(found this in the New York Times!! Glory to God!!)
January 14, 2007
A Sliver of a Storefront, a Faith on the Rise
By DAVID GONZALEZ
The storefront, it turned out, was more front than store: a drug den masquerading as an auto-sound business. And the sight of six hoodlums being paraded out in handcuffs was sadly familiar among the brick tenements of west Harlem.
But for Danilo Florian, who stumbled upon the police raid in November 2002, it was nothing less than a revelation.
This could be a church, he muttered. Lord, that is the place.
Mr. Florian, a factory worker by day and a pastor by night, was desperate to find a home for his small congregation, which faced eviction from its dank basement sanctuary. In a lucky confluence of real estate and religion, he tracked down the storefronts building manager, cajoled him into a five-year lease at a nice rent and even talked him into joining the church.
Now, on most nights when the neighborhood winds down to rest, the fluorescent lights inside the room flicker to life, and the spartan, whitewashed space rattles under a sonic barrage of prayers, yelps and tambourines. As a teenage band pounds out bouncy Latin rhythms, men in crisp business suits that belie their dreary day jobs triumphantly pump their fists. Women in flowing skirts shout, stomp and gyrate wildly. The air crackles.
The congregation, made up mostly of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, has grown to about 60, and they are bent on converting many more. For they are living Pentecostalism, the worlds fastest-growing branch of Christianity, with a fervor and sense of destiny that resonate in the grand name they have chosen: the Pentecostal Church Ark of Salvation for the New Millennium.
Among them are reformed drug dealers and womanizers, cafeteria workers who earn barely enough to pay the bills and women whose sons or husbands are in prison. What they share inside this unlikely temple on Amsterdam Avenue near 133rd Street is a faith in God, in miracles and in one another. Religion here is not some sober, introspective journey or Sunday chore, but a raucous communal celebration that spills throughout the week.
Storefront churches like this have become part of the streetscape in New York and around the globe in recent decades. Tiny and makeshift, they sprout up almost overnight, wedged in among the bodegas and takeout counters. Just in these few blocks of Harlem, there are at least seven others.
Yet los aleluyas, as the Pentecostals are called by their neighbors, sometimes dismissively, remain mysterious to outsiders their intensity scary to some, comical to others. They can dress plainly, shun the simplest pleasures and warn of imminent catastrophe for those who are not born again. Children preach like adults, and adults wail like children. Here one day, their churches may be gone the next.
This is the story of one such church: its people, its pastor, their fight to survive and the emotional, sometimes extreme religion that fires them night after night.
It is also the story of Hispanic faith in the 21st century, seen in tight focus. Though Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Christianity, was born a century ago in Kansas and is often associated with the stereotypical holy rollers of the Bible Belt, it has made deep inroads in Asia and Africa. In this hemisphere, its numbers and growth are strongest among Latinos in the United States and in Latin America, where it is eroding the traditional dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.
Experts believe there are roughly 400 million Pentecostals worldwide, and this year, the number in the city is expected to surpass 850,000 about one in every 10 New Yorkers, one-third of them Hispanic. Precise numbers, however, are hard to come by because there are scores of denominations and no central governing body.
Although several large Pentecostal organizations like the Assemblies of God have bureaucracies, colleges and legions of missionaries, about 80 percent of all Pentecostals belong to small or independent congregations. They have aggressively courted the poor, and imparted a work ethic that is nudging their members into the middle class and beyond.
Here, in cramped storefronts like Ark of Salvation, people whose lives are as marginal as their neighborhoods discover a joyful intimacy often lacking in big churches. They find help with the rent, child care or finding a job. As immigrants, they find their own language and music, as well as the acceptance and recognition that often elude them on the outside.
They find the discipline and drive to make a hard life livable.
To spend a year with this congregation is to see a teenage single mother and party girl discover the strength to go to college, marry in the church and land a job. It is to see a former political radical and brawler pray over alcoholics in the park. It is to see the 50-year-old pastor roaming the city, driving the churchs van to gather members for Bible class or trolling for converts outside an upper Broadway subway station to keep the Ark afloat, and growing.
That growth could have profound implications. The Ark and other storefronts are already draining Catholic and mainline Protestant churches of the urban immigrants who have long filled their pews. Their striving members could refigure the political calculus of New York or even the nation, turning a historically liberal Hispanic population into a force for conservatism.
