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The Christians of Flushing, Queens

HINGE — The resurgence of Christians in NYC’s most populous area.

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Sheshan is a mountainside Catholic basilica near Shanghai. Each year, Flushing Catholics mount a procession for Our Lady of Sheshan and for the persecuted Christians.

The Christian churches and ministries account for almost two-thirds (280) of the 414 religious sites in the community. This is a recovery after a long tapering off in Flushing of religious growth in the Twentieth Century.

In the 1960s, Christians in Flushing despaired over the economic decline of their community. To some middle-class Protestants, it seemed like their spiritual sites and homes were being surrounded by a swamp of unfamiliar peoples with unfamiliar faiths. Among city residents as a whole, there was also a growing despair over the future of New York City.

In 1963, Frederick Nader lamented a change around his First Baptist Church on Sanford Avenue. He wrote that the development “is making our church ‘an Inner City Church!’” The next year, according to John Chin T. Wang’s history of the church, Nader wrote that he was feeling “hemmed in by non-Protestant elements.” He told his congregation that he had, “Questions! Questions! Questions!” The congregants evidently agreed with him for many (perhaps over 50%) were moving out.

The pastor was torn between his uneasiness with the change and his Christian duty to care for all peoples. He himself had been educated at Moody Bible Institute which was founded to reach the urban masses, particularly the immigrants.

Perhaps, he recalled Flushing’s Baptists own struggles with discrimination and racism. In 1656, a shoemaker named William Wickenham preached and baptized Flushing residents in the local creek. The downtown Manhattan establishment was furious that such a wild religious fellow was allowed to create such disorder.

Later in the mid-19th Century, Whites formed their own church, First Baptist, separate from the African American Baptists. After their founding in 1856, the church still allowed friendly relations with African Americans and even received their first African American member after the civil war in 1871. Alas, that comity did not last, and, sometime afterward, the church stopped allowing African Americans to join as members. In fact, an older member of the church, Iris Holden, recalled in 2006 that she had been Baptist in the 1940s but not allowed to join until the 1950s.

Nader was generally aware of this struggle of the church to realize the Apostle Paul’s idealism. The disciple, who was directly converted by Jesus, wrote to the church in the city of Galatia (now in central Turkey) which was also wrestling with racial, legal, and gender division. The apostle exhorted that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This ideal was revolutionary for the times but was deeply resisted, even by Christians.

So, the pastor in 20th Century Flushing struggled with the local implications of Paul’s teaching. He started shifting resources from foreign missions into inner city ministries like The Bowery Mission and God’s Lighthouse. Even so, cultural and language barriers are hard to overcome a guest speaker told the church that he wondered why it was not putting more efforts into helping the newly-arrived-to-Flushing Hispanics.

By 1965, the church had a Spanish service. In 1968, Reverend William Doo from Shanghai pastored a Chinese service, and in 1970, congregants raised their hands at service to report that they were from China, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Dutch Surinam, Cyprus, and Egypt. The demography of Flushing was already reaching a Hinge moment with a onrush of peoples from Asia, and by 1976, Chinese Americans made up almost half of First Baptist Church. Other churches, Protestant and Catholic, were also reporting such changes. Ever since this time, the Christian churches and ministries have been growing.

Will this Flushing resurgence continue? What will be the impact on Christian churches and ministries of changes of class generation, ethnicity and new immigrants? Flushing religion is at another Hinge moment.

 

Rev. John Chin T. Wang, pastor of the Chinese & Spanish Ministries, First Baptist Church of Flushing. He lived in Taiwan, Paraguay, and Argentina. Before coming to the United States, he worked as a civil engineer building dams and buildings in Argentina. He became a full-time pastor at First Baptist after the destruction of the World Trade Center. "Time is limited," he thought.  Rev. Henry Kwan is senior pastor. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Next week: The revival of Protestant evangelicals in Flushing

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