Surprisingly, I wouldn’t have noticed this church if I hadn’t seen a building boldly labeled “John Paul II Apartments.” I wondered if they were named for the former Pope, and I got my answer when I noticed the impressive Catholic church directly across the street. The text on the plaque reads “His Holiness Pope John Paul II On the occasion of his pastoral visit to the archdiocese of New York and his plea for peace at the United Nations October 2, 1979 visited historic Harlem and this church of St. Charles Borromeo and greeted Catholic and non-Catholic clergy, religious, and laity who struggle for justice, peace, and human rights in this community and in all the Harlems of America.” To me, this was a clear illustration of Harlem’s religious diversity–it is home to a major Catholic church, and Catholicism is a Christian denomination not frequently associated with African-American culture. Additionally, the plaque’s text served to highlight Harlem’s global spiritual and cultural significance. The Pope recognized it as a spiritual destination worthy of visiting, and chose to recognize, in this spot, the efforts that religious and non-religious Harlemites are making towards improving their condition and that of others. The tributary apartment building that initially drew my attention proves that though the Harlem church may not be the social center it once was, religion is clearly still significant and valued, and influences even secular aspects of Harlem life.
One thing so interesting about Harlem is the fact that there are so many churches. On almost every block I passed, one or more churches could be detected. These ranged from large, embellished buildings to smallers , storefront establishments. I even noticed churches housed in basements, such as the Iglesia Pentecostal Church and King of Kings Lord of Lords Church of God. Though I was unable to enter (as this was actually someone’s house), I’d never seen such an establishment. Upon reading the signs, I noticed that both churches held services at the same time – the Iglesia in Spanish and King of Kings in English. It also appears that both were run by married couples. Seeing such a small multilingual establishment made me wonder, who attends such services? How does church service at small basement churches differ from those of, say, megachurches?
One thing is for sure, these basement churches struggle with funding. This is the reason why they are housed in basements, after all. This lack of funding keep these establishments from attaining certain supplies (literature, bibles, furniture) that other churches have. This also affects their ability to provide humanitarian work.
What matters though is that these churches actually exist. They show that regardless of funding and size, faith trumps all. As cliche as it sounds, when there’s a will, there’s a way.
Through out the streets of Harlem, one can come across a vast variety of religious buildings, ranging from Catholic and Baptist churches to Nation of Islam Mosques. One specific religious group that tends to be forgotten is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As I walked the streets of Harlem on a quiet night, I almost missed this Kingdom Hall. It was small and of simple architecture (and of course, closed, as it was pretty late into the evening). Generally, when people think of Christian religions, they think of the large churches all over Harlem, but it is rare that this religious group is brought up in conversation. Just as I could have walked right by this Kingdom Hall without noticing it, due to it’s simple structure, I find it easy to believe that many people do just that. Amongst tall religious sites, embellished with Christian symbols, it is far too easy to miss The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
What role does this play in the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious development? When a specific organization falls behind the shadows of larger establishments, how does this effect that religious group as a whole? I don’t think Jehovah’s Witnesses has much to fear as far as this being a hindrance to their organization. After all, a religious organization should be more concerned with the lives it touches than the lives it gains, right? Take for example closed religions such as Mormon groups and Nation of Islam. They don’t quite go out of their way to bring people in. I think with religion, one should have a desire to pursue a particular religion, not become attracted to it due to popularity. It should also be taken into consideration that while this Kingdom Hall is small and simple, Witnesses go out of their way to do preaching work all over the neighborhood.
While this Kingdom Hall may be small and perhaps forgotten by the community, it means everything to those who are a part of the congregation and to those who wish to be.
That is all that matters.
To me, this picture reflects the writings of John Jackson in his book Harlem World; specifically chapter one, where Jackson examines what makes Harlem, Harlem. What I saw in this photo was the borders of this “racialized space” (Jackson, 28) starting to get a gray area. This photo was taken on 122th and Morningside Drive, a place not far from Central Park, Columbia University, or subway stations. The new, clean, luxury building juxtaposed with the boarded up, graffitied, pre-war building made me question if this is the attempt at another Harlem Renaissance. White families who moved out of Harlem because of the black population are now trickling back in only a few generations later. Are these two building sending a reminder to the Harlem community that times are changing? I know this is not the first luxury building to be built in Harlem and it is definitely not the last. Why are middle-class whites (among others) moving to Harlem? What do they think when they get there. Although this class seems to be more about the black community of Harlem, I think it’d be interesting to see how the tenants of these new buildings view Harlem. Do they know its amazing history? Or all the obstacles the community has overcome? Are they creating more obstacles by living in the luxury buildings that must be doing something to the property value of places around them? Is that why the boarded up building is abandoned?
I was struck by this view. Disciples of Christ and a deli? First of all, this church quickly exploded the myth in my mind that Spanish-speaking churchgoers were going to attend Catholic churches. The Christ Church, or Disciples of Christ, denomination is a strain of Protestantism that is two hundred years old. The church, born out of Presbyterian roots, heavily emphasizes the Lord’s supper, or the practice of communion, both in the specific sense of the Eucharist (eating the symbolic body and drinking the symbolic blood of Christ) and in a broader sense. The church’s tenets focus on a spirit of unity within Christianity and the greater world. They are known to have more liberal tendencies; however, the subject of homosexuality has ironically created rifts within the denomination.
