Imagine a city run by Preacher's Kids (PKs). Some might still attend church in their adult years or even have ministries of their own. They would likely have relatives who also grew up as PKs. Some would have taken the sense of a spiritual calling into other fields like journalism, teaching, nursing and medicine. Some are beginning to bring a sense of God’s calling into politics. What kind of city do they envision? Which values & code of ethics would be emphasized? What social programs would be created? Would these make for a thriving city?
According to the 2015 estimate by the United States Census, within New York City's 305 square miles, the population has reached an all-time high of 8.5 million. The number of religious congregations and faith-based community ministries has also grown. However, we also face complex political problems. Housing costs have soared, taxes are high, schools are failing, families are stressed, the middle and working class are fleeing, new timers and old timers jockey for space, Catholic hospitals have disappeared, labor-management conflicts are looming, and political leadership is weakening, Wall Street’s reputation is in tatters, business is fleeing, and terrorism alerts lace the nation with fears that are restricting the city’s lifeblood of new immigrants. In our imaginary city run by officials with long-term experience in faith and values, how would these ailments be addressed?
Throughout numerous interviews with ethnically diverse PKs during our travels through all five boroughs, A Journey found that they generally have a sense of morals that includes a provision of community spaces, evangelism, reforming criminals into law-abiding citizens, forgiveness through second chances, healthy families, social programs, education for future mindedness, and fiscal responsibility. It also appears that PK faith is braced with the conviction that the city should be a community that embraces everyone.
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Churches as community spaces
For example, we ran across a PK sidewalk effort on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Hasidic Jews and Hispanics live side by side. With elevated train tracks overhead, Broadway physically divides these two communities. The American Community Survey of 2005 – 2009 counted 10,741 Puerto Ricans inWilliamsburg, 7,050 people from the Dominican Republic, and 4209 Mexicans. The population of Hispanics and Hasidic Jews continues to grow. PK Jose Santana, Jr. showed us how his church reaches out to everyone on the sidewalk.
He is half Puerto Rican from his father's side and half Dominican from his mother's side. During a sidewalk flea market last summer in the front of their church, 1st Iglesia Misionera,
Santana, Jr. and his father, Assistant Pastor Jose Santana, Sr. were struggling to haul a television set from the church to their sidewalk sale.
In the heat, droplets of sweat formed along Santana Jr.’s cheek bone. He is 19 years old and was wearing bluejeans, a navy blue shirt, and a baseball cap pulled backwards. His dad is about 50 years old and was dressed casually but conservatively in workman’s clothes.
The son stopped to catch his breath. He mentioned that he was pleased by the outreach of their humble church, which is the first missionary church of their council. Indeed, he and his father spoke with excitement in their voices when talking about their congregation.
Santana, Sr. told the story of a new member who came from the streets. “He already plays the guitar [in church],” he said.
Quickly, his son joined in the conversation. I got the feeling that Santana, Jr. was looking for an opportunity to communicate his admiration for his father’s outreach to people. He looked at his father, who had turned to do a transaction with a passerby, gazed thoughtfully towards the floor, then added to his father’s comments.
“He was a professional musician. He came to us: it was his time to be lifted up,” said Santana, Jr. There was a pride in his father’s work, the church and God’s direct care for the church and its people. “God used us” to help the musician to show his gift, Santana, Jr. said. “You know what?,” he rhetorically emphasized, “One of the things this church is known for is music.” The son sees the church as a place that people from the street are honored and put into starring roles that God has prepared for them. His father built the stage.
Santana, Jr. circled back to his father, “This church is also based on family. I do my part and help my father out. It's my responsibility. Out of it, I get blessing.” Church, family and teenager are rolled into one cherished nugget of wisdom—“blessing” in the streets of New York City.
In our journey, we often meet PKs in churches like First Iglesia Misionera creating community places and reshaping public spaces like the sidewalks, streets and parks to bring people together on behalf of the poor. [For more on the relation of churches to community life on city streets see the sidebar "Church, Street, Community" or at the end of the article.]
