The Soul of Greater New York

(Editor’s note: This article is a follow up to last month’s two-part article on Greater New York and the Five Boroughs. Read part one here and part two here.)

“You purchased people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” – Revelation 5:9

It was an unremarkable Sunday evening in the late 1980s in Flushing, Queens. I remember walking down Sanford Avenue toward our church, First Baptist. As you walk down Sanford Avenue heading west, you realize 149th Street is the dividing line between 100-year-old homes and the 6-story apartment buildings that saturate the community.

Walking along Sanford, you pass a building that has become occupied primarily by Russian immigrants. Near our home, you would meet a number of Korean families. As you get closer to Main Street, Flushing, the community becomes inhabited more so by Chinese people. Depending upon what time of day you pass by, you might also see Mexican day laborers standing on the street corner.

Back in the 1980s, First Baptist had Sunday evening church services. I remember my first visit to the church in 1984, having heard about it before leaving home in South Dakota. The first Sunday I visited, in July, the choir sang, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” It was a powerful song sung by Caribbean, Chinese, Hispanic, and Anglo choir members. The choir director was Filipino. The song meant a lot to those of us who had left family and familiarity to come to New York City.

There was a baptismal service that particular Sunday night. The crowd was pretty small-to-average in size—maybe fifty to seventy-five people were in attendance. What was remarkable was the story of those who were being baptized. Within a handful of people being baptized were those who had begun to follow Jesus from Hindu, Jewish, and nominal church backgrounds. I was asking myself, Where else in the world does this happen, that people from three major religious traditions are being baptized in the same service? Where else in the world or even within New York can you worship with people from sixty different language backgrounds?

Approximately 21.5 million people live within fifty
miles of Times Square, representing one out of
every three hundred people on the planet.

What was happening in Flushing is in miniature what has been happening in Metropolitan New York—the nations have moved into the neighborhood.

Metropolitan New York Today
Approximately 21.5 million people live within fifty miles of Times Square, representing one out of every three hundred people on the planet. The 1980s and 1990s were a time of intense immigration. According to Amanda M. Burden, in The Newest New Yorkers 2000, within New York City the immigrant population increased by nearly 800,000 people between 1990 and 2000. Of those new immigrants, eighty-six percent landed in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In fact, by 2000 nearly one percent of all Americans were immigrants living in New York City (2.9 million people), and ten percent of all internationals in America were living in New York City.

Region % Immigrant, rounded estimate from The Newest New Yorkers

Manhattan, N.Y.  29.4 
Staten Island, N.Y.  16.4 
Brooklyn, N.Y.  37.8 
Queens, N.Y.  46.1 
Bronx, N.Y.  29.0 
Westchester, N.Y.  9.3 
Rockland, N.J.  9.3 
Bergen, N.J.  9.3 
Suffolk, N.J.  9.3 
Nassau, N.Y.  9.3 
Fairfield, Connecticut  9.3 

A snapshot of which countries the greatest number of immigrants have come from reveals people from the Dominican Republic, China, and Jamaica have maintained their percentage rank of the first three positions. The most rapidly increasing immigrant group is Mexicans, who have nearly quadrupled their presence in New York in ten years.

The Hispanic Presence in New York City
While Puerto Ricans are expected to maintain a population of roughly 750,000 over the next forty years, the Dominican community is expected to see significant growth, to reach a population of close to 1.75 million. The Mexican community is expected to explode over the same timeframe, from the current 125,000 to nearly four million, as reported by Laird W. Bergad from the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies. It is easy to see the Hispanic presence by borough across New York City; Hispanics represent the largest minority group, at twenty-eight percent of the total population of New York City.

The country of origin changes dramatically from borough to borough:

  • Bronx Hispanics are seventy-eight percent Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.
  • Manhattan Hispanics are seventy-four percent Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.
  • Brooklyn Hispanics are seventy-five percent Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans.
  • Queens Hispanics are seventy-six percent Ecuadorians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians, and Mexicans.
  • Staten Island Hispanics are sixty-four percent Puerto Ricans and Mexicans.

Distribution of Latino Population by Borough, 2000-2006
Immigration trends suggest that Dominicans will surpass Puerto Ricans and become the largest sector of the city’s Latino population in 2015. Mexicans will surpass Puerto Ricans to become the second largest Latino national group by 2023. Mexicans are expected to surpass Dominicans to become the largest minority group in the city by 2029.

Asians in New York City
According to 2006 census figures, approximately one million Asians now live in New York City. Chinese immigrants were the second largest group in the 2000 census with an addition of 100,000 immigrants since 1990. Chinese residents are the largest Asian immigrant group in each borough with the exception of the Asian Indians in the Bronx. Chinese New Yorkers represent nearly fifty percent of the Asians in New York, while Asian Indians number about twenty percent. Koreans comprise a little more than ten percent of the total Asian population, but almost twenty percent of the Asians in Queens. Queens is home to fifty percent of the Asians in New York City, according to the U.S. Census.

Tony Carnes of the Values Research Institute, and Pei-te Lien of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have indicated that almost fifty percent of all Asian immigrants moving into the United States are Christian. Carnes also believes that eighty percent of the Buddhists immigrating into New York are spiritually open. In northern Queens, three hundred Korean churches populate the landscape, with several congregations surpassing one thousand regular attendees. More than four hundred Korean pastors have joined a metropolitan Korean pastors’ association. Asian Christians are changing the face of the Church in New York City.

