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Hispanic evangelicals in Williamsburg-Greenpoint 1916-1948

The rise of the “Los Sures” churches

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Sunday service in original sanctuary of First Spanish Presbyterian Church, Williamsburg, Booklyn

Sunday service in original sanctuary of First Spanish Presbyterian Church, Williamsburg, Booklyn

During the three decades following World War II, Puerto Ricans and European immigrants settled next door to each other and sometimes competed for worship space. Puerto Rican evangelicals were gathering enough people to open their own churches. Then, they won a victory for the stability of their churches when the United States granted citizenship to all Puerto Ricans in 1917. Probably, some Dominicans also arrived in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area. According to a study by the CUNY Center for Dominican Studies, about 5000 immigrated through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924.

Puerto Rican immigrant at Ellis Island between 1905-1926. Photo: Lewis Hine

Puerto Rican immigrant at Ellis Island between 1905-1926. Photo: Lewis Hine

Simultaneously, as Jews moved over the Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side, they bought some of the church buildings to serve as their synagogues. In 1919 a Jewish congregation bought the building of the First Methodist Episcopal Church on 191-199 South Second Street.

Synagogue that was formerly the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Williamsburg on South Second Street between Driggs Aveneue and Roebling Street. Photo: Eugene L. Armbruster, 1922

Then, an immigration act prohibited most immigration so that after 1924 the only new immigrants that arrived into Greenpoint and Williamsburg were immigrants moving from their first settlement area on the Lower East Side before the law took effect. However, the Puerto Ricans were not affected by the new law. Consequently, the labor demands of industry opened up more jobs to migrants from Puerto Rico. At first the Puerto Ricans settled in Brooklyn mainly along the East River near the Navy Yard south of Williamsburg. However, as that community grew, the Puerto Ricans expanded the footprint of their East River settlement upward to South First Street through Fifth Street in Williamsburg. Their numbers grew and their concentrations grew up to Ninth Street and beyond. The Williamsburg area was now colloquially called “Los Sures” (“The Souths”).  As their population moved upward, the Puerto Ricans also started new churches. In a few cases white non-Hispanic congregations that had dwindled in attendance transferred their buildings to Hispanic congregations.

By 1925 the original congregation at the South Third Street Presbyterian Church had dwindled to a remnant. Many of its congregants had moved to join the church plant at Throop Avenue or at Mount Olivet in Bushwick or moved to Queens.  The Presbyterians invited Hispanics to reinvent the church as the First Spanish Presbyterian Church on South Third Street.

First Spanish Presbyterian Church. Building erected 1865 by South Third Street Presbyterian Church

First Spanish Presbyterian Church. Building erected 1865

In 1928 Tomas Alvarez came from Puerto Rico to establish an Assembly of God church in Greenpoint, one of the first Pentecostal churches in New York City. It appears that the congregation at some point took the name Pentecostal Church of God of Greenpoint. Some accounts mention that Latino Pentecosal leader Juan Lugo first pastored in this church.

Many Protestant leaders in the city did not give an enthusiastic reception to Pentecostalism. We can guess that the same chilly reception awaited the Pentecostals in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Some mainline evangelicals saw Pentecostalism as relying on too much guidance from emotional experience rather than the Bible, the intellect and prudent wisdom. Some said that the spiritual gifts as practiced by the Pentecostals were only intended to demonstrate the supernatural charisma of the founders of the early church. However, despite the criticisms, Pentecostalism made significant inroads among evangelicals and became an acceptable variant of evangelicalism.

Greenpoint Pentecostal Church, 1930s.Pastor Meliton Donato, r.

Greenpoint Pentecostal Church, 1930s.Pastor Meliton Donato, r. Photo courtesy Donato family

In the 1920s the Protestants sharply divided into evangelicals and modernists.  Messianic Jews in Williamsburg and Greenpoint got a cold shoulder from the rising group of Modernists in the older churches. Louis Meyer, a significant Messianic leader who worked at the Presbyterian headquarters in Manhattan, reported that his boss was no longer interested in Jews, Messianic Jews or Israel because of a general move away from believing the Bible. In 1919 Meyer edited a book called The Fundamentals to rally evangelicals around a common core of beliefs. However, opponents cleverly used the book’s title to create a derogatory label “fundamentalist.”