Then again, any of these churches could vanish, victim to a rent increase, a fickle landlord or a financial setback. They are trying to thrive in New York, of all places, where poor neighborhoods are gentrifying and housing prices are soaring, where strangers can be hostile and, on this block, dangerous. Their demanding creed, with its rigid moral code and almost daily churchgoing, can split families and alienate friends.
The souls who worship at 1463 Amsterdam Avenue have gotten by for six years on their faith, their wits and whatever breaks even a drug bust come their way. As they chase outsize dreams of a bigger building and a far bigger flock, they are guided only by Scripture and a quiet man who assures them that the meek really shall inherit the earth.
We are not complacent, Pastor Florian explained. We are more ambitious than Rockefeller.
The Spirit of a Crusade
Pass through the drab metal doorway, behind the tightly drawn blinds, and the storefront starts to look like a church. Heavy green drapes flank a worn pulpit. Packed tightly below are dozens of chipped wooden chairs cadged from a Midtown bar.
And much of the worship here looks like any Christian service, if several notches higher in volume and passion. One recent Sunday, quiet prayers in Spanish gave way to singing, Bible readings and testimony from the congregation, then a collection, a sermon and a final blessing from the pastor.
But during the blessing, the bands hypnotic beat quickened. Prayers became cries of Glory to God! The crowd pressed forward, and a thicket of hands strained to touch the pastors outstretched arm. Some women began to quiver and shake, their ponytails whipping from side to side.
The room grew hot, and a strange sound came rumbling from up front.
Omshalamamom! shouted Lucrecia Perez, her hand thrust into the air, her eyes clenched shut. Shambalashalama.
She was speaking in tongues, an ecstatic and indecipherable flood of syllables that often erupts during intense worship brought on, the faithful believe, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, part of the divine Trinity. Though uncommon or unheard of in most other Christian churches even dismissed as hokum by some ministers it is celebrated here as the very mystery that gives the faith its name.
On the day known as the Pentecost, according to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples after Christs resurrection, allowing them to speak in languages unknown to them. Later Christians occasionally broke into garbled prayer or prophecy, to the approval or alarm of church authorities, but it took nearly 2,000 years for the phenomenon to light a spark.
On New Years Day in 1901, a woman in Topeka, Kan., began speaking in tongues during a Bible-school prayer vigil and did not let up for three days. Pentecostal groups formed, and in 1906, a preacher named William J. Seymour started a series of jubilant meetings in Los Angeles, called the Azusa Street Revival, that are now credited with propelling the faith throughout the world.
Like other evangelicals, Pentecostals assert the Bibles word-for-word authority, the need to accept Christ and the duty to share that faith with others before the end days, when the born-again will be whisked up to heaven in what they call the rapture.
But they differ in their intense conviction that the Holy Spirit descends on believers and blesses them with extraordinary gifts, especially the power to speak in tongues, that prepare them for those dark days, when everyone else will be left behind to suffer.
The message can be grim. The strictest Pentecostals and Ark of Salvation has several rajatablas, as they are called can come across as humorless scolds, dressing severely and rejecting any distraction from God: television, popular music, even too much work.
If that were all Pentecostalism offered, the storefronts would be empty.
But the gloom is tempered by a noisy, collective joy born of the belief that the faithful will be blessed in this world and the next. That joy lends a sense of freedom, and often abandon, to services at the Ark, where people break into song or their own spur-of-the-moment prayers.
Music flows through everything not solemn hymns, but brassy Caribbean tunes. In fact, some sound exactly like the songs that hard-core members condemn the pop and salsa on Spanish-language radio but with religious lyrics that are repeated so breathlessly that some singers faint.
That ability to harness the local music and culture is one reason for Pentecostalisms swift spread around the world.
It takes in everything and absorbs it, said the Rev. Dale T. Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary. You get as a result this extraordinary emergence of churches.
In New York, the ranks of Pentecostals have grown 45 percent since 1995, said Tony Carnes, president of the International Research Institute on Values Changes in New York City, an independent group financed largely by foundations that has been surveying churches since 1989.
Pentecostals became the citys largest group of born-again Christians in the mid-1990s, and within a few years, a new storefront church was opening every three weeks in the South Bronx, he said. The 9/11 attacks set off a fresh growth spurt.
Another factor in that growth worldwide is the way the faith reaches out to people on societys edges and gives them vital roles. Unlike Catholics and some evangelical Christians, Pentecostals let women preach and lead; Mr. Florians co-pastor is his wife, Mirian. The humblest member can take the pulpit to share testimony, a prayer or a poem. Recently, an 8-year-old girl preached excitedly to a rapt congregation, then laid her hands in blessing on a new convert.
