Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Father Jim

Father Jim performs first communion at Saint Mary Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway.

By Damian Ghigliotty, Clark Merrefield and Mathew Warren

Before Father James K. Cunningham relocated to Far Rockaway in 2001 he barely spoke Spanish and had served a predominantly white congregation in his six years of priesthood. Now the 39-year-old pastor, known as Father Jim, leads a multi-ethnic parish at Saint Mary Star of the Sea with a growing number of families from South and Central America and the Caribbean.

And as a leader among Catholic immigrants he now performs his services in Spanish as well as English.

“When they first sent me here I thought they made a mistake,” Cunningham said with a laugh as he sat inside the 88-year-old rectory. “You usually had to be 25 years a priest and I was only six years ordained at the time. But I guess they figured I could adapt – that adaptability was one of my strengths.”

Saint Mary embodies the sea of cultural and economic changes that have occurred on the Queens Peninsula since the early 1970s. As the bulk of second- and third-generation Irish, Germans and Italians packed up and left over the past four decades, a growing number of Hispanics and Caribbean Islanders have made Far Rockaway their home.

Today, the most recent immigrant groups – including Guatemalans, Mexicans and Guyanese – make up more than 70 percent of the 1,400-member congregation.

During a recent Mass, as Cunningham alternated between English and Spanish, more than a dozen children lined up to receive their First Holy Communion. Flags representing 37 different countries lined the inside of the church.

“The parish has had two or three turnovers since I’ve been a member,” said Josephine Kelly, 81, who moved to Far Rockaway from Buffalo in 1964. “Each turnover has caused a bit of an exodus among older members.”

And as those new members came in, so did new customs: from clapping and cheering to outward displays of affection among families.

“Back when it was predominantly white and European families the most you would hear was an occasional whisper,” Kelly added. “Now during services people tend to be a lot more expressive. You’ll often see a son put his arm around his father without giving it a second thought.”

While those changes have helped redefine the church’s inner-culture and the way in which the priests perform their sermons, they have also impacted on the parish’s finances. New groups appeared, but old money faded.

“Far Rockaway has faced the classic phenomena,” said Joseph Barden, executive director of Margert Community Corp., a neighborhood preservation group dedicated to helping struggling homeowners in the area. “In the 1970s there was a lot of white flight followed by a high concentration of poverty and a growth in public housing. Those forces plus immigration drove the original people who used to live here out. The problem for the church has been that most of the new immigrants don’t have the same economic base.”

One of the most apparent cultural and economic shifts can be seen in the fall off of donations given to the church.

“A lot of the churches in South America and the Caribbean are supported by their governments,” Cunningham said. “In the United States, that’s not the case and people aren’t as accustomed to tithing. A lot of the new members put a few dollars in the basket a week and think that’s enough of a donation. As a result, it’s become hard to pay bills when our collection is good, but still not good enough.”

Raul Hernandez, a 33-year-old construction worker who came from Mexico with his wife and two children, is part of the newest wave of immigrants to join the church. While some of the congregation members see a link between their parish’s financial struggles and the growing proportion of immigrants, Hernandez links it to external forces.

“Today things are really difficult,” he said. “The economy is really bad. Before maybe I could give $10 a week, now it’s $5.”

Jason Fernandez, 7, was one of the first children in line to receive communion. After Mass, his mother, Maria, shed tears of joy while the rest of her family waited to take pictures with Cunningham.

“When I have, I give, and it’s from the heart,” she said. “Without the church and without God, I don’t think we could survive in this country.”

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Last night I played pool at a small bar in my neighborhood with a 27-year-old Tibetan named Jigman who is seeking asylum in New York City. He was upset about the riots taking place in Lhasa between Tibetans and the Chinese military, as well as a protest outside of the Chinese consulate in Manhattan that had been broken up by police that morning.

“The Chinese president has often said religion is a dangerous thing,” Jigman told me. “That might be true, but Buddhists are usually peaceful people. The Chinese provoke us.”

Since the riots started on Friday morning, 80 Tibetans have been killed and 72 injured, according to the Tibetan government in exile. And with fears that international scorn will jeopardize the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government has imposed a strict curfew in the area.

Despite Jigman’s frustration, every shot he made was nearly perfect; straight, angled or banked off the sides. By our third game, a stocky 26-year-old Marine named Josh with a fresh crew cut and a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth joined in. A few beers later, Josh and I got into a conversation about the war in Iraq — which is nearing 4,000 American deaths and over $1.2 trillion in costs — and Josh told me, “We shouldn’t ever have gone over there in the first place.”

When I asked him why not, he spit some of the tobacco into a plastic bottle and looked at me to see if I was about to play devil’s advocate. I wasn’t. He told me when he had served as a sniper in Fallujah in 2004, he had fully supported Bush and the removal of Saddam Hussein, but looking back he realized how much of a mess the original plan was destined to be.

“Hindsight’s 20/20,” he said. “At this point too many soldiers have died trying to fix the war.”

“You’re right,” said Jigman as Josh offered us both some chewing tobacco from his $2 Red Seal tin.

I declined and went outside for a smoke. Jigman told Josh it reminded him of a tobacco often sold in Nepal.

After the three of us got tired of pool, the Tibetan having won almost every game against the sniper and the journalist, we all had one more round of drinks and went our separate ways.

In my cynical mind it’s gotten increasingly harder for strangers to talk openly about politics and find any common ground, especially with so many conflicts reaching new heights at home and overseas. I guess Jigman and Josh felt far enough removed at a random dive bar in Woodside, Queens that they could speak about Tibet and Iraq with no less concern, only less apprehension about what they said.