New Yorkers and the sacred spaces of their homes

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As the sun rises over New York City, Yvette Arenaro, an evangelical Christian, prays on a wooden kneeling in her bedroom closet; Lobsang Chokdup sings Tibetan Buddhist prayers on an elaborate altar in the living room of his family’s cramped apartment; and Nirmal Singh studies a Sikh sacred text with his wife and daughter in their attic prayer room.

They are among the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from a myriad of religious traditions who have reserved part of their home as a sacred space to practice their religion, meditate, or just give thanks for a new day.

“I wish I could wake up in the mountains every morning, but instead I live in Richmond Hill,” said Mr. Singh, an engineer and writer who lives in Queens. “I designed this upstairs space where I pray, sing and study with my family and thank God for everything I have in my life.”

In some houses, 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 table on a Friday evening or praying several times a day facing east, on a carpet in a living room. The many ways New Yorkers practice their faith inside their homes reflect the city’s diversity.

“New York probably has more religions than any other city in the world,” said Tony Carnes, founder of A journey through the religions of New York, a non-profit organization that maps places of worship and religious sites in the city. His organization has identified 39 different categories of religions in New York City, but among these there are at least 435 variants, many of which can be considered separate religions, he said.

While these sacred spaces have existed for a long time across New York City, they became even more significant during the pandemic as many places of worship restricted access to them.

Hinduism

As you pass Bharati Sukul Kemraj’s family home in the Soundview section of the Bronx, you can spot an altar in the picture windows, with statues of Hindu gods, flowers, candles, and burning incense.

Every morning, Ms. Kemraj and her mother, Chandra Sukul Kemraj, pray in front of the altar. Ms. 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 passed away in 2019 and his family now manages 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.

Tibetan Buddhism

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 starts over.

At age 9, Mr. Chokdup fled Tibet, through the Himalayas and to Nepal after the Chinese invasion. He came to the United States in 2011 to be near his children. Today Mr Chokdup is 71 years old, but if he lived to be 100, he said, “it would be a very short time,” as he could be reborn many times along a path to enlightenment.

“One hundred years on this planet is just a second for me,” he said. “I leave 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 germ,” he said, but prayer, meditation and his actions can help him have a new one. better life when he is reborn.

“In reality, this life is very important and you should be doing good things,” he said.

Evangelical Christianity

Before sunrise, 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 silence at this hour of the morning,” she said. “There are no interruptions and you can still hear the early risers already chirping.” Ms. Arenaro is a member of the Christian Cultural Center, a predominantly black non-denominational Christian church in east New York City in Brooklyn, where she sang in the choir for 17 years.

When the pandemic began, her church services were only streamed online the following year for security reasons and worshipers were unable to 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 those you love,” Ms. Arenaro said. “Why wouldn’t it be the same with a God I fell in love with?” “

When she is done in the closet, she has breakfast with her husband and they pray together in their living room.

Since March 2019, Mohammed Jabed Uddin has spent most of his waking hours helping neighbors in Astoria and Long Island City, Queens, cope with the fallout from the pandemic. He organized the distribution of thousands of free meals, grocery bags and masks; and organized Covid-19 tests and vaccination campaigns. Mr. Uddin went shopping for older blind neighbors and translated for sick community members in emergency rooms.

For months, mosques in New York City were closed due to the pandemic, but every day he tried to find time to pray.

“It doesn’t matter what big thing you do in the world,” said Mr. Uddin, a taxi driver. “It is the duty of our life to follow the rules of Islam and to say the prayers five times a day.”

When he prays at home, Mr. Uddin washes, puts on clean clothes and rolls out a rug in the living room of his apartment in Astoria. There are no religious pictures on the wall, which is usual in Muslim homes. After his prayers are over, he continues his work as secretary of the Astoria Welfare Society, a Bangladeshi and American non-profit organization that comes to the aid of anyone in need.

“Islam says it is important for humanity to help each other,” he said.

Catholicism

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. In his teenage years, 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 church after arriving in Queens in 1995. As Mr. Mazariegos got more involved in his church and their family grew. was growing, he built an altar in their house because, he said, “an intimate space must exist with the family.”

The family attend the presentation of the Roman Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where they are all deeply involved in the activities of the church. Each of the children made smaller personal altars near their own beds where they prayed before going to sleep.

“You go into your room and pray in front of your father who is present with you,” he said. “It is a moment of intimacy with God.”

SIKHISM

Nirmal Singh designed his home 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 his daughter, Taranjit, play musical instruments while they all sing prayers.

Next, her daughter goes to the pre-K public center in Ozone Park where she teaches.

“It becomes so ingrained in your daily lifestyle that you can’t go a day without doing it,” Taranjit said. “If I am feeling very anxious or have an important task to do, there is a place I can go to feel one with God and to learn more about some of the scriptures.

JUDAISM

Growing up in Brooklyn, Friday nights were like any other night of the week at Laurie Hanin’s house. Her family was Jewish but not practicing, although her father went to synagogue on Yom Kippur Day.

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 mildly organized chaos: the sounds of video games echo through the house, as well as their sons’ occasional arguments over which 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 cook challah, and as the sun begins to set, calm reigns. Sabbath candles are lit, prayers recited, and they hold hands as they bless challah.

“I try to give my children Jewish rituals and an understanding of their meaning that I only learned as an adult,” Ms. Hanin said. “It looks like family. “

Haitian Vodou

This summer, Jean Saurel Francillon gathered with 15 friends and family around a green, red and black pole in his basement in East New York in Brooklyn. The group sang in Haitian Creole to the rhythm of the drums; some of them moved with trance gestures.

“The body is like an envelope,” said Mr. Francillon, a voodoo priest, during a five-hour break from the service. “The spirit comes in like water filling a vessel and there is a transformation. When it does, it brings messages.

He created the windowless space for his family and followers to worship as his ancestors did in Africa, he said, and “to maintain our harmony with nature, with gods 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.


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