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Journey Workshop: Universal Pain and the Call for Empathy on God’s Row Eldridge Street

New York City is a place to check your faith in the mirror of other people’s faiths.

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Assafa Islamic Center, 172 Eldridge Street. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

With trained eyes and ears, a simple walk down a New York City street can reveal pain on every block with religious first aid centers tending with empathy for healing. A Journey through NYC Religions Workshop is designed to train the heart and mind to sense these pains and understand how religious groups minister to them.

This summer, we ventured a workshop exploration on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side with six students from Manhattan College. In a short six blocks, we discovered a world of pain and empathy that a causal passerby would never know. Along with us came Chris Durante, a scholar on interfaith relations at the college. The Roman Catholic school is located approximately 15 miles north of Eldridge Street.

 

God's Row Eldridge Street. Google Map

 

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Before we started our day, we dropped by Saint Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church to see if Father Agapitos was there. Knowing about Durante’s interest in the church, we wanted to see if we could add it to our itinerary.

 

Father Luben Agapitos Chunov of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, 27 Forsyth Street

 

There seemed to be a small crowd at the church. After saying hello to the priest, we made our way down the steps to go meet our group around the corner. Our editor Tony Carnes remarked that maybe they were foreign tourists. Our erstwhile reporter said that maybe that was our group because the leader looked a lot like Durante! Well, that turned out to be true! And that is where we started. A little comedy certainly loosened everybody up for what was to come.

 

Detail from ceiling at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church

 

Then, we went around the corner to Eldridge Street Synagogue and Museum.

 

Eldridge Street Synagogue and Museum

This synagogue opened in 1887 during a peak time of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia. It was unique in its broad membership of immigrants from many towns and areas. Most Lower East Side synagogues were based on members from one town, city or region. According to one account from 1892 that was discovered by the museum, “All are one in respect to race and faith, but many in regard to birthplace and speech. E Pluribus Unum finds new meaning here.”

 

Eldridge Street Synagogue Sanctuary, 12 Eldridge Street. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

A large chapter in the religious history of New York City was opened with an act of revolutionary violence in Russia. Tsar Alexander II implemented some modest reforms of his decrepit dictatorial government. The ineffective changes caused economic turmoil, unleashing a backlash of disappointed peasants and fearful autocrats. The Jews were a convenient target to heap the blame for the assassination and all the troubles that came with the failed reforms. Between 1881 and 1884, over 200 pogroms were launched against the Jews. Every pogrom, which in Russian means “to wreck havoc,” sent Jews to packing their bags to flee to somewhere else. The infamous May Laws of 1882 enforced harsh restrictions on movement, property-owning, and education of Jews. The number of Jews thrown into poverty increased at an exponential rate. There seemed to be no hope of a better future in Russia.

Some Jews were radicalized by the oppression and left religion for politics. So, when many started to flee to freedom in America, the rabbis feared that it would also mean a loss of traditions and the secularization of the community. Some rabbis warned that America was the trefene medine – the impure or non-kosher land. Radicals pugnaciously replied that they were preparing the Jews for America. The race was on whom would prevail. Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe flooded into New York City.

 

Journey to Eldridge Street. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Eldridge Street synagogue was formed to keep the Orthodox tradition of Judaism alive among Jewish immigrants while also adapting to modern America.  The Eldridge Street Synagogue was the first synagogue built from scratch by the East European immigrants to sustain the Orthodox tradition.  It also blended into Judaic culture those democratic ideals of equality and pluralism.

 

Singer Sewing Machine ad on a metal plaque. Eldridge Street Museum.

 

However, after World War II, the synagogue fell into disrepair because its membership dropped as Jews moved out of the Lower East Side. The grand sanctuary became too expensive to maintain and the congregation relocated to the lower level chapel. Leaks in the roof and around the windows almost destroyed the synagogue’s usefulness. The museum recalls the time in the 1980s when “pigeons roosted in the balconies, benches were covered with dust, and stained glass windows had warped with time. The building required emergency stabilization; if no work was done, it would collapse.” Fortunately through heroic efforts, the synagogue has been repaired and now serves as both a synagogue and a museum. It has also become active in bridging Jews with Chinese and Hispanics through such events as its annual festival of empanadas, egg rolls, and egg creams. The synagogue is an architectural testimony of pain, healing, and democratic adaptation of Orthodox Judaism.

