Tag Archive | "religion"

Looking for answers from a psychic in The Bronx

Ave Castellanos owns the Deluxe Candle Products botanica in Highbridge

A simple Google search won’t do to find Ave Castellanos, a 47 year-old Bronx-based psychic. She doesn’t have a Yelp profile, or an Instagram or Facebook account, and yet it’s common to see a line of people waiting to hear her advice.

Seer, clairvoyant and master tarotist is how Castellanos described her job. She sees between 20 to 25 clients a day at her office inside Deluxe Candle Products, a three story botanica in Highbridge, one of at least seven stores in the neighborhood that offer esoteric services. Castellanos has a network of people who refer her work to their friends and family after they visit her for the first time, she said. And, according to her, people from different states, and as far away as Brazil and China, travel to New York to see her. But Castellanos won’t offer names of her clients, she said, because she assures them confidentiality. While impossible to confirm Castellanos’ self-proclaimed popularity, on this past Labor Day morning, one customer who was waiting his turn, said he was acting as a liaison for his brother, who was calling from Denver, Colorado.  

Botanicas also sell scented water for rituals

This is a very exclusive business, Castellanos said, “If you ask me if I know any psychic, I would tell you I don’t. Someone needs to refer you,” she said sitting in a high chair surrounded by candles, herbs and oils that are sold at her botanica. Even people associated to a religion visit her. Catholics, Jewish and Muslim people “everyone is curious,” Castellanos said.

Religious people who look for this kind of counseling could be seeking comfort, said Joseph Nuzzi, director of Evangelization at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. People want control over the future or to know if they are on the right path. Religions like Judaism and Christianity offer advice on broader aspects, such as peace, justice and mercy, but there’s something missing, Nuzzi said. “Faith does not give people the gritty detail of ‘is this the right person for me?’ ‘Is this the right job for me?’”

Castellanos wouldn’t reveal how much she charges for her advice. “If you can pay, you pay whatever you want.” However, in other parts of the Bronx, tarot readers charge from $30 to $50 for a session.

“Since I was a child I knew there was something supernatural in me,” Castellanos said, which led her to have a lonely childhood while growing up at the Dominican Republic. When she moved to New York City 30 years ago, she started her tarot reading business in her apartment in Washington Heights. Castellanos later moved to The Bronx because she needed more space for her job. 

Other botanicas in The Bronx include products related to Santería

Almost three miles away from her shop, in a botanica in Fordham, Carlos, another psychic, who prefers to be called “Frodo,” said he had a similar experience while growing up in Puerto Rico. “I didn’t have any friends, they judge you and tell you you’re weird,” he said while pouring gold glitter in a candle meant to be lit for a saint. He doesn’t socialize with other psychics either, because there might be a conflict with their clients.

It’s about faith

Botanicas in The Bronx offer sprays that promise better luck in love and money

Faith is crucial for an accurate reading, Castellanos said. That’s a common guideline related to the Barnum effect in psychology, in which psychics use people’s reactions to test different statements until finding what suits their client’s life. Clients often leave psychic meetings remembering only selected sections that match what they wish or are afraid to believe. This attracts “less analytical people,” who want to find shortcut answers through structures like religion or paranormality, said Svetlana Komissarouk, a social psychology professor at Columbia University.  

“All humans are struggling to find some illusion of control,” Komissarouk said. They want tools to change their destinies and find happiness. “They look for some kind of causality because otherwise, everything is just chaotic and scary.” 

Castellanos was reluctant to talk about her clients. But, when asked about what people tend to look for the most,  she didn’t hesitate. “Most of them want to know about love”.

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Bronx Muslim Leaders Aim to End “Destructive Talk”

The president of the Parkchester mosque on White Plains Road spoke gently and firmly one September morning from his office behind the spacious third-floor prayer room. “Now people are trying to explain it a different way,” said Mohammed Mayeez Uddin, referring to the incendiary, anti-Islam movie trailer that had rocked YouTube two weeks earlier.

“We are not a modern Muslim. We are just Muslim,” said Uddin, of his fellow worshipers in the James Masjid. Next to his office stood a row of blue-tiled fountains where members cleanse their hands before prayer.