Africans in New York City
In each of the past two decades, the African immigration population has doubled, reaching ninety-five thousand Africans by 2000. The actual number of Africans is probably higher, because the count does not include more recent arrivals and the numerous illegal immigrants. The population is expected to grow even more this decade, according to Peter Lobo, deputy director of the Population Division of the Department of City Planning. He describes the new arrivals as “overwhelmingly highly educated and professional.”

In ten years, more than one hundred African congregations have been established in New York City. Combined with the huge influx of Asian and Latin Christians, these figures reveal the dramatic growth of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It would be fair to say that much of the growth is rooted in the Pentecostalism that began on Asuza Street in California a century ago, spread globally, and has boomeranged back to New York City through the immigrant communities. Leaders like Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan, have concluded that we have an opportunity to see our city filled with faith that we have not seen in one hundred years.

The African/African and American/Caribbean communities comprise nearly two million people in New York City and nearly twenty-five percent of the total population. New York City has the largest population of people of African descent in the U.S., despite a trend of New York–born African Americans leaving the city in significant numbers.

Jews and Muslims in New York
The United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York 2002 report states that 972,000 Jews lived in New York City in 2002. This represents a slight increase from the 1980s and 1990s, but is half the total of the 1950s, when two million Jews lived throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Since 1980, over 300,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have settled in New York City. Their arrival was accompanied by a rise in the level of poverty within the city’s Jewish population.

Today, one out of five Jewish families in the neighboring counties of Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk are on the verge of poverty. New York City remains the largest Jewish city in the world—Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens County hold the three largest Jewish populations by county in America.

According to Peter Awn, dean of Columbia University’s School of General Studies and co-principal investigator of a study on Muslims in New York City, the Muslim population in the city has grown to an estimated 600,000 people. Of all American counties with the highest density of Muslims, nine of the top twenty-five include four NYC boroughs and five New Jersey counties. Muslims have been understandably feeling uneasy since the event of 11 September 2001 (9/11). Our neighbour, Mohammed, from Afghanistan, put a U.S. flag in his window immediately after the attacks.

There was 24-hour police surveillance at the house mosque a block from my home for several weeks after 9/11 as tensions remained high in the city and Muslims felt the brunt of the rage. Two years after 9/11, I attended an open house at the local mosque on Geranium Avenue in Flushing. The men I met in the foyer were what I expected—men from Pakistan and India. What surprised me were the two young men assigned to talk with me—both native New Yorkers—one was Italian and the other Puerto Rican. Both of these young men were lapsed Catholics. The former director of ministerial services at Riker’s Island Correctional Facility was Imam Luqman Abdush-Shahid, a Baptist who converted to Islam. The current director is also an imam. Muslims are no longer easily identifiable, but can be from any cultural or ethnic background.

The Spiritual Trends of Greater New York
With immigrant populations pouring into Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, we have seen correlative growth in the establishment of new churches. Many of these new churches are established in languages other than English to meet the needs of New York’s newest immigrants.

While the newly-planted immigrant churches tend to thrive, throughout the rest of the region in traditionally English-speaking populations, especially among Anglos, there is a sense of rapid decline. I know of only one self-ascribed evangelical church in New York City that has more than one thousand people and is primarily Anglo.

Interestingly, the least likely person to attend church on a Sunday morning in New York City is an Anglo male between forty and fifty years of age. The spiritual demographics outside of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx mirror Western Europe, while in Midtown Manhattan, one estimate is that the evangelical population is .5 percent. It is a city of dual spirituality.

In a 1998 survey done among the religious communities in Flushing (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian), the one common theme was this: everyone was losing their youth. Even in the immigrant churches, it is estimated (especially among Asian churches) that a majority of second-generation immigrants attending church leave after high school. Forty percent of New York City college students who come from Buddhist homes leave the Buddhist faith by their freshman year.

The spiritual and ethnic demographics suggest that Greater New York is in a time of intense religious struggle. Secularism is hammering away at religious values held by families for centuries. Immigrants’ sense of being uprooted leads to weakening long-established ties to family religious traditions among the next generation. Naked consumerism attempts to persuade our children that happiness lies in the material world, external to traditional spiritual commitments. Both new immigrants and native New Yorkers are bombarded with the same negative messages from the media, where the house you live in, the car you drive, the cell phone you talk on, and the clothes you wear are more important, and certainly more easily measurable, than the state of your soul.

The antidote to and strategy for these challenges/opportunities is effective spiritual leadership. If we can incarnate the truth of Jesus through our united prayer, our innovative efforts to meet real needs, and our collaboration to work together, the world will be changed. An unprecedented, unified effort is needed to effect significant, long-lasting transformation.

Dr. Mac Pier is president of the New York City Leadership Center and Concerts of Prayer Greater New York. After working on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, he eventually served as founder and mobilizer of the united prayer movement of 6,200 churches throughout New York City, Long Island, northern New Jersey, and Fairfield County, Connecticut. His leadership has led to Concerts of Prayer being described as one of the most developed urban prayer and pastoral networks in the world. Pier's latest book, Spiritual Leadership in the Global City (New Hope Publishers) was released in 2008.