the brooklynite

Spiritual Brooklyn
By Rebecca Phillips

RED-STATERS WHO THINK New Yorkers are all godless heathens clearly haven’t spent time in Brooklyn. From mega-churches like East New York’s Christian Cultural Center—which claims more than 20,000 members—to the storefront congregations that dot immigrant neighborhoods, faith is alive and well in the borough.

Religion has played a central role in the history of Brooklyn, nicknamed “the borough of churches” for its many beautiful houses of worship. The Dutch, who arrived in the 1600s, established Reformed churches, some of which survive to this day. English Anabaptists settled Gravesend in 1643, creating a refuge for religious dissenters. During the mid-19th century, Pilgrim Church in Brooklyn Heights, led by Henry Ward Beecher, was an abolitionist hotbed and a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Since then, successive waves of immigration have transformed Brooklyn’s spiritual landscape. The borough’s 962,000 Catholics say Mass in 14 different languages. Brooklyn is home to nearly half a million Jews, with large swaths of the borough dominated by Hasidim whose garb harks back to 18th-century Poland. And an influx of immigrants from Muslim countries along with growing numbers of African-American converts have made Brooklyn a hub of Muslim life. From the yuppie yoga centers of the “Brownstone Belt” to the weekly vegetarian Hare Krishna feasts on Schermerhorn Street, the borough has something for spiritual seekers of all stripes.

The Mecca
Muslims have Mecca, Catholics have Rome, the Jews Jerusalem, the Mormons Salt Lake City, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, well, they have Brooklyn Heights. Some 3,000 Witnesses live and work in the movement’s international headquarters complex in Brooklyn Heights—one of the waterfront’s most visible landmarks, with its glowing “Watchtower” sign (denoting the Witnesses’ official name: the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society). The Witnesses—a Christian sect whose members are known for their door-to-door proselytizing and abstention from voting, reciting the Pledge, and celebrating Christmas—have had a major presence in Brooklyn since 1909, when movement founder Charles Taze Russell relocated their headquarters from Pennsylvania.

The Saint
Brooklyn may not have a big-league sports franchise, but it does have its very own Eastern Orthodox saint. St. Raphael of Brooklyn was born Raphael Hawaweeny in 1860 in Beirut, Lebanon. An Orthodox priest, he moved to the United States in 1895 to serve the growing Syrian-Arab community and founded the parish that later became Boerum Hill’s St. Nicholas Antiochan Orthodox Cathedral. In 1904, he became the first Orthodox bishop consecrated in the Americas. Revered by Orthodox Christians since his death in 1915 for his healing miracles, successful ministry, and the 30 parishes he founded across North America, Bishop Raphael was designated a saint by the Orthodox Church in America in 2000.

The Feud
Genesis relates the story of Jacob and Esau, and their bitter fight for their father’s favor. But when it comes to sibling rivalry, these battling biblical brothers don’t have anything on Zalmen and Aaron Teitelbaum. The two brothers are locked in a vicious fight to succeed their 89-year-old father, Grand Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, as leader of the Williamsburg-based Satmar Hasidic sect. The power struggle has been raging since Grand Rabbi Teitelbaum tapped Zalmen to lead the Satmars’ main Williamsburg congregation, passing over the older Aaron. The feud has split the insular Satmars—estimated to number more than 50,000 in the New York region—into rival factions, sparking lawsuits and synagogue brawls.

The Party
New York has no shortage of Italian-accented summertime street festivals. Only one, however, features 112 men marching through the streets shouldering a four-ton platform that balances a music band and a 65-foot-tall wood-and-metal tower crowned by the icon of a revered Catholic saint. The “Dancing of the Giglio” honors San Paolino—or, as he is known in Latin, St. Paulinus—and has been taking place in Brooklyn since 1903. The procession is the highlight of the annual 12-day Giglio festival hosted in July by Williamsburg’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

The Gospel
A Grammy Award-winning music group performs every Sunday in downtown Brooklyn—for free. The 275-member Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir is the melodious voice of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church, a predominantly black but decidedly multiracial congregation with some 10,000 members. The renowned gospel choir performs at concert venues throughout the city and has made dozens of recordings, picking up five Grammy Awards. The choir’s Sunday afternoon Gospel Celebration draws a crowd of several thousand, as part of the worship service led by pastor Jim Cymbala, a nationally known evangelical figure.

The Priestess
Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski was just another voodoo priestess until sociologist Karen McCarthy Brown plucked her from obscurity. After the publication of Brown’s acclaimed 1991 book, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, the Haitian-born “Mama Lola” became the country’s most famous practitioner of voodoo, a unique blend of African religions with some Catholic influence. Now about 70 and residing in Fort Greene, Mama Lola is arguably voodoo’s leading ambassador: in addition to her healing practices, she gives public talks throughout the country and offers readings and spiritual consultations at voodoo festivals.

Rebecca Phillips is an editor at Beliefnet.