When the melting pot boils over

I love visiting New York City. Riding the subway trains and maneuvering the bustling streets, I always am amazed at the diversity of people and languages. At the Manhattan Church of Christ, where I have worshiped a few times, the 43 birth nations of active members range from China to Cuba, Germany to Guyana, Japan to Jamaica. But in a city of 8 million-plus people -- with roughly 170 languages spoken and more than one-third of the population foreign-born -- the melting pot sometimes boils over.

Even among people of faith.

I was fascinated by a recent New York Times story on two immigrant United Methodist congregations that share the same building in Brooklyn:

The United Methodist church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is anything but united.

Two pastors preach from the same pulpit and live in the same parsonage next door, but they are barely on speaking terms and openly criticize each other's approach to the faith.

In the church's social hall, two camps eye each other suspiciously as one finishes its meal of rice and beans while the other prepares steaming pans of chicken lo mein.

Two very different congregations share the soaring brick building on Fourth Avenue: a small cadre of about 30 Spanish-speaking people who have worshiped there for decades and a fledgling throng of more than 1,000 Chinese immigrants that expands week by week -- the fastest-growing Methodist congregation in New York City.

The Latinos say they feel steamrolled and under threat, while their tenants, the Chinese, say they feel stifled and unappreciated. Mediators have been sent in, to little effect.

As the story goes on, the Chinese minister calls his Latino counterpart "very rude." The Latino pastor responds that the Chinese reverend "really has an anger problem." Later, the piece mentions a language barrier between the two groups -- most of the Chinese do not speak English, much less Spanish. I couldn't help but wonder if the pastors really meant to be so blatant in their criticisms, and if they were interviewed in English or their native languages.

The story mentions that the Chinese church began renting use of the facilities from the Latino congregation about six years ago. A 2009 item on the United Methodist website indicates that the Chinese church started in 2004 as a mission congregation of the denomination.

The reporter does a nice job of framing some of the issues involved in the conflict, such as the Latino pastor hailing from a church tradition of social action versus the Chinese minister's tighter focus on preaching Scripture.

Likewise, I liked how the writer put the dispute in the context of larger immigrant issues in the city:

The standoff mirrors a tug of war that has played out for generations in New York, where immigrant groups -- some established, some newly arrived -- jostle on crowded sidewalks and in narrow tenements for space, housing and jobs.

Now, that struggle is reaching even into the hushed sanctuaries of churches, as financially pinched congregations -- especially those in mainline denominations like the Methodists -- increasingly make ends meet by moving in together. In Jamaica, Queens, a Methodist church split between Latin American and Caribbean congregations has just made room for a small Pakistani one.

Like roommates everywhere, the cohabitating Methodist groups clash over dirty bathrooms, loud music and lights left on, said the Rev. Kenny Yi, the denomination's district coordinator, who has tried to mediate the dispute in Sunset Park.

Also, the story provides a revealing picture of the neighborhood itself:

The neighborhood outside, one of the city's most vibrant immigrant enclaves, in some ways reflects the church's divide. Fifth Avenue is home to taco stands, Ecuadorean bodegas and Mexican churches, while up the hill, along Eighth Avenue, Chinese fish markets and ginseng medicine shops form Brooklyn's Chinatown.

While referencing "mainline denominations like the Methodists," however, the report fails to provide much context or insight at all on United Methodist churches in New York City.

I wanted to know details like how many United Methodist churches are a part of the district overseen by Yi, and how the growth of the Chinese church -- described as the city's fastest-growing Methodist congregation -- compares to the overall growth or decline of Methodist churches in the nation's largest city. Such questions go unanswered.

Still, details such as these make this story a compelling read:

On a recent Sunday, the Chinese men designated as greeters outnumbered the entire Hispanic congregation.

"It's not our church anymore; that's the way we feel," said Oswaldo Nieves, 70, a Puerto Rican who has attended the Latino church for eight years. "They are eliminating us slowly, slowly."

His congregation is a mix of mostly elderly Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans who come together to sing during Sunday services and chat about their children and their health. Over the years, members have left the neighborhood, while new immigrants -- many from conservative rural parts of Mexico -- flock to nearby Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches.

Photo: Wikimedia image of Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

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