The proposed mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero is in the news again. Word is that differences between the project’s co-founders led to the diminished role of Imam Abdul Rauf – long the public face of the project. Rauf will no longer be allowed to raise money for or publicly represent the project. New York has gotten a lot of press in recent months over the center controversy, but what’s been hidden amidst all the invective is that New York is exploding with religious fervor.
I know it’s hard for many folks outside the Big Apple – who write off the country’s largest city as hopelessly secularized – to grasp this. But Tony Carnes, president of Values Research Institute in Manhattan and a senior writer for Christianity Today, has had a vision since 1989 to chart religion in New York. What he wanted to do was a census of who worships what in this immense city.
In 2009, he and several research associates started researching Manhattan’s religious sites, going road by road down 5,000 miles of New York City streets. The local papers were offering minimal religion coverage in the five boroughs, which was “a huge gap there considering the amount of activity going on,” he told me. “We’ve gotten these incredible discoveries. Like on West Jamaica Avenue in Queens, there’s Blessed Barbershop, a group of Ecuadoran brothers who started going to church and wanted to stay accountable to each other. They are very successful.” And not far away, he added, there’s a Buddhist barbershop and yet a third barbershop that houses an African church.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” he said.
On July 9, he founded “A Journey Through New York Religions,” a Web magazine that ambitiously catalogs everything done in the name of God in and around New York. The launch came at about the same time that news of the proposed 9/11 mosque and Islamic center broke nationally. Talk about timing.
The site quickly ran several articles on New York’s Muslims. While other media were reporting that New York has 99 mosques, Carnes’ researchers had visited at 178 mosques in person and had interviewed mosque leaders at about 40 of them.
The webzine’s home page posts everything from a video of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to a report on a West African Muslim group. In the last six months it has published 78 articles, 30 videos, 35 maps, 170 briefs about faith-based organizations and 76 feature photos.
“A Journey Through New York Religions” is finishing up a 12-part series on New York’s evangelical churches, which are popping up all over, they report. Central Manhattan alone has 197 evangelical churches, most of them founded since 1988, and 40 percent since 2000.
Islam and evangelical Protestants are the fastest growing groups in the city, he said. He and his team have had no problems gathering this information as everyone from Buddhists to Baptists seemed anxious for coverage.
“After 60 years of extreme secularism, the city is having an unpredicted, widely hailed as unlikely, revival of religious faith,” Carnes said. “Political scientists had predicted that religion would not play any future important role in city politics. Journalists and intellectuals beat the secular drum harder than any street musician. It’s time to change our thinking; it’s time to get a new tune.”
One of the respondents who posted on the site wondered why New York is so blessed. “If this is a case of religiously starved people,” he wrote, “why has nothing like this started happening in Europe?”
Maybe because starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, New York benefited from a combination of factors: The appointment of a strong Catholic prelate, Cardinal John O’Connor; the migration of evangelicals into the city and the start-ups of several now-prominent evangelical churches; the high birth rates of the city’s Orthodox Jewish population plus a wave of Russian Jewish immigrants.
Evangelicals were growing at 5 percent to 8 percent a year and by the 2005 Greater New York Billy Graham crusade near Shea Stadium (tellingly held in the more devout suburbs than in more liberal Manhattan), it seemed clear that New York no longer deserved to be called godless. And even the secular West Side has been infiltrated by evangelicals, whose works include everything from helping the homeless to affirming the arts.
With traditional media outlets eliminating religion reporters, Carnes’ site may be the new face of religion reporting; an independent nonprofit doing quality journalism on a contract basis for the mainstream media. The site, which has gotten 390,000 page views to date, is modeled after Pro Publica, a public interest journalism site that produced a Pulitzer this year.
“I saw how ProPublica came into being because so many news organizations couldn’t afford to have an investigative journalism unit,” Carnes said. “I wondered if something could be done like that in the religion sector. Religion reporters are being laid off, religion reporting cut down so it seemed like there was a need.”
Does it surprise you that New Yorkers are so religious? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.