“You're invited!” were the first words out of his lips. Isaac Ramroop was dressed in a crisp white shirt tucked into freshly pressed black wool pants under a black blazer. He was holding a stack of religious tracts and handed one to me as I introduced myself in front of his dad's church, the Bible Believer’s Assembly in Jamaica, Queens.
When Ramroop came to the United States from Guyana 10 years ago, he entered the rich ethno-religious mix of New York City. However, he was ready for the challenge. His desire was to open the doors of his church to the diversity of city.
His own family was diverse before they arrived here. “My mother was born a Muslim, but converted before she met my dad,” Ramroop, now in his twenties, reflected. His mom was part of a trend in Guyana of people leaving Islam. The number of Muslims declined from 8% in 1991 to about 7% in 2002.
Ramroop’s father began by planting churches in Guyana after he became a preacher fourteen years ago. In 2003 he opened his church here.
The manifold culture of the younger generation of Preacher's Kids in New York City combines many ethnicities and religions. They symbolize a period in world history of sweeping global mixing of peoples. Some prognosticators fear that the result will be the rise of ethnic, religious and class tensions. Yet, in New York City, which has more children of immigrants than any other city in the United States, we found that many of the younger generation of PKs use their diversity to deepen their faith and overcome social divisions.
Every one of their churches is riddled with potential fault lines. So, PKs see their role as creating a unity out of the diversity, a unum out of the pluribus, a peace out of divisions. Ramroop’s invitation into his church was his contribution to the peace process.
Following him inside, I encountered an outgoing wave of Guyanese church members with their children putting on their coats after sermon. Smiling faces looked up at me as if they were expecting my arrival. The congregation has about 30 members including children. They were dressed in their Sunday's best, slacks and blazers for the men and dresses and pumps for the women. The apparel was contemporary. The little ones who were holding their parent's hands scooted behind their tall legs as I approached. They were wearing the same motif of clothing as their parents but in miniature size. Later, the parents and their children would face generational bumps on the road to family unity as Ramroop did with his father.
“We [the children] saw the things the world can offer us,” the son remembers. PKs find it harder to sort out their differences with their pastor-parents because family conflict gives a bad sign to the congregation. They have to tamp down their differences to present the model family. Ramroop said, “In some cases, it was hard for me and him. We had to be an example.”
By the time Rampoop and I spoke, he had already come to terms with the doubts about Christianity and disputes he had with his father growing up. He did not want to delve again into the troubles, so I couldn’t tell if he had completely settled his questions.
The friendliness of Isaac Ramroop's church made me forget the harshness of life and the sparseness of the building, a plain one-story concrete structure that seems to have been painted white eons ago. The interior was filled with foldable chairs under dim lights and surrounded by wooden walls. At the head of the sanctuary was a single step altar. Isaac Ramroop's outreach in front of the building was like a small welcoming light to the community. I didn’t feel like an outsider as an Indonesian-Chinese woman of an uncertain faith. I felt welcomed. The church had an easiness in dealing with differences.
The members of Bible Believer's Assembly are Indo-Guyanese, the descendants of indentured servants brought from East India to Guyana in the early 1800s. During the 1600s and 1700s, a large numbers of slaves from Africa were brought over by the Dutch. However, the East Indians remained relatively homogeneous because they retained many of their cultural traditions. According to the Bureau of Statistics in Guyana, 44% of the population was of East Indian descent in 2002, making them the largest ethnic group in Guyana.
In New York City, the Indo-Guyanese are mostly concentrated in the Richmond Hill section of Queens. There are also some in the Eastchester and Parkchester areas of the Bronx. Their immigration peaked in the 1980s. According to the American Community Survey of 2008, there were 180,852 people born in Guyana living in NYC. This did not include their children, who were often born in the States. The figure means that New York City is the second largest Guyanese population center in the world, just behind Georgetown, Guyana's capital.
Ramroop’s religiously-mixed family background made it easy for him to talk faith with Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Other PKs use their mixed ethnic background to promote multi-ethnic churches.
When I met Jose Santana, Jr., he was also standing in front of the ministry of his father, who is the assistant pastor of the First Iglesia Misionera in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The son was wearing a bracelet that sported Puerto Rican flags and a necklace with a pendant of the Dominican Republic. Santana, Jr. made a point of verbally drawing out his ethnic map. “My family is half Puerto Rican and half Dominican. My dad is Puerto Rican and my mom is Dominican. She was born in the Dominican Republican and became a U.S. citizen. My dad was born in the U.S., but grew up in Puerto Rico.” One needed a map with arrows to keep track!
