By TIFFANY THOMAS
Pushing a shopping cart filled with loads of laundry below the No. 3 elevated train tracks in Brooklyn’s Brownsville section, Anastacia Stanley recalled the first time she saw Bethesda Healing Center, a church designed in the shape of an ark with its name written in bold green letters. Outside the double doors, a line of people stood, waiting to obtain a hot meal and bags of groceries from the church’s monthly food pantry.
“Bethesda has given back to the community in various ways and I’m happy to be a recipient of the greatness that they offer my community,” said Stanley, an 18-year-old student at New York City College of Technology who is pursuing a fashion marketing degree and a resident of Brownsville, one of the city‘s poorest neighborhoods.
Bethesda Healing Center is one of the many churches in Brownsville, a mostly African- and Caribbean-American community which has 58 churches in 14 denominations, according to Faith-Street, a New York-based organization that helps link people up with a house of worship. A visit to the three churches shows how deeply connected they are to their community, serving as a rock of refuge for many local residents.
In various ways, the three churches on Clarkson Avenue between Remsen Avenue and Rockaway Parkway and others in the neighborhood have played a significant role in efforts to stabilize a troubled community. The churches serve as an incubator for charities, recreation, political organizing, schools and businesses. They have done outreach in hospitals and prisons and donate clothes and food for the indigent.
“People see churches as a refuge both spiritually and physically. They serve as homeless shelters, host soup kitchens and they even take in undocumented immigrants, and politicians use them as platforms to get votes,” said Ken Estey, assistant professor of political science at Brooklyn College and an expert on religion in Brooklyn.
Gail Gilkes, the dean of B.I.B.L.E. College, which is located in Brownsville, said church leaders go to great lengths to assist the marginalized. “Pastors are known to accompany their parishioners on hospital visits, to court cases, graduations and give support during tragedies,” she said. “They provide family services, promote health and well-being and encourage academic excellence.”
With a population of 55,043, Brownsville, in central Brooklyn, is faced with many social problems associated with poverty, including drug addiction and high levels of crime. The neighborhood still has a disturbing number of shootings despite a drop in the crime rate. Frequently, the shootings take place in or near housing projects. Brownsville has the largest concentration of public housing in the nation, comprising one square mile of public housing.
Residents look to their churches for guidance. “It’s nothing but life-changing truths that is taught here by our bishop Dr. Rose,” said Nicola Paige, 26, a member of Bethesda since childhood. “It’s a place of healing and outpouring of love.” During Christmas and Thanksgiving, members of the community are served with a hot meal and are given free clothes and toys, all donated from the church members and local businesses.
Sandwiched between a laundry and an abandoned, gated church on Clarkson Avenue is All Saints Pentecostal Church. In the process of beginning morning worship on a recent Sunday, congregants intermittently entered the pews.
With fewer than 20 people present, the female pastor, clothed in a white dress accessorized with beading, shouted praise as her short body jolted with each statement she made.
All Saints has been serving the community for over 25 years and has a membership of 35. “I think Brooklyn is God-fearing. We fear God and keep his commandments,” Yvonne Salmon, the director of missions affairs, said with a grin on her face as the background music overpowered her soft-spoken voice.
“What we usually do is go out and invite the people of the community to come,” Salmon said. It is an effort her closely knit church family does to help and give back to the community of Brownsville.
“We sometimes get food from outsiders and we package and give them out, we visit the elderly and find out what we can do for them,” Salmon said.
A couple of doors down from All Saints Pentecostal is Clarkson Avenue Church of God, with a mostly Haitian congregation. Its name is written in bold red letters that are above the entrance to the narrow sanctuary, which was secured by white gates. The loud music and the shouts of the occupants bleed through the doors of the red brick building.
“Our mission is to help the church members and the community to transition, mostly immigrants from Haiti,” said Emma Lapointe, the ministries coordinator. The Clarkson Avenue church has seen a growth spurt in its attendance and membership since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. As a result of that tragedy, a lot of Haitians migrated to the United States.
Clarkson Avenue Church of God was established in 1977 and has a membership of 150 to 200. With a vigorous community outreach, Lapointe and members of the church provide immigration services; identifications, especially for those who migrated to America after the earthquake in Haiti; job assistance; hospital services and translators.
“We have been to the shelters and jails to reach out to the people because the mission of the church is to show God’s love to those that do not normally hear it,” Lapointe said. The ministries coordinator draws to the conclusion that “churches are needed” and that is why there are so many. “People need a place to belong to, it’s a family, we have to be open for them, the church is basically for the community,” Lapointe said as her eyes widened and her curly afro moved in harmony with her gestures.
She recalled periods when the church gave refuge to Haitians who came to America with no place to lodge. “The people gravitate to where suits them, whether it’s immigration, employment or housing,” Lapointe said.
For these small churches, there is a balance. They are devoted to the spiritual enrichment of their membership, sharing their resources with the community through social and moral enlistment.
“Churches have taken the holistic approach to ministry by offering a plethora of services to the community,” Gilkes said. “It is now the norm to find churches offering GED classes, health screening, legal consultations and immigration services.”
Photo: All Saints Pentecostal Church is one of three small churches on one block in Brownsville. (Tiffany Thomas)