Building Bridges

Building Bridges in a Global City Project


An Overview


 What are the main goals?


a)      To promote a culture of inclusivity beyond the bounds of the Seminary community.

b)      To gather (through research) and share information, resources and strategies helpful for theological, racial, ethnic, and economic inclusiveness within religious communities;

c)      To train religious and community leaders to become more inclusive in their ministries and also gain the basic skills of doing research.


Why is this important?


·         We live in a diverse world.

            A critical change in the American socio-cultural and religious landscape is the emergence of great diversity.  Scholars who have studied this change indicate that it is unprecedented and particularly obvious in areas of ethnicity and religion.  In direct contrast to the 1950’s when Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were the main religious groups in America[1], the American religious landscape now shows a plethora of world religions[2].

            Robert Wuthnow, in his America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity, points out that the current nature of religious diversity in America is “new.”  He further indicates that historically, Americans of European descent had always viewed religions other than Christianity from a distance.  This is no longer the case.  Now, they live in the same neighborhoods with those who profess these other religions.  Wuthnow explains that 


Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims now live in significant numbers within the boundaries of the United States itself and despite the fact that many are immigrants and thus differ in cultural heritage from residents of longer duration, most are middle class, college-educated professionals who live in the same kinds of neighborhoods as other Americans, send their children to the same schools, vote in the same elections, shop at the same shops and watch the same programs on television[3]


            Christianity in America is also currently much diversified.  As part of the global migration from South to North, different brands and streams of Christianity have crossed over from Africa, Asia, and Latin America into the United States.  Studies on the religious lives of post-1965 immigrants in the U.S. show a variety of Christian denominations and churches that are putting down roots in many towns and cities.  This is empirically evident in many cities.  In New York City for instance, there is a great upsurge of diverse Christian communities largely from the “non-western world” in the last three decades.  An ongoing study of religious presence in the city led by Dr. Tony Carnes, Director of Columbia University’s Seminar on Contents and Methods of the Social Sciences, reveals that this increase in religions, particularly Christian congregations, is more evident after the 9/11 tragedy.[4] 


·         Christians remain segregated.

            Despite, or perhaps due to, the existence of numerous and diverse Christian denominations, churches and ministries, exclusivity continues to be a hallmark of Christian church formation and practice in the United States.  Christian congregations continue to reflect the racial and ethnic divisions in the country.  Except for a comparatively few multicultural congregations, churches continue to be largely mono-racial and mono-ethnic.

            Several decades ago H. Richard Niebuhr called the denominationalism and divisiveness within Christianity an “ethical failure” of the church.  In his Social Sources of Denominationalism, he lamented that numerous denominations in the Christian family reflected the divisions and lack of unity of the Christian church. Denominational differences and their attendant squabbles not only made it difficult for the Church to speak with one voice but also weakened the Church’s influence in the world.  Niebuhr writes:


The history of schism has been the history of Christianity’s defeat.  The church which began its career with the promise of peace and brotherhood for a distracted world has accepted the divisions of the society it had hoped to transform and has championed conflicts it had thought to transcend.  It began its mission with a heroic proclamation of a new humanity ‘where there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman” but where “Christ is all and in all.’  It has lost the radiant hopes and high desires of its vision-attended youth and, having accepted the cynical distinctions of the old humanity; it has maintained and reinforced these by its denominational structure, often giving the sanction of the spirit to the warfare of the flesh.  From its position of leadership in the task of integrating humanity it has fallen to the position of a follower in a social process guided by economic and political forces.[5]


            Several decades have passed since Niebuhr’s expression of disappointment at the disunity within the Christian Church; a disunity that caused some church leaders to advocate for Church unity after World War II and which led to formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.  The divisions and acrimonious relationships between denominations seem to be a thing of the past now.  In the United States at least, any such wrangling between churches has been replaced with tolerance for each other, and varying degrees and attempts at cooperation and collaboration. Nonetheless, Christians as a whole and in the United States, in particular, are still plagued by:


…the failure of churches to transcend the social conditions which fashion them into caste-organizations, to sublimate their loyalties to standards and institutions only remotely relevant if not contrary to the Christian ideal, to resist the temptations of making their own self-preservation and extension the primary object of their endeavor.[6] 


            Prominent among these “social conditions” are racial/ ethnic discrimination, sexism and classism. America continues to a racialized society.  By racialized, I mean what Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe as, “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.”[7]  And, in the words of Bonilla-Silva, it is a “society that allocates differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial line; lines that are socially constructed.”[8]

            Congregations in the United States continue to be divided along racial and ethnic lines.  In their book, United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as the Answer to the Problem of Race, Deyoung et al. point out that if we define a multiracial congregation as one in which no more that 80% is made up of a single race, only 7.5% of the about 300 congregations will qualify.  If we apply the same criteria to only Christian congregations which make up about 90% of these congregations, the figure drops to 5%.[9]

            Besides the racial (black and white divide), many congregations are formed and patronized by members from particular ethnicities, countries, or areas of origin.  Such particularistic congregations are found in many American cities and towns.  New York City is home to Chinese, Korean, Mexican, Hispanic, Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Ghanaian, Ethiopian, Nigerian churches and many more.[10]  Very little collaboration often takes place between these congregations. Also and perhaps even more unhelpful is that, many congregations often know next to nothing about the beliefs and practices of other, though they might be located a few blocks from each other.  Religious communities are exclusive by default, as the images, beliefs, language, and ethos that define their religious culture are often particular to the group.


·         We can transform the situation.