The clumsy video called “Innocence of Muslims” had mocked the Prophet Muhammed as a fool and a womanizer. Media attention to the universally condemned film coincided with an attack in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador. The riotous protests in response to the film and U.S. foreign policy were still making headlines at the time.

Muslim leaders in the Bronx like Uddin felt compelled to emphasize the vast gap between peaceful followers of Islam in the Bronx, and the violent extremists elsewhere. It is not easy to quantify precisely how many Muslims live in the Bronx because of incomplete national and local data on religion.  But in a borough that added 16 Islamic congregations and 26,342 adherents between 2000 and 2010 and has its own online news site devoted to covering issues relevant to Muslims in New York City, Islam is its fastest-growing religion.

Most Islamic leaders there responded to the recent violent eruptions overseas with a mixture of dismay, embarrassment, and deep concern over the world’s lack of understanding of their religion. “Forcefully, we cannot do everything,” Uddin said, shaking his head at the violent protests. He spoke haltingly, but deliberately. “You have to be peaceful.”

To that end, Uddin does not allow what he calls “destructive talk” about politics and protests in the name of faith at the Parkchester mosque where nearly all 5,000 members are originally from Bangladesh. He said he has occasionally thrown out members who have brought up the subjects. The most recent time was after the “Innocence” video gained attention. One of the mosque’s members tried to organize other parishioners in a protest.

“I just told him, ‘please leave,’” Uddin said.

Vincent Rada, a paralegal and Muslim living in Parkchester, said local reactions and conversations did not gain enough media focus.

Of the dozen Muslims interviewed in the three weeks following the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — which is around the time “Innocence of Muslims” gained notoriety — most expressed a similar dismay at the offensive video.

It’s an image of their religion, most said, that has nothing to do with their own lives and their personal experience with Islam. Because of that, Pakistan-born Mohammed Jan, president of Mabni Masjid in Morris Park, was more upset than angry when the video emerged.

“Our religion, Islam, teaches us strongly peace, love, prosperity — and respect,” Jan said. “I mean, in the other world, there are so many demonstrations going on,” he said, referring to and distancing himself and his fellow community members from their native countries. “At some point, it’s embarrassing for us.”

Mohammed Jan, president of Mabni Masjid in Morris Park in the Bronx, says it’s too easy to generalize “Muslim reactions” toward their faith. (SONIA PAUL/ The Bronx Ink)

Mohammed Jan, President of Mabni Masjid in Morris Park in the Bronx, expressed his frustration with the anti-Islam New York City subway ads, which gained attention following the viral YouTube video.

Many Muslims in the Bronx were hesitant to discuss their views openly or have their pictures taken. Instead, they preferred to have their imams, or religious leaders, speak on their behalf. The imams, in turn, suggested mosque presidents as speakers for the community.

Discussions aside, statistics reveal the population is growing.  Figures from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census estimate the Bronx is home to 38,506 Muslims. Before 2000, the religion census didn’t distinguish Islam as a major religion in the Bronx.

The Muslim community includes people from countries as diverse as Albania, Mali and the Unites States itself, as well as South Asian nations. The number of residents from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, three of the top four countries with the most number of Muslims (the fourth is Indonesia), has risen from 17,992 in 2000 to 25,587 in 2010. The Bangladeshi population alone grew by 333 percent.

The population of Africans in the Bronx has also grown considerably: The most recent U.S. census estimates that from 1990 to 2010, the number of sub-Saharan Africans grew from 12,063 to around 70,000. Residents estimate about 75 percent of Africans in the Bronx are Muslim.

Mabni Masjid’s mixed community of devotees embodies this influx of new residents in a community where people have also lived their whole lives. It serves a large Pakistani population, as well as patrons from countries like Bangladesh, Egypt and Morocco. Several African Americans and people from African countries come as well, Jan said.

Like Parkchester James Masjid, Mabni Masjid has strict rules regarding what people say in the mosque. People come there to pray. This separation between religion and politics means that discussions of current events occur outside the mosque, in quieter conversations rather than in public demonstrations.

Mamadou Sy, who is originally from Mali, wishes the media would show a more comprehensive range of Muslim reactions instead of just the extremist ones.