 

Vanessa's Dumplings for lunch, 118 Eldridge Street.

 

Assafa Islamic Center

After a short lunch break at Vanessa’s Dumplings, we went on down the street to Assafa Islamic Center. The hallways of the tall, slim building were filled with Sunni Muslim men going to services for the twenty first day of Ramadan, a special month in the Muslim calendar. Revealed in the Quran, Ramadan is a month set aside to fast while praying, reflecting, and seeking for guidance from Allah for living a more godly and compassionate life.  

 

Assafa Islamic Center. Photo: Arthur La Motta/A Journey through NYC religions

 

We were met by Imam Mufty Luthfur Rahman Qasimy, who greeted us and took questions before the afternoon Ramadan service. Our group then observed the service and listened to the imam’s sermon.

The congregants were gathered on a small carpeted area oriented toward a shrine, called the Mihrab, with the saying “Allah – gracious and merciful” above it. Most of the service consisted of recitations from the Qur’an, some of which were translated into English.

 

Imam Mufty Luthfur Rahman Qasimy @Assafa Islamic Center. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

The imam’s sermon explained the meaning of fasting during Ramadan.  The fasting is done during the day time and should expand one’s empathy for people who don’t have enough to eat.  Fasting also forces the habit of patience during suffering with the expectation of the arrival of God’s blessings. By physically feeling others’ pain and displaying empathy, we ourselves can align our attitudes with Allah. The practice of empathy and compassion toward the suffering of others will also contribute to changing the world for the better. Our enlarged empathy and patient waiting upon Allah’s blessing also helps to ensure that the worshippers’ names ends up in the book of paradise rather than the book of hell.

 

Assaafa Islamic Center. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Imam question and answer with Manhattan College students. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

With that bit of advice, we went over to The Bowery Mission, which ministers to the homeless about three blocks away.

 

The Bowery Mission

Edwin Supo, a clean-cut and precise ex-marine, greeted us. He recounted his personal story mixed with a brief history of the mission. The 138 year-old building houses a dining room that gives out full meals each day to more than 300 people.  This ministry also has a magnificent chapel, a sort of cathedral for the homeless, and provides various types of services including medical and psychological treatment and education. The ministers at the mission discover people’s life stories in order to empathetically guide them through coaching life-skills and education.

 

Edwin Supo @The Bowery Mission, 227 Bowery. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

The mission arose from the evangelical Christian movement in 19th Century New York City. Evangelicalism emphasizes the Bible and the power it has when applied to a person’s life. While providing these services, the staff consistently presents Jesus Christ and His teachings, believing them to be essential for positive life transformations.

Supo, a Bible-quoting man, sees many people who are drowning in bitterness, anger, and shame. He recalled various ways how simple acts of kindness have helped people to emerge from hopelessness.

He recalled the experience of Elliot, who came to the mission after he had hit rock bottom. He had lost both parents, his brother, and his job. He started taking drugs to see how much of them would help him to forget. After spending half a year on the streets, he found space in public housing but was still overwhelmed with aimlessness and despair. Fortunately, a counselor recognized that he really had a struggle of finding hope and meaning, so he brought him to The Bowery Mission. His life stabilized and a conversion lead him to make a commitment to rebuild his life. The mission provided him with mentoring and training in job and interview skills. Elliot was able to find a job and seems to be on the road to a normal life. It was an extra-ordinary metamorphosis.

“It doesn’t take $1 million to smile at someone,” Supo enjoined us.  As someone who had lost his faith, Supo talked about how a friend continued to show him kindness, which was eventually enough to start him on a recovery of faith.

Supo encouraged the students that it is easy to become involved in volunteer work at the mission if one has a conviction in the heart.

