received some of the lowest marks of respect. Many local religious leaders have de-emphasized cultural wars in favor of helping the poor and working class, religious freedom and personal responsibility. Redd Sevilla, the head of New Life Community Development Corporation, recalls that his church discussed whether the Elmhurst Community Garden should be a church project. After all, there are a lot of ardent gardeners in the congregation. The church’s decision was that the non-sectarian New Life Community Development Corporation would work better to build community and empower people of all faiths.
In fact the garden has brought out the local community in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades, according to long-time residents. Jennifer Chu, a key organizer of the Elmhurst garden, has rounded up the support of well over a hundred people and many donations. Muslims, Hindus, Christians and others are meeting each other for the first time as neighbors and working together. On one Saturday over 100 people turned out to help primp the garden. At the press conference city officials were very visible. U.S. Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-Queens), State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing & Elmhurst) and Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) noted that the vacant lot, which used to be a rubbish heap that attracted vermin and the spotlights of police, is now "a community gem."
When we started our journey through the city, one of the delights was a visit to Taqwa Community Farm in the Bronx. Started by a Muslim imam to keep teens out of the gangs, he turned it over to Baptist church members when he moved. They didn’t change the Muslim name of the garden because after all it summed up the meaning of the garden. The name in this usage means “protect” the children of the neighborhood. Baptists can get into that!
If you know of faith-based candidates whom we can interview, please let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org