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Diverse Immigrants Are Turning To God
Newsday (New York, NY)
October 21, 2002

By Carol Eisenberg.

Rajesh Vohra unties the laces of his Bass shoes and climbs the brightly painted red and white steps that lead up to the Ganapathi Temple on Bowne Street with a plastic bag cradled in his arms. It is Tuesday, a Hindu holy day, and he has come to offer a gallon of milk to Lord Shiva, the powerful Hindu deity with a third eye in the middle of his forehead.

As a young man, Vohra said, becoming a practicing Hindu was the furthest thing from his mind.

"Back home in New Delhi, I was much more interested in American rock and roll and Hollywood action movies starring Charles Bronson," said the 39-year- old restaurant manager from Hollis Hills.

But Vohra said the experience of being alone in a new country humbled him and made him think about his life differently. "First, I began coming to this temple because I missed family members, and I missed my culture," he said. "It became a habit that brought me a lot of peace and comfort. Now, I feel if I didn't have this place to come to, I would be lost." Vohra's spiritual odyssey echoes that of thousands of newcomers who live or worship in this spectacularly polyglot stretch of Flushing, which boasts Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques, synagogues, Sikh gurdwaras as well as historic Catholic and Protestant churches dating, in a few cases, to the 17th century.

"We call Bowne Street 'The Holy Land' because we have so many churches, temples and synagogues," said the Rev. David Tsang, who teaches Chinese immigrants the Gospels, alongside English, at the Boon Church of the Overseas Chinese Mission. "I think the main reason is the number of newcomers who feel they have no place else to turn except to God."

In many ways, Bowne Street is a microcosm of the changing spiritual landscape of New York, which is being reordered by the powerful engines of immigration and globalization. If not quite a new Mecca or a Jerusalem, the New York area is attracting one of the most diverse concentrations of religions that the world has ever seen, said Tony Carnes, director of the Research Institute for New Americans in lower Manhattan and editor of "New York Glory: Religions in the City."

"I would argue that New York is fast becoming one of the more religiously active places in the U.S.," Carnes said. "The amount of growth ... from the mid- 1980s through 2000 was very, very high, particularly among the more conservative denominations. And new immigrants have been revitalizing all kinds of religious groups - including Catholic, Hindu and evangelical groups."

Carnes' view is buttressed by the findings of a 2000 survey of religious participation by the Nashville-based Glenmary Research Center, which publishes what it describes as the most comprehensive look at religious participation in America. It found that 62.4 percent of people living in the New York metro area are connected with a house of worship, compared with 55.9 percent in the Chicago metro area and 52 percent in Los Angeles.

And the 29-county New York metro area claims more Catholics, Jews, Muslims, American Baptists, Episcopalians, Hindus, Jains, Greek Orthodox and Salvation Army members, to name just a few, than any place else in America, the survey found.

Because Glenmary did not count foreign-based churches or many African-American denominations, because they chose not to participate, Carnes calls its findings "the tip of the iceberg."

He and others point to some of these signposts of religious reinvigoration:

The Catholic church, the region's largest single denomination, grew 5.5 percent over the past decade, spurred by immigration, with Mass now celebrated in more than 30 languages every week and new parishes opening for Arabs, Portuguese, Koreans and Albanians.

Almost 200 mosques now dot the New York metropolitan area, according to Glenmary, drawing an estimated 330,000 practicing Muslims, who range from African-Americans to immigrants from Afghanistan and Asia.

Mormons have nearly doubled their numbers in the past decade, not just through aggressive proselytizing, but as a result of the arrival of foreign-born converts from Asia and Africa; the same is true of the Pentecostal Assembly of God, whose members "speak in tongues" as a sign of the Holy Spirit and who have increased 15 percent since 1990.

Korean churches alone have founded more than a dozen local colleges and seminaries to be able to provide leaders for their rapidly expanding ministries.

Small Pentecostal churches offering exclusively Spanish services are popping up in storefronts from Harlem to Huntington Station.

"When you are in your own country, everything is there, and you take it for granted," said Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society in Flushing, who wears her long, gray- streaked hair in a ponytail and dresses in flowing saris.

"But here, you long for it because it is not so easy to find. And that longing, that hunger and that search has made us more religious. And I believe that that has contributed to the increased spirituality that you find in New York."

Shui Lin Lee, a Mormon convert from Hong Kong, put it even more bluntly:

"For me, being an immigrant is a lonely experience," said the 40-year-old social worker who lives in lower Manhattan. "I'm alone here. I don't have family. So to connect with a church and be able to make some friends and to be with people who understand the same language is very helpful."

Until recently, religion was thought to be incompatible with the fast-paced, materialistic and often alienated world of the modern city. It was believed that immigrants uprooted from their homes and traditional worship practices would simply abandon them in the rush to assimilate.

In fact, the reverse has often turned out to be the case, said Robert Orsi, a scholar of urban religion who teaches at Harvard Divinity School.

Immigrants often become far more identified with their religion here, in part because they reach out to religious and cultural communities for help and in part because they discover that religion plays such a key role in American identity, he said.

Moreover, religious participation seems to go up the more there is of it. "In other words, the more members of any given group look around and see other people participating in religious practice, the more they are likely to do so themselves," Orsi said.

