In Harlem, Sunday School Students Contemplate Justice


The first Sunday in March was the end of an era in the life of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem. It was the last Sunday that the church would hold virtual services, an accommodation it had offered since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago.

Since March 2020, the parish, at 1883 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, had only been open a few hours a day from Tuesdays to Fridays.  

When I tuned in for the final virtual lessons at 8 a.m. on Sunday, I watched people pop into the Zoom and Facebook Live call one by one, smiling at each other and dropping familiar good morning messages in the chat. 

But instead of celebrating the end of an era or speculating what it would be like to gather in person once again, the online conversation was all about justice. 

“Does God pervert justice?” asked the Reverend Gerforne Johnson.

Blank stares from behind screens left Johnson bewildered. 

“Did I go on mute?” she asked.

I didn’t know enough about God to answer her question. But as I learned later in the virtual Sunday service, even Christians aren’t meant to always know God’s will. 

The Sunday school, part of the church’s Black History Month teaching series, would be about the misunderstanding of God’s justice, taught through the story of Bildad and Job from Job 2:11.

“Can someone highlight what is one of the biggest injustices we face as people of color?” asked Minister Maya Clarke for the adults of Bible Study group three’s icebreaker prompt.

Echoes of “voting rights” “job discrimination” and “racism” flooded the unmuted crowd of fifteen. 

From overlapping voices emerged the answer Clarke was looking for: police brutality. 

“Too many innocent women and men of color are being killed or assaulted at the hands of police officers,” she said. Her use of the present tense made me realize this lesson wouldn’t only be about biblical history. Black churches in America have been forced to reckon with external social and political injustices since their inception.

Before sympathy or condolences are offered to those killed by law enforcement, Clarke continues, the criminal past of Black victims is often used to purport an explanation for why they landed in the position they did. In other words, Black victims are blamed far more than White victims, as if their past transgressions justified their deaths. 

“Do you ever find yourself victim-blaming?”

Nobody wanted to answer this one, perhaps afraid to show that they had ever acted in judgment.

“With all things, God's justice is always fair despite what it might look like.”

Bildad was a Shuhite, from the nomadic tribe of southern Palestine. He had been placed by God in Job’s life after Job had lost his children because of their sins– a test of Job’s faith. Bildad told Job that all of the negative events in his life were a punishment for his sins, on the premise that the righteous would never suffer. 

But Bildad was wrong, Johnson said. He assumed he knew what God was thinking.

“Do you blame God for things that you don’t understand?”

A woman piped up from the boxed congregation. “Yes, I blamed God when my Grandma passed, because I didn’t understand why He would do this to the only person I knew who lived exactly by His word.”

“Only God knows why bad things happen to good people,” replied Johnson. I wondered if the woman was satisfied with her answer.

Sister Shirley Monroe seemed as though she had been pondering a question during the entire Bible Study, and was itching to pose it to the group.

“I just wanted to know why people say it was God’s will if someone gets killed in the streets,” she said. “Was that really God doing that?”

A tonal shift among the crowd indicated that questioning God’s motives behind human suffering was a difficult and heavy topic to approach. 

The senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Johnnie M. Green Jr. spoke up from a moving vehicle to answer Monroe’s query. 

“God doesn’t order a hit on somebody’s life,” he said. “But a person who dies from street violence may often be reaping the seeds they’ve sown.”

Wasn’t this victim-blaming? I was unsure how the pastor had understood the lesson in such a different way than I had, but he doubled down in his next statement.

“God allows certain things to happen and we have to accept it as the grand scheme of things. Sometimes people bring it on themselves.”

The pastor’s words felt like a sharp detour from today’s message. I looked at the faces of the churchgoers to see if anyone felt differently about the question, but they remained expressionless, maybe to say that the head pastor had the final call.

I wish I knew how God put His plans in action. I wish I knew why bad things happen to good people. Was everyone else truly okay with not knowing?

Violence on the streets of New York has continuously caused suffering in the Black community, and that suffering has led to a collective grief. But in that grief, for believers to accept their fate as players in God’s long game, is something that fascinates me about faith. Deep down, they must trust that everything happens for a reason they might never understand. I realized the theme of today’s lesson was about control– how Christians must grapple with the things out of their control, and how God’s omnipotent control is one of Christianity’s great mysteries.

Palm Sunday on a Christian Commune

ULSTER PARK, N.Y. -- Founded in 1920’s Germany, the Bruderhof (translated to “place of brothers”) is an Anabaptist Christian movement. Among other faith principles, the Bruderhof movement emphasizes pacifism, common ownership, adult baptism and evangelism. The Bruderhof has 26 settlements all over the world - 17 of which are in the United States - and all are organized around the customs in a book written and published by members of the community, Foundations of Our Faith and Calling.

On Palm Sunday, our class's reporters spent the holiday among one of the Bruderhof’s larger settlements, listening to their members' stories and seeking to break down barriers and understand this century-old religious crusade.

Scroll through the photos below for a glimpse of the day.

Representative members of the Bruderhof community greet visitors on a tour of the settlement.


The Bruderhof community members and visiting reporters walk in a processionary ceremony, complete with a donkey at the front of the line, to celebrate Palm Sunday.