In other words, Santana, Jr. represents a new version of the classic New York mutt. He said his background enables him to move fluidly back and forth between Dominican and Puerto Rican groups. He saw his diversity as an asset. Some PKs combine even more diversity.
Earnestiena Cheng is a fun-loving, bouncy Chinese-Indonesian American who jumps up and down and isn’t afraid to show her excitement. She loves dressing for special occasions, whether it is for a wedding or a costume for a school play. She has long-black straight hair that reaches her waist and occasionally dyes it with brown streaks. Careful in her answers, she is still open and good humored a temperament that is useful in handling her complex social situation.
She combines a multi-religious background within a multi-ethnic, multi-generational church. Occupying these three social statuses, Cheng faced a lot of identity choices. Christian? Chinese? Chinese Indonesian? American-born second generation? Some combination? However, she also said the choices gave her an independence to make her faith her own faith, not just something that her parents gave her. Social pressure on PKs can be quite high.
When her father, Bing Cheng, was ordained, Cheng hadn’t expected the type of weight that comes upon a PK. “I didn't think I expected much to change,” she recalled. “I knew maybe we get to sit in the front now or something, little changes, but I didn't really expect anything more than that. I think it was a bigger change than I expected it to be.” But even as an 8-year old, she sensed that many people in the congregation were developing high expectations of her as a PK.
Cheng said that because people might not know you well, they tend to look for small signs in the PK’s life as evidence of flaws in her father’s ministry. “When your dad is a pastor, you have to set an example for that group of people we don't see much of. So just being an image was a bigger change than I expected.”
Her level of involvement in church also significantly increased. Now, she is not only an active member in church, but she's been a Sunday school attendee for the last 10 years. As a PK, you can’t play hooky.
Her father’s role also put a spotlight on the family’s race. She recalled, our family’s race “naturally, physically stood out.” Upper Room World Christian Center is a mega-church with a predominately white and black, some Hispanic, and limited Asian membership. Cheng’s situation is like that of many PKs. A CUNY study in 2005 found that second generation kids in New York City tend to worship in ethnically mixed congregations which provide a push toward integration with people of other ethnic groups. In such a diverse context she had to sort out her beliefs.
Because her father’s own spiritual path lead him to be born-again, he was able to appreciate his daughter’s desire to think for herself. While working for MetLife Insurance in 1992, he converted from Buddhism to Christianity when the pastor whom he was offering insurance asked if Bing knew the “eternal insurance” of Jesus Christ. Ten years later, Bing entered the pastorate and is now a part-time pastor in the Upper Room World Christian Center in Long Island with a service in College Point, Queens.
His daughter was able to grasp her faith with one hand and her questions with another. She observed, “I think that when you're born a Christian, that's great because you have the foundation... but eventually you're going to have to stop living on what other people tell you to believe and you're going to have to start thinking on your own.”
Seventeen year old Cheng started to question things when she entered Townsend Harris High School in Bayside, Queens. She recalled, “Just to ask yourself: This is what I've been taught, do I really believe it? And if I do, why? Just because my parents say it doesn't mean I really know it for myself.” The liberal school is “humanities based and everything is what's the meaning of this and what's the purpose of that.” She found that type of questioning was what her Dad had also practiced.
The different lifestyles and ideas in high school presented themselves through her friends who were a mix of seculars and Christians. She said that she need to make choices as she interacted with her friends. “When you look at other people and they look happy, you also have to see their lives. Their ideas might be freer and they seem to embrace more, but you just look at their actual lifestyles and ask yourself: Can you live that kind of life? Would you be able to live that and it'll be good for you?,” she said.
Cheng practices a kind of pluralism that allows her to hold firm to her faith while being friends with people who might not agree with her. She continued, “When I talk to my friends and I hear about the things they do, I might not agree with it but I can decide what is for me and what isn't.” As a member of the Seeker's Club, an urban Christian youth ministry, since her freshman year, Cheng rose up the ranks to become vice president of the club. Her experience of asking questions on the way to a deeper faith was common among the PKs whom we interviewed.
“A person can claim they're Christian, but they need to truly feel and believe with their heart,” Ramroop reflected in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Many times in my life I've had moments of doubt, but God was always there for me. I would remember the things God has done for me and it keep me encouraged. It keeps me alive and gives me peace. I'm thankful for Life, for everything!” PKs experience the city’s manifold diversity as a manifold blessing.
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