Churches of the Southside

When Concepcion was 22 years old, she was engaged to a young man, who happened to be the priest at her church. In order to get married, her fiancé, Javier Bosque, havd to go through an intense process to make certain that he was certain in his decision to leave the priesthood. It was not this process, which involved being separated for an extended duration of time, that Concepcion recalls as being the most difficult. Instead, she remembers  all of the gossiping that took place in the community about her relationship with Javier. She stated “Not only it was marrying a priest, but my church is like three blocks from here. I live three blocks from South 2nd I work right here in South 4th. So in this little corner I made my life. It was very hard because a lot of the people that worked here went to my church. So it was very tense, and people didn’t even talk to me after.” This interaction reveals a few things about both the community as well as Concepcio; A highly valued and strong sense of community in the Southside came from the church. When later asked in the interview if she still felt a sense of community, she said yes, mainly because of the church. Concepcion has been a member of Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church at 263 Marcy Avenue, where she has fostered and maintained a great sense of solidarity with the congregation. 

In addition to the relationship Concepcion has with both Nuestros Niños and Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church, there are other ties that relate these two institutions to each other, fortifying the strong networks and ties this neighborhood has had for decades.  John Mulhern, founder Nuestros Niños first became active in the church in 1964. His work, brought him “in contact with young women, a number of whom were looking for help to care of their children” which led to his founding of the child development center in 1973. In fact, the street right outside of the center wa renamed John Mulhern Way in 2014, to honor the altruistic work that was initiated decades ago, and still serves many today. Mulhern’s work additionally spurred other activism in the community. “While the primary concern for women seemed to be childcare, the major concern for men at the time was finding housing for their families.” This led to the creation of Los Sures, with many of its creators also being members from the Transfiguration Church [1].

Concepcion’s strong sense of community is at least partially due to her continuous connection to her church. She admits that is “one of the lucky people”, acknowledging that many of the churches that Southside residents  closed due to either declining congregational membership or rising property costs that became unmanageable. She stated, “like our church has not changed at all. We have a new priest, but we are the same people that are here, you know we are blessed”. While Concepcion has not experienced the shut down and displacement of her religious community, she acknowledges the impact this has had on so many of her friends and neighbors.

Changes have not only occurred in the termination of these institutions. Shifts within religious organization that mirrors changes in the neighborhoods population is also identifiable. The Resurrection Presbyterian Church, located at 334 S 5th Street, was founded in 2005. There is a remarkable difference evident between the sense of community in this church and that of the Transfiguration Church. A New York Times article described its atmosphere saying “true to the unspoken dress code of the neighborhood, they were wearing high-waisted skinny jeans, vintage T-shirts and deliberately homely sweaters. One woman in a floral romper, her platinum-blond hair cut in a shag, carried a Bob Seger vinyl record under her arm. After a gospel band played, the group listened as a man with a tattoo and a shaved head, Thomas Vito Aiuto, gave a talk that referred in turn to Woody Allen, jogging and London cabdrivers” [2]. Aiuto’s progressive sermons that appeal to predominantly young, white “millennials” are housed at St. Paul’s Church.

The Transfiguration Church and The Resurrection Presbyterian Church can be seen as two prime examples of communities created and strengthened through belief and prayer. They also represent two predominant populations now residing in the neighborhood, those who have called Southside home for decades, and those who have recently settled there. Each church seems to appeal to one of these populations or another, but not both. This could be seen as representative of how many of the institutions of this neighborhood work; appealing to one demographic or another, segregating the community even further. 

However, St. Paul’s Church, which lends its space to The Resurrection Presbyterian Church, seems to be the bridge trying to bridge this schism. In addition to housing “A Congregation in Skinny Jeans”, they are also interested and invested in fostering and maintaining a relationship with the more established community. When Pastor Ben McKelahan discovered a theater on one of the floors of the church, he was eager to restore it to it’s original state [3]. This was made possible by Workers Justice Project, who define their mission to empower low-wage immigrant workers to gain a voice in the workplace and build strong and economically sustainable communities through education, organizing, leadership development, and the growth of grassroots economic alternatives” [4]. The church provided free space for meetings and events in return of manual labor and help in restoring the space. Once revived, the first publicly inaugurate the space with a monthly program called Voices of Brooklyn, “in which Brooklyn bands perform and long-time locals tell tales from the neighborhood focused around a common theme. The goal is to get long-term residents and new-comers alike to learn about their community and connect to their neighbors” [5].

 



 [1] Tanay Warerkar, "City Recognizes Work of Nuestros Niños Founder with Street Naming Ceremony," The Greenpoint Gazette, Jun. 3, 2014.
 
[2] Marisa Meltzer, "A Congragation in Skinny Jeans," The New York Times, Nov. 2, 2011.
 
[3] Daniele Furfaro, "Pastor restores theather in his Williamsburg Church," The Brooklyn Paper, Jun. 3, 2015.
 
[4] "About Us," Workers Justice Project, n.p., n.d. 
 
[5] "Old Soutside Theater Found in a 19th Century Church," The North Brooklyn Community News Greenline, 2013.
Churches of the Southside