Mr. Florian himself has few credentials other than three years of night-school Bible classes and a wrenching sense of duty. A lapsed Catholic from the Dominican Republic, he joined a small Pentecostal church 16 years ago after his 7-year-old daughter survived a grave bout with encephalitis. Six years ago he and eight others left that church and founded the Ark in the basement of a building riddled with rats.
The congregation, which draws members from all over Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, moved to its street-level space four years ago thanks to the drug raid, and a willingness to seize on opportunities. That pragmatism is also reflected in its religious practices, which are more moderate than in many other storefront churches.
While the Ark forbids smoking, drinking and dancing and discourages flashy clothes and jewelry, it issues few other edicts. While its members believe that Satan the enemy, they call him is as real as God, they conduct no exorcisms, as in some churches.
While some members speak in tongues, most do not, including Pastor Florian, a low-key man who explained the experience in surprisingly down-to-earth terms. It is like a fax talking to another fax, he said. Tongues are not a human language. It is your spirit speaking with God.
And while nearly everyone in the congregation works and puts something into the brass bowls that are passed around at every service, Mr. Florian makes none of the urgent appeals for money or promises of windfalls or miracles that drive some churches. The pastor, who still works his factory job decorating expensive handbags, takes no salary from the church.
Not that the Ark celebrates poverty. Members are told that hard work and frugal living will be rewarded, perhaps not lavishly, but adequately. The dress code for services is decidedly white collar: suits for the men, long skirts for the women. Children are urged to excel in school, and the pastor boasts of the several college graduates in the church refuting what he says is the notion that born-again Christians are simple-minded.
When you are a professional, people have no idea how you can be a believer, he said. The Gospel is not just for the poor. God is not a God of the ignorant.
The poor do get help, from the churchs meager savings account or from other members; it is not unusual to see a small wad of cash passed from hand to hand after services. But unlike many larger churches, the Ark has neither the mission nor the money to dispense charity to the needy outside except as a means to convert them.
And its members, proud and stoic, are reluctant to accept handouts. When Ms. Perez, the woman who spoke in tongues, had her hours as a home health aide cut back, she and her daughter Genesis moved into a homeless shelter for eight months. For weeks before their eviction, she asked the congregation for prayers, but barely hinted at her plight.
I cant ask them for money, said Ms. Perez, 46. They dont have it to lend. They need what they have for a new church.
Last April, Pedro Garces, the building manager and a church member, found her an affordable studio. Whatever happens, members are constantly reminded, the Ark will bear them up.
We will never be alone, Pastor Florian said one night during Bible study. That is Gods promise.
Hotheads and Warm Hearts
The first to arrive, as usual, was Ramon Romero. On a Thursday evening in July that was still hot and sticky at 6:30, he walked slowly from his apartment to the church, past reminders of the life he had left behind. Two laborers lounged on a grimy stoop, sipping beer, as men outside a bodega argued politics, and raunchy reggaeton music thumped from passing cars.
Mr. Romero, a handsome man of 73 and a founding member of the Ark, rolled up the churchs metal gate and slipped into the silence inside. The others would soon arrive with their own reasons for coming and their own styles of worship but this was his time and his way. He knelt and clasped the slatted back of a wooden chair, his lips emitting no more than a low rasp.
That rasp, which can rise to a growl, is one hint that this stern, stony-faced man was once a scrapper. A strict father, he let his wife coddle the children, as he put it, while he wielded the strap. He was tough outside the home, too, active in leftist politics and unions in the Dominican Republic before he moved here in the mid-1960s.
I was someone who did everything except stain my hands with blood, Mr. Romero said. I was a hothead.
He paid for it. His efforts fighting the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo landed him in jail for seven months, he said. While driving a Pepsi-Cola route in the Dominican Republic, he helped workers unionize and strike for fair pay, but the bottling company lured everyone back to work, he said, then fired him with the support of the same workers he had organized.
Years later, feeling betrayed by politics and worried about his wifes depression, he let a nurse bring her pastor to their home one night to pray. Mr. Romero converted quickly, with the same intensity he had brought to politics.
His wife, Esperanza, took longer to let go of her Roman Catholicism, particularly the room she had filled with statues of saints worthless idols, according to Pentecostals, who believe that people should pray directly to God. Mr. Romero persuaded his wife that the statues had to go.
