Important update: This morning U.S. Judge Loretta Preska said that it appeared that the city's view that it can define "worship services" for the churches is an "excessive entanglement" of church and state. The judge also instructed the city and church lawyers to come up with a compromise over church use of the public schools while the courts continue their consideration of the case.
Sunday was a day of invocation, offering, prayer, singing, preaching and even lament, but no building consecrations. Unless the city government changes its policy, it was the last day for religious groups to worship in New York City schools.
After an unexpected win in federal court in December 2011 against the religious groups, Mayor Michael Bloomberg swiftly decreed that they must get out of the schools. At a press conference yesterday, the mayor said that he is protecting the churches. “The more clear that separation [of church and state] is, the more those people who want to be able to practice their religion will have the opportunity to do so,” Bloomberg argued.
These churches (and two synagogues) have no organs or steeples – the church members sit in school auditorium seats and gather at lunch room tables. Often the only decorations on the auditorium stage are the flags of the United States, New York State and New York City. The decoration provided by the churches is the love and enthusiasm that they have for helping their neighbors.
Almost half of the churches which meet in public schools do so in Manhattan where a wave of evangelical church plants started taking place in 2000. Although still strong, the evangelical growth in the outer boroughs peaked in the 1990s. The Manhattan churches are start-ups characterized by their innovative way of combining evangelism and social mission. They mostly cater to the young who are just starting their careers as secretaries, nurses, teachers, and other lower paid professional jobs as well as doctors and some in the financial services. Experts say that these type of innovative start-ups in Manhattan need five to seven years to become self-sustaining with their own market rate space.
The other half of the religious groups survive with small budgets by worshipping in public schools located in poor neighborhoods. These poor churches are the most likely to go out of business. The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen found that disasters like famine actually kill off the really poor at twice the rate of decreasing resources. The better off poor survive by accumulating available resources at a faster rate and then assimilating the resources of the dead. Perhaps, we can make an economic prediction about the result of Mayor Bloomberg’s feckless edict casting the churches out of the public schools. The better off poor churches will much more likely survive because they can prepare better on short notice, while the truly poor churches will die off at a rate much faster than expected.
Others will survive by downsizing. All survivors will incur a strikingly large increase in expenses. A few will wander homeless hoping for some reprieve before their members, programs and money are exhausted.
Manhattan’s Victory Outreach in East Harlem
One of the most heroic of the poor churches is Victory Outreach which rented space at James Weldon Johnson
School in East Harlem.
The church is part of the Victory Outreach network of churches that specifically works to bring poor kids out of gangs and drug abuse. Originally called “The Drug-Addicts Church,” this network was founded in southern California by an ex-gangster from the Brooklyn Viceroy gang and has grown to over 700 churches and ministries. Each church starts off with very little money. Explaining the challenge of managing such a church, founder Sonny Arguinzoni, Sr. remembers how he started, “We had gang rallies and junky rallies. When I started out, the whole church was junkies, their families and children.” Their success in the face of high odds has been remarkable.
However, New York City is one of the hardest places for Victory Outreach because of the expense of housing a start-up church.
Tony and Janie Valenzuela came to work at the Victory Outreach startup in East Harlem after themselves escaping gang life.
Based on their own past experience, the couple knew that members of gangs are hard for churches to reach. It is essential to live in the neighborhoods with the gangs. “Johnson projects, Wagner projects, Madison Avenue Projects, a lot of the gangs, their territory is the project housing, that’s where they live,” Pastor Valenzuela observed on Sunday. If you are not living there, he argued then you may not even know who are the gang kids. The pastor observed, “What’s amazing about these kids is you can’t tell that they are gang members. They got their book-bag, they look like regular kids, but that book bag might have a gun in it.”
Further, if you don’t live with them, you won’t understand the gang kids, have any credibility with them, and miss opportunities in which they are looking for a change. The Valenzuelas moved into the neighborhood and placed themselves wherever the gangsters operated, in life or death. “I have done funerals, I’ve done everything you can think of, working with these kids,” the pastor said.
Pastor Valenzuela works with youth individually, “You have to befriend the community. I have a card that is a before and after mug shot that shows when I was a gang member, and how my life changed.” He told a young person, “I don’t want to see you in the circle of regret.” The pastor later confided, “My goal now is to keep him connected because I don’t want to see him go back to gang violence. It’s just a lot of on hands work.”
The mayor calls for a decrease in gun violence; the couple support that with their living witness. “We had an incident in our church where a young girl was murdered by a stray bullet, and her mother is in our church,” said Mrs. Valenzuela recollecting the October 2010 death of 17-year old Cheyenne Baez while waiting outside a building for her keys. “We did marches against gun violence on behalf of Cheyenne Baez.” At moments like those, gang kids wonder whether the life is worth it and, briefly, look at alternative paths.
“The window to reach a gang member is a short window.” Pastor Valenzuela emphasized, “When they are ready for change you got to be there. Otherwise, you are going to miss that opportunity.”
