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New York City, Church and Civility. OpEd by Mac Pier, NYC Leadership Center

The current city policy and supportive court ruling that will result in the eviction of churches from public school space is terribly short sighted.

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In 1857 there were 30,000 unemployed men idle in the streets of New York. Drunkenness was rampant and the nation was divided over the issue of slavery. That same year Jeremiah Lanphier, a New York City businessman, established a prayer meeting that profoundly impacted the city.

In February 1860 Abraham Lincoln made his Cooper Union speech in lower Manhattan. He framed his conviction regarding slavery. That speech propelled him to the White House. His leadership preserved the union and freed hundreds of thousands of slaves.

At the close of the Civil War the seeds planted by Lanphier's prayers blossomed into social movements like the Salvation Army and the Bowery Street Mission in New York City. Baptist and Methodist missionaries taught literacy to former slaves. Freed slaves moved to New York City and established African American churches which became the fabric of community of life for the next one hundred and fifty years.

If Lincoln had not led with courage to preserve the union and prohibit slavery, world history would have been changed forever. If he had not preserved the union, the outcomes of World War 1 and 2 might have been radically different.

From the womb of the African American churches, leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. in the South and Gardner Taylor and Adam Clayton Powell in New York City came to lead movements that changed the world spiritually, politically, and culturally. The reform efforts fundamentally changed cities like New York.

What is the moral of the story? A civil society which is committed to justice and the flourishing of all of its people requires an effective governmental leadership which partners with the generosity of people of faith. If either falters, then everyone suffers.

Today we are not faced with the issue of legalized slavery. But we are faced with the future of hundreds of thousands of children that will not graduate from New York City high schools. We in the United States are faced with the largest incarcerated population in the world - 25% of all prisoners globally are in our nation. In eighteen states the percentage of African Americans incarcerated is at least double the percentage of the general population of African Americans. Some people are calling this The New Jim Crow because they say that there may be more Blacks in prison today than there were people enslaved prior to the Civil War.

In our city 40% of all pregnancies end in abortion. In the Black community the percentage is 60%.

How a society treats its most vulnerable – the young, the minorities and the unborn - is a commentary on its civility. In New York City we are simply falling short by that measure. But we are all mindful that there simply are not enough tax dollars to create sustainable social justice in our city.

This is why today the partnership with the faith community is again an indispensable ingredient for the progress of our city and nation. In a city that may have the greatest disparity between rich and poor of any city in the world - this partnership is all the more strategic. Churches are critical elements in the human dignity and progress of the poor.

The contribution of social capital to the city by the faith community is simply extraordinary.  In 2010 a scientific survey concluded that a conservative estimate of the total social service provision of evangelical churches in New York City was between $1.47 – 1.63 billion per year, based on the direct monies and value of the hours devoted by their volunteers and other contributions. The contributions of other Christian communities bring this total to over $2 billion per year. Catholic charities and schools are beacons of compassion in every neighborhood of our city. Then, we can add the great efforts of the Jewish, Muslim and other faith communities. This means that in each of the 59 community districts of NYC congregations contribute on the average well over $35 million dollars’ worth of social welfare benefits every year.

The total faith-based contribution to social welfare is three and half times larger than the investments of the NYC Economic Development Corporation ($600 million). It is larger than the city’s public assistance program grants ($1.3 billion for Aid to Dependent Children, home relief, city-funded food stamps, and substance abuse services) through the Department of Social Services.

There are simply thousands of acts every day on behalf of the faith community toward the city and public schools in particular that improves the social capital of the city:

> A Korean congregation which has been renting public school space bought a central air conditioner for the school to use in its auditorium;

> 3000 volunteers from a church denomination over several summers painted a million square feet of public school space in New York City;

> A cross-religious community of volunteers led by a Brooklyn church completed a beautification project with a public school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; and

>A Glendale, Queens church has created a Legacy Center that provides after school mentoring and academic enhancement.

When John Dilulio helped establish the Faith Based Office after the 2000 Presidential Election, he cited his University of Pennsylvania research that indicated that communities where churches are present are improving and communities, where churches are absent are in decline.

When you consider some of the magnificent churches in our city - Abyssinian Baptist, Allen Cathedral, Bay Ridge Christian Center, Christian Cultural Center, Concord Baptist, Oversea Chinese Mission, - and their enormous social contribution in the form of schools, literacy, public advocacy, employment, housing , they all have one thing in common. When they started out as fledgling congregations,  they  had to borrow space for their work at some point.

If someone had not lent them space--how different would the city be today without their contribution?