In East Tremont, Bronx, Elizabeth Foster, the soft spoken teenage daughter of the pastor of Iglesia Pentecostal la Senda Antigua, explained how churches in her neighborhood are community spaces, “If you don't want to come here, you can go to another church on the block. It's a really populated area. That's the biggest impact you can make as a church--to bring a place for all people to come.”
Churches are important community spaces. We—even church people--often take for granted the importance of this space that provides haven for the poor, solace for the needy, and symbolism as a place of safety, solace and family. Churches are occasionally discounted because some see them as otherworldly. Others see them as parasitic. “Debate over the role and usefulness of religion and religious institutions…has become a prominent feature of the national public discourse on urban society,” says Omar M. McRoberts, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. In Streets of Glory (2003) he wrote that at a local community hearing in Boston someone, to the frowns of church people present, lumped together churches and the auto body shops of car thieves. The official who was representing the city government half-heartedly defended the churches with the argument that not “all” churches fit that category.
Here in New York City, church leaders claim that the city government has carelessly fought churches on the use of public after-school space in favor of secular community groups. Recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed dismissive of everyday religious life in the public spaces of the city government. Speaking about how the city stripped all holiday ornamentation from Staten Island Ferry Terminal, the mayor vaguely defended his actions by saying that religion in public spaces “is difficult.” PKs believe that the city bureaucrats in Manhattan don’t seem to realize that non-profit community services in the boroughs most often means church-based services for the poor, afflicted and oppressed.
Churches as crime stoppers
Foster also takes the church out into the public space by handing out religious tracts on the streets of Boston Road. So far, the city government has not prohibited this kind of religious speech. Her pamphlets are like invitation cards to a safe party in a violent neighborhood and create a different tone on the city sidewalks. She believes that church efforts in public spaces are having an impact on her neighborhood’s barbarism.
Indeed, according to the statistics from the NYPD 48th Precinct in Elizabeth's East Tremont neighborhood, crime rates have decreased 70% from 1990 to 2010.
But what role did church outreach to criminals play in this decrease? No city agency has tried to find out, and there doesn’t seem to be much interest to do so. That seems like a missed opportunity for city government. Here are some facts for the city to consider.
In 2010 we surveyed 345 Christian leaders about the community services that their churches and ministries provide. Almost one out of four (24%) churches have programs to enforce community security or to help ex-offenders live a normal life. In our journeys we have also been surprised with how many churches in the Bronx are pastored by ex-drug addicts and ex-gangsters who got “saved” through church outreach – such as the case with Noberto Carrero, pastor of Torrente de Cedron in the Bronx.
Carrero was a leader of the Ching-a-Lings, a notorious gang that roamed NYC streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx in the 70s. He was the Enforcer for his division of the gang. In 1974 Norberto says that he escaped the worst destructions of gang life in a miraculous moment in this church. “I was spiritually born here,” he said, pointing around the church basement.
Through the guidance of the church, the same scenarios of physical and emotional clean-up can be found in the circles of drug addicts throughout the city. One university researcher found that almost every crack addict’s apartment in the south Bronx had a tract or pamphlet, usually given to them by a friend or relative. The PKs’ are often the leaders in reaching into the drug culture of some tough areas of the city.
In Flatbush, Brooklyn Rachell Jean, a dark-skinned and skinny 15 year old, was concerned for the teens in her neighborhood who were messed up by broken families and sliding into crime. Her father's church, Eglise Tabernacle Haitienne de Brooklyn, is located on a street that was once filled with drug dealers loitering in the doorways.
Jean and I first spoke through a locked screen door before she would let me into the church to meet her family members. Jean explained, “Before we came here, this whole street was drugs. We brought people selling drugs into this church, and now they've stopped selling.” The street seems much improved, though an NYPD high crime task force watchtower is still manned a couple of blocks away.
This area of Lenox Road, where her dad's church resides, is known for its violence. In July 19, 2008, the local news headlined the hit-and-run death of 11 year-old Rondell Grant Jr. When the child ran out of his grandmother's house to see a commotion on the street, a speeding Honda Civic knocked him flying in the air to hit the pavement with a death-blow. The owner of the car, Naquan Mandry, was arrested and charged. Church people on the street are often the first ones on the scene to aid the distressed and to face down criminals. Church efforts on the sidewalks are a ubiquitous sign that the city is a place that generates personal care for the victims of crime. PKs, who emphasize the importance of getting people out of the criminal world, usually link help to ex-offenders to rebuilding their broken families.
