New Yorkers and Sacred Spaces at Home
As the sun rises over New York, Yvette Arenaro, an evangelical Christian, prays on a wooden knee in her bedroom closet; Lobsang Chokdup chants Tibetan Buddhist prayers at an elaborate altar in the living room of his family’s cramped apartment; and Nirmal Singh studies a Sikh scripture with his wife and daughter in their attic prayer room.
They are among hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from a myriad of faith traditions who have set aside part of their home as sacred space to practice their religion, meditate or simply give thanks for a new day.
“I wish I could wake up in the mountains every morning, but I live in Richmond Hill instead,” said Mr Singh, an engineer and writer who lives in Queens. “I designed this space upstairs where I pray, sing and study with my family and thank God for all that I have in my life.”
In some homes, altars mark the area where family members worship. In others, the space is sanctified – for a time – by actions such as lighting candles above a dining room table on a Friday evening or praying several times a day facing east, on a rug in a living room. The many ways New Yorkers practice their religion inside their homes reflect the city’s diversity.
“New York probably has more religions than any other city in the world,” said Tony Carnes, the founder of A Journey Through NYC Religions, a nonprofit that maps places of worship and religious sites in the city. His organization has identified 39 different categories of religions in New York, but among these there are at least 435 variations, many of which can be considered separate religions, he said.
While these sacred spaces have long existed throughout New York, they have become even more significant during the pandemic as many places of worship have restricted access.
Bharati Sukul Kemraj and Chandra Sukul Kemraj
As you pass Bharati Sukul Kemraj’s family home in the Soundview section of the Bronx, you can spot an altar in the bay windows, with statues of Hindu gods, flowers, candles and burning incense.
Every morning, Mrs. Kemraj and her mother, Chandra Sukul Kemraj, pray at the altar. Mrs. Kemraj’s father, Vishnu Sukul, was a Hindu priest from Guyana. He built their house next to the Vishnu Mandir temple, which he founded in 1996. He died in 2019 and his family now runs the temple.
“There should be a sacred space in your home where you wake up in the morning, offer prayers and just give thanks for seeing another sunrise and another day,” Ms Kemraj said.
Surrounded by Tibetan tapestries, Buddha statues, sacred texts, candles, a drum and a bell, Lobsang Chokdup prays, sings, meditates and studies for at least 12 hours a day. At midnight, he stops to sleep with his wife, Lhamo, in the living room of the small apartment they share with their daughter and grandson in Woodside, Queens, where he has lived for six years. He gets up at 4 a.m. and does it again.
At 9 years old, Mr. Chokdup fled Tibet, crossed the Himalayas and Nepal, after the Chinese invasion. He came to the United States in 2011 to be near his children. Today, Mr Chokdup is 71, but if he lived to be 100, he says, ‘it would be a very short time’, as he could be reborn many, many times on the path to enlightenment .
“A hundred years on this planet is just a second to me,” he said. “I am leaving this body after this, but I may have to stay here for a million years. So, in a way, I’m a million-year-old man.
After his death, Mr Chokdup said he could come back as a “boy, girl or even a germ”, he said, but prayer, meditation and his actions can help him have a new better life when he is reborn.
“Actually, this life is very important and you should do good things,” he said.
Before the sun rises, Yvette Arenaro slips into her small dressing room and kneels in front of a wooden prayer altar. Surrounded by her dresses, costumes and shoes, she sings hymns, reads the Bible and prays, often with tears in her eyes.
“There is a silence at this hour of the morning,” she said. “There are no interruptions and you can still hear the early risers already doing their chirping worship.” Ms. Arenaro is a member of the Christian Cultural Center, a predominantly black nondenominational Christian church in New York’s Brooklyn East, where she sang in the choir for 17 years.
When the pandemic began, his church services were not live streamed online until the following year for security reasons and congregants could not attend. Ms. Arenaro watched every Sunday morning, but her religious life at home continued uninterrupted. Each day her prayer routine is different and can last over 30 minutes.
“In any relationship, you want to spend time with the ones you love,” Ms. Arenaro said. “Why wouldn’t it be the same with a God I fell in love with?”
When she’s finished in the closet, she has breakfast with her husband and they pray together in their living room.