It provides strong contrast from the violent eruptions abroad that confused foreign policy and politics with actual faith.

“Unfortunately, I think media has been the unwitting amplifier of what could have been a very small issue,” wrote Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, in an email. “Compared to the mass protests of the Arab Spring, demonstrations against the film were minuscule, and even fewer of those who showed up carried out violence.”

The role of free speech in perpetuating the insulting portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed was one of the more pressing concerns in the Bronx. Valencia Johnson, 39, an African-American nurse and Bronx native, received text messages from friends asking her to boycott YouTube and Google in protest, since Google, which owns YouTube, hasn’t taken down the video in the U.S.

“We’re more quiet here,” Johnson said in an interview in September. “We’re not going so far and burning flags and doing stuff like that,” she said, referring to the looting, rioting and burning of American flags and effigies of President Barack Obama in several countries.

“We’re just trying to do what we can through our community here,” said Johnson, whose shimmery lime-green and pink eye shadow matched the colors of her hijab. “Don’t go to this website.”

Bronx native Valencia Johnson recounts how people expected her to react to the YouTube video because of her Muslim faith.

Other interviews in the Bronx hint that immigration, the economy and the increased scrutiny on Muslims after 9/11 influenced decisions to even react to the video.

Palestinian immigrant Musab Ahmed, who came to New York five years ago, said he could understand why some people were so angry. But he did not feel inclined to do much in response, nor did anyone else seem to expect anything from him.

“Right now, the economy’s really bad,” Ahmed said as he prepared hot falafels in the Hunts Point food cart he now owns. His dark hair was concealed underneath a black, stocking-like cap. “People have their own problems to think about.”

He said no one’s ever been rude or suspicious of him because of  his faith.

Ahmed’s experience reflects a growing trend among first generation Muslim Americans. A 2011 Pew opinion poll reported that life has become more difficult for them since 9/11, but they haven’t experienced any increased hostility in the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks. What they are concerned about, however, is extremism within Islam.

It is a loaded topic in the Bronx, where three Muslim men were convicted last year for a 2009 plot to blow up synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. The men had planted fake bombs at two different locations. They had received the fake bombs from an FBI informant.

Ibrahim Ramey, who works for the Highbridge-based Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development, said people are concerned with extremism, particularly how it affects impressionable young people. But that in itself is not the most pressing issue.

Indeed, all the Muslims interviewed distanced themselves from extreme views, both regarding their religion and the reactions to the “Innocence of Muslims.” But most of them agreed people still did not understand the faith.

“I think we need to have a more nuanced view of how Islam is,” Ramey said.

 

A select timeline of local and global reactions to the “Innocence of Muslims” video:

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A church divided

The Bedford Park Presbyterian Church in the Bronx was founded in 1900 and began holding bilingual services in English and Korean, 73 years later. Last year, a conflict between the English pastor and the Korean-speaking members was temporarily quelled by having both congregations worshiping separately in the same building. But now, the English congregation has no pastor, with worries that it might have to permanently discontinue.

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Petition to use public schools for prayer meetings rejected — NYTimes

The Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision that backed New York City’s decision to ban the Bronx Household of Faith from  holding its Sunday services at P.S. 15, reported The New York Times. The evangelical church had been holding its Sunday services at the school since 2002.

The decision was in line with the city’s regulation, permitted under state law, of blocking the use of public schools as a venue for worship. However, roughly 160 congregations used school buildings for religious services in the 2010-11 school year alone. Officials expect to end the hundreds of prayer services in schools by Feb. 12, 2012.

“A worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church,” said the decision.

Jane Gordon, the senior counsel of the New York City Law Department, said in a statement that it was “a victory for the city’s schoolchildren and their families.”

 

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Mexican immigrants celebrate the Virgin Mary

El Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe from Irasema Romero on Vimeo.

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Honoring a standout sister in Norwood

Sr. Catherine poses with a friend. Photo: courtesy Sr. Anne Queenan

Sr. Catherine, left, poses with a friend. Photo: courtesy Sr. Anne Queenan

Dressed in a purple skirt suit and printed blouse, Sister Catherine Naughton squeezed hands, shared hugs, and greeted approximately 200 guests outside St. Brendan Catholic Church in the Norwood section of the Bronx.  The small 68-year-old nun paused to embrace a more robust Claire McCabe, 80, who hugged back – hard.

