Archive | May, 2009

In Crown Heights, Faith Watches Over The Community

One kind of storefront dominates Utica Avenue near the 77th precinct in Crown Heights. These “shops” don’t sell anything, but that does not stop scores of people, many of them Caribbean immigrants, from showing up on their doorstep every week. On Sunday mornings, these doors vibrate with voices and music praising God.

Brooklyn is called the borough of churches and this is especially true in Crown Heights. A dozen houses of worship sit side by side on Utica Avenue, offering a diverse sampling of faiths from Pentecostal to Presbyterian. Some of the small, bodega-sized churches do not have a denomination. Many of the religious establishments also function as community centers.

“When they do their church services on Sunday and prayer during the week, they talk about the issues that go on in our community,” said James Caldwell, the president of the 77th Precinct Community Council.

The religious leaders in this community perform many roles at once: They are spiritual guides to the area’s thousands of Christian souls—and they offer a sympathetic ear when people require a therapist. They are organizers who put together programs to help raise children and keep them off the street—and they serve as interpreters between the Caribbean community and a law enforcement that often poorly understands them.

With 30 percent of its population of about 96,000 born abroad, Crown Heights has a large immigrant community. Most of the neighborhood’s foreign-born residents are blacks from the Caribbean, rounded out by Latin Americans and Africans, who all settled in the area in the 1980s and 1990s, when racial tensions and unemployment were high.

“Years ago, this neighborhood was a very run down neighborhood. It had a lot of young people on drugs,” said Bishop Irving Pollard, a Guyanese-born religious leader who runs the St. Paul Seventh Day Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church on Utica Ave. “We feel it was best to bring the church into this community so we could help those that were unfortunate. To help them and to bring them into the right way.”

Pollard, like many others, started his church in the basement of his home in Queens in 1988, preaching to a handful of people. Eventually, his congregation grew and he bought a storefront in Crown Heights, where many of the Caribbean diaspora lived. Now, every Wednesday night and Saturday morning, about 40 people get together to praise God, listen to Bishop Pollard and support one another.

A block away, the Pentecostal World For Christ Ministries run by Reverend Morgan Stephen hosts a weekly gathering for children and teenagers every Saturday evening. Musical instruments and board games line the corners of the small white chamber. Morgan’s philosophy, “if they’re occupied, you have no crime,” is widely held among church leaders who are credited by the police with helping reduce crime in the district.

Ten years ago, the 77th precinct started reaching out to church leaders to try and bring them into closer partnership with law enforcement officials and organized a community clergy council. At first, the council only had 31 attendees. Now, nearly 100 attend the meetings that are held on the first Tuesday of every month.

The clergy bring up their people’s needs to the police, and then take important information from police back to their communities. The alliance contributed to a dramatic 83 percent drop in crime rates in the precinct since 1990, say police.

Church leaders say that the influence of the many small houses of worship here, clustered around the police precinct building, has created a zone of safety and peace around the area. But congregants say that it’s not about location.

“I go here because I love Reverend Morgan’s teaching,” said Angela Johnson, a Jamaican who got married at the World For Christ Ministries. “We don’t call him a preacher. We call him a teacher.”

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Brooklyn's "Little Pakistan"

By: Maria Clark and Jessica Wakeman

Naseem Qureshi knew that soon after high school she would leave the bustling Brooklyn neighborhood she grew up in to marry a husband chosen for her in her parents’ homeland. She married the Pakistani man her parents selected for her in 1995.

“It happened with my sisters, so I grew up knowing I was the next person in line,” said the 33-year-old first-generation Pakistani-American.

Naseem Qureshi talks about her life as a Pakistani-American.
[audio:|titles=Pakistani-American Life|artists=Naseem Qureshi]

Qureshi’s parents immigrated 35 years ago to the small Brooklyn neighborhood between Avenue H and Beverly Road known by locals as Little Pakistan. At the heart of this community is Coney Island Avenue, where generations of Pakistani immigrants have set up bakeries, shops, community centers and places of worship. The busy strip is home to approximately 30,000 Pakistanis, according to the American Community Survey.

