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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.”