From Gothic cathedral spires and towering synagogues to tiny storefront mosques, it’s hard to get around Kensington without bumping into some manifestation of holiness.
Faith lurks on nearly every corner.
And more often than not, the ineffable addresses its faithful along cultural lines in this famously diverse area.
Howling Hispanics called out for Jesus behind the dirty glass windows of a cramped tile-floor Pentecostal church on Newkirk Avenue every Sunday. Inside, a tiny toddler boy put a tambourine on his head — crown-of thorns-style.
A block away, a litter of children’s shoes lined the steps of Belal Masjid, a walk-up apartment turned Islamic center.
“You go down Coney Island Avenue and you see Arabic signs and Orthodox Jews right in the same neighborhood. And for the most part, we all get along,” said Ron Schweiger, Brooklyn’s official historian and president of Beth Emeth v’ Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, a Reformed synagogue in Kensington.
Israeli, French, Russian and Peruvian Jews meet at the Orthodox Congregation Agudath Sholom on 18th Avenue, said Elaine Engel, a volunteer. “We have a very diverse population,” she said. “Jews, you know, are all over the world.”
Kensington is also home to Irish, Polish, Asian, African, Russian, Mexican, Muslim, Albanian and Caribbean people. And they all need a house (or apartment) of worship.
Immigrants don’t just bring belongings, they bring their culture and faith, said Sal Taormina, a retired social worker who lives on Church Avenue in Prospect Park South.
“Flatbush in general was a beacon for immigrants,” Taormina said. “You get a rabbi and he gets a little following, and boom, you’ve got another church.”
Store signs in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English seem to hide the nondescript mosques dotting Ditmas Park and Kensington. It’s easy to walk by even the larger Islamic houses of prayer, such as the Al-Mahdi Foundation on Coney Island Avenue, without noticing.
Subtlety isn’t for everyone.
In 1893, Roman Catholic immigrants formed the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation, eventually building a towering, 1,000-seat cathedral on Fort Hamilton Parkway at East Fifth Street in 1931.
“In the midst of the Great Depression, when people had nothing, they found the means to build this beautiful, magnificent structure,” said Father Robert B. Adamo, leader of a mostly western-European and Filipino flock.
When we asked directions to the New York Cambodian American Society’s Buddhist temple, a friendly Christian woman near Park Circle said she didn’t know, but added, “There’s a great church right there,” and pointed to the colossal International Baptist Church on Coney Island Avenue.
The woman hurried off saying, “I love you. I love you. There is only one salvation, and that’s the living God and his holy name.”
Not everyone is happy about this religious fervor.
“It’s too much,” said Suzane Knabe who moved to Kensington seven years ago. The area’s new mega-churches don’t pay enough taxes and are generally huge cement eyesores, said the agnostic Knabe.
“I thought it was a shopping mall,” she said of the enormous Calvary Cathedral of Praise at 45 East Eighth St.
Inside the Calvary church, 300 or so West Indians sang and shouted for Jesus. The church’s West Indian population makes Caribbean-Americans feel at home — but John James, the lone white Christian in the congregation last Sunday, said he felt just as “at home.”
James moved to Kensington from Bay Ridge four months ago and said he adores the neighborhood’s “strong spirituality.”
Just as fun is the tiny hole-in-the-wall Berea Church of God at 1620 Newkirk Ave. The congregation was entirely Haitian and the Sunday service is held in Haitian Creole.
A woman wailed into the microphone (with a pitch that only the Lord could love) as old ladies shook their hindquarters and men rattled tambourines.
Everyone seemed at home — which makes sense in a neighborhood built on faith.