Saving Williamsburg

Pastor Jaime Zelaya of New Beginnings Church.

Saving Williamsburg

Three summers ago, I was walking west on North Fifth Street in Williamsburg, two blocks from the Bedford Avenue subway station, when I stopped dead in my tracks. In front of me, like a vision, were 20 chipper-looking young adults, uniformly white, wearing pastel polo shirts and pressed khakis. They were so out of place that I asked where they had come from (if not a Rodgers and Hammerstein casting call) and learned from a strawberry blonde that they were missionaries from North Carolina staying in Brooklyn to learn how to evangelize. That Williamsburg was one of the hardest places in the country in which to convert people to Christianity. And that they believed the church leaders in the neighborhood were among the brightest in the world.

Recently, while speaking with Pastor Jaime Zelaya of New Beginnings, the Southern Baptist church outside of which the group had stood, I wondered out loud if this was a false memory. It wasn’t, he said, remembering them. He jauntily showed me to the church’s basement, where 42 bunk beds were arranged barracks-like, and struck a pose in front of a sign reading “The Entreat Institute.” Evangelists from across the country come here, I discovered, to learn how Zelaya ministers to Williamsburg as it swells with skeptical new residents.

For the neighborhood’s preachers, reaching the recently arrived and unconvinced is crucial, as it’s these newcomers — young, affluent, predominantly English-speaking, and white — who have been reshaping the neighborhood in their image. I was eager to find out how Williamsburg churches are adapting as existing congregations are priced out of their homes. Just who, exactly, is saving the evolving neighborhood, and what message are they preaching on the front lines?

For the first 50 years after Wiliamsburg’s 1855 incorporation into the city of Brooklyn (which in turn became part of New York City in 1898), it was a neighborhood defined by its waterfront, dotted with factories, refineries, and docks. It wasn’t until the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 that droves of people began to flood over from Manhattan: first Jews who had been living in crowded tenements on the Lower East Side and then, later, immigrants from Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Italy. Today, the area south of Division Avenue remains recognizable as a Satmar Hasidic enclave, where residents wear black silk coats, round fur hats, and stockings even in the summer, and where the identifying marks of public school buses are painted on in Hebrew.

It was north of Division Avenue where Williamsburg’s Christian community settled. Beginning in the 1940s, Catholic immigrants arrived from Europe, and in the fifties, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans, fleeing poverty in their home countries, settled in the area. Living in Williamsburg were adherents of many creeds — Russian Orthodox, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Polish Baptist. But above Division Avenue, regardless of the language in which they prayed, people prayed to Jesus.

In the decades that followed, manufacturing jobs dried up, and Williamsburg became a neighborhood characterized by abandoned buildings and plagued by crime. Rents were cheap, though, and in the 1990s, some people priced out of Manhattan — white artistic types in particular — began to look at Williamsburg for the first time. Many made homes or studios in open loft spaces and converted factories. The evolution of the neighborhood was hastened when, in 2005, the City Council approved a massive rezoning of Williamsburg’s north side waterfront, which allowed for the development of residential high-rises and a two-mile stretch of parks and recreational areas. One such high-rise, The Edge, containing 565 luxury apartments averaging $875 per square foot, was the city’s fastest-selling building in 2011. When I first looked at an apartment in a two-family Williamsburg home three years ago, I marveled at the barless glass door at the front and wondered out loud if it could be kicked in. “Most guys in this neighborhood would fall over trying,” answered the realtor.

Williamsburg, at least from Grand to North Twelfth streets and from the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway to the river, is now known the world over as the neighborhood of the flannel shirt, the floral granny smock, the artisanal grilled cheese. If you have the good fortune of walking its streets during the workday, you may be surprised to see the number of long lunches being had and magazines being read, as if a certain class of resident were on permanent vacation. The city doesn’t keep tabs on this specific demographic, but it does count white people, the population of which, from 2000 to 2010, increased 36 percent in Brooklyn’s Community District 1, which comprises Williamsburg and Greenpoint. In the same period, the Hispanic population in the district dropped by 22 percent. A 29-year-old Dominican-American resident observed with a laugh, “It kind of feels like I moved.”

Given the historic diversity of the neighborhood and dynamism of New York City, it would be wrong to assume the waves of new settlers will run existing communities out of Williamsburg for good. But even if the demographic trend eventually slows down or reverses, churches in Williamsburg will, for the foreseeable future, exist in the midst of a population resistant to the hard edges, hierarchical structures, and formal rituals associated with Christianity, a group eager to Instagram a cathedral’s portico and loath to slide into its pews. I set out to see if evangelists in Williamsburg were finding a flock or talking to themselves.

