Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A visit to El Barrio: East Harlem


a visit to East Harlem

The Micah Institute Faith Table spent a day exploring El Barrio: East Harlem. The day began at the Church of The Living Hope
Church of the Living Hope
where after organizer Diane Steinman
Diane sets the agenda
set the agenda for the day, Pastor Ray Rivera introduced us to the neighborhood he grew up in.
Ray Rivera introduces us to el Barrio

(It should noted that Ray has been a ground breaking pastor in engaging the Pentecostal community in the struggle for social justice and for bridging the gap between Pentecostals and the historic ecumenical community.)

Ray described the waves of immigrants: the early German and Jewish populations, the tide of Italian immigrants with leaders like former mayor La Guardia, activist Vito Marcantonio and the presence of the Genovese family.

While Black power grew west of 5th, a new Latino community grew to the east, first Puerto Ricans then Cubans and Dominicans and today Mexicans. (And now, with increased gentrification in Chinatown, the fastest growing population group in East Harlem is Chinese.).While integration was a political issue citywide, Ray points out that East Harlem has been integrated since 1949.

He speaks pf the impact of Pentecostalism and the East Harlem Protestant Parish on the neighborhood..and his…life. For him the three words that most describe the neighborhood reality are:
  • Creative tension
  • Transcendence
  • Grace

Martha Eddy
Martha Eddy 
is a daughter of the East Harlem Protestant Parish. Her father, Norm, along with Don Benedict, George Huggins and George  (Bill) Weber were the idealistic Union Seminary graduates who came to East Harlem with a vision. (Joined by one of my mentors, Presbyterian George Todd.) It began in 1947 and lasted until 1975. Norm's vision was to create “Plymouth Colony” in East Harlem. They created a model that is vitally relevant today as the historic church seeks to find its way in a rapidly changing world.

The clergy families committed to a community of mutual support pledging to share with each other  emotionally,spiritually and economically. And congregation members committed to disciplines of:
  • Worship, study and prayer
  • Stewardship
  • Political action

Martha remembers political leaders like Mayor Lindsay and Abe Beame  coming to their table for conversation. EHPP's legacy in terms of housing, economics and drug and prison reform continues to this day.

Coming from England, Pastor Chris Lawrence
Chris Lawrence shares his vision
considers his congregation a latter day expression  of the EHPP. He seeks to explore and give theological and spiritual meaning to what he calls the “art of neighboring.”  The “La Mesa” project, or dinner church, is both a literal and metaphoric expression of that commitment. Chris also practices “hyper localism,” that is  he focuses his ministry in an area of four square blocks and wants to know those four blocks in every way possible. To know the people and their lives, so that the church might be the place where their losses are mourned and their victories and joys celebrated. 

To describe everything we saw would take much too long. So I’ll include just a few notes and focus on the faith community…


Murals are part of the life of el Barrio, much like the Mission in San Francisco or East LA. The ‘Los Dos Alas” mural
Los Dos Alas mural
portrays the revolutionary friendship between the Puerto Rican and Cuban peoples. Ray tells us that the first Cuban refugees  to come to el Barrio were referred to by others as gusanos, that is worms, for having abandoned the revolution. MICAH’s Peter Heltzel shares his experience of Albizu Campos, Puerto Rican freedom fighter.
Peter tells us about Albizu Campos

We see also the dramatic murals of James de la Vega whose work is seen throughout the city. 
a De La Vega mural

We also stop by the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center named for the poet, feminist and Puerto Rican nationalist who died unknown in the streets of el barrio and was buried in the city’s potter’s field, Hart’s Island. (Later her body was recovered and taken to Puerto Rico for a hero’s burial ). 

While there is great pride in the fact that current New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Vivirito is a daughter of the  neighborhood, there was sadness and anger over her seeking to end the lease for the Burgos Center.   

( For Leonard Bernstein’s tribute to Julia de Burgos, go to Https://

Ray also points out the Buen Vecino (Presbyterian) Church,
El Buen Vecino
which now houses Community Voices Heard ( and the leadership of its pastor Domingo Rosado.

