There are sixty-four evangelical Christian congregations in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, plus one evangelical faith-based deli, one bookstore and a couple other faith-based businesses. At least one church, First Iglesia Misionera La Flor Del Libario, raises money through regular sidewalk rummage sales. Most of the congregations are majority Hispanic, but a few of these have reached out to the hipsters. There a number of “hipster churches,” though that term is becoming an anachronism. There are a couple of African American churches, one Vietnamese church, a Greek one and a Polish one.
Most of the evangelical congregations are on the east side of Williamsburg. There are only three such congregations in Greenpoint.
We are broadly defining evangelical to include all Protestant churches that emphasize that peoples’ hearts are marred by sin and that evangelism is an expression of the good news (gospel) that evil deeds can be forgiven and hearts can be fundamentally transformed by believing in Jesus as the Son of God resurrected from the dead, and the Bible is the word of God. This definition includes Pentecostal churches that singularly emphasize such “gifts of the Spirit” as speaking in heavenly tongues, healing and prophecy. Of course, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox and churches have many beliefs and cultural styles in common. In Williamsburg-Greenpoint we occasionally run across Catholic street evangelism, so evangelical Protestants are not the only ones who believe in public evangelism. However, the Christian churches do differ about the authority of the Pope, the structure of the church, and the role of religious practices in achieving spiritual growth and salvation.
The Protestant evangelicals have been present in Williamsburg and Greenpoint since their founding, but most of the currently active congregations date their origins to the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. Their activities have at times had a large influence on the character of their neighborhoods.
Williamsburg and Greenpoint have been a frontier for numerous collisions of peoples, ideas, politics and economic actions that have disrupted settle life-worlds. The communities are not primarily caught in a hierarchy of markets, politics or are the result of a trickle down culture from the elites. Rather, the evangelical religious movements in Willamsburg-Greenpoint are an example of how the city is a socio-religious synthesis of a place with a high incidence of intrusive disruptions from many sources.
For example, many Williamsburg & Greenpoint industries, which flourished by processing the raw products of the slave system, certainly attracted capital and more settlers to their area. The sugar-producing plants like Frederick C. Havemeyer Jr.’s American Sugar Refinery (eventually renamed Domino Sugar Company) relied heavily on raw sugar molasses produced by slave labor.
However, the definition of Williamsburg and Greenpoint as nodes of production operating according to purely “objective economic laws” was challenged and defeated by a religiously-based evangelical abolitionism in the neighborhood and the formation of free African American churches. In the end the capitalists of Williamsburg and Greenpoint supported the destruction of their own market suppliers who were using Southern slaves.
The religious endorsement of the nexus of high capitalism with supplies produced by chattel labor that had started with the Dutch was broken. Elite capitalism and its religious apologists had to give way to the religious abolitionists.
Then, in the late 19th Century, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish reformers along with secular voices joined in a battle against the slave-like wages and conditions among the immigrants. Today, evangelical churches are addressing the needs of immigrants, poverty, bad schools and the mixed blessings of gentrification. In the Fall 2013 elections local evangelicals likely voted heavily in favor of the egalitarian candidate Bill de Blasio.
Each year the evangelical churches supply up to $16 million of direct social services. One way to determine the monetary value of the contribution to Williamsburg and Greenpoint of such church and ministry efforts in social services is to utilize a previous study on the amount of social welfare provision by congregations in several cities. The work of University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan provides a useful guide. A few years ago he did a survey of the social welfare provision by congregations in several cities including New York City. He estimated that the average value of a congregation's formally organized social welfare activities by adding up the value of paid labor, volunteer labor, in-kind and direct monetary grants and the space utilized for these churches. Since his work was published in 2002 and 2006, we have updated his figures to the 2010 value of today's dollar. Adjusting his survey figures by the Consumer Price Index, we can estimate that each congregation in Greenpoint and Williamsburg today provides $246,840 worth of social welfare benefits to the city every year.
Of course, this is hardly the whole story. Congregations in Williamsburg and Greenpoint provide a whole host of informal person-to-person social services that are not counted formally. Indeed, the most important social welfare service of these churches is changed hearts. The investments of the churches are helping thousands of personal turnarounds which in turn helps to strengthen the social fabric in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. When no one else would dare invest in the communities and their people during the rough days of the 1970s, the evangelical (and other religious) congregations stayed and fought to rescue lives and the neighborhood. The stories of life-turn-arounds are plentiful in these churches. Most stories are about finding deeper meaning and a moral framework for life. However, quite a few stories are about recoveries from a vast personal destruction. (We will add the story of the Catholic churches’ contributions later in this series.)
Take the example of Edwin Colon. A synapsis of his written recollections outlines the pathway from troubled youth to conversion to neighborhood rebuilder. At age thirteen Colon was doing coke, and he dropped out of school after the seventh grade. “Life for me was a real mess,” he recalls in a written testimony. Then, “God saved me.” In 2001 four ex-drug addicts who had been converted to Christianity and two drug addicts on a methadone maintenance program started meeting in Colon’s kitchen on Java Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They called themselves The Brooklyn Lighthouse Community Church.
Outgrowing the kitchen, the group moved to an apartment that was vacant due to a fire. Though the setting was pretty miserable, drug addicts were getting delivered and families were being restored. Encouraged and growing, the Lighthouse then moved to another church in the neighborhood. In the lore of the church that location became known as “The Dungeon” on Milton Street.
What started as six men in a kitchen now became thirty ex-drug addicts, their families and friends, who prayed, worshipped, studied the Bible and ate together while reaching out fellow denizens of the streets. In time The Lighthouse outgrew The Dungeon and moved to North Fifth Street in Williamsburg Brooklyn, a worship center that became tagged in the congregation as “The North Side.” Since 2004, this church has moved into an even larger facility and planted several other churches as incubators of life turnarounds and community betterment. Although the larger church was fatally damaged by fire, the fruitfulness that came from Edwin Colon's life-changing path continues to pay dividends in multiple churches.
After salvation, an addict needs a small community to help make a life transition: job and social skills training, legal services, and some temporary economic support. Churches typically add these services, either formally through faith-based organizations or informally through relationships, as new converts need them. The formula is as old as the church: saved by God, gathered in community.
Next week: The evangelicals in 19th Century Williamsburg and Greenpoint
Also see previous features on A Journey through Williamsburg and Greenpoint religions:
Illustrated Explorer's Guide to Williamsburg & Greenpoint. Think of Brooklyn Community District 1 as a city with over 173,000 people in 2010;
Surprising truth about Billburg & Greenpoint: thick with religious faith and practice. There are over 300 religious organizations in the area; and
The Jews of Williamsburg & Greenpoint. About 61,000 Jews live in the NYC community district of Williamsburg-Greenpoint.