            Building Bridges seeks to explore new ways of engaging in ecumenical relationships and congregational inclusiveness by (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.  Understanding, or least having some knowledge of what others believe and do, is a helpful beginning for future cooperation and collaboration among individual Christians and congregations.

            Three important considerations — theological, ethical and sociological — underlie this project.  Theologically, the project recognizes 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, we see the inclusive nature of God.  The Bible teaches us “God is Love” (1 John 4: 8).  God’s love is evident in God’s relational nature and is available for all.  Steven Shakespeare and Hugh Rayment-Pickard are correct when they suggest that:


“God’s inclusiveness cannot be approached by merely a theoretical process of enquiry…. The exploration of the inclusiveness of God happens in a lived experience: the experience on one hand in living in a radically inclusive, created order; and the experience of trying to live out the gospel values of inclusion.”  


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. 

            Besides the theological consideration, we see inclusivity within the context of 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 these rights. 

            The 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 some neighborhoods 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, Brooklyn that were previously populated by persons of mainly European descent.  In recent years the previously Puerto Rican communities of the South Bronx have seen an influx of immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.  These new populations have established their own churches which exist alongside some of the older churches.  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.  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.


What are we doing?


As a beginning, we placed selected students into churches whose ethos, culture, and racial/ethnic composition were different from theirs.


The selected churches were:

·         One Caribbean Pentecostal church in Brooklyn (first and second generation Haitian members).

·         Two Korean Baptist churches in Flushing, Queens

·         One Ghanaian Presbyterian church in Harlem

·         One multicultural United Methodist Church in Brooklyn (African, Caribbean, Caucasian)

·         One predominately Caribbean and African United Methodist Church in Brooklyn

·         One LGBTQ church in Manhattan

·         A new multicultural church development affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

·         One predominantly Caucasian, LGBTQ affirming, United Church of Christ congregation in Manhattan

·         One predominantly African American United Methodist Church in the Bronx (shares space with a Latino/a congregation)


The purpose of inserting these students in contexts different from what they are normally used to is 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 students researched the beliefs and practices of the assigned congregations. Through the use of interviews, participant observation, focus group interviews and other ethnographic methods, they sought answers to questions such as:


·         What are the responses of these congregations to the increasing racial/ ethnic, and sexual diversity in the city?

·         To what extent do these congregations reinforce or reify traditional boundaries of racial/ethnic, and sexuality in community?

·         To what extent do these congregations embrace or resist ethnic/racial diversity resulting from migration/ immigration

·         What strategies (if any) do these congregations employ to integrate people of different backgrounds?  

·         How can these congregations promote more inclusiveness?


Besides placing students in congregations, we have engaged religious leaders, academics, students and community leaders in conversations through seminars and brown- bag discussions on various aspects of inclusivity.


The most recent seminar was on March 20, 2014. This free one-day seminar  brought together leaders of faith communities, community leaders, scholars and students of religion, theology and urban studies to reflect on racial, ethnic, sexual and economic diversity, inclusivity, and ecumenical collaborations within and among faith communities in New York City.


Presentations included:

a)      An address on religious diversity in New York City by Ms. Melissa Kimiadi, Deputy Director & Assistant Editor of A Journey through New York Religions;

b)      “A look at Multicultural congregations” by Rev. Dr. Keith Russell and initial findings from the Building Bridges in the Global City Project Rev. Dr. Moses Biney, the Director of Research for CSPUR.


What have we found?


The following are some preliminary observations:

·         Two opposing trajectories in congregational formation and organization – (a) particularistic congregations—based on race, ethnicity, class, doctrines etc. and (b) multicultural congregations.

·         While the majority of the congregations (at least the pastors) professed a desire to become multicultural, very few are intentional in their efforts to become so.


·         Even those congregations that make the effort are confronted with challenges such us – race, ethnicity, lack of resources, intransigent leaders etc.


·         Other congregations, particularly immigrant congregations thrive on being particularistic.   They actually draw membership from particular countries of origin, region, and or race or ethnicity.


·         The racialized nature of American society is central to particularistic and exclusive nature of religious congregations—“visiting Flushing”, one student researcher remarked, “I felt I was in a different country – and perhaps needed a passport.”


·         Congregational culture in general often creates an exclusive wall— difficulty in changing worship, rituals, music etc. to suit the needs of others—often minorities in the group.


·         Language (in particular) reinforces identity, helps transmit cultural theological beliefs but also makes it difficult for others who don’t understand the particular language to feel welcome. One student researcher commented “During times that I could not understand what was going on due to a language barrier, I found that it was challenging to appreciate the experience fully.  I retreated to my safe place of music.”


·         Cultural insensitivity and biases contribute immensely to exclusivity.  It was noted that leaders and members of the congregations in their discussions often expressed their prejudices against other cultures and churches sometimes unconsciously. Even the student researches were not without their own biases.


·         Immersion into or at least exposure to other cultures is very vital in fostering understanding and inclusivity.    


What Next?


The project continues. Though the original funding ends this year, our excitement about inclusivity has even more intensified. We are hoping that with the support of those who care about the issue too, we can conduct this research on a larger scale.


Moses Biney, PhD

Director of Research, C-SPUR

[1] See Will Herberg. Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. New York: Doubleday, 1960.

[2] For good discussions on this change in America’s religious composition see Diana Eck.  A New Religious America: How a ‘Christian Country’ Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

[3]  Robert Wuthnow, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity ( Princeton University Press, 2005 ), 38

[4] See

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

[6] Niebuhr, Social Sources, 21

[7]Michael Emerson and Christian, Smith Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the problem of Race Oxford University Press, 2001, 91

[8] Eduardo, Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham: Rowan &Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006, 26

[9]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

[10] 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.



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