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Postsecular society in Bushwick: the hospital and the religious groups

Public institutions like Wyckoff Heights Medical Center and the faith-based groups are indeed closely linked together by common interests. Regardless of which political faction holds power in city hall, this trend in New York City likely will grow in the future. HINGE feature

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Photo illustration by A Journey through NYC religions


Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city is trying to bring together the city government and the religious and non-profit social service groups to seek out the public good together. In January, he announced the opening of the city government’s Center for Faith and Community Partnerships, which will have offices in every borough. At the beginning of June, faith-based leaders will gather to test an emergency preparedness network connected to the city’s new center.

In Brooklyn, the borough President Eric Adams has been steadily assembling his community outreach with his Faith-based and Clergy Initiatives directed by Pastor Gilford Monrose.


Mayor Bill DiBlasio, Councilman Fernando and Elvia Cabrera, mayoral candidate John Liu, Pastor Dimas Salaberrios and other pastors marching across Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. Photo: Christopher Smith/A Journey through NYC religions


Public institutions like Wyckoff Heights Medical Center and the faith-based groups are indeed closely linked together by common interests. Regardless of which political faction holds power in city hall, this trend in New York City likely will grow in the future. It is another sign of the rise of the postsecular city.

Standing here in front of the hospital, I linger to see if Damaris Rivera or another church leader will walk by. Damaris regularly goes to the hospital to check on patients to see how they are doing and to meet their spiritual needs. In her congregation, she probably has people without medical insurance or only public insurance. It is likely that she and her husband Arnaldo have also had to deal with teen pregnancies and premature births. These are challenges shared by the medical center and the faith-based community.

Rivera is co-pastor at the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Movimiento, International, one of the Pentecostal churches that arose in Puerto Rico. 65% of the people in Bushwick identify as Hispanic or Latino.

However, Puerto Ricans are moving out of the city. What does this mean for his church and many others like it? How will it affect faith-public partnerships like one with the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center?

The young and more affluent Puerto Ricans are the most likely to move elsewhere, but this leaves a congregation with increasing burdens in helping the elderly without an increase in financial support. The medical center too faces more demands to care for the elderly.

This spring, the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center has shifted towards a new emphasis on reaching out to community groups. Under an old administration, the hospital had come under severe criticism for its lack of community responsiveness, corruption, and shoddy medical treatment. The former head of the hospital painted a grand picture of himself as he motored around in his chauffeured-driven $160,000 Bentley Continental GT to spread his favors to politically connected friends. A few years ago, the medical center was rated by Consumer Reports as one of the six worst hospitals in the New York area. The old director is gone, leaving behind a mess. In 2016 the federal government gave Wyckoff its lowest rating. A new administration is now reforming the medical center’s practices, including how it reaches out to the community.

As the assistant vice president for community and population health, Zechariah Hennessey has written up a plan for the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center to be more responsive to the needs of the community.

The hospital’s strategy mentions some faith-friendly elements and promises to do more. It observes that the hospital’s chapel is open 24-hours if you request it, and that it a recently launched bloodless medical and surgery program for those like the Jehovah Witness who are against blood transfusions. The hospital’s religious sensitivity is necessary in light of the number of Jehovah Witnesses in Bushwick. There are also a number of hemophiliacs and others who need the service.


Jehovah's Witnesses are regulars at their literature stand near Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions


The Wyckoff Heights Center also offers faith-based groups meeting space if it is available. Local Muslims use the space to offer prayers once a week. The hospital center has also worked to provide kosher snacks and a Bikur Oholim Room, a place for observant Jews to pray for healing, and a Sabbath elevator, which stops automatically on each floor.

However, the hospital center’s planning document for community outreach doesn’t mention connecting to the Jehovah Witnesses or any other specific religious groups. There is a list of community partners, mainly health care organizations which includes a few branches of religious social service bureaucracies. In fact, the hospital center is still gathering together its network of faith-based community stakeholders.

Hennessey says that he has started reaching out to the churches in the immediate area around the medical center. “We have sent them letters and emails, and called them,” he recounts. However, the efforts have not yet yielded much response. “Noone has agreed to come [from the religious congregations] to our community huddles.” The hospital’s chaplain has also recommended some local Catholic parishes, but the hospital center hasn’t been able to get them to come either.

Reverend Ron Mandile at the nearby Living Waters Fellowship on Stanhope Street says that he doesn’t know if he got a letter or email from the medical center. “A lot of stuff hits the trash unless I know the person or Christian organization that sent it,” he describes a common practice among busy church leaders.

However, the hospital does list plenty of reasons for it and the religious groups to work together in preventing medical problems arising.

In general, patients trust their doctors, according to Gallup surveys of trust. On the other hand, clergy are trusted, culturally knowledgeable guides for their congregants. Working together, the circle of trust is likely to be very effective in providing preventive medical tips to local residents in Bushwick.

Also, clergy are better educated members of the community, so people have traditionally looked to them for wisdom in dealing with outsiders and complex problems. Historically, preaching was the original TED Talks, the Silicon Valley-style of short lectures by creative people. If they can be assured that a preventative medical practice will bring safe benefits consistent with their religious beliefs, religious leaders have several hundred local platforms in Bushwick from which they can spread the news.


Friday Bushwick, Brooklyn SOJOURN -- Jehovah's Witnesses on Wyckoff Avenue

Saturday  Important Update: The murder of a New York City religious group in Russia

Sunday Golem in Paris and other News from around the world

Monday HINGE: The health crisis in Bushwick, Brooklyn and the perils of secularism

Tuesday Bushwick, Brooklyn SOJOURN

Wednesday HINGE: The religious sites around the very center of New York City in Bushwick, Brooklyn


Friday Bushwick, Brooklyn SOJOURN


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