Seven blocks south of the Bedford Avenue L station, pastors Tiffany and Ricky Sacarello have the glass doors open at Promise Christian Church, the rainbow mural–adorned ground level of an apartment building that’s been maintained by Tiffany’s family since the seventies. A small crowd is assembled inside; a woman in a bright yellow T-shirt and tan baseball hat sits alongside a friend in lavender scrubs. It’s Wednesday night Bible study, but Ricky treats it with the same intensity as the Sunday main event. Preaching for him is a physical exercise, an energetic crescendo during which he points to the ceiling, closes his eyes, sways side to side, and kisses his worn Bible. He knows when he’s on, and the crowd does, too, responding, “That’s true, that’s true.” “Amen” is both a question and an answer to that question. When the congregation, coming off a long day — there are medical assistants, students, custodial staff, and mechanics in attendance — shows signs of wear, Ricky playfully mentions them by name: “I’ll call on Jonathan,” or, “Frankie’s so excited!” He tosses a basketball to the newest recruit.

Ten years ago, Tiffany was a single mother with two children in tow and a face full of piercings when she walked into a Pentecostal church and sat down in the only seat available — the one next to Ricky, a former undercover police officer who was tired of sleeping around and partying. Both were bottomed out, suicidal, consumed with emptiness. Ricky had looked for solace in his father’s religion, Santería, but experienced bone-shaking fear as its high priests banged themselves against the wall or possessed congregants’ spirits and channeled them into fish bowls. When Ricky and Tiffany got married and started thinking about their own church, Ricky asked himself, “What’s going to set this one apart from all the others? Is it going to be resources? Beautiful fanciness? I’ve walked into some churches where — come on, they’ve got marble floors, the altar’s made out of gold. It’s like, oh my God, your voice echoes — but there’s no love. They don’t know you; they don’t want to know you.”

Pastors Ricky and Tiffany Sacarello of Promise Christian Church.

The floors of Promise Christian Church are weathered blue linoleum, and scattered about are imitation Greek columns, faux grapes covered in dust, a sparkling green bongo drum. After each church service I attended, I was kissed and told that God loved me. When I came down with a cold or was away from the city, I got an email from Ricky asking how I was feeling and letting me know that they were praying for my safe transit.

This treatment came standard at Promise Christian Church, I found. Cassandra Quinones, a gentle 20-year-old, told me if she skips a service, the pastors call her and say, “Hey, how are you doing? We missed you.” Or they’ll text her a Bible verse and let her know they’re having a barbecue at the house. “How often do you hear from the pastors?” I asked. Every day, she responded. Everyone in the congregation I spoke to said the same thing.

The personal touches of the Sacarellos have won them a small but dedicated congregation of neighborhood residents, some eager to testify that joining Promise Christian Church had cured decade-long addictions, saved marriages, or transformed their lives in other ways. Everyone I spoke to, though, had come to Promise from one of Williamsburg’s Spanish-speaking churches, and Promise was, from the start, intended to reach a broad audience. The Sacarellos, who didn’t know of any English-speaking churches from the BQE to the river when they started Promise in 2010, felt that God was calling them to minister in English, a language older Spanish speakers wanted to learn and a younger generation already spoke. More broadly, using English was a way to reach Williamsburg where it is, rather than where it’s been. And Ricky is plain about one of his aims. “I want the hipsters here,” he said.

To attract new congregants, Promise took its style of worshipping outside, not by preaching on the corner — “There are certain things that just don’t work anymore,” Ricky said — but by throwing block parties on Grand Street. Some teenage boys, along with the pastors’ two young sons, play electric guitars, keyboard, and drums. Tiffany sings her heart out on a handheld mike, and members of the congregation chime in. Though the boys have had only a few lessons, the group’s performance does attract the occasional curious passerby.

But as far as I could tell, the block parties haven’t changed who shows up at Promise to worship, which concerns Ricky, who dreams of pastoring a multicultural church. “If I can’t reach them,” he told me, “I might just say to myself, ‘It’s time to close up this church and get out, because we’re not doing anything for the community.’ There’s a reason why my wife and I have been through what we’ve been through. We won’t waste our time judging people. They can see who God really is. Even if they don’t, my doors are still open.”

New Beginnings Church is a ten-minute walk from Promise, and like Promise, it’s a primarily English-speaking institution whose earliest congregants came from Williamsburg’s Spanish-speaking Christian community. New Beginnings has been able to attract a diverse group of followers — a success that can be credited to Zelaya, who might just be Williamsburg’s most strategically minded evangelist.