Rev. John Roach Straton preaching on the radio. Calvary Baptist Church, Manhattan, March 17, 1923. Calvary was the first church to operate its own broadcasting station.

Rev. John Roach Straton preaching on the radio. Calvary Baptist Church, Manhattan, March 17, 1923

Later, the evangelicals broke into two camps, “the fundamentalists,” who were militantly counter-cultural versus “the evangelicals,” who emphasized engagement with culture and society. The fundamentalists took upon themselves the derogatory term as a badge of honor in defiance of public opinion. In Manhattan Rev. John Roach Straton of Calvary Baptist Church sided with the fundamentalists in issuing harsh denunciations of the “modernists.” At Riverside Church Harry Emerson Fosdick charged back on behalf of the “modernists” with a harsh pamphlet entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Undoubtedly, these debates affected the evangelical churches in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. However, during our interviews, no current church leader in the area would take on the title of “fundamentalist.” Mostly, the term “fundamentalist” is used today by scholars and journalists unsympathetic to evangelicals.

The Messianic Christians in Williamsburg joined other evangelicals in opposing the modernists who had a Gentile bias against any special space for the Jews in the church or for a new Israel. On the other hand, local Messianic Jews also noted that the Fundamentalists sometimes veered into xenophobia and anti-Semitism. In the 1930s Rabbi Leopold Cohn accused a notable Fundamentalist and Straton ally of being anti-Semitic. Elias Newman, a Jewish Lutheran based in Minnesota but in constant contact with NYC Jewish leaders, published The Fundamentalists’ resuscitation of the anti-Semitic protocol forgery in 1934and The Jewish Peril and the Hidden Hand in 1933. The economic uncertainties created a complex class character to the emerging divisions with more wealthy Manhattan elites supporting the modernists against the lower and middle class evangelicals. The fundamentalists were veering into a militancy that was similar to that associated with the radicalization of the working class in the face of economic disaster.

The Great Depression during the 1930s closed many businesses, which also impacted the well-being of many congregations. Fiorella LaGuardia, an Episcopalian who said that God had called him to the mayoralty, promoted Williamsburg Houses in the eastern part of the community district as the most comprehensive slum clearance and public housing projects in the nation. Although the price of acquiring the land was relatively cheap, the large goals were only partly met because the project’s costs ballooned beyond imagination. There was little provision for community space and no space for job creating businesses. Moreover, the project was open only to whites. La Guardia tried to balance out such blatant racism with other projects in Harlem that were available to African Americans.  After the first six of twenty buildings opened for residents on September 20, 1937, La Guardia turned toward providing direct relief from unemployment and jobs as a better tool to relieve urban poverty than a sole concentration on housing first.

Williamsburg Houses

Williamsburg Houses

The start of World War II revitalized the industries of Williamsburg-Greenpoint and brought new migrants and immigrants to the area. The current migration of Mixteca Mexicans from southern Mexico started when some came looking for work in the defense industries of New York City during World War II. Mixteca Mexicans, who were generally very devout Christians, were the ripple that in the Twentieth First Century would grow into a great wave of new members local Hispanic churches.

In 1948 modern Israel was founded, a goal long sought by Williamsburg and Greenpoint evangelicals. In the 1950s Hispanic evangelicals would have to deal with a clash between Puerto Rican nationalists and those favoring a continuing incorporation into the United States. They would also have struggles with economic and social crises in the city and with making their voices heard by a civic and religious establishment in the city that tended to ignore them.

Hispanic Heritage Celebration at First Spanish Presbyterian Church, n.d.

Hispanic Heritage Celebration at First Spanish Presbyterian Church, n.d.

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