WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — An uptown police precinct council member sparked a shouting match with community members after opening Wednesday night's public meeting with a prayer to Jesus Christ.
34th Precinct Community Council secretary Loreen Felis, who has been at her post for the past five months, opened the meeting at Isabella Geriatric Center with an invocation that repeatedly and exclusively referenced Christian religion.
"All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things and him all things hold together; and he is the head of the body; the church," Felis said.
"Peace through his blood shed on the cross. And the body of Christ says Amen."
The prayer drew immediate outrage from audience members, who said prayer had no place in a public meeting on issues of neighborhood government.
“We are coming to a meeting that has to do with the community, and to have to listen to a prayer?” asked Eddie Santos, general manager at Papasito Restaurant and Agave Bar. “You have a thousand other cultures — why would you want do a prayer?”
“I go to church, but this is ridiculous."
Rud Morales, owner of Negro Claro lounge, told Felis, “I don’t want to hear you pray here. It’s not in the bylaws."
Felis stood her ground and began shouting back at Morales, saying that people complaining about the prayer were uptown club owners who need God's intervention more than anyone.
“This is not about religion. It’s about keeping us in unity,” Felis told DNAinfo New York after the meeting.
“The nightclub owners don’t understand that they’re supposed to be on their knees praying 24/7 because they don’t know if having youngsters in their club could form some kind of chaos, not to mention terrorism.”
The business owners in attendance then took aim at council president George Espinal, who they said has been sowing discord between restaurant owners and residents over noise on Dyckman Street in order to curry votes in his run for district leader.
“This shows a big lack of leadership in my eyes,” Santos said to applause from the audience. “I do not believe that you can lead this council and I feel that you should resign as soon as possible.”
Espinal and restaurant owners have been at odds for months — as Espinal has fielded complants from the community over noise and revelry on Dyckman Street and directed critics to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. Bar and restaurant owners accused him of ghost writing the letter that the critics used in their correspondence with the police commisioner.
“You’re hatching plans against the same people you’re supposed to represent,” said Santos, who said that Papasito tries hard to be a considerate neighbor and adds that he has no problem talking to residents.
Espinal defended himself to DNAinfo New York, calling the charges a “conspiracy” against him.
He defended Felis' prayer, saying it “was to start the meeting on a good note.”
He added that opening prayers are also standard practice at several other precinct councils around the city. He declined to say which ones.
“We’re not trying to proselytize anyone or make anyone join any denomination,” Espinal said. “The majority of the precinct councils have an opening prayer that is non-denominational.”
However, in light of the controversy, Espinal added that the council would look into the incident. He would not say whether he planned to allow the practice to continue at future meetings. The next meeting is scheduled for the end of November.