I went in that room with a hammer, and I broke every saint that was there, he recalled. I smashed a table, a fountain full of water, an expensive one. I broke it all. I tied it up in a bag and tossed it in the farthest dump.
He paused at the memory. And nothing happened to me.
His wife died in 1999, but her name is still on the downstairs buzzer. In their sparely furnished apartment, Mr. Romero passes the time reading the Bible and, with a tinge of guilt, watching sports. His five children some live nearby, and one is in the congregation hardly talk to him. He wonders if he may have been a bit too strict.
But no matter. This night, as he settled into his regular seat near the front, he had achieved a kind of peace.
By then he had been joined by another early bird, Ramona Campaña, who enjoys the churchs sociability as much as its spirituality. As others entered, Ms. Campaña, 73, looked up from her Bible, smiled and extended a hand. An elegant woman, she wore a long skirt and matching jacket whose only embellishment was a golden brooch bearing a cross and a lamb, the churchs logo.
When she arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic 35 years ago, she worked in a hotel laundry, ironing until her eyes stung from the steam. Her lunch included a bottle of Heineken stashed in her purse. She played the numbers. And, she said, she practiced the sort of once-a-week Catholicism that was more habit than conviction.
You can sit next to me, and when the service is over you dont even know my name, she said. You dont ask, How are you? Its foom, and youre out.
That ended one day in the Bronx that was so jarring she still recalls the date: June 12, 1993. Ms. Campaña and her daughter had gone to the wake of a relative who had converted to Pentecostalism on his deathbed. Most Christian wakes focus on the deceased, but the faithful at this service turned away from the open coffin and crusaded for new members, offering a stark choice: Accept Christ or spend eternity in hell.
Moved by the congregations passion I saw unity in them, she said she joined a Pentecostal group. After moving to 141st Street years later, widowed and alone, she heard about a new church in a nearby basement and went out asking, Where are the aleluyas? until she found the Ark.
Its good, she said, to be in a place where they see you not by how you look, but by whats in your heart.
As this evenings service started, Ms. Campaña lost herself in song, smacking a battered tambourine and swaying in rhythm. Like several other women, she was so taken with the prayers and music that she doubled over, feet stomping and arms flailing, until her neighbors eased her back up.
But others worship was as varied as their lives. Young mothers sang cheerily alongside their fidgeting children. Grandmothers prayed aloud nonstop, as if in a running conversation with the Almighty. Two teenage boys exchanged a laugh. Near the front, Roy Guzman, a 25-year-old engineer who works for an international consulting company, sat motionless, immersed in his Bible.
I dont just want to feel this, he said later, a little sheepishly. That could be a flaw, but I like to have an intellectual knowledge of what Im doing.
And then there was his cousin Chislen Peña, a normally soft-spoken young woman who fairly explodes when her time comes to preach.
Dressed austerely long black skirt, pulled-back hair, no earrings or makeup she paces the narrow stage with nervous energy, shouting, slapping her Bible and tossing her head back. She will pause, freeze the congregation in her gaze, then break into a grin and yell, Aleluya!
She is joyful fiercely, severely joyful even if her life has been anything but.
Ms. Peña, 28, had her first child when she was 14, with a man who ended up in prison for murder. She had a daughter with another man who was deported for dealing drugs. She married for the first time soon afterward, only to divorce when her husband told her he had H.I.V. Her brother is in jail for murder.
I once tried to kill myself, she said. I heard little voices telling me to do it.
She found her faith through an uncle, and like other Pentecostals, she preaches about her life to show that no one is beyond help. In the pulpit at one service, her voice hoarse and her forehead sweaty, she told of waiting for the results of her H.I.V. tests.
I said forgive me He forgave me, she said, to rising applause. Praise the Lord! And the tests kept coming back negative! And negative! And negative!
After the service, people lingered for conversation and food, hugging and thanking her. They all knew she had returned to school, earned a college diploma and found a job as a counselor in a drug treatment center.
Remarried in 2004 to a fellow Pentecostal, she was expecting her third child, a boy they planned to name after an Old Testament prophet who warned of impending punishment.
Just saying the name made her smile.
Jeremiah, she said.
Saving el Mundo
The end is near. This is actually good news at Ark of Salvation: At the start of the earths final days, they believe, a trumpet blast will herald the rapture. But for those left behind, the Book of Revelation and sermons at the church lay out a litany of horrors that will follow: plagues, poisoned rivers, smoke that will pour from the earth and blot out the skies.