For example, PKs see a connection between neglected children and the failure of prisons. Tamar Holmes in the East Tremont area of the Bronx said, “I would change the jail system and the Agency of Children Services (ACS).” She notes that prisoners often become more violent in prison and don’t know how to handle themselves when they get out. “We have a lot of jails that need reformation. People that have been incarcerated, I would put them in a learning and spiritual environment. I would create more jobs and teach them a skill.” She noted that ex-offenders bring trouble into their homes.
And the city, she says, does a poor job of helping families cope. “The Agency of Children Services neglects homes [where violence] needs to be disrupted,” she says.
Last year despite monitoring by the ACS, four year old Marcella Pierce died in her Bedford Stuyvesant apartment due to malnutrition and abuse from her mother. Baby Pierce weighed 18 pounds at her death. Her mother, grandmother, and two ACS employees were charged with crimes.
The Pks in government would teach some lessons both to the parents and the ACS.
Churches as families of compassionate care givers
Holmes is also interested in increasing the uplifting effect of social assistance programs. In her Bronx Community District 6, 57.6% of the population received governmental income support in 2009. The economic condition of the district has continued to deteriorate according to recent U.S. Census figures. PKs like Holmes draw upon the experience of their parents helping the poor while struggling with the city bureaucracy.
In Brooklyn, several PKs spoke with admiration for how their parents’ embraced people as family in order to effectively impart wisdom and social services. PK Jean in Flatbush, Brooklyn displays a balance of family and admiration of her father. As she babysat her younger cousins, ages 12 and 3, carrying the 3-year old, she reflected on her Dad’s nurturing role with the neighborhood.
“Sometimes he takes on the role of the ‘pastor as dad.’ He wants to help people,” she says. The church helps people to live better by being a family. Jean also says her Dad teaches wisdom of life. “He wants to show them other ways of living.”
While A Journey visited, Jean prompted her 3 year old cousin to sing the song that she taught him that morning. Instead, he gave a sheepish smile. It was like a typical family moment at Eglise Tabernacle Haitienne de Brooklyn—warm, nourishing and hopeful. Her church provides numerous social services by being a nurturing family.
“People don't have to be by themselves,” she emphasizes. The result is a full church. “When people come here for service, the whole place is packed. People are standing outside to hear my dad preach.”
In our 2010 survey 75% of churches said that they offered programs to children; 71% offered family strengthening and counseling services; 58% provided services for people in need with 45% specializing in help to the poor and homelessl abd 54% have programs helping seniors.
Based on the goods, labor, services and space that a typical church invests in social services, the total social service provision of all Christian denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and others) to the city is over two billion dollars per year ($2,083,086,473). This means that in each of the 59 community districts of NYC Christian congregations contribute on the average $35,306,550 worth of social welfare benefits every year. Of course, religious groups also provide a whole host of informal person-to-person help. Jewish and other religious groups also invest large amounts into helping the needy. Yet, this religious dimension of community strength is often not fully utilized by the city or experts in helping the poor.
In The Newer Deal. Social work and religion in partnership (1999) Ram Cnaan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that for decades social work training didn’t include discussion on the role of religious faith in social well-being. This has also had an ill-effect on urban social policies. Some social work programs in New York City were slow to embrace the faith-based side of compassion. PKs in the future will pioneer new innovations in the faith-based delivery of social services and social work education.
Churches as school advocates
Educational needs of NYC children would be a significant priority for PK officials. In the 2010 A Journey survey we found that 60% of churches have programs promoting education beyond Sunday school.
In his work Education for Shalom, Nicholas Wolterstorff, an emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, sees a relationship between public piety and religion
through education. In an essay “Rethinking Christian Education,” Wolterstorff astutely stated “If the Christian community is to share in God's work of renewal by being witness, servant, and evidence, its young members will need an education pointed toward equipping them to contribute to that calling.” Preacher Kids highly appreciate the need for better education to prepare them for ministry or other vocations.