The current city policy and supportive court ruling that will result in the eviction of churches from public school space is both terribly short sighted and devastating to communities in the long term. Not only will agents of community renewal be removed from needy neighborhoods, an unfortunate acrimony will settle in between city governance and local church generosity. The enormous challenges of our city will only deepen and prevent thousands of our citizens from being uplifted above their current despair.


Mac Pier is the founder of Movement Day.


Prayer Rally against the impending ouster of churches from NYC schools as Mayor Bloomberg gives his State of the City address. Thursday, January 12th @ 12 PM @ Morris High School, 1100 Boston Road, Bronx.

  • Thanks. Good that you are doing this.

  • I too like the oped, I like the fact that you connected the issue to the larger historical issue of social justice. My only regret is that the oped was not published in a wider forum. I would like to see this printed in the Times. And perhaps that is where we need to shop it. We need another oped on this issue that address the " bad Law" this decision has made. It is a real shame that the US supreme court did not hear this case. We need to pray for the city to realize it mistake and the courts to revisit this case.

  • Good op ed

  • I like this oped.

  • Thanks both to The Nerd Diva and you for your discussion!

    As I understand it, the churches and other religious groups that use the schools for worship services in the off hours have to pay the same amount as other community groups using the schools in the off hours. The churches feel that they are singled out from other community groups as a special case for exclusion. The ban on "worship services" then was a carefully constructed legal argument to ban the churches while saying that freedom of religion is protected as long as it isn't worship.

    A bigger issue is the drying up of inexpensive space for community groups like stick ball clubs, Boy and Girl Scouts and so forth as the city, particularly in Manhattan, upscales. As the Mayor promotes billion dollar upscaling so that NYC can flourish, we need to take into account some of the unintended consequences. One way is to open up more space in schools (not all schools allow groups to meet there: it is up to the principals), making sure that the revenues cover short and long term expenses. If more money is needed, then the city with philanthropies and local business leaders could work to raise money to provide for more community space, including for the religious groups.

    Does this idea make any sense?

  • While "The Nerd Diva" is correct, she does not mention that most pastors/congregations agree that the fee to rent public school space is nominal. We know this! She also does not mention that most congregations would be willing to pay the schools far more than they are currently paying. Rather than throwing the churches out, the city should be increasing the rental fees and using that money to improve the schools and education.

  • This is very, very important reading, especially for my friends who are rabid separationists -- and you know who you are. Prohibiting churches from renting public school space during non-instructional hours deprives the City of New York of far more than merely the (much-welcome) revenue. Again, this is important reading!

  • The "investment" from churches into the community and in some instances schools themselves is not primarily financial. The larger rationale is that the monetization of volunteerism to impact a community is huge. In the instance of the Korean church who bought the air conditioner - they did invest hundreds of thousands of dollars as a gift to the school.

    When a congregation matures and is eventually able to secure its own facilities and expand it's initiatives into the community the economic impact is simply huge. Allan Cathedral for example in Jamaica, Queens is the second largest employer of African Americans in Queens through its Community Development arm. The appeal of the article is to recognize the long term potential of these smaller congregations who do rent space.

  • I'm a believer but want to clarify: churches are not paying large amounts of money to rent schools. The amount they pay is nominal - basically enough to pay the school worker who has to open and close the place, and to have the lights on, etc. That is one of the reasons this is an issue - this is by far the lowest amount these churches would have to pay for rent, particularly in a high rent area such as Manhattan. If the churches have to rent from other entities, their rent will at least triple since the current rate is so low. So the statement that schools are losing a lot of money by not having churches rent from them is false. There are other reasons to state that the churches should be allowed to stay, but money isn't one of them. This is an informed post because I actually work for the city.

  • Like this

  • Like the oped

  • Like this

  • I like this piece.

  • I agree!

  • I guess that's why NY has shut down the ability of many to rent space in public schools where they not only pay rent which brings huge sums into the coffers but also provides a presence in so many communities to offer these services. Who will pick up the slack now since the city and state are broke!

  • Just found this at the website for the New York City Leadership Center, of which Mac Pier is the president.

    "The faith community of Greater New York has ***limited cultural influence*** in sectors such as media, finance, education and politics. Our research among Christian financial industry leaders in Manhattan indicates that 2/3 of those surveyed are not actively integrating their faith with their vocation.....

    Let us pray that this begins to change quickly and dramatically

  • So good to see this article. If substantial research reports can be identified and additional articles report on their findings, maybe more newspapers, journalists, bloggers, et al. will begin to ask new questions about the NYC Mayor's decision, and then "spread the word" and make the case for churches in schools.

    Praying for more allies, more wisdom, and more awareness of the ways have contributed to local schools, and could continue to do so.

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