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Building Bridges in New York City: Starting With Churches

We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America. 1


John 4: 1–26 tells a story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman. This is a well-known story. Jesus, according to the passage, had left Judea for Galilee through Samaria. At Sychar, which is a city of the Samaritans, he stops and sits beside Jacob’s well. There, an unnamed woman from Samaria comes to the well to fetch water. Jesus asks her for a drink. Baffled by this request, the woman probes Jesus’ motive(s), “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman, how can you ask me for a drink?”(vr.9) she asked. A conversation then ensues that eventually leads to the conversion of the woman. Preachers and commentators have often, in their exegesis and reflections on this text, focused on the personal conversion and salvation of the woman to the neglect of its larger implication for the intercultural and inter-religious relationships. It is important to note that in addition to the themes of conversation and salvation, the text is also about building bridges; it provides an example of a purposeful and productive cross-cultural bridge-building engagement.

Divided City

Cities are highly divided. This seems to be counterintuitive since cities are always seen as “melting pots” of diverse peoples. Yet, cities are divided by invisible borders which separate the “center from the off center”, the “high” from the “low” and the “haves” from the “have nots”.2 This “urban divide” is largely reflective of the disparities that exist in income, social, health and other special opportunities available to different segments of urban populations. In most cities, the divide leads to physical, social, economic, cultural and political exclusion of sections of the population, particularly the poor, minorities, and women. Current debates in political and social circles regarding the continual shrinking of the middle class and the tensions between many police departments and minority populations are indications of this fact. A recent UNICEF report shows, that children are among those most affected by the divide. 3

New York City, like most global cities, is filled with dense and diverse populations who live in close proximity with one another. Paradoxically, such density and proximity often don’t translate into close social ties and networking among all residents. Its residents are highly mobile and busy, often making little time for interpersonal connections and community engagements. Such lifestyles lead to individual alienation and social disengagement. It is ironic that even when groups are formed to address community and neighborhood needs, build social capital, and create opportunities for networking, they are often particularistic and exclusive in ethos and concerns. They often organize on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, etc. In so doing, they fail to address adequately the needs of some of the vulnerable members of society.

Unfortunately, churches through their beliefs and practices reify and reinforce traditional boundaries of segregation and exclusion which create and solidify divisions in society. Churches are themselves divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, sexuality, theology and class. In the United States, despite the policy of separation of church and state, churches, have and continue to influence immensely, social and political life. More so, the moral compasses with which many persons, both city dwellers and otherwise, make decisions are often religiously derived, or at least informed by religious beliefs and values. Sadly, exclusivity and particularity continue to be the hallmarks of churches in New York and many other cities in the United States. Except for a comparatively few multicultural congregations, churches continue to be largely mono-racial and mono-ethnic.4 The quotation above attributed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. describes in a profound way the segregated religious landscape and social life of America and is as relevant today as it was in the 60’s when it was uttered.

Building Bridges

In a limited attempt to bridge the religious and cultural divide in the city, the Center for the Study and Practice of Urban Religion(C-SPUR) at New York Theological Seminary launched in September 2012 a two-year research and pastoral formation project, Building Bridges in a Global City with a generous financial support from E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and the Mark D Hostetter and Alexander N. Habib Foundation.

Building Bridges sought to explore new ways of engaging in ecumenical relationships and fostering congregational inclusiveness through (a) encouraging faith communities to become more accommodating of the “other,” that is, of persons who are culturally different from their group and welcome them into their sacred spaces; and (b) creating concrete opportunities for future pastoral leaders to experience and gain knowledge of the beliefs and practices of congregations that are dissimilar to theirs. Three important considerations—theological, ethical and sociological—undergird this project. Theologically, the project recognized God as an inclusive God. A God who created all and calls all to God’s self in love. Through creation, revelation and Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the inclusive nature of God is made manifest. As the bible teaches, “God is Love” (1 John 4: 8). God’s love is evident in God’s relational nature and is available for all. The Church must be a community of witness that not only speaks of God’s radical inclusivity, but also creates the space(s) within which people can experience it. 5

Besides the theological consideration, the project saw inclusivity as very necessary for justice, freedom and fairness. These are God-given rights that are largely approved and supported by the laws of the United States. Many times minorities, the poor and the less powerful, have had these rights taken away from them through various kinds of exclusions. Encouraging the creation of space and communities within which all people have the opportunity to experience God and relate and network with others without discrimination is a way towards the attainment and enjoyment of rights.

