Material objects have never been just symbols of the materialism of the secular city. They have always been the vehicles for religious discussion and moral solidarity. Whether it was Jesus using coins, seeds and dirt in his parables in Jerusalem, or Isaac Newton using a clock to illustrate creationism in London; or Mohammed showing hospitality with a fountain of water in Medina, faiths have constructed the civic spirit through material objects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in postsecular New York City in the relations of Christians and Muslims.
Jerome Washington and Kane Mamadou did not believe that they had a lot in common. That is, until they arrived to work in the same vehicle. “Him and I both drive a Volkswagen,” Washington observed. “We both know the quality of the Volkswagen.”
Usually, after they parked in the 144th Street and Lenox Avenue area, Washington and Mamadou went their separate ways, hardly speaking. Washington is the pastor of New Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Harlem, and Mamadou is the Outreach Coordinator of Timbuktu Islamic Center. Their religious sites are just across the street from one another and a world of difference.
Once they discovered a common taste in cars, they started to bridge their worlds. After nineteen years as pastor at New Mount Calvary Baptist, Washington started on a new journey by crossing the street.
The pastor discovered that the Malians who opened Timbuktu mosque in July 2011 were not able to afford to add a kitchen and appliances. Consequently, the immensely symbolic Ramadan evening meals after a day of fasting couldn’t be held in the mosque. The church invited the mosque to cook their Muslim festival meals in the church kitchen.
“Whatever we can do to help out, we do,” Washington said about the mosque. “There is no separatism in what we do for one another.”
In return, Mamadou invited Washington, who has ministered in Harlem for 19 years, to speak at the mosque and talk about building relationships together in their neighborhood. “We respect [the] church and they respect us,” Mamadou said. “We all get along.”
As New York City has become the American metropolitan area with the largest number of mosques, churches are discovering that they have more Muslim neighbors. The communities are coming together in a fashion rarely seen a decade ago.
The future of civic solidarity in New York City will increasingly rest in the hands of religious leaders because their numbers are growing rapidly. Who knows, maybe the material cultures interpreted by faith will bring the city together.
In Harlem, Mamadou and Washington both told A Journey about their fears for the safety of their city’s children. During last summer, they saw an intensification of violence bombarding their streets through fatal shootings and assaults, including the fatal shooting of Durrell Shaw. Five gun shots were fired off at the legendary basketball tournament in Rucker Park.
“We are going to win our streets back,” Washington said. “Together we must help make them safer.”
Both the mosque and the church planned a rally service after Ramadan at the end of August. Washington, a former NYPD officer, said their main objective for the rally was to call on law enforcement to enforce stricter gun control laws in the city. “If we can get together on that, it will be a plus for the community, the mosque, and the church,” Washington said.
A similar story is taking place in Parkchester, a neighborhood in the Bronx. On White Plains Road, activity is bustling every Friday night as the nondenominational Church of the Revelation brings around 400 people through its doors for family worship service. On the parallel street of Virginia Avenue, up to 1000 Muslims walk into the four-story Jame Masjid for evening prayers. Faith is a pervasive factor in the streets.
However, the faiths have sometimes conflicted over material objects also.
Two years ago, anger crested high in the neighborhood. Mosque leaders had sought permission from the city to set up electronic amplification for their daily call to prayer. Church members were alarmed and opposed the proposal, saying that the sound would disrupt life in the community.
Because of the intense backlash, the mosque retracted their request to the city. But hurt feelings sizzled in the streets like a hot summer day. In an effort to better integrate the mosque into the community, leaders of Church of the Revelation took action. They felt that some of the tensions were caused by poor communications. “We [helped] them feel not so alienated,” Mike Tolone said, the church’s outreach pastor. “That’s one reason we started ESL classes.”
In fact the predominantly Bangladeshi Muslim congregation wanted new options for English tutoring. When the church offered free classes across the street, the Bangladeshis took advantage of the offer and communication grew. “Now we have good relations with the leaders of the mosque,” Tolone said.
The Block and the Body
For block parties or special events the mosque and church help each other to get city permission to close off sections of the street. The two religious congregations are planning to partner up for a health fare in 2013.
“If there is a need in the community,” Tolone added, “we want to fulfill it together.”