“If Sister Catherine left, our leisure club would fall apart,” McCabe said, of the church’s group for senior outings, activities, and exercise.

Naughton is revered for her ministry to seniors, and luckily for McCabe, she has no plans to retire.  The guests who came on an autumn Saturday to honor her 50 years of Catholic life at a Golden Jubilee mass included her family and her Dominican sisters from Sparkill, N.Y., where her order is based.

A dynamic community activist, Naughton is one of a shrinking group of women in religious life.  According to the Index of Leading Catholic Indicators, there were 180,000 sisters in 1965.  By 2020 there will be just 40,000.

Naughton began her calling when Norwood was still full of McCabes.  Today, the neighborhood is half Hispanic.

In a changing community, Naughton has been a constant source of strength for many.  “Sister really has been an inspiration to me personally,” said the Rev. George Stewart, 42, pastor of St. Brendan and officiant at Naughton’s mass.  “As a man, as a priest, and as a pastor.”

For the past eight years, Naughton has run St. Brendan’s senior outreach program for more than 100 regular participants; it includes a leisure club, exercise classes, and a lunch program.  The 102-year-old parish boasts between 1,700 and 2,000 congregants, approximately 25 percent of whom are over age 65.

Naughton has also made a mark ministering to the parish’s sick.  “When Paul was in the hospital, she was at his bedside, bringing meals,” said Jeanne Hveem, 64, speaking of her husband, a deacon at St. Brendan, who recently suffered a heart attack.

Stewart stressed the importance of Naughton’s leadership role.  “She’s often my eyes and ears to what’s going on,” said Stewart.  “Who is sick, who is in the hospital, even who has passed.”  After a short commute from her home in Riverdale, she spends hours at a time in nursing homes and hospitals.

She started that committed approach to ministry 50 years ago on Sept. 8, when she and 57 other young women became Dominican sisters at Sparkill.  St. Dominic founded the Dominican Order in the 13th century with an emphasis on active service; hundreds of years ago, its friars traveled rather than live sequestered in monasteries.  In 1876, Alice Mary Thorpe founded the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary.  The sisters came to St. Brendan in 1912 to start a religious education program at the new parish school.

Naughton came to St. Brendan in 2002.  Born in Washington Heights and a self-professed “city girl,” she was glad to be back in the Bronx, where she had worked 45 years ago.  Naughton had been looking for a new place to minister to seniors, and she sent letters to many parishes and to Rev. Patrick Hennessey, St. Brendan’s now-deceased former pastor, who hired her and put her in charge of senior outreach.

But Naughton hasn’t always worked with seniors.  Early in her career, sisters were not allowed to choose their own ministry, and she trained to be a teacher.  She said that when the policy changed in the aftermath of Vatican II, it was a defining moment for her.  “We’ve received the freedom to follow where our gifts are,” she said.  She tried her hand as a teacher, a hospital chaplain, and a senior housing worker, among other roles.

“I’m a Gemini,” she joked.  “So we kind of dabble!”  Her senior housing work led her to senior outreach, and she has not looked back.

At Naughton’s mass, Stewart presented her with a plaque and bouquet in appreciation.  “Why don’t you move to the center,” he asked from the altar, “so we can embarrass you some more.”

The vision in purple didn’t skip a beat as she walked up to embrace Stewart, to great applause.  “It’s a blessed event,” she said.  “I’m very honored.”

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Skulls and Rosaries

Audio slideshow by Elettra Fiumi and David Patrick Alexander.

A local Soundview botanica owner counts on days like Saint Michael’s Day on September 29th to boost his flagging business.

“People aren’t going to the saints as much as before,” said John Santiago, owner of the Botanica store, which manages to maintain a steady revenue of approximately $53,000 per year. His is one of the last standing local botanicas. Three others closed down in the last year.

In a city still trying to recover from high jobless rates and a global economic collapse, this Botanica maintains a faithful clientele by offering religious tidbits of advice and a little generosity alongside wooden crucifixes, or bath soap that wards off evil. When someone in need can’t afford to buy something, he might give them a candle for free.