The Arks ultimate mission, then, is to save the nonbelievers not just for their sake, but for the churchs. To keep going, Pastor Florian says, the Ark must grow.
So as much as its members mistrust and revile the secular world el mundo, as they call it they must leave the churchs embrace to spread the word to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
God sometimes sends you to places you do not want to go to like you have to go somewhere where you can be robbed, the pastor reminded them one night with a smile, shrieking in mock terror: Oh, no! Not 134th Street!
They exhort relatives and friends, schoolmates and co-workers, with promises of hope or warnings of damnation. They hold weekly services in peoples apartments and invite neighbors. In good weather, they haul out the drums and amplifiers and preach on the sidewalk. They walk up to strangers in parks and supermarkets.
Eneida Vasquez was window-shopping at a 99-cent store one day when she spotted Kenia Ledesma, a sad-eyed woman with three young daughters and a rocky marriage. She walked up to the stranger, told her she was not alone and hugged her. Ms. Ledesma joined the church that week.
But the congregation leaves little to chance. One July afternoon, three teenagers sat in the church, neatly sorting piles of religious tracts. One girl stamped the Arks address onto the leaflets, which are printed in Spanish with color photos and graphics.
We order them from the Dominican Republic, 10 for a penny, Pastor Florian explained. They are bigger and different from the ones you usually see around here. That way, when someone gets it they cant say, Oh, I saw this already.
Before the teenagers headed out in small groups, he gave them precise instructions: Approach the person with a smile. Hold out the tract with the cover facing up. Leave with a God bless you.
The payoff, however, was slim. Everyone could see the aleluyas coming, by their dress, their smiles, their persistence. Some neighbors were polite, but from others they got snubs, catcalls or worse.
Outside El Mundo, a store on Broadway that sells $100 suits and $10 dresses, a drunken man glared at Frankie Lora and Stephanie Dionisio, both 16. He cocked his head and leered at Stephanie.
You good? he taunted. You good?
She fumbled for a tract, the one that said drunkards will never enter heaven. As he staggered off, cursing, Stephanie turned to Frankie. Tell him Jesus loves him, she pleaded. Tell him!
On days like this, members console themselves with the knowledge that they did their duty. Maybe, they speculate, the person they approached in the park joined another storefront for there is little sense of competition among the neighborhoods many Pentecostal congregations, which sponsor events together and visit one another.
That camaraderie, however, does not extend to the institution that once loomed large in so many members lives: the Catholic Church. Pentecostals believe that Catholics and many Protestants will not be joining them in the rapture. Only born-again Christians, they say, will be saved.
Pastor Florian does not preach much about other faiths, and in fact his three children have attended Catholic schools on scholarships. But his feelings are clear. The day after Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, the pastor began his sermon with a pointed remark.
We are not sad, he said. Our leader is not dead. Our leader is Jesus Christ. And he is alive!
Around the corner is the Church of the Annunciation, a thriving Catholic parish where Mexicans and Dominicans make up most of the roughly 1,100 worshipers who fill its sanctuary on Sundays.
Its pastor, the Rev. Jose Maria Clavero, knows that the Catholic Church has lost many Latinos to Pentecostalism, but he sees those converts as nominal Catholics who were never part of any parish. If they are taking in people who were not anywhere, blessed be God, he said. At least they are in church.
He and other priests, remembering when large parishes were the vibrant heart of New York immigrant life, give the small storefronts credit for building intimate, supportive communities in some of the citys most forlorn neighborhoods. And Annunciation, like many Catholic and mainline Protestant churches around the world, has even embraced Pentecostalisms ardent worship style, as part of the charismatic renewal movement that began in the 1960s.
A small charismatic group meets for prayer every Monday, and Father Clavero makes a point of attending. At first it was to keep the group in check; he was alarmed by what he saw as an overemphasis on healing and miracles the same sort of zeal that makes Pastor Florian nervous.
But the group has matured, the priest said, and its exuberant songs echo through the church each Sunday.
It lifts you up, he said. Youd have to be a stone not to feel it. They give life.
The Politics of Purity
The sidewalks along St. Nicholas Avenue were thick with weekend shoppers and booming with music. Slowly, a faint background rumbling grew into a roar as 200 people strode into the middle of the street, part of the annual Great March for Christ in Washington Heights.