Another pressing concern is a sociological one—to alert churches to the changing demographics of their neighborhoods and work with them to find ways of countering the possible negative impact on their congregations. There have been considerable demographic changes in many neighborhoods in the United States due to urbanization and migration. In New York City for instance, immigrants from South America, Asia, the Caribbean and Africa have moved into neighborhoods such as Flushing, Queens and Flatbush in Brooklyn that were previously populated by persons of mainly European descent. These new populations have established their own churches which exist alongside some of the older churches.6 However, for the most part, the pre-existing congregations, particularly those belonging to mainline denominations, have lost membership and have either closed or are on the verge of doing so.7 Many of these mainline congregations have, so far, not been able to attract and welcome these populations into their faith communities, nor have they been able to collaborate with them to address social problems. A goal of this project is to help congregations to meaningfully engage their “new” neighborhoods.

As part of the project, selected students were assigned as Supervised Ministry Students (SMS) at churches whose ethos, culture, and racial/ethnic composition are different from theirs. The purpose of inserting these students in contexts different from what they are normally used to was to provide them the opportunity to see and learn about different congregational cultures and practices, and study the conditions that promote or inhibit inclusiveness in these congregations. The SMS during their assignments identified language, generational differences, and cultural insensitivity and biases as the most prominent causes of divisions among congregations. But, they also found music as a powerful bridge between cultures. One student researcher commented: “During times that I could not understand what was going on due to the language barrier; I retreated to the safe place of music.”

Learning from Jesus’ Example

H. Richard Niebuhrover half a century ago lamented over:

“…the failure of churches to transcend the social conditions which fashion them into caste-organizations… to resist the temptations of making their own self-preservation and extension the primary object of their endeavor.” 8

This is the plight of the church even today, and Jesus teaches us how to overcome it. The Jews and the Samaritans of Jesus’ day hated each other. Physically and spiritually they were segregated from each other and divided, by their animosity towards each other. The Jews considered themselves pure and more righteous than the Samaritans. The Samaritan woman’s question to Jesus points to the cultural and religious division that existed between these two historical and culturally connected peoples. Jesus knew this, yet he chose to cross boundaries; he not only went through Samaria, but also intentionally engaged its people through conversation with a woman. He rendered himself vulnerable by placing himself in “enemy territory” so that he may make friends.

This provides a lesson for us who live in divided neighborhoods and worlds.



1. Martin Luther King Jr.

2. State of World’s Cities Report 2010–2011.


4. Curtiss Paul DeYoung, et al., United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as the Answer to the Problem of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

5. See Steven Shakespeare and Hugh Rayment-Pickard. The Inclusive God: Reclaiming Theology for An Inclusive Church, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006, 103.

6. A number studies have been conducted on these churches many which indicate that the ethos, worship and social lives of these congregation are largely tailored for the needs of their particular ethnic group. See for instance, Moses O. Biney, From Africa to America: Religion and Adaptation among Ghanaians in New York, New York: New York University Press; Kenneth J. Guest God in Chinatown: Religion and Survival in New York’s Immigrant Community, New York: New York University Press, 2003; Nancy Foner ed. New Immigrants in New York.. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001; Tony Carnes and Anna Karpathakis. New York Glory: Religions in the City. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

7. National Congregations Study, Americans Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century 2006–2007, 25.

8. H. Richard Niebuhr Social Sources of Denominationalism (Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1954), 264.

By Rev. Moses Biney
The Rev. Dr. Moses O. Biney is Assistant Professor of Religion and Society, and Research Director for the Center for the Study and Practice of Urban Religion at New York Theological Seminary. He is also the Interim Pastor for Bethel Presbyterian Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Biney is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary where he earned both the Th. M. and the Ph. D in Social Ethics. He has served on the faculty of the University of Ghana and as an adjunct professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Dr. Biney’s research and teaching interests include the religions of Africa and the African Diaspora, religion and transnationalism, religion and culture, and congregational studies. He is the author of From Africa to America: Religion and Adaptation among Ghanaian Immigrants in New York.