Tamar Holmes is participating in this calling towards education. Her mother, Dr. Shirley Holmes-Sulton, is the principle of BLS Multicultural Christian Academy in the East Tremont section in the Bronx. Although Holmes’ mother was previously a public school teacher, the daughter is critical of the NYC education system. She said that she would change NYC by changing the way public schools are run. For example, she observed, “I would change the school systems. I would change the methods of teaching and screen the teachers through background checks.”
In 2000 out of exasperation with the NYC public school system, Holmes moved her 5 children into Catholic schools. However, she was also dissatisfied with her experience with this faith-based alternative. Her son was held back a grade in high school. “That bothered me,” she said, “I was paying money and he wasn't even getting educated.” She decided to try homeschooling, and then extended that experience into the BLS Multicultural Christian Academy that she and her mom started in 2006. Holmes' son, Rahmel, who is 25 years old, a father and a husband, works there as a math teacher. Other PKs also are critical of the NYC public schools.
When I asked Santana, Jr. of Williamsburg what he would change about NYC if he was mayor, he replied “Specifically, education. We want to give the student a better learning experience. A lot of teachers teach to memorize, but they don't teach application of the subjects. What good is math, science, and literature if you can't use it in practical life?”
In the Bronx a seventeen-year old pastor’s kid named Elizabeth worries that the schools were not providing enough activities. She says, “We need more teen recreation centers. That's a reason why people resort to drugs, there nowhere else for them to go but the streets.” Her church, Iglesia Pentecostal la Senda Antigua, provides community space for local people but doesn’t have a program for youth. Elizabeth herself believes strongly in education and at her high school was an honor student taking advance courses atHunterCollege.
PKs as financial advisors
Santana, Jr. and Holmes share a strong support for compassionate citywide programs that focuses on education, children, the needy and the desperate. However, they are not oblivious to the need to leaven compassion with fiscal common sense.
PKs believe in fiscal responsibility for both the rich and the poor. Santana, Jr. is keen to point out the lopsided distribution of income isn’t good for society. He observes, “A lot of companies make money, but it's not influencing people who need it.”
Several PK’s attitude toward money is also affected by the poverty of their start-up pastor parents.
Although Lisa Grace is married, in her 40s, and her father is now the Bishop of Grace Pentecostal Church for All People in Jamaica, Queens, she still vividly recalls the parson’s poverty of her childhood. Grace says, “There were some things we had to sacrifice because our parents had to do other things with the money. For instance, we didn't get an allowance.” The experience instilled a sense of thrift and innovation.
Sociologist Annette Lareau, author of Unequal Childhoods, claims that in her case studies of under-privileged children that they had different playtime patterns than their wealthy peers. Role playing and creativity were the hallmarks of children in working-class families. Without money to buy toys or attend events, games were made at home by evoking one's imagination. Perhaps, PK officials then will have a background that would incline them to find original ways to solve problems.
However, the hardship of their early years sometimes steers PKs away from the pastorate, though they usually retain a sense of empathy for ministers.
Pastor Dr. William C. Johnson, Sr. of Springfield Gardens Church of Christ in Jamaica, Queens says that his son followed in his footsteps by attending his alma mater, Harding University in Arkansas. But when it comes to tending in the ministry, the idea didn't appeal to his son, who is majoring in finance.
When asked if his son is also going to follow his footsteps in becoming a preacher, he gave me a big hearty laugh and replied, “When my son was in Harding, they had a program for Preacher's Kids. They asked the boys if any of them wanted to become a minister; none of them raised their hands. Then they asked the girls if any of them wanted to marry a minister; none of them raised their hands.”
The Blessed City of the future
Preacher's Kids keep returning to the theme that what the city really needs is unity and a sense of a caring community. Their idea is that we are all in this city together. We experience together the triumphs and failures of our city’s systems, our loves and hates of city living, our unique understanding of each other as we live in close quarters. Preacher's Kids remind us that it is possible to enact policies with an attitude that embraces everyone.
Santana, Jr. declared, “I would put all the churches together and let them know we serve one God. That's the problem with NYC, it gets egotistical. I would just humble everybody down.”