Zelaya was installed at New Beginnings in 2007 when the church was a dying, pastorless, Spanish-language Southern Baptist church and he was a young preacher based in the Bronx and Knickerbocker Village. Pacing the modest space hung with faded floral curtains, he’s suited up, wearing a yellow and blue striped bow tie, and speaking into a microphone, which streams sound into the earpiece of a man at the back of the room who translates Zelaya’s preaching for a few of the seniors in attendance. Despite the church’s identity as English-speaking, Zelaya is a one-man Tower of Babel, switching into Spanish when he wants to emphasize a point, sprinkling in some Chinese, and bursting into spontaneous vocal impersonations (sometimes the deep, mock-serious voice of God, other times a Dominican teenager fawning over a telenovela actor). He’s also learning Polish and Hebrew. “A church that’s all Spanish, that’s all black, that really bothers me,” he told me. “It’s too easy.” Indeed, a service at New Beginnings is a diverse affair, a mix of Chinese, Indian, Guyanese, Italian, and Hispanic congregants whom he instructs to “hug up on each other” during the peace.

I spent a few weeks at New Beginnings, eating Cheetos and playing Uno in the back room, and I heard Zelaya talk repeatedly about “winning Williamsburg.” Part of that effort entails projecting a certain attitude: Zelaya kept telling me, like a mantra, “We’re cool people. We’re just like you, but we have Jesus.” More crucial, though, are the church’s outreach efforts. New Beginnings gives “love baskets” full of organic fruit to the teachers at the middle school across the street. It sends delegations down to L train stations to clean up, polishing railings, handing out water bottles with the church seal wrapped around them, and playing “All You Need Is Love” as they sweep. And, most interestingly, it operates the Entreat Institute, which is something of a sleepaway camp for eager evangelists.

Pastor Jaime Zelaya of New Beginnings Church.

The institute hosts large groups of people — some as old as 70, some in their twenties and thirties — and asks them to conduct community outreach on behalf of the church. In the mornings at Entreat, aspiring missionaries learn urban evangelism by giving out coffee to parents bringing their kids to the school, handing out water at McCarren Park, and asking the business owners on Bedford Avenue for permission to wash their storefront windows. When they make a successful contact, the missionary is ready with an invitation to “Family Fun Night,” a weekly celebration held in the church’s courtyard.

These strategies, Zelaya told me, are based on an understanding of the neighborhood’s “ecology,” a read on “what deficits are there in the neighborhood.” The Entreat Institute doesn’t aim to instill in participants “a liturgical sense of mission evangelism,” Zelaya said. “We train them to connect with people with the love of God that’s in you.” Pastor Brian Skeggs, the leader of the North Carolina church group I met on North Fifth Street, has been bringing groups to the Entreat Institute for three years. The streets of Brooklyn proved an especially challenging training ground. In North Carolina, you can chat with someone for an hour; in New York, you have ten seconds. In a week’s worth of intensive evangelism, Skeggs said, his groups have convinced as many as one hundred neighborhood residents to come to the Family Fun Nights, some of whom in turn became members of the congregation.

Still, despite Zelaya’s ambition to “win Williamsburg,” New Beginnings has gained traction almost exclusively with what might be called the old neighborhood: seniors, mainly, as well as middle or working-class descendants of immigrant families. The new neighborhood, from what I can tell, isn’t showing up. “It’s a long game in a microwave culture where everyone wants to see instant results,” Skeggs told me. “The Bible says you have to plow, plant, and water. Have we put down seed that’s sprouted huge harvest? Probably not. But we have been consistent.”

Attracting the new neighborhood comes easier to some — and much easier to Revolution Church, which refuses to go out of its way to adopt the recruitment mentality of Promise Christian Church or New Beginnings. I could barely even find the place.

“Is this the churchish thing?” I was looking for a congregation in Pete’s Candy Store, a music venue and bar that does not sell candy, and my question was directed at a dour-looking couple nursing a Manhattan and a draft beer. “Yeah, this is church.” I looked around at the dozen other people in the narrow, windowless room. Most were lit by the close glow of their iPhones, and all were silent except for two twenty-somethings discussing the various indignities of the Southern churches they’d grown up in. Ten minutes later, a disheveled man with floppy hair and a porkpie hat walked onto the stage, rested his whiskey on a flattened music stand, and started preaching. The man, Reverend Vince Anderson, is mostly known as an animated, soulful singer who plays “dirty gospel” with the Roots’ Questlove and TV on the Radio’s Jaleel Bunton to a packed house of Williamsburg party animals, at a bar known for its backyard taco truck and fire pit. I’d seen him on stage before.

