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The Vigilia on the night shift in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Part 2

Prayer time is a moment of authenticity in a world of sly artifices.

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Pastor Arnaldo Rivera preaching, "Don't pray as the hypocrites do" in order to look "holy." Portrait by A Journey through NYC religions


Tonight, there are fifteen people for the Vigilia at Iglesia De Dios Pentecostal Movimiento Internacional.

Six guests drove from the Menahan Street church Iglesia de Dios Hispana Templo Sion to add their prayers to the night’s petitions. Imagine Bushwick as a countryside with churches scattered around like small villages. The members hear the stories of the other villages and travel back and forth to trade prayers as if they were visiting religious markets.

Most of the people are sitting in the rows of folding chairs when I enter the small sanctuary. Three young women have children, two toddlers and a newborn strapped into a stroller. One mother, Madeline, is preparing a bottle to calm her 3-year-old daughter, who is wandering from chair to chair, interested in touching everything. The informality lays the groundwork for sharing hearts during the prayers.


Child of the Vigilia. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religioons


Pastor Damaris Rivera is eating a raisin bagel slathered in cream cheese as she greets me, preparing her strength for the long night ahead. However, she says that her biggest energizer is to come – hours of prayers.

“You feel empty if you don’t pray,” she advises me.

I ask her what she suggests I pray for.

“Pray for souls, for the whole world, for the authorities, if people are sick—everybody has different thoughts of what to pray for.” She taps her temple with her forefinger as she tells me this.

The four Rivera sons comprise the band that leads the worship portion of the night. Her youngest son, age 19, sits behind the drum set. The second youngest, age 22, plays bass, and the third oldest, 26 years old, leads the congregation in singing.


The youngest child of the Riveras. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


Her oldest son, 29-year-old Armando, plays the piano. He remembers attending prayer vigils like this one since he was five years old. He was one of the toddlers wandering around the church.


“You get strength, like if someone says something to you it sticks to you,” explains the Rivera's oldest son, Armando. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


Does growing up with all night prayers make it easier to stay awake and be engaged?

“You find yourself falling asleep” at first, he laughs at his own slackness. “You get used to it.”

He says that he looks to his mother for inspiration. She should have an excuse to leave the prayer night early. Today, she came from a dialysis session. “But she stays all night! If she can do it, I can do it.”

A feature of the HINGE series on the future of NYC religions

Now, he can’t imagine not starting off his weekends with prayer.

“You get strength, like if someone says something to you it sticks to you,” he explains. Through the rest of the week, there is something of the prayers that pushes him forward.

He also points to other payoffs in the way that the world changes after their prayers. He ticks off prayers that have been answered on his fingers: for Damaris’s dialysis, a kidney transplant for his youngest brother, and his own job as a counselor at an elementary school.

Armando’s wife Merlyn interjects that the prayer “is private as much as it’s corporate.” The vigil provides a refuge for congregants to find that private space of prayer. Group prayer creates the paradox of intense togetherness and intense solitude as each person concentrates more fiercely on putting their heart into the petitions to God.

“People don’t have alone time—people worship together but don’t set a time aside to pray.” Merlyn smiles, shakes her head as though as her own foolishness, and lifts her shoulders in a slight shrug. “I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t,” she admits.


Hear our prayers, O Lord! Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


The Vigilia begins

Pastor Arnaldo Rivera turns off the sanctuary’s lights at a quarter to midnight.

Everyone finds their own separate chair spread out around the room.

Many of the congregants kneel on the floor and face the folding chair, leaning face-down onto its seat cushion. They’ve brought blankets to kneel on. One lady sits cross-legged on the floor against the wall. Madeline spreads out her jean jacket for her toddler to lay down on.


Prayer after midnight. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


The room is quiet except from the occasional cough or sniffle. The chairs squeak. A slow version of “The Old Rugged Cross” starts to play softly from an old CD player at the front of the room.

The front hall light gives a little illumination to the shapes of the dark room. An inch-long millipede crawls across the carpet. It pauses when it crosses a ray of the light. From the depths of intense prayer, someone mutters to themselves, “Gloria del Dios.”

The moment seems filled with the sentiment that God made them all, great or small, all creatures, and everyone who lives on this block.

An hour into the vigil, Arnaldo stands up, goes to the front door to look outside and sees no one hurrying down the street to get in late. He locks the door. The security system chirps reassuringly every 30 seconds.

With heads down, in the dark, it’s impossible to not grow reflective. For some reason, the room smells like an apple pie Yankee Candle.

Damaris taps her feet to the music. One lady sings with it, “God, there is none like you.” Some of the congregants have remained in the same position in which they began the vigil. Some have relaxed, rolled their calves out from under their behinds and lean to the side. Some shift constantly. The drummer son moves from a position in back near the door to the darker interior.

This is the church’s weekly refreshing and refilling, their tradition to pass on to their children. After a quarter hour of stillness, at 1:14 am. The baby’s gurgling wail breaks over the music, which is now playing, “I give myself away so you can use me.” Pastor Arnaldo asks from the darkness, “¿que pasa?” What’s up?

A noticeable restlessness stirs through the room around 2 o’clock. Damaris gets up to use the bathroom. “Mia dios (my God),” she mutters, easing herself out of her seat. Merlyn gets up to join her. Pastor Arnaldo also rises, and together they begin to prepare for the closing sermon.