Santiago said sales of merchandise that includes skulls, rosaries and candles have gone down since the 1980s except for a brief surge around 9/11.

“People were getting scared and thinking they were going to die so they should clean their souls,” he said. “People only believe when something tragic happens.”

Sales increase drastically mostly around religious days like the day after Halloween, Christmas day and New Year’s Eve. Most clients don’t remember other saint days throughout the year, but when Santiago reminds them, he recalls them thanking him by giving him “muchos blessings.”

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Faithfully Fit in the Bronx

It’s a  few days after Thanksgiving and only two kids have turned up at the Bronx Christian Fellowship on Gun Hill Road. Jonathan Arroyo, 12, and Joseph Ross, 14 are ready for their weekly fitness class, wearing sweatpants and their new Army t-shirts. In the chilly church hall, Arroyo and Ross stand with a group of much less fit adults: Michelle Chapman, 45, Sharon Heyward, 44 and Jimmy Rodriguez, 44. They too wear sweatpants, baggy t-shirts and sneakers. Rather than reciting hymns, the small group reads aloud about the hazards of sugary beverages and how “water is all you need.” Loyce Godfry, health coordinator for the Bronx Christian Fellowship, stands off to the side and watches, occasionally mouthing along with the words of the script. This isn’t her first time teaching healthy habits to the Bronx community, many of who were adults.

Twenty kids have signed up for the class, but if Godfry is disappointed in the small turnout, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she is eager to push the benefits of more exercise and healthier eating, the message of “Fit to Lead,” a six-week youth fitness program in the church with volunteers from the Army’s Bronx Recruitment Center. “Fit to Lead is about reducing screen-time, reducing soda consumption, increase physical activity, and reduce junk food,” said Godfry.

Loyce Godfry is the creator of the faith-based fitness program Fine Fit and Fabulous. She works with the Bronx Christian Fellowship to implement a new program called "Fit to Lead"

Loyce Godfry is the creator of the faith-based fitness program Fine Fit and Fabulous. She works with the Bronx Christian Fellowship to implement a new program called "Fit to Lead"

Each Sunday, Army volunteers teach the participants how to exercise and maintain a fitness routine. Then, during the week, Army mentors call participants to make sure they are on track. Arryo and Ross are regulars and are called upon to demonstrate a proper crunch and push-up. The adults in class are there  getting healthy themselves and also to be role models. “I need to lose weight, and I need to eat healthier,” Heyward said as the class prepares to stretch. “Besides, I think it motivates the children if they see us doing it.”

The small group stands in a circle around Sgt. Emmanuel Zapata and begins to stretch their arms. Zapata explains each move but the two youngest participants—Arroyo and Ross—already seem well versed in this routine while the adults struggle to do just five sit-ups.

In a borough where French fries are more accessible than treadmills, a growing number of churches have stepped in to educate Bronx residents on the dangers of obesity. The need is great: nearly 42 percent of young people in the Bronx are obese, which puts them at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Public health agencies have tried to stem the crisis through efforts like Green Carts, which provide fresh produce in poor neighborhoods. But it’s clearly not enough. That’s where the churches come in. Because they represent an institution that people are familiar with and trust (in contrast to some doctors and hospitals), churches have a receptive audience. With obesity at record levels, a growing number of congregations say health and fitness should be part of their mission.

Godfry is a veteran of the faith-based fitness movement. “Fit to Lead” grew out of a 12-week adult diabetes-prevention program she created in 1999 called “Fine, Fit and Fabulous”  which she brought to churches throughout the Bronx and in Harlem. Now, she works for Bronx Health REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Health), an organization that aims to eliminate disparities in the healthcare industry. Bronx Health REACH created a specific section called the Faith-Based Outreach Initiative to implement programs like “Fine, Fit and Fabulous”, created fitness guides and healthy cookbooks, and gives  seminars on heart health and diabetes.

Godfry knows that faith-based fitness isn’t the whole answer, but she thinks it can be an important part of an overall health strategy in the borough. “There seems to be less weight gain,” Godfry said. “So in some kind of way, there is some kind of message that obesity a problem and it is a problem that we need to address. I think most faith-based group are hearing it loud and clear.” According to the data Bronx Health REACH collected last year, nearly 79 percent of participants in “Fine Fit and Fabulous” lost weight. On average, this year’s 17,000 participants lost 4.6 pounds.