But Anderson has another side and, along with Pastor Jay Bakker, has been leading services in Pete’s for six years. The space is provocative in its modesty, a stark refutation of the megachurch aesthetic in which Jay grew up, as the son of televangelists Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. A televangelist’s audience this is decidedly not; the 20 or so folks who filter in are clad, as other Pete’s regulars are, in the uniforms of the new neighborhood. Some of them, one imagines, came to the service through Anderson’s sermon podcasts, which he estimates have about 500 active listeners from around the world. Others may have communicated with Anderson online, where, with followers who have found him through his podcasts or music, he ends up doing the bulk of his pastoral counseling. In the weekly meetings at Pete’s, Anderson wants to embody “the idea of ritual, the physically coming to a space.” And though he doesn’t aggressively court the denizens of newer, whiter Williamsburg, they seem to show up anyway.

Reverend Vince Anderson of Revolution Church.

That may have something to do Revolution’s teachings, which are beyond liberal. The church is affiliated with the so-called emergent movement, and its teachings suggest, among other things, that Biblical restrictions on premarital sex are outdated. It would be better, Anderson told me, “to have a community where people in it don’t have to hide their lives.” Likewise, he disassociates his church from traditional ideas about hell. “When Jesus talks about hell, it’s like, if you don’t love your neighbor, you’re going to end up in a lonely junkyard,” he said. “Heaven is less problematic for me. Am I sold on it? No, not completely. But I have hope. That would be awesome.” Vince calls himself a “recovering evangelical,” noting that many members of his congregation “come to Revolution to leave religion — almost like, ‘Do I have your blessing? I want to be an atheist. Does God say that’s OK?’ ‘Yes, that’s OK.’” It’s an ambiguity I couldn’t imagine at Promise Christian Church or New Beginnings, but, then again, this was an incomparable space. Revolution’s congregation, if it could be called that, has no seniors, no parents with children. It’s just people in their twenties and thirties testing the waters of a different kind of Christian experience.

After Anderson’s sermon at Pete’s, a few congregants linger, clinging to Anderson’s words over drinks, but most make their way out. In speaking to me, Anderson cites the importance of creating room for anonymity in a service space so that people can come, listen, and leave. That’s really all that people can do, actually, as Revolution has no programming outside of its weekly sermons, no service events, and no outreach campaigns designed to bring more followers into the fold. Anderson does run what he calls a “bartender ministry,” which consists of giving bartenders $100 a month to grease the exits of troublemakers or to pay cab fares for the intoxicated. Money for the ministry — “ordaining bartenders to be workers in the Commonwealth of God,” as he describes it — comes out of his own pocket, and he does not want bartenders to attribute the funding to the church. Hustling to fill pews — or, in the case of Pete’s, barstools — isn’t a priority for Vince. Congregants turn up, even though he barely asks them to.

If there’s a church that’s gained the most ground with the Williamsburg qua “Williamsburg” crowd, it’s Resurrection Williamsburg, the largest, most polished and, in some surprising ways, most traditional of the four. The church is headed by another rocker-pastor, Reverend Vito Aiuto, a musician in the Sufjan Stevens-produced band Welcome Wagon. Everyone I know who’s met Aiuto puts him in the same category as Anderson: musician first, reverend second. But while Anderson plays for the bar crowd, with a second show starting at 1 a.m. on Monday nights, Welcome Wagon, with songs like “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” would seem out of place in such a secular space.

Resurrection, close to the Marcy Avenue station on Williamsburg’s south side, rents out a space that belongs to a Spanish-speaking church, and it now boasts the largest English-speaking congregation in the neighborhood. Unlike Promise Christian Church and New Beginnings, Resurrection on a Sunday is filled almost entirely with Williamsburg’s fastest-growing demographic. And while Aiuto is a grounded, relatable communicator — in a sermon I saw, he shared a litany of minor personal troubles, from a cold migrating into his chest to home emergencies — it doesn’t seem to be the preaching that’s drawing people in. Some came to Resurrection through its association with preacher Tim Keller’s enormous Manhattan Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which had a hand in “planting” Resurrection, though the two churches are no longer affiliated. David Bell, a 32-year-old stop-motion animator who’s attended Resurrection for three years and who leads a small discussion group at his home, cites Aiuto’s music as another contributing factor. Though the preacher almost never mentions his other career on the pulpit, some indie-folk fans found the church through Welcome Wagon.