Toward the end of our visit, we went around in a circle to share our thoughts about the mission’s work with those that the city has spit out. Several of the students expressed their surprise at how much need there is for helping the homeless. One student reflected “how lucky we are” and became political with a comment that “it’s not fair what people go through.” The professor and students said they were going to ask their college to put The Bowery Mission on the list of compassionate service opportunities for their college students to pursue.

Right afterward, we went to New York Chinese Alliance Church on Eldridge Street.  The Chinese church sits next to a Hispanic church which is itself next to Assafa Mosque. Talk about having the whole world in a block!

 

Stain glass window of the Prodigal Son at The Chapel of The Bowery MIssion. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

New York Chinese Alliance Church

Sitting down with us in a conference room above the sanctuary were Pastor Peter Teng and Pastor Gustave Hung, who explained about their Christian and Missionary Alliance church. This denomination emphasizes the role of Jesus as a savior, a builder of moral character and healer of the hurts in the world. This emphasis arose in 19th Century New York as a way to build up people facing a very tough urban environment.

From its earliest days, the Alliance was cross-racial and included Chinese students in its Bible institute classes. At the time, the New York establishment considered this inclusiveness to be scandalous.

 

Painting from Gifted Hands at The Lamb's Church, just off Eldridge Street, 61 Rivington Street. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Guan Gong Buddhist Temple

We then walked to the end of our study of pain and faith on Eldridge Street. Our last major visit was to the Guan Gong Buddhist Temple on Eldridge Street. YiFu (Master) welcomed us to the Guan Gong Buddhist Temple. Inside, there were many miniature shrines, scents, and sounds. The temple was a rich display of its popular Buddhism roots, but lately, it has trended more toward more orthodox Buddhism. Along our route, we had encountered many examples of the Kitchen God, perhaps the most pervasive divine presence in popular Chinese religion. Immigrants from different villages in China also brought many other local gods and beliefs, some having to do with lucky and unlucky clothing, time, food, and so forth. These beliefs often reflect popular Taoist ideas like Yin and Yang, the strong and weak presence of Qi (spiritual energy), and traditional Chinese medical practices. Popular Chinese religious temples have masters who listen to problems, provide solutions, and help believers pray for the sick.

 

Guan Gong Temple, 294 Broome Street. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Interior of Guan Gong Temple. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

On Eldridge Street, Master Lu, a Fujianese immigrant, used to hold forth as a spirit medium for the village god He Xian Jian. Although Lu grew up in a Buddhist home devoted to the Chinese bodhsattva Guan Yin, the goddess of Mercy, he later changed his spiritual focus. During the Cultural Revolution (1964-1976), his mother secretly prayed that her son would get to America. Some friends of Lu suggested that he should pray to He Xian Jun, who they claimed was very effective in answering prayers. After praying, Lu indeed had a dream in 1973 of a person wearing a long white robe talking about the two Chinese characters for writing the month of April. He interpreted that the robe meant that he would take a journey to America by the year 1985, arriving in April. Lu pointed out to people who used his services that that was exactly what happened.

In Chinatown, other Masters have also achieved successes, which rebound back to their villages of origin in the form of new temples, publications, and training institutes.

 

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Personal Reflection

This was my first time to help with a Journey Workshop. I had just come from Grove City College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania. Christianity plays a large role in every decision that I make. Looking back at our Journey Workshop down Eldridge Street, I am shocked at the diversity of religions there. I realize that they are believers like me and are searching for truth. My exposure to different beliefs, gods, and cultures has created a desire in me to learn more about them to and empathize with their spiritual journeys.

I wonder how the students from Manhattan College are processing the experience. I am comforted with the thought that these young and smart people live in a city in which they can experience this vast array of religious personalities, whether it is the ex-Marine Supo, or the soft-spoken Reverend Hung, the skilled preacher Imam Mufty, or the hospitable YiFu. I look forward to returning to Eldridge Street in order to learn the results of their ministering to the pains of the urban life. New York City is a place to check your faith in the mirror of other people’s faiths.

 

Arthur La Motta. on Journey. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

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