The story of Mohammed Saleh, 55, president of the Long Island Muslim Society in East Meadow, is typical.

When Saleh emigrated from Bangladesh more than 30 years ago, he said he did not pray, and he had his share of what he refers to as "vices."

"Coming here was a great shock for me," Saleh said. "I was a young man, here on an immigrant visa, and I worked as a messenger, delivering mail from one office to another, which is not how it was back in my country."

Saleh recalls feeling stunned and profoundly alone in America, "and like many people in shock, I turned to God. I began praying to Allah, and it gave me peace."

That practice grew increasingly important until, in the late 1980s, he and a group of mostly Bangladeshis founded a new mosque in East Meadow. Today, he said sadly, when he goes back to his native land, "I do not see the same practice of religion."

Religious practices transplanted to new soil amid new cultures invariably change, Orsi said. "Something new is created on these shores," he said. "It's the creation of a new plant, in many ways."

The recent explosive growth of Yoruba, a religion originally from West Africa, is a classic example, he said. The religion's diaspora to the New World began with the enslavement of Africans in Cuba, Brazil and Haiti, who secretly continued homage to their deities under the guise of worshiping Catholic saints. The religion acquired a new name, Santeria, from the Spanish word santero or "a maker of saints."

In recent decades, as Cuban practitioners, in particular, emigrated to the United States, they attracted African-American followers, who were seeking a connection to the religion of their ancestors.

"The religion has come almost full circle," said Oseye Mchawi, 56, of Brooklyn, a Yoruba priestess, or iyalorisa.

Few African-American priests of Yoruba, for instance, continue the worship of Catholic saints, which many see as a relic of slavery, nor do they describe themselves as practitioners of Santeria, she said.

"African-Americans inherited the religion from Cuba, but because of our affinity to Africa, there has been a quest on our part to try to find more authenticity for what we do and to ... replicate things done in Africa," she said.

For all the new diversity in the spiritual landscape, the Glenmary survey showed the metro area remains predominantly Christian, with Pentecostal and evangelical groups such as the Mormons and Assembly of God growing fastest, while mainline Protestant denominations, including Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians, continue to shrink - although together, they still account for nearly three times as many adherents as the evangelicals.

Practicing Muslims were estimated for the first time at more than 331,000. The number of Jews was estimated at about 2 million, declining 8 percent because of low birth rates, high rates of intermarriage and the dispersal of Jews from the Northeast.

The survey did not count those who have left religion, an omission that some scholars consider glaring. If you were to count such people as a denomination themselves, they would be the nation's third largest after Catholics and Southern Baptists, said Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

"There are often simultaneous growth trends, and if you only look at one and not the other, you don't see the whole picture," Mayer said.

In the end, however, the rise and fall of categories tell only part of the story, often diverting attention from the flowering piety and the dramatic racial and ethnic changes that are transforming some denominations from the inside out.

The days of Mormonism, for instance, as a predominantly white, Utah-based religion are history, said Brent Belnap, president of the New York, New York Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons.

The group now has Korean, Russian, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese congregations in New York, Belnap said. And with 300 to 400 full-time missionaries proselytizing in the New York region, and a new temple on the drawing boards, that range is likely to increase.

On a recent Sunday, for instance, several dozen Chinese men and women - the men in white shirts, ties and dark suits - listen to a Cantonese service extolling the missionary work of 19th century leader Brigham Young as they sit on metal chairs in a suite in an office building just south of Canal Street.

Many, like Shui Lin Lee, say they were converts before they ever set foot on American soil.

Lee was a teenager growing up in Hong Kong when her older sister brought home a group of Mormon missionaries. "They were young, good-looking and they spoke English," she said. "And I wanted to practice my English."

After becoming distant from the church in recent years, Lee said she sought a greater tie after immigrating to the United States and then getting divorced.

"I came back after my divorce because I felt I needed the support," she said.

To judge from the church's meteoric growth, many others have sought that support as well.

Antonio Lopez, a 29-year-old Pentecostal preacher who operates out of a white-shingled storefront in Huntington Station, offers similar succor to new Latino immigrants.

Even on weeknights, his little church, Iglesia Pentecostal Refugio de Salvacion, is packed with men with rough, calloused hands and work clothes, and women with young children tugging at their skirts, kneeling in prayer.

Lopez, who is from El Salvador, said he knows nothing about religion surveys, but he is sure of one thing.

"Every day," he said, "the church is bigger than it was the day before. People are thirsty, and they are looking for water. And as a result, we are claiming more and more souls for Jesus Christ."

Counting the Faithful

These are the largest religious groups in the New York metro area, according to a 2000 survey of religious participation in America by the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville:

Catholic 8,947,233

Jewish 2,028,200*

Mainline Protestant 1,323,841

Evangelical Protestant 483,807

Muslims 331,045*

The metro area, as defined by Glenmary, includes 29 counties in New York City, Long Island and Westchester; New Jersey; Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Figures come from 149 denominations who supplied Glenmary with county-by-county breakdowns of their adherents.

*Jewish and Muslim numbers are extrapolated from samples, rather than actual counts.

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