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Post-Trump Attendance Bump Fills Seats at City's Houses of Worship

By Amy Zimmer | April 5, 2017 7:07am
 Caitlin Reller (right), with her husband Caleb Engstrom and daughters are Ella and Iona, posing for Middle Collegiate Church's #RevolutionaryLove project.
Caitlin Reller (right), with her husband Caleb Engstrom and daughters are Ella and Iona, posing for Middle Collegiate Church's #RevolutionaryLove project.
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Bruce Gilbert/Middle Collegiate Church

EAST VILLAGE— Feeling depressed after the election, Caitlin Reller decided to heed the advice of a friend and go to church.

Both of Reller’s parents are ministers — her dad in the United Church of Christ, her mom in the Presbyterian tradition — but the Greenpoint arts educator hadn’t been to church in her adult life, the 33-year-old said.

She was intrigued by the “socially-aware and tolerant” Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, so she brought her 5- and 3-year-old daughters the Sunday after the election. They’ve continued going nearly every week, officially joining as members this month.

“It was incredible,” Reller said. “The music and poetry readings — it’s an experience. I just feel inspired and moved. What’s nice, because they have ‘wee care,’ I can drop off my youngest in the nursery, and my oldest can go to ‘the ark’ — the Sunday school — where it tends to be about this overarching theme of love, loving your neighbor and taking care of the planet. And I can sit in the service and not have to worry about being a mom and just focus.”

The lure of religious services, especially among the city’s progressive houses of worship, has been strong post-election, with many faith leaders reporting significant bumps in attendance. They've also seen an increase in participation of workshops, study groups and other volunteer activities. 

It marks a significant shift for New York, which has not been a particularly strong state when it comes to attending weekly worship services. Only 29 percent of New Yorkers reported attending services at least weekly, according to a February 2016 report from the Pew Research Center, which placed the state 42 out of 50 for attending weekly services.

“I have some pretty solid memories as a kid of going to Sunday school and the foundations of what faith stands for to me. I wanted my kids to understand what loving means,” said Reller, who grew up in Hawaii and Texas. “Religion has somehow gotten manipulated by the conservative party, when my understanding of faith is the opposite: It’s people seeking justice for the poor.”

The Sunday after the election was packed at Middle Church, forcing worshippers into an overflow room usually only needed on Easter — and the crowds keep coming. There's been a 33 percent increase in attendance consistently since November, and virtual worshippers, watching online, increased by about the same, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis said.

“Though we are very progressive and left-of-center, we made space that day for the possibility that all attending did not necessarily vote the same way,” Lewis recalled of the Sunday after election. “We invited our congregation to be curious about even friends and family who voted for Trump — what were they desiring?

“We offer people ways to access their hopes and their frustrations by joining a Bible study or small group and by joining the resistance by protesting, blogging or tweeting calls to be the change we seek,” Lewis added.

East Village resident Michelle Lang, who is Jewish and had never been to church outside of friends’ weddings, felt drawn to Middle Church after attending the Women’s March in New York and wanting to find a way to channel her energy into something more positive.

“I didn’t think I’d ever join a church,” Lang said. “But I walked in, and all of a sudden, I said, ‘This is where I have to be. It wasn’t a finding Jesus moment. It was a connection to people who want to do something more positive.”

She and her 14-year-old daughter were hooked after going in February to hear Lewis' sermon’s on how to stay loving and positive in “hot mess" times.

“We’re connecting to the message, if you care about the world, do something, help someone that’s different from you, instead of ranting about it on Facebook,” said Lang, who has signed up to help feed homeless New Yorkers.

What's happening here mirrors what's been happening nationally.

Attendance swelled at Unitarian Universalist churches after the election, according to a publication devoted to that denomination, and some mainline churches began seeing more people in its pews in November, the Atlantic reported.

At All Souls Unitarian on the Upper East Side attendance is up about 20 percent, according to executive director Eileen Macholl.

“We do feel like we have a place of sanctuary, of self-care and renewing one’s soul before going out into that battle-weary world,” Macholl said. “And that’s a powerful thing to offer people.”

The senior minister at her socially progressive church — which has gotten flack from neighbors for its Black Lives Matter banner — has not been shy about naming Trump by name, she added.

“So it’s not just a place of sanctuary, but also a place of being emboldened for the work ahead,” said Macholl, noting how the church is working on immigration and prison reform issues and congregants recently helped furnish an apartment for a Syrian family of seven who was sponsored by a New Jersey Presbyterian church.

Her congregation also recently came out in force to attend a vigil in support of the Fourth Universalist Society on the Upper West Side, which was recently vandalized with swastikas after publicly affirming that it would provide sanctuary to house unauthorized immigrants in the event of ICE raids.

Fourth Universalist, too, has seen a significant uptick in attendance and members since November, Rev. Schuyler Vogel said.  The small church is averaging about 100 people at services this month, up 45 percent from the same time last year.

“People are feeling a need to be among others who share their values and feelings about the direction of the country. Community makes folks feel less alone, which offers hope and comfort,” Vogel said.

They are also looking for ways to respond meaningfully, he added.

“Religious communities can offer clear opportunities for action and resistance, in addition to offering conceptual frameworks for understanding things like injustice, grief, sin and courage,” he said.

His church has reorganized its justice work to allow for more people to get engaged, whether through its pledge to provide sanctuary or creating a new rapid response team to get members to show up at protests, for instance.

Thousands of people have been attending the secular “Get Organized BK!” events — a group founded by Park Slope City Councilman Brad Lander as a way to resist Trump policies — held at religious institutions such as Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope. The synagogue’s Rabbi, Rachel Timoner, believes some of the participants are now coming to check out Shabbat services, which have also seen increased attendance.

“Not only are more people attending, many people are coming with a real need for the peace, rest, and community that Shabbat is all about,” Timoner said. “People are craving Shabbat, needing a break from the headlines and the Twitter feed, and wanting to be with others.”

People also want a place to escape the “bitter and rancor” they’re seeing around them, said senior minister Michael Brown, of Marble Collegiate — a church that Donald Trump previously attended and where one of his children was baptized. Trump was never a member, Brown noted.

“People want some stable ground beneath their feet,” Brown said.

While membership at mainstream churches have been in decline nationally, he’s now seeing a resurgence the last six months at his church, on Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, which is “committed to multi-faith issues and inclusivity.”

He’s also noticed increased attendance at the church’s small study groups and requests to create additional ones.

“There’s a hunger, a search for what is truth,” Brown said.