Rolls and hot cross buns, prepared by a family on the settlement. Originating in 14th century England, hot cross buns are a Christian symbol commemorating the Biblical crucifixion of Jesus.


Currently being constructed by members, this barn will house some of the Bruderhof’s animals. Versed in construction, the community collects income from its classroom furniture-making called “Community Playthings.” Still, individual members do not hold cash or private property.
A goat, kept as a pet for Bruderhof members, in the settlement’s barn.


A father carries his daughter on his shoulders during the Palm Sunday procession around the community’s perimeter. Palm Sunday observes Jesus Christ's entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned in each of the four canonical Gospels.


A Bruderhof member feeds the community’s sheep.


Bruderhof members hold palm branches, ritualizing the Biblical story when palm branches were  placed in Jesus Christ’s path, before his arrest on Holy Thursday and his crucifixion on Good Friday.

All photos by Riley Farrell, April 22. 

Anxious East Village Community Prays for Relatives Back Home in Ukraine

Among the worshipers at All Saints Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Manhattan on Sunday, Tetiana Geletei prayed fervently for her father. 

Geletei’s whole family is in Ukraine, where her father has been called by the Ukrainian army to fight the Russian invasion. “I cannot connect to him,” she said. “I don’t know where he is now. Is he safe?” Her pitch rose as she voiced her last worry: “If he has something to eat at all.”

At the service, Pastor Vitaliy Pavlykivsky urged congregants to pray for Ukraine and to donate money to support the Ukrainian army.  The church is located at 206 East 11th Street in the East Village.

A flier on a table near the prayer candles for sale at the church’s entrance listed a bank account and routing number for donations. “Ukrainian National Federal Credit Union has open account: ‘Help Ukraine’ for the Armed forces of Ukraine. Collected funds will be wired every day to support Ukraine,” it read.

At the end of the formal part of the service, when Pavlykivsky had blessed each of the worshippers individually, Iryna Rusyn, 22, asked where she could donate money to support the army. She’d brought cash with her. 

Rusyn had spent more than an hour traveling to the church by train from Queens, she told me outside afterwards. She doesn’t have time to make the journey every Sunday. In fact, she’d only been to All Saints once before. But she needed to be there this week. 

“I felt that I needed to pray for my country, for my people,” she said on the church steps, hands stuffed into the pockets of her long black faux fur coat. Despite the cold, she’d made plans to meet up with a friend, a fellow Ukrainian, to go to a rally in support of their homeland. 

After she had left, most people still lingered in the church. “Because of this event, of course they pray a bit longer now,” she explained.

Inside, children ran from side to side along the back aisle and bounded up and down the stairs to the balcony where some of their mothers were singing in the choir. Four kids wore the colors of the Ukrainian flag, which flew outside the church door.

The mood among the adults was somber and anxious. One woman wiped her eyes repeatedly during prayers. She hastily stepped outside twice to take calls on her cell phone, pressing it to her ear before she’d even reached the door. 

Geletei, 30, a human resources coordinator, is here in the United States by herself. She described the how church’s atmosphere felt changed: “It’s different because people are hurt.”

The president of the church, Oleh Mykulynskyy, had left New York for Ukraine that morning, Geletei said. 

“He served [the] Ukrainian army before he came to the United States. So he felt like he needs to go back and try to help,” Geletei said.

As the whole church prayed for Mykulynskyy, his wife sang upstairs with the choir, as she does every Sunday.

“When we found out that he left, half of the choir was crying,” Geletei said.

Rusyn was not the only person who came to support the church community because of the ongoing crisis. Pavlykivsky greeted a small group of Georgians in English and thanked them for their prayers and support, and a young woman named Samantha whose grandparents had belonged to the church after they had immigrated from Ukraine visited for the first time. But for members, being together was emotionally intense. 

“It’s really hard to be here. It’s really hard,” Geletei said. “Because, you know, you can feel the pain.”

“Praying helps,” Geletei said. “And all this long prayer at the end, it was specifically regarding the war. So we were praying for stopping the war, we were praying for strength for Ukrainians.”

A Renewed Connection on the Upper West Side

Every Sunday since the pandemic began Hope West Side hosts two services. The evangelical Christian congregation rents the sanctuary of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on West 86th Street and Central Park West. Inside you won’t see a cross, but you will see Jewish symbols in the colorful stained-glass windows. Under every seat are Shabbat prayer books instead of Christian Bibles. Hope West Side is a newer congregation, only founded in 2018. Because the Society for the Advancement of Judaism holds its services on Saturdays, it allows Hope West Side to have the space on Sundays. When the pandemic hit, though, the building went dark and both the Jewish and the Christian congregations were homeless. 

The services went online, starting out with pre-recorded live streams and moving on to Zoom meetings, but some of those involved with the church felt this deprived them of a sense of community within the church. Christina Jackson serves as the communications director and tries to engage members during the year of virtual worship. 

“I think it’s hard because part of the reason why I come to church at least is for the community,” Jackson said. “We tried our best to have the chat box going on the YouTube Live Stream and reach out to people we were already connected with, but for new people, it was really hard.”