The churches seem to be particularly effective in reaching African-Americans, and the need in that community is the most acute. According to the American Obesity Association, nearly 70 percent of African-Americans are overweight and 40 percent are obese, higher than the national average. Traditional public health outreach efforts haven’t been successful in reaching them. African-Americans are less likely to have health insurance than whites and more likely to be low-income—both of which make it harder to get access to healthcare. The disparity affects all ages from babies (black infant mortality is higher than whites) to adults. “A black man will wait longer in a waiting room than a white man,” said Joyce H. Davis, the health coordinator at Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Highbridge. “We should stay healthy so we shouldn’t have to see any doctor. We are not trying to close down our hospitals, but we know that we have a lesser chance of getting ill this way.”

In other parts of the country, faith-based fitness programs are not confined to poor communities. Gwen Shamblin author of “The Weight Down Diet,” created a faith-based curriculum that focuses on portion control. The Tennessee-native has implemented her program across the country with workshops, seminars and through her book. Her own church, the Remnant Fellowship in Tennessee, has lost over 20,000 pounds altogether. Shamblin has also been featured on several television shows, such as Tyra Banks and the Today Show to talk about how God connects with a person’s greed. “I think people mean well but they know they are plagued with food, overindulging in alcohol drugs, cigarette,” said Shamblin. “But they need to get back into God’s boundaries. God is saying, ‘No that’s enough.’ The average person knows what they want. If you listen to the body, it will tell you how much and what you want to eat.”

Some critics say that linking faith to fitness in such an overt way could create a spiritual crisis if a participant fails to lose weight. But in the Bronx the message is less about God and more about health.

“The faith-based community is the core of every community,” said the Rev. Que English of the Bronx Christian Fellowship in Pelham Parkway. “We reach the masses. You have a collective and built-in audience. The church creates a serene environment for people to cope with some of the problems they are having.” Fitness in the church is not a matter of praying off the pounds, English said. “It’s not like God is going to take the spoon out of your mouth,” she said. “God can help you with doing those things that are right. Instances in time where you feel like you fail, you can pick yourself back up and try again. You can always live in very positive way. That all stems from faith.”

For many Bronx residents, it’s far more powerful to hear the message of health and wellness from the pulpit than from a doctor, says the Rev. Robert L. Foley, the pastor of the Cosmopolitan Church of the Lord Jesus in Fordham. “I think it is true across the board that people place a lot of value on what comes from that pulpit,” he said. “It’s a word that they trust and believe in.”

Foley often places health-conscious messages in his sermons. “I try to include a health message—a reference to a health issue or concern or tip that will be beneficial to our members,” he  said. “Recently I delivered a message on retrospective–looking back. Even when I look back on our congregation I see members who have been with us for 30 years I can recall episodes in their lives when they were on the edge of a stroke. But as they assumed more responsibilities on their health, they improved.”

Godfry says it is the environments in which the fitness and nutrition are conducted that make the program so effective. After 12 weeks, the church can continue with the curriculum or make their own nutrition plan, reducing salt or sugar intake, or perhaps increase the amount of vegetables they consume.

Some changes are clearly taking place. Foley remembers that the after-service supper on Sundays used to be filled with plates of fried fish and fried chicken. Today supper is replaced with low-sodium and low-sugar foods, baked chicken and turkey and more vegetables.

“We’ve made a conscientious effort so that we are not eating as much sugar and we are certainly not using as much salt as we’ve been accustomed to,” he said. But the Bronx pastor also remembers seeing more members of his church back then.

“There were some people who have been with me for 37 years,” said Foley. “But we’ve had some people who did not pay attention to sodium intake and high cholesterol foods and many of those folks are not here today.” The Cosmopolitan Church has adopted the Fine Fit and Fabulous curriculum and has a health committee that coordinates with the Bronx Health REACH once a month. “This is not just a philosophical thing,” he said. “I can see the impact. I buried them.” That’s experience he’s praying not to repeat too soon.

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