With additional data reporting by Tony Carnes.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER THINKING ABOUT CHURCH, STREET, COMMUNITY
From ancient times to today, religion in the streets has been an important feature of vital cities.
“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corners she cries out; at the entrance to the city gates she speaks.
The "Cathedral of the Open Air" was more than a metaphor for the Salvation Army in 1895. When Salvationists knelt and prayed in the city's streets, they believed that a heavenly church hovered above.
Source: "War Cry," 10.7.1895. Diane Winston in Robert Orsi, ed. 1999. Gods of the City. Religion and the American urban landscape, p 373.
Streets in cities serve many purposes besides carrying vehicles, and city sidewalks—the pedestrian parts of the streets—serve many purposes besides carrying pedestrians. Streets and and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs.
Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull… If a city’s streets are safe from barbarianism and fear, the city is tolerable safe from barbarism and fear. Sidwalks, their bordering uses, and their users are active participants in the drama civilization versus barbarism in the cities. The trust of a city street if formed over time, from many, many, many little public sidewalk contacts.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities. 1961. p. 2, 29-30, 56.
One of the most notable social rituals is schmoozing… ’Schmoozing’ is a Yiddish term for which there is no precise definition. But basically it means ‘nothing talk.’
Another great place for schmoozing is the diamond district, the single block on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Here Hasidic Jews play a large role. You see a rich vocabulary of gestures rooted in the culture of Orthodox Jews.
The Jew employs his arm as a pointer to link one proposition to another, or to trace the itinerary of a logical journey, or else as a baton to beat the tempo of his mental locomotion. David Efron found it to be especially characteristic of the Yeshiva type of Jew who was accustomed to argumentation and syllogistic reasoning. It is the exercise of logic by reasonable, fair-minded men. The gestures sometimes indicates a dismay at the weak argument of the other, but generally thee exchanges end up on an obviously friendly, or at least resolving, note...
Soapboxers display cooperative antagonism in heightened form.
About 1 pm they gather at Broad and Wall streets. Most are regulars; some are Henry George single-tax people, some specialize in world affairs, many concentrate on religion, interpretation of the Bible in particular.
The classic form of their encounters is thrust and counter-thrust. With a jabbing finger punctuating each point, one man advances on his adversary, who gives way at the same pace.
After a climactic flourish, the first man stops, and his hands go limp. What more could possibly be said? The other man jabs out his finer. How could that be squared with Genesis? He advances on the other man, who gives way.
The whole preceding scene is now acted out in reverse. Other soapboxers may egg them on. A man who is known as the Logician, a man with a spade beard and an incongruous tweed hat, may top off the session. Both men have missed the point.
William H. Whyte, City. 1988. p. 11, 14-16, 17.
Public spaces requires us to share with one another, they allow us to truly dwell among our neighbors, and they provide a context for a healthy exchange of ideas among a free citizenry.
Eugene O. Jacobson, Sidewalks in the Kingdom. 2003. p. 4, 8.
In neighborhoods like Four Corners [Boston], where most congregations worship in storefronts along busy thoroughfares, church and street, sacred space and public space, religious space and vacant space, form a tight patchwork with one kind of space directly abutting and affecting the other.
On Sundays, a sonic battle ensues between church and street. In the street, I heard the sound of tambourines, singing, preaching, and clapping---the sound of vigorous, ecstatic praise—pouring out of the churches.
Inside church I noticed the sounds of the street: the rumbling bass of car stereos pumping out hip-hop and Dominican merengue, the scree of car tires, the piercing screams of fire engines, ambulances, and police cars, and the occasional shouted curse from an agitated passerby. In Four Corners, worshipers did not have the luxury of considering their churches as places physically set apart.
Four Corners churches conceived of the street in three ways: as an evil other to be avoided at all cost, as a recruitment ground to be trod and sacralized, and as a point of contact with persons at risk who are to be served...
The meanings that church people, especially clergy, assigned to the street, in turn, helped them define what it meant to be religious in that particular church. Members of the Azusa Christian Community saw the street as the place where Jesus tested the commitment of the faithful to those poor and vulnerable.
Omar M. McRoberts, Streets of Glory. Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood. 2003. p. 81-82, 91.
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