Finally, last June, after 14 months, the church was able to hold services in person, while also streaming to the web, but not without challenges. The church had to purchase and set up cameras, WIFI and projectors. In the back of the worship space a large camera manned by volunteers captures the worship music, the sermon and then the worship music again, but of course it misses the connection between worshipers before and after the services. Those who did attend in person, didn’t fully get that connection either.

The Society for the Advancement of Judaism lowered the number of people permitted in the building at any given time, to ensure proper social distancing requirements were met. Hope West Side switched from holding one service, as they did before the pandemic, to two services. This way, half of the churchgoers would attend each one, with around 30 at each. This worked for a while, but once the Society for the Advancement of Judaism lifted that restriction, Pastor Mike Park enthusiastically announced that the congregation would return to one service. This announcement was met with cheers from the churchgoers.

“I realize there’s a couple things that we’ve lost in having two services,” Park said. “We are never in the same room together.” 

On February 27th, Hope West Side held their first in-person singular service since the beginning of March 2020. Nearly every seat was filled, with around 70 people in attendance, all wearing the name tags given to them at the door when they completed their Covid-19 screenings. Before and after the service people laughed and talked. They poured and sipped on coffee provided in the lobby. This 11 AM service represented a return to normalcy after nearly two years navigating Covid-safe services.

Along with this return, came the announcement of the first church retreat in two years. Taylor Fagins is the community life coordinator at the church and was excited to inform everyone of the trip upstate.

“It’s gonna be amazing, and I say that because I planned it,” he said to the congregation with an enthusiastic smile. This was met with laughter. “There’s gonna be hiking, board games, there might be some karaoke.” 

Still, the church does take precautions to keep everyone safe, such as required masking and then health screenings at the door. They look forward to a time when they won’t have to do these things anymore. 

“Maybe somewhere down the line we can unmask,” said Christina Jackson. “I think we are just playing it by ear and just doing what the whole city is doing: trying to keep everyone safe.”

Social Justice Meets the Mass

Counting hymnal mentions, the word ‘mercy’ was intoned 37 times during the 9 a.m. service on a recent Sunday at St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic church in the Jesuit tradition, snugly situated in the Flatiron District neighborhood of Manhattan.

The Rev. Kenneth Boller made the concept of mercy progressively applicable throughout the service. After an hour of traditional Catholic liturgy, he led the congregation in a more contemporary affirmation.

“Do you affirm that white privilege is unfair and harmful to those who have it and to those who do not? Do you affirm that white privilege and the culture of white supremacy must be dismantled where it is present? Do you support racial equity justice and liberation for every person? Do you affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person?"

The congregation of 100 people answered “yes” to each of these questions with enthusiasm. In so doing, the members of St. Francis Xavier have been committing themselves to these social justice principles every week since the affirmation was first introduced on Aug. 30, 2020.

Since then, some conservative commentators have attacked gone on the attack. A few agitated Twitter users have accused Boller of turning his service into “a left-wing political rally.” Videos of the service have gone viral. The conservative entertainment company Blaze Media, which reaches 165 million people every month, published an article calling the statements “revolting.” Trudging past online criticism, Boller’s affirmations prevailed.

Doing no harm is a form of activism, Boller said. Led by the Holy Spirit, Catholics ought to be able to avoid harming all people via radical mercy.

The Church of St. Francis Xavier is unafraid to live in the tension between tradition and progress. Comfortable with anachronism, this house of worship is a place where Boller, the church’s pastor standing at a pulpit built in 1850, will readily grapple with issues like cyberbullying and misinformation on social media. This conflict echoes the tensions within American Catholicism today. The religious are taking sides between loyalty to a centuries-old establishment and dissent. But this Jesuit congregation rejects the binary altogether - in the name of mercy.

In his Sunday sermon, Boller took on everyone from the Biblical David to the contemporary leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

The scriptural reference in the homily, or the commentary lesson that follows worship, was 1 Samuel 26. In this part of the Bible, David spared his sleeping enemy, Saul, who was the first king of Israel with a militaristic streak. David, who will (spoiler alert) eventually replace Saul as Israel’s leader, justified his merciful choice to not stab his adversary when he said, “Do not destroy Saul, for who can put out his hand against the Lord's anointed people and be guiltless.” David believed God valued some lives more than others; God prioritized the blessed nation of Israel above those of any other descent or station Boller explained.

Boller went on to commend David’s choice to do no harm but criticized David’s reasoning for doing so. Peaceful action without equitable intention is not good enough, the Queens-native pastor argued. The key to not harming others is knowing God loves all people equally, he added, this democratization of access to salvation hinges on living out the Gospel. Do not be like David, Boller said to his audience.

Deliberately not causing harm is a high Catholic standard that extends politically, interpersonally, virtually, physically, racially, emotionally and sexually. At that last point, Boller waved his hands around to referentially gesture the credible claims of abuse plaguing Catholic leadership. Thereafter, Boller brought up the famous creed of bioethics and a variation of the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm,” which Boller said should be applied by the scientific and religious alike. Catholics are not appointed to punish the people who wrong them. Quite the opposite is true, Boller concluded. Much like the medical field