What the Panthers were for the Black community, the Young Lords
Young Lords street
were to the Latinx community. Perhaps with greater lasting impact. From breakfast and tutoring programs to activism, they left their mark.


A central Roman Catholic Church of the neighborhood is St. Cecelia’s.
St. Cecelia's
We meet with its pastor, Father Mushi
Diane, Fathee Mushi and Martha
and hear of its history from its origins as a German and Irish parish to the coming of Puerto Ricans and then Dominicans and now Mexicans. And most recently, an influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the  devastation of the island. They are confronted by the expected issues: AIDS, drugs and affordable housing. The parish has been an important member of the community organizing network,Manhattan Together, which has been working on affordable housing.


On our way to the Islamic Center, we pass by La Marqueta, the open air market under the elevated train tracks along Park Avenue. Both Ray and Martha have childhood memories of La Marqueta.

The Islamic Culturall Center of New York City
The Islamic Center
anchors the southern end of the neighborhood on 96th street. It is, of course, the major Islamic center in New York City. Imam Sa’ad Jallo
Introducing Imam Jallo
has a multinational and multiethnic congregation that includes United Nations officials, diplomats, international business men and many, many cab drivers. He explains why and how cab driving is one of the most accessible entry level jobs for Muslim immigrants. His neighborhood members come mainly from French speaking Africa, Imam Jello himself come from Sierra Leone. He describes his pastoral work as well as the tradition of giving new arrivals sis months of housing and support while they find their place. in the city There is also a traditional Muslim practice of providing loan assistance and the Center actively participates in a “midnight run”food program for the homeless population of the city.


We end our day at Church of the Resurrection.
Pastor Kim Wright
Emerging  from the EHPP, the Church was given new life by a creative partnership with a developer which resulted in affordable housing and a multiple floor flexible facility for the church . ( Luckily they were able to achieve this without interference by preservation purists.) Pastor Kim Wright is another child of the  neighborhood. Their history includes work with the Latino Pastors Action Council,the creation of Mitchell Lama  houses and following on the pioneer work of Norm Eddy, drug treatment/detox facilities. It is clearly an active center for worship and witness, learning and celebration.

The day ends with conversations with representatives from a vast array of social action and service agencies.


Some closing thoughts:
  • Many thanks to Diane Steinman and her committee. This was truly an in depth experience of a unique New York neighborhood
  • There is clearly a deep love for the neighborhood among those who grew up there and a continued strong sense of “neighborhood”….sometime like a Puerto Rican village in the middle of the city.
  • East Harlem Protestant Parish clearly created a model of Christian discipleship that has lasting value. There are also questions worth reflection: 
    • The leadership of EHPP was for the most part white. How do we understand that historically? What is the appropriate role of pastors like Chris Lawrence in communities of color? How can our work contribute to the deconstruction of white privilege?
    • Much (not all) of the early history of urban ministry in the “mainline” churches was that of heroic white pastors in neighborhoods of people of color. How has that role changed over the years? (Obviously these congregations were not historically white) Are their other stories we haven’theard? Need to hear?
  • There is a cornucopia of service and activist organizations in East Harlem, perhaps predictably so. The sheer numbers  are overwhelming. But perhaps this raises as many questions as it answers. After the presence of all these organizations  over all these years, how has the neighborhood improved? Is there an inherent contradiction between institutional survival  and real change taking place in a neighborhood? To what extent are our lives as activists/commuuty workers, etc. connected to an ongoing non-empowerment of people? It would be helpful to hear the reflections of neighborhood pastors on how the different organizations and agencies  are perceived in the neighborhood.
  • What do we learn about current realities in the Roman Catholic Church when one of the principle churches in el barrio is staffed by francophone pastors from Africa? (Of course acknowledging their deep devotion to their parish and Spanish language facility…)
  • Given this vast complex of church and community organizations, how does MICAH live out its faith rooted organizing work in relationship to East Harlem? What kind of working relationships develop? Who do we work with and how? Do we do intentional outreach or ….?
  • One more time, big thanks to Diane and committee!

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