Arnaldo turns on a microphone, but not the lights, and begins to speak in a half whisper. His eyes closed, his voice grows louder and is joined by other voices as people begin to pray out loud.

“Gracias Señor y Padre.” Thank-you, Lord and Father.

“Gloria de mi Jesus y ti amorando mi Jesus.” Glory my Jesus and your loving my Jesus.

“Calmando conciento hallelujah por llanto.” Let our hallelujahs calm our cries.

“Padre necessita por mi vida, camino la unica.” Father, you are necessary for my life, the road to the Name.

Slowly, the twenty people in the darkness rise from their knees and walk towards the front of the sanctuary. There, they form a circle, clasping hands and keeping their heads bowed. Arnaldo invites, “If anyone has a special petition, we’ll make a prayer for that.”

The appeals are listed slowly, one by one:

Pray for matrimony.

Our son here, give him a Christian woman that looks for God.

Para los ninos. For our children.

Amen. Por salud, For health, ¡amen!

Todo cuidos, we all pray for one petition, it’s stronger than one person alone, that’s why we pray for each other.

As more entreaties are listed, Arnaldo tells a story from the Christian scripture to those gathered about the power of prayer.

King Herod was arresting Christians and killing them to try to stifle the spread of their message. The apostle Peter was one of those imprisoned and scheduled for a public trial. While Peter was in jail, other members of the church met up to pray for him. “Earnestly,” the Scripture says, “earnestly, they prayed.”

That night before Peter was to go to trial, an angel of God appeared in his jail cell and told Peter to follow him. The chains fell off of Peter’s hands, and the angel led him out past the guards and to the house where they were praying for him.

Reminded of the power of prayer, those gathered in the prayer vigil continue to entreat earnestly for the needs of their neighborhood.

Let’s pray for little children, muchachos, as well as for schools.

Damaris begins to pray in a slow, powerful voice, guiding the group towards a unified prayer of worship. She prays not in sentences but in snapshots, Salvo, mira, glorifica, santo, estima, palabras, que fiele, no contestar, gracias padre, amen, Gloria Dios! Save, watch, glorify, holy, esteem, words, let it dissolve away, no answer, thank-you, father, amen, Glory God!

The lights are switched on at half past two. The circle returns to their seats, where they sit and wait for Arnaldo to deliver the message.

He begins by reading a passage from Luke 12, setting the premise for his sermon that warns the congregation against hypocrisy. Arnaldo speaks slow enough that Damaris, sitting next to me in the aisle seat, can translate from Spanish to English. The gesture reminds me how each of the congregants kneel and speak out for each other.

“People gathered around Jesus because he spoke differently from the Pharisees, who didn’t do what they preached, were totally doing against what they preached.

Jesus told his disciples to be careful with hypocrites.

For example, in Puerto Rico, there’s people that want to show they’re rich, but they’re poor. That’s hypocrisy, they want to show something that they’re not. Jesus is different because he shows what he really is, Arnaldo observes.

“We have to be original. We cannot be hiding. Some people hide who they are instead of being really sincere.” Prayer time is a moment of authenticity in a world of sly artifices.

Arnaldo speaks calmly, authoritatively, handing the congregation rhetorical questions to help them see his point and acting out stories to keep them engaged. Even as the hands on the clock nears three, Arnaldo’s energy secures his listeners’ focus until the very end of the service.

The lights and message have rouses Madeline’s daughter from her sleep, and she calls out sleepily, “Mommy!” Madeline instantly reaches out and keeps one hand on her daughter’s back as she continues to listen.

“People feel embarrassed serving the Lord. Of course, people who do bad, they should be embarrassed!” The pastor seems to reflect on some moment of his own.

“We should not be embarrassed of having tried in our lives. In Puerto Rico, everyone was a gangster”—and Arnaldo imitates the swagger of a muscular man. He says, “What’s up? But one man walked by saying, ‘Hi, hi! Jesus loves you!’ He showed them that he had someone more powerful than the gangsters and that he had no fear.

“They! They think they have someone big. The youth that go by, they think they’ll be fresher. They never think that they’ll be in front of God.”

“We don’t have a gun, but we have God.”

The message ends with a promise that if the listeners pray and are filled with the Holy Spirit, God will use them to be a credit to the reputation of Jesus. Then Arnaldo turns to me and speaks rapidly. I wonder what benediction or commission he is bestowing upon me.

Damaris steps over, points to my camera, and clarifies my mission. “He wants you to take some pictures of us now! Lots of pictures!” There seems to be a natural – shall we say a supernatural – script unfolding for Journey tonight -- place, prayer, preaching, pictures. The pastor and his wife pose obligingly as does the rest of the congregation.


Vigilia potrait. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


The participants of the vigil rise from their seats. Even at three in the morning, they chatter.

Madeline’s daughter stumbles out sleepily, dangling from her mother’s hand like a loose yo-yo. Everyone steps out briskly into the early morning air.

The street outside is still dark and silent, but light spills out from the doorway into the neighborhood, a visual reminder of the intention -- and power -- of the prayer.


The light is turned off, the door is close, and the power of the vigilia goes out into the world. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


Read Part 1: Prayer on the night shift in Bushwick, Brooklyn

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