Reverend Vito Aiuto of Resurrection Williamsburg.

Past coverage of Resurrection — from a 2011 piece in the New York Times style section to a book, Hipster Christianity, that leaned heavily on the church as an example — has rankled Aiuto, who brushed off a question about the sort of Williamsburg residents who come to his services. “I’m not interested in cultural analysis for the sake of cultural analysis,” he told me. “I just live here.” And yet the “hipster church” label is, frankly, easy enough to understand. Members include musicians, graphic designers, artists, painters, and craftsmen. While making my way to the church one day, I was cut off by a man on a skateboard with a half-sleeve of tattoos, who flipped his board up into his hand and strolled casually inside. Aiuto himself told the Times that, while working at a Manhattan church and ministering to college students at New York University, he was originally asked to assume the Williamsburg post because of how he “fit into this neighborhood.”

Having already visited Promise Christian Church and New Beginnings, I was struck by how, at Resurrection, I could have walked in and out without speaking to anyone. Indeed, the first time I attended a service there, I couldn’t quite grasp how an ordinary attendee would meet people after the service. I felt a bit like a newly single guy in a bar, circling without a clear target. After having been greeted by name and given a baby to hold at other churches, Resurrection’s hands-off approach was, for me, disorienting.

And yet Resurrection, with its young, white congregation, is indisputably the church that has had the most success winning over the new Williamsburg. Its secret, I found, is the familiar, including an attractive, traditional home, complete with stained-glass windows, a life-sized Jesus, and four-foot-tall (and never-lit) candles. Service at Resurrection is what Zelaya would call “liturgical,” with no altar calls, no personal prayer, and no call-and-response in the sermon. The congregation recites passages in unison and sings centuries-old hymns. Congregants, most of whom grew up going to church, recite the Lord’s Prayer by heart and take communion for the baptized. There are nearly 150 people at each of their two Sunday services.

There were moments at each church that moved me, a white, 25-year-old Brooklyn native with loose roots in the Episcopalian church, a former member of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, and, at present, a casual student of Zen Buddhism. When Aiuto looked me straight in the eye at communion and said “God loves you.” When the Sacarellos prayed for me, weaving in personal details, after I’d conducted an interview. When, during a conversation with Anderson, I sensed his sincerity and his earnest appreciation for an intellectual Christianity. And when Zelaya, during our first meeting, spoke to me about how awesome Jesus was as if he were having the thought for the very first time.

There were also moments of extraordinary discomfort. In my first five minutes at New Beginnings, I was approached by three people who asked a barrage of questions: “How long have you been in the neighborhood? Where were you coming from before that? Do you go to church somewhere else? Are you Christian? What kind of church did you grow up in? What brings you here?” The same day, at the church’s water cooler, a doe-eyed woman my age asked me what I believed the meaning of life was. I laughed; she didn’t. And at Promise Christian Church, the hugging, the knowing of my name, the asking about my life — it was warm, but jarring in its warmth.

Until it wasn’t. I spent weeks attending services at these churches, and I had to keep coming back to get it. Adjusting to Ricky Sacarello’s energy — his pointing, his shouting, his exhortations to come to the Lord — required a new mindset. A church like Promise isn’t a place for people who prefer passivity to engagement. These communities, which cherish intimacy and connection, were moving to embrace the new neighborhood. The awkwardness I felt in my early interactions with them came from my end.

That may help explain why the two churches that made drive-through worshipping possible — the two churches where I wasn’t greeted by name or even noticed much — were where the hipsters were. “Whoever finds us finds us,” Anderson said of Revolution, and find them people do, through music, podcasts, word of mouth. White Williamsburg was at church, but in its own way, at its own pace, and surrounded by familiar-looking faces.

Before getting to know these four churches, I expected to encounter in Williamsburg a wide variety of congregations, preaching styles, and worship spaces. I did find differences. But just as striking was a common thread: that these pastors and congregants, whether stop-motion animators or former police officers, mostly just want to tell you how much God loves you. After a while, when hugged, I stopped looking for the nearest exit. It was good.

Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a freelance writer and editor. She was born in Brooklyn Heights and now lives in Williamsburg.

Yoon Kim is a freelance fine art and documentary photographer. Originally from Alabama, he has spent the past twelve years in Brooklyn. He currently lives and works in Prospect Heights.

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Stranger on a Strange Island

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“Let’s Have a Reunion.”

Seven decades after graduating, a Crown Heights native seeks to reunite his elementary school class. By Shayla Love