Tag Archive | "religion"

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:

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, MultimediaComments (0)

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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Church of the Holy Rollers

By Alex Berg

One by one, seven teenage boys zipped down the hallway on skateboards. Like successive bullets fired out of a shotgun, the teens hit a waist high ramp that launched them into a tango with the air and the board beneath their feet. Fifteen year-old Jose Castillo flew off the triangular ramp, air bound for mere seconds before his feet and board separated, bringing him crashing to the ground under a nearby basketball hoop. The hoop was tagged with yellow, orange and red graffiti -- “Jesus Lives.” The skate ramp was inside a South Bronx church. Castillo is a member of HeavenBound7, a skateboarding team started by Henry Pena, a 51-year-old computer technician by day and volunteer youth minister by night at La Segunda Iglesia Cristiana Church. Pena is something of a coach to the 30 to 40 teens on the team who come to the Morrisania church on Friday nights to skate on ramps and grind rails he built himself. During some practices, Pena instructs Castillo to bend his knees or fix his form. Other times he is a quiet onlooker. But his mission is always clear: give kids a constructive activity in an unexpected location to get them off the streets in a neighborhood taxed by drugs and crime. When the skaters tell outsiders they skateboard inside a church, they’re often met with crooked stares. The fusion of religion and skateboarding strikes people as novel, since religion is associated with discipline and skateboarding is an unconventional sport. Then again, skateboarding is simply a rarity in the Bronx, where there are only three skate parks – Mullaly near Yankee Stadium, one on Allerton Avenue towards the northeast and Throgs Neck in the far northeast – and none in the Central or South Bronx. “The Bronx is gritty,” said Damion Blair, a 20-year-old student at the Art Institute of New York, who was one of the first to skate in the church with a congregation of 50. “It’s real hard to raise any kids with the violence. It’s not a good environment. You never hear skaters come to the Bronx to skate. Never. You hear skaters go to Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Because there’s no safe environment for people to skate.” The church HeavenBound7 calls home, an unexceptional tan building with traditional red doors and a well-lit sign, is located in a neighborhood where more than 40 percent of families lived in poverty in 2007. It is on 169th Street two blocks away from where a 15-year-old girl was shot in the head by a 16-year-old boy when she was caught in gang cross fire walking home from school in November. She remarkably survived. HeavenBound7 is the first of its kind in the Bronx, though skateboarding ministries are emerging around the country as a way to draw kids to church, said Steve Rodriguez, a representative of 5boro, a New York skate gear manufacturer and skate team sponsor. “It’s funny to me because it’s like complete irony,” said Mathew Melendez, a 19-year-old City Tech student who was also one of the first to join HeavenBound7. “Skateboarding is all like rebels climbing over fences looking for good spots. And then church people are like good fellow people. Put that all together it’s like, what, a skateboarding team by a church? Whoa.” At the end of practice, Pena, who counts woodworking as a hobby, used a drill to remove a railing attached to the floor. The team helped with the effort, moving the wood ramps and platforms to the corners of the recreation room. When everything was cleaned up, they congregated around Pena outside before he drove a few of them home. They can’t walk home around 9 p.m. because the streets are “hot,” in Pena’s words. “I just feel there’s a need for people to be a little bit more sympathetic about kids,” Pena said, as his normally warm voice became raspy and choked up. “Because there’s so many people out there who are willing to say ‘Hey, want to sell some drugs? Want to go beat up this kid? Or go steal this? I want to give them a safe haven to get away from that.” The team opens its doors to kids who often come from “disadvantaged homes, very sad situations,” said Chanabelle Arriaga, a member of the church and the president of the HeavenBound7 board that advises and supports the team. “I just wish there were more people who cared who would take an interest in the underprivileged and not turn their cheek.” Pena, who has four daughters of his own, definitely does not turn a cheek; he literally invites kids off the streets into the church to add to the cacophonous clattering and clanking that echoes throughout the building thanks to the skating. “We don’t have a lot of resources,” said Melanie Figueroa, the mother of Shane Rivera, one of the skaters. “They needed a male role model. They started out with one little trick and they gained so much knowledge.” Shane Rivera has also acknowledged the benefits of the team, which spurned a personal commitment to school and self-improvement. It has provided Rivera with a religious outlet, though he normally attends a Catholic church closer to his home. “It’s kind of a weird skate spot,” said Rivera, a muscular fifteen-year-old clad in a trendy skating t-shirt. “I think we’re the only team that does this; we’ll say a prayer before we skate.” Nevertheless, none of the teens have skateboards that say “I follow Jesus Christ Skateboarder” on the underside of the deck, the wooden board, or t-shirts with “Jesus is my homeboy” across the chest. (And there is most definitely no “Jesus died so you could skate” merchandise.)
A skater goes off the up-ramp at La Segunda Igelesia Cristiana Church in Morrisania. By Alex Berg

