Volume 76, Number 14 | August 23 - 29, 2006

Villager photos by Joshua Kristal

Pict. 1: Wilfred Moore, deacon of Gethsemane Garden Baptist Church, at Sunday services

Pict. 2: Sharing faith at The Graffiti Church

Pict. 3: Moved by the spirit at Gethsemane Garden Baptist Church

Pict. 4: At The Graffiti Church, a young worshiper’s tattoo mixes current realities and biblical prophecy

Hold the beer, say a prayer; Block bucks trend with 5 churches, (gasp!) only 2 bars

By Lesley Sussman

In a neighborhood where three or more drinking establishments per block is not all that unusual, E. Seventh St. between Avenues B and C doesn’t seem to be in that kind of spirit.

Instead of the usual assortment of drinking establishments, five religious institutions hold sway here, making it the kind of block that would most certainly give any cocktail hour devotee the shakes.

“It’s a blessing,” said Wilfred Moore, deacon of the Gethsemane Garden Baptist Church, at 223 E. Seventh St. “I don’t have a problem with the number of churches on this block because we’re outnumbered, anyhow.”

Standing in the spacious and modern-looking sanctuary where he had just finished leading a Bible-study class, the baldish, African-American church leader added that he wishes the neighborhood had more streets like this one.

“All you have to do is walk up and down the avenues in the East Village and you hardly see any churches at all — they’re mostly bars and even more are coming,” he said. “I’d like to see more churches on the streets and the avenues.”

Just down the block at The Church of God, 195 E. Seventh St., a narrow, hole-in-the-wall evangelical church that caters to a mostly Hispanic congregation, The Reverend Wilson Ramirez paused before services begin to contemplate the situation. He smiled and said that the street is a divinely ordained one.

“It’s not coincidence that there are so many churches here,” the grey-haired, soft-spoken pastor asserted. “The Lord wants this block to be something special to demonstrate a different way of life in the East Village besides drinking.“

At the nearby East Seventh Baptist Church/Graffiti Community Ministries, at 205 E. Seventh St, better known in the neighborhood as “The Graffiti Church,” the Reverend Taylor Field was getting ready to conduct Sunday morning services and several baptisms in the contemporary sanctuary filled with rows of red chairs and tall potted palm plants.

The 3-year-old, brick-walled church, which occupies the site of a former abandoned Orthodox synagogue, is located on the ground level of a three-story edifice that was constructed mostly by volunteers. It is the first building built by the Southern Baptists in the entire area and offers a wide array of community programs, including feeding the homeless in Tompkins Square Park each Saturday.

“The number of churches here just seems to have happened,” said Field, a lanky, amiable pastor, who has not lost his native Oklahoma accent. “It’s a block where we can see the expression of God’s love in a tangible way.”

At 184 E. Seventh St. is the East Seventh Baptist Ministry, a small storefront also operated by the Graffiti Church. The storefront was the original home of the Graffiti Church. Known locally as “The Underground Church,” it now offers Bible classes to runaways and others most likely not to step into a conventional church and also serves as a clothing distribution center for the needy.

Another major religious site just a block away is the 158-year-old St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church, at Eighth St. and Avenue B. But the Catholic Archdiocese of New York is bent on demolishing the empty building and says it will use the site for a Catholic charities or mission purpose. Even so, the church still makes its spiritual presence felt on Seventh St. with the St. Brigid School, which the archdiocese has said will keep operating as a Catholic school.

The fact that Seventh St. may not exactly be a pub-crawler’s paradise doesn’t perturb Satsko, the attractive owner of Sake Bar Satsko, 202 E. Seventh St. The establishment is a kitschy ’60s-esque den with a few dining tables and a small bar area that seems almost out of place on this street.

“It’s a very blessed block,” said Satsko. “I always look at the cross on the church across the street and feel that way. It’s a very special block and I always try to be a good and respectful neighbor.”

Sylvester Schneider, owner of the highly-popular Zum Schneider Bavarian Biergarten, a German-style beer garden that hugs the corner of Seventh St. and Avenue C, said he likes having the churches as neighbors but wishes the worship crowd would loosen up a bit and come into his establishment after services to have a drink.

“It couldn’t hurt,” he said. “After all, it was the monks in Bavaria who invented beer, so it’s definitely a blessed substance.”

Not all the residents of E. Seventh St. sing the praises of this confluence of churches.

Joan Eddings, 21, confesses that she’d rather have more wining and dining establishments along the block and fewer Bible-toting neighbors.

“You’re walking along minding your business and someone’s always saying ‘God bless you,’ ” she griped. Eddings added that, “Some people think it’s a blessed block because of the churches, but it’s the realtors who own property here who are truly blessed.”

Another disgruntled block resident, Michael Shenker complained, “There used to be a beautiful garden where they built Gethsemane Garden Baptist Church, and we lost it. I’d prefer that we had kept that open space open rather than another church.”

Offering an Old Testament perspective of the entire situation was Rabbi Pesach Ackerman of the Congregation Anshe Mesertiz, a historic, Orthodox synagogue more than 100 years old located on E. Sixth St.

“I’d prefer that there be five synagogues on Seventh St. rather than churches,” he said. “But, all in all, it’s not a bad situation. It could’ve been five banks. But God had other plans.”

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