Since March 2020, Mohammed Jabed Uddin has spent most of his waking hours helping his neighbors in Astoria and Long Island City, Queens deal with the fallout from the pandemic. He organized the distribution of thousands of free meals and bags of groceries and masks; and organized Covid-19 tests and vaccination campaigns. Mr. Uddin went shopping for older blind neighbors and translated for sick members of the community in emergency rooms.
For months New York mosques were closed due to the pandemic, but every day he tried to find time to pray.
“It doesn’t matter what important thing you do in the world,” said Mr Uddin, a taxi driver. “It is our life’s duty to follow the rules of Islam and perform the prayers five times a day.”
When praying at home, Mr. Uddin washes up, puts on clean clothes, and rolls out a rug in the living room of his apartment in Astoria. There are no religious images on the wall, which is usual in Muslim homes. After finishing his prayers, he leaves to continue his work as the secretary of the Astoria Welfare Society, a Bangladeshi-American non-profit organization that provides assistance to anyone in need.
“Islam says it’s important for humanity to help each other,” he said.
The Mazariegos family
Every day, Julio Mazariegos kneels in prayer with his wife, Francisca, and their three children, Jenny, 23, Edgar, 21, and Jesús, 18, in front of the altar he built in the living room of their apartment in Jamaica, Queens. Although his wife grew up in a very religious Catholic family with daily devotions at home, Mr. Mazariegos’ family life was less religious and more difficult. As a teenager, he fell into a life of “drugs and other vices”, he said.
But they met and fell in love in Guatemala, and he slowly found his way to the church after they arrived in Queens in 1995. As Mr. Mazariegos became more involved in his church and their family grew, he built an altar in their home because, he said, “an intimate space must exist with the family.”
The family attends the presentation of the Roman Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where they are all deeply involved in church activities. Each of the children has made smaller personal altars near their own bed where they pray before going to sleep.
“You go into your room and you pray in front of your father who is present with you,” he said. “It’s a moment of intimacy with God.”
Nirmal Singh designed his house in Queens with space in the attic for his family to study, sing and pray. In the center of the room is the Adi Granth, a handwritten volume of the sacred scriptures of Sikhism. Every morning before dawn, Mr. Singh reads aloud and his wife, Rajinder Kaur Bhamra, and daughter, Taranjit, play musical instruments while singing prayers.
Next, her daughter goes to the public pre-K center in Ozone Park where she teaches.
“It becomes so ingrained in your daily lifestyle that you can’t go a day without it,” Taranjit said. “If I am feeling very anxious or have an important task to complete, there is a place I can go to be one with God and to learn more about certain scriptures.”
Laurie Hanin and Jennifer Johnson
Growing up in Brooklyn, Friday nights were like every other night of the week at Laurie Hanin’s house. Her family was Jewish but non-practicing, although her father attended synagogue on Yom Kippur.
Jennifer Johnson grew up in a religious Christian home in Memphis but converted to Judaism as an adult before meeting Ms Hanin on an online dating site for Jews. Today, they are married and live in Forest Hills, Queens with their 9-year-old twins, Adam and Gabriel.
Six days a week, their apartment is in a state of lightly organized chaos: the sounds of video games echoing through the house, along with their sons’ occasional arguments about what TV shows to watch.
“Some days I feel like I spend 50% of my time screaming,” Ms Hanin said.
But on Friday, the dining room is transformed. Mrs. Johnson and her sons prepare the challah and, as the sun begins to set, calm reigns. Sabbath candles are lit, prayers are said and they hold hands as they bless the challah.
“I try to give my children Jewish rituals and an understanding of their meaning, which I only learned as an adult,” Hanin said. “It feels like family.”
Jean Saurel Francillon
This summer, Jean Saurel Francillon gathered with 15 friends and family members around a green, red and black pole in his basement in East New York in Brooklyn. The group sang in Haitian Creole to the beat of the drums; some of them moved with trance gestures.
“The body is like an envelope,” said Mr. Francillon, a voodoo priest, during a break in the five-hour service. “The spirit enters like water filling a vessel and there is a transformation. When it does, it brings messages.
He created the windowless space so that his family and followers could worship as his ancestors did in Africa, he said, and “maintain our harmony with nature, the deities and with ourselves. “.
“You have to know where you come from to understand and know where you are going,” he said. “If you don’t know where you’re coming from, it’s very easy to get lost along the way.”