In this tight-knit community, such traditions as arranged marriage and religious rituals have been passed down from parents to children. But as further generations become immersed in American culture, women in this community are faced with striking a balance between traditions and exploring alternate opportunities with regard to marriage and career.

“Children of Pakistanis who are now here in the United States face the biggest clash,” said Jerome Krase, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who has written about the Little Pakistan community. “Their parents shield them from mixing with other people. The kids tend to grow up with not much of a sense that they have options.”

Like many other children of immigrants, Qureshi is still learning how to combine her parent’s customs with the relative freedom of American culture. She accepted the arranged marriage, but made sure her future husband knew she could pursue a career if she chose to do so.

Shazia Rafi of the All Pakistan Women’s Association says that acceptance of Pakistani traditions appears to be skipping generations. Young women are witnessing their mothers’ struggles with an arranged marriage and their fight to maintain family relations when that marriage does not work out. Unlike Qureshi, these young women are then more likely to resist accepting an arranged marriage.

“Arranged marriage is a major leap for many woman who have grown up with the freedom of choice that is part of western society,” said Rafi.

Shazia Rafi shares her story and her views on arranged marriages.
[audio:|titles=Arranged Marriage|artists=Shazia Rafi]

Qureshi’s approach blends both cultures. Her son and daughter are required to pray at least once a day, but she refuses to force them to perform the traditional five daily prayers. She wants to teach them the importance of religion and family traditions, but lets them know that unlike her, they have options if they choose to pursue them.

“We used to be scared when we walked into my house, it was very tense,” said Qureshi, comparing her own childhood with that of her off-spring. “I want them to know that I am their friend.”

Qureshi’s parents did not speak English and knew very little about the community they lived in.

“They weren’t familiar with anything. The hospital was the one place my mother got used to because she had so many kids.  She’d come back from there, and that was basically her life,” Qureshi said.

Her parents were unaware of how financial aid worked and therefore never thought of college as an option for their children. Marriage was the only choice for Qureshi.

Qureshi, however, chose to transform her future husband to fit a more American mold.

“You can’t have that oil in your hair, I don’t want you to look like a typical Paki.” she told him, with one goal in mind. “I wanted him to mix in with me when we returned.”

Naseem Qureshi talks about changing her husband to fit in with her.
[audio:|titles=Married Life|artists=Naseem Qureshi]

Qureshi’s marriage, still strong after 14 years, had a positive outcome. But like other women in Little Pakistan, she still struggles to divide herself between new and old world traditions. For one thing, she is uncomfortable with public displays of affection. And while she wants her 11-year-old daughter to go to college and pursue a career, she remains uncertain whether or not the girl will be allowed to pick her future husband.

Shazia Rafi talks about her own children’s future marriages.
[audio:|titles=Children|artists=Shazia Rafi]

Qureshi’s friend, Fahrat “Farah” Affreedi, is the managing editor of a local newspaper called Sada-E-Pakistan and is working hard to strike a balance as the working mother of three. When she was a reporter, she was often scrutinized by the community for working full time while raising her children. Affreedi felt compelled to take a desk job to avoid public scrutiny. While she misses reporting, the upside is that her new job allows her more time with her children.

“If I had a regular 9-5 job I would never be able to see my kids,” said Affreedi. “I am constantly on the run but I chose to have this lifestyle.”

As more generations of Pakistani women grow up in this community, the harder it is for them to for them to accept old world traditions. Local high school counselors often ask Affreedi to advise young girls who have threatened suicide after being asked to participate in an arranged marriage.

Naseem Qureshi and Farah Affreedi share an anecdote of a young couple.
[audio:|titles=Young Love|artists=Qureshi and Affreedi]

“We are trying to be open minded,” said Affreedi, “but boyfriend and girlfriends are looked down upon. It just doesn’t happen that way, it is like voodoo.”

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