A skater "soars high" at La Segunda Igelesia Cristiana Church in Morrisania. By Alex Berg

Religious participation is not mandatory. There is an occasional Bible lesson or prayer, though Pena usually teaches about “soaring high” in other areas of life, like education, personal hygiene and getting a good job. The results of Pena’s efforts are palpable. The team, which runs on a $500 stipend from the church and is mostly paid for out of Pena’s pocket, will be giving $2,000 towards two college scholarships in the spring, one for a HeavenBound7 skater and the other for a local high school student from fundraising and money donated by church outsiders and companies like Plaza Construction, where board president Arriaga works. Some of the costs are due to Pena’s inclination to give out skateboards on the street, as he did before he started the team. After taking a class at the church that encouraged participants to delve into a hobby, Pena tried to construct a skateboard using his woodworking knowhow. He couldn’t build a functional skateboard, but his interest grew and he opened a skate shop with a friend, then one on his own in Mott Haven last year. He left both behind because they were too expensive and too much work to maintain. Without the stores to worry about, the bills still add up. The team travels to New Jersey and Connecticut to go to skate parks and amateur competitions, where a few of the skaters have placed. Pena spent roughly $3,000 of his own money on raw materials to build the ramps and equipment for the team this year. The church should also purchase special insurance in the event of an injury that would cost $150 per month on top of its current insurance, but cannot afford it. Fortunately, the skaters mostly throw 360 flips and ollies instead of, say, a “Christ air,” a trick where a skater lets go of their board entirely as he or she is launched off a ramp and holds his or her arms out to look like the image of crucified Christ. “They want to complete a trick. So I think what’s appealing about it is a sense of accomplishment,” Pena, who became the youth minister nine years ago, said. “Then they transfer that sense of accomplishment to school. That’s one of my regulations. You do good in school you can come here and skate. You don’t do good in school, I’m sorry.” Since Jose Castillo began participating in the team, he has improved in school because Pena asks to see report cards and he has begun helping neighborhood kids with their skating. “I used to be the type of kid who used to be in the streets. And like, do nothing else,” said Castillo, who has lose, lanky limbs that matched his relaxed manner. “But after I got involved in skateboarding, met Henry and came over here, it’s like everything just changed. Became a new kid, actually.”
Jose Castillo waits for his turn to take on the grind rail.  By Alex Berg

Jose Castillo waits for his turn to take on the grind rail. By Alex Berg

For Castillo, skating has become an all-consuming way of life. He has to make a concerted effort to skate less. During one practice, he cut his foot from a fall. Pena bandaged it up in a bathroom the teens skate out of to propel themselves down a hallway and into the recreation room because they have limited space. The skaters occasionally skate outside to escape the tight space, a relief from crashing into a wall at the end of the up-ramp. That has allowed some of the participants to go places they normally would not go. “It opens up your mind to different things. It doesn’t make you secluded. You meet a lot of new people that you never thought you’d meet or talk to. If we never had a skateboard we’d never know half of the places in Manhattan,” Blair, who calls Pena a “second pops,” said. While the skaters have found a venue for athleticism and personal growth in the team, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Many of the parishioners have voiced their differences with skating in the church, said William Garcia, the president of the church board and Pena’s brother in law. Skateboarding leaves black marks on the church’s floors, which angers parishioners who want to preserve the condition of the recreation room. There have been scheduling conflicts to use the space and the skating is very loud. (The parishioners who are most vocal against the skateboarding did not return any calls or emails.) Not to mention, since the days Pena was a teenager himself at the church after he was invited in by a youth minister, different administrations have been more or less welcoming of youth activities. Some have felt it is a nuisance and the church is not a place for teenagers while others have been open to youth activities. “I feel like he’s the one actually bringing the kids in that church,” Nicole Ortiz, Pena’s 24-year-old daughter, said. “He’s the only one making an effort to reach out into the community. The church is being very rigid and conventional. They don’t want to try new things.” The skaters are cognizant of the disagreements over the space. Melendez and Blair both said they understood why the congregation would want to preserve the space, since it is used for other activities. Positive feedback from parents has temporarily assuaged the churchgoers’ gripes. However, there is no answer for the growing team’s need for a larger space. Pena’s next mission is to campaign for a skate park in the Central or South Bronx. The skaters want one too. Yet Castillo is concerned that if there’s a skate park nearby, the skaters will have to deal with threats other than their safety. He frets that once other kids start skateboarding, they’ll fall in love with the sport and take each other’s boards. “Around here you got all these projects and stuff,” Castillo said. “You put a skate park in the projects, some kid could come out of nowhere and say ‘hey, give me your skateboard.’ And then they’re going to get so addicted to it they’re going to come every day and take every single kid that comes to the park they’re skateboard.” Still, more holy rollers would be welcomed, maybe even praised.

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