But my question remains: What is this deli doing here? I learn that the store is indeed rented from the church-owned building. Here, I see communion filtering into community. How does the church organize the day-to-day lives of not just parishioners, but the neighborhood at large? This is just a tiny economic endeavor. The food that is eaten here may not create great waves in Harlem. But it is still a secular detail of life that exists because of the church. And what about other church-owned endeavors? The Abyssinian Development Corporation is a large-scale extension of a religious organization into the neighborhood, a God-centered force seeping into the seedy secular worlds of business, real estate and profit. What does this mean, when the sandwich is a “holy” one? How pervasive is the church today in affecting the daily habits and practices of eating, movement, financial transactions and other activities of people in Harlem?
Studying the facades of churches in Harlem can tell us good amount about what kind of communities they represent, and about the beliefs they are built on. Within an area that’s highly packed with religious institutions, vastly diverging architectural choices made in the construction of Harlem’s Churches provide an overt form of branding and set communities apart. I’d argue that a straightforward architectural comparison between the Union Congregational Church and the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Metropolitan Church, for example, can yield a lot of information about the religious values of these two communities. The Union Church belongs to the Congregational movement, which is heavily influenced by the white, European, and northern population of the United States. The church in turn has mostly European stylistic attributes: traditional red brick outset by stone molding, stained glass windows, and neat placards. A.M.E. Metropolitan meanwhile, belongs to a Methodist movement that was adapted to support African-Americans specifically. Its design has few remnants of western influence: Painted plaster replaces brick, while long, oblong molded shapes contrast with the sharp, neat edges Churches such as Union. Each of these buildings sends a loud and clear message, and establishes a religious ideal, before the worshiper even steps through the door.
This building, located on 138th Street, is the biggest obstacle preventing a local church from building a middle school for local students. Though the building is old and battered with boards on the windows, the owner of the building refuses to sell it to the church. One worker at the church speculated that the woman, an African American woman, having bought the building when land was cheap and highly coveted, views the place as an investment. She continues to rent its rooms to tenants. To me, this building serves as a symbol of a larger phenomenon taking place in Harlem: the disconnect between those clinging to Harlem as a cherished center of accomplishment for African Americans and those who, cognizant of the areas of decay and disinvestment, are ready for change.
As we have read ad nauseam, there are many Harlemites who continually cling to the almost-ness of a Harlem that remains frozen in the early to mid 20th-century. This Harlem like the building in picture is decaying and stagnant, and severely in danger of collapsing in on itself (well the building may not actually be in danger of collapse, but it looks like it) if it is not rebuilt soon. To preserve the shell of this building, which, like Harlem has lost much of the physical character that once made it such a prized commodity, would require constant repair and restoration. It may be easier, and a more worthwhile investment to knock the building down and build something of more contemporary use for current inhabitants. That is not to say that the same may be best for Harlem, as clearly there are some aspects of the cultural and political history, as well as some symbols of the events and people that helped to form black and immigrant African American identities through time, that are worth preserving despite the costs and effort required. The disconnect lies in determining which of these should be preserved and how, as well as in determining whose interests should be represented and to what extent.
This week I chose to begin my fieldwork for “Religions of Harlem” by visiting a large and well established Harlem Church and attempting to conduct some interviews. Around midday on Sunday, I happened to pass by the beautiful and regal looking Convent Avenue Baptist Church, just as services had ended and groups of worshippers were slowly spilling out the door and down the Church steps to head home. Groups of elderly women wore beautiful hats and fur coats with shots of bright red lipstick. However the age of the attendees was varied, and though the Church seemed to have a long history, it was clearly still well entrenched within younger segments of the community.
Before heading out to Harlem the idea of strolling around and trying to interview some people didn’t seem very intimidating. But it took me about ten minutes of nervously standing outside in the cold to work up the courage to walk into this environment where I was clearly a white outsider. Most people weren’t very interested in answering questions but I did have a brief conversation with bishop and an usher.
In honor of his recent birthday, February 1st!
Location: 20 127th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues
Site: a brownstone covered in ivy
Importance: the former home of James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967), a renowned writer and a key figure during the Harlem Renaissance
Short biographical background: a baby James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Missouri to parents both of a mixed race (African American, European American, Native American), who later separated. His father moved to Cuba, then Mexico, seeking escape from racism in the U.S. His mother moved seeking employment. The young Hughes was raised by his mother’s mother, his grandmother, in Kansas. After her death, he moved to Illinois, where his mother was living, then Ohio, for high school. His unstable childhood, and early introduction to racism, greatly influenced Hughes’s writing.
After high school Hughes moved to Mexico to stay with his father. The young Hughes persuaded him to pay for Hughes to attend Columbia University, in New York City, where he would study engineering. He arrived in 1921 and left in 1922 – a result of racial prejudice. He later enrolled in the “historically black university” Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he graduated. After short travels, he returned to Harlem, New York.
Dying in 1967 from surgery complications, Hughes ashes are entombed under a floor medallion in the foyer of the auditorium named after him, in the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem (Wikipedia, The Schomburg Center).
The Schomburg Center: http://www.nypl.org/locations/schomburg
The Beinecke Library: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/langstonhughes/web.html
The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/langston-hughes
Harlem One Stop, Langston Hughes House: http://www.harlemonestop.com/organization.php?id=571
The Village Voice (article): http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-08-27/news/lawsuits-real-estate-relics-and-the-langston-hughes-house/
Curbed NY (real-estate listing): http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2010/08/25/harlems_langston_hughes_house_returns_to_market.php