The church also works with young females with low self-esteem and too many sexual partners. Mrs. Valenzuela teaches the child-mothers that there is an alternative to casual sex. For those who are already single mothers with financial stress and trouble raising their kids, the Valenzuelas practice mentoring and encouragement. “When it comes to some of these single mothers who are raising their kids on their own, our ministry is a big support. We have a big brother type of thing going on for their children,” she said.
The pastor believes that the city’s mainly bureaucratic way of reaching gang kids won’t work. He recalled a visit with the District Attorney. The city’s law enforcer enthused about legislation allowing an easier imprisonment of gang members. Valenzuela disputed with the attorney. He pointed out that the reason kids join gangs is that they come from dysfunctional families plagued with drug addiction and alcoholism. “So why are we so happy to give them five or ten years,” the pastor recalled asking, “when we need a program that helps them before this stuff happens? They were really happy about this law, but I said we need programs, visible programs.”
Last August, the mayor admitted that the city didn’t know how to reach troubled youth. He announced that the most ambitious initiative of his third term would be an overhauling of how the city government interacts with poor kids. 84 percent of those in the city’s detention facilities, and nearly all of those admitted to children’s and family services facilities are African American and Latino youth. Bloomberg will pay for the effort with his own private funds and those of other entrepreneurs. However, the push seems devoid of any recognition of the role that faith based organizations play in the poor neighborhoods. His edict closing down after hours space to poor churches seems a little like the rich playing the tune that the poor will dance to.
The Valenzuelas pointed out that one of the most acute concerns for working with kids is a shortage of community space. Not only do start-up poor churches have less chance in a city of big money, other neighborhood efforts like providing stick ball clubs for kids or job and afterschool programs are also closing down. “Harlem and Manhattan are being designed to push our kids into the street. If we don’t there and try to help these people, there’s going to be a lot more gang members,” observed Pastor Valenzuela.
Next week, the Valenzuelas will close their church and merge it with a Brooklyn sister church. Pastor Valenzuela said, “For what we could afford, it wouldn’t give us the capacity to do what we do. We’re limited in resources and we’re limited in the space that could work for us.” While the mayor is stripping faith-based role models from city property, he has announced plans to hire 900 mentors for poor kids to teach them how to scrub off graffiti and pick up trash.
Other Manhattan options
Other Manhattan congregations say that they will relocate their worship services to spaces two to three times more expensive than those in the public schools. New Frontier Church, a congregation of Korean students and young professionals founded in 2006, has been meeting in P.S. 11 in Chelsea. It has grown from one service with fifty people to three services attended by seven hundred. In addition to rent, they renovated the school’s air conditioning system. Now, they will relocate to Sutton Place Synagogue. Pastor Inhyun Ryu estimated that attendance and giving will go down about ten percent while expenses will sharply increase.
The Journey Church in Greenwich Village met Sunday for the last time at PS 41. Next week, the church is encouraging Village members to travel to the Upper West side service while the leaders look for space.
Bronx Household of Faith
This last Sunday morning, members of the Bronx Household of Faith crowded into their social service center for a Sunday School. Hope Christian Center is a residence for minority men with drug and alcohol addictions. The church also started helping AIDS victims in 1985 when there there were no other groups in the neighborhood providing this type of help. “It was pretty intense,” Pastor Jack Roberts recalled.
The old house comfortably sits twenty five people on old couches and rows of chairs. One member sat at a computer desk. Next Sunday, this modest living room will become the main worship space for the church. Pastor Jack Roberts observed, “If the law is not changed we will be wall-to-wall people.” He estimated they will need to fit 80 people into the room. The members then headed over to the auditorium PS 15 for their service.
Greeting the members of the church in the public school auditorium, Pastor Bob Hall reminded them of the new location for next week’s service. He told them that there was still hope that the decision would be reversed. “This is not hyperbole. We are praying for a miracle,” said the pastor.
As people walked down the halls of the empty school, their footsteps echoed like those in a quiet library. Except for a low hum, the vending machines near the entrance of the school were quiet. The crowds of students, whom the mayor is worried will be unduly influenced by religion, were nowhere to be found.
This morning, the churches went to federal court seeking a temporary injunction against the city schools edict. The judge said that it appeared that the city's view that it can define "worship services" for the churches is an "excessive entanglement" of church and state. The judge also instructed the city and church lawyers to come up with a compromise over church use of the public schools while the courts continue their consideration of the case. They are also lobbying the New York state assembly to pass a Right To Worship amendment to the education law that has already been approved by the state senate.
But some churches won’t be around for the results. The Valenzuelas are moving to their home state California. “I am going to buy a surfboard after this and go to the beach,” Pastor Valenzuela painfully smiled. Before their last service in the James Weldon Johnson public school, his wife asked her husband how he really felt. The pastor told her, “I feel humble, humble to have served.” She added her feeling, “Our reward was seeing lives changed.”