A Christ who is against adultery! hollered a Pentecostal preacher leading the procession. A Christ who is against homosexuality! That is the Jesus we represent.
The marchers including a delegation from Ark of Salvation prayed, sang and urged repentance. Some scurried to hand out tracts and invitations to a religious rally.
But while they wooed the public, one figure was courting them. Adriano Espaillat, a Democratic assemblyman then running for Manhattan borough president, stood among them, casting for votes, not souls.
God bless you, Mr. Espaillat said with a quick handshake to each marcher. God bless you.
Pastor Florian turned his back on him.
He is a politician, he said curtly. I cannot even look at him.
The prevailing image of evangelical Christians in America is one of militant churches and politically ambitious leaders, like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who have built a national base of like-minded Christians determined to shape public policy, especially on sexual issues.
But while Pentecostals strongly oppose abortion and gay marriage, they have a long history of shunning political involvement. Though some notable Pentecostals have run for office John Ashcroft on the right and the Rev. Al Sharpton on the left most politicians are seen as agents of the secular world.
I think Pentecostals realize ultimately their trust is in God and not in politics, said Loida Martell-Otero, a theology professor at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. The people in power have traditionally rendered them powerless.
That has not stopped political leaders from trying to convert them, especially in cities like New York, where Latino Pentecostals are seen as a large and growing bloc that could turn to either party. Republicans invoke causes like banning abortion and gay marriage, while Democrats promote economic programs for the poor who fill so many storefront churches.
Pentecostals do vote, and are eager for more involvement, according to a study released in October by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that 79 percent of Pentecostals wanted religious groups to speak out on political issues.
In New York, the poverty and independence of many Pentecostal churches have kept them from coalescing, said Mr. Carnes, whose International Research Institute on Values Changes has studied their growth. But Pentecostals are teaching a tireless work ethic, he said, that will vault them especially their children into more professional and managerial jobs in coming years, and make them a major economic and social force.
The next step, Mr. Carnes said, could be leveraging that force into political clout. The key for these pastors will be to connect up with disaffected leaders in the centers of power some councilman or businessman looking for something different, he said. You could have a huge change in the city.
Now, though, many pastors are torn.
Mr. Florian would love to have a soup kitchen or an after-school center for teenagers, and the congregation turned to its city councilman, a Democrat, for help in finding a bigger building to house them. But they dropped the effort after the councilman invited them to help out at a neighborhood health fair, and the pastor learned they would not be allowed to preach there.
I only want to do things for the Lord, Mr. Florian said. I do not like to ask any man for favors.
He and other storefront pastors would seem natural allies for the Republican Party, which has courted Latino Pentecostals, political analysts say, with government grants for churches that run faith-based social services. But the Ark, like most small churches, has neither the space nor the staff for such programs.
Mr. Florian says he supports President Bush for his principles, and has urged his congregation to vote for candidates who share their moral values. But he cannot vote; though he is a legal resident and says he intends to become a citizen as his wife did, he has not assembled the paperwork.
And unlike many Christian ministers, he has little to say about most public issues: Iraq, terrorism, even immigration. He and others at the Ark are busy enough with the troubles they see in their own streets and homes: crime, drugs, splintered families.
In fact, before abortion and gay rights dominated political discourse, Latino Pentecostals in New York invariably supported liberal candidates who reached out, as they did, to the poor and forgotten.
Today, the Rev. Ruben Diaz, one of the first Pentecostals to venture into New York politics, pursues evangelicals with a mix of social-spending liberalism and family-values conservatism. A Democratic state senator from the Bronx, Mr. Diaz warns that his partys support for gay marriage and abortion rights could alienate his religious constituents.
The evangelical churches will be the Achilles heel of the Democratic Party, he said, unless it opens the door to a segment of the population who does not think exactly like them.
There is no doubt where the Ark stands. Yet even on the moral issues that matter most to the congregation, Pastor Florian has little faith that a political party or sprawling bureaucracy can get the job done. He is even wary of close ties to other religious groups with their own agendas.
So for now, at least, the Ark will go its own way the slow way as it tries to save the world and realize its Rockefeller ambitions. Praying and singing. Supporting one another. Approaching strangers on the street. Changing minds and hearts, one by one.
After one fruitless afternoon handing out tracts, a girl in the congregation ran up to tell Pastor Florian that a woman had promised to visit the church. His face lit up.
Do you know what it is to save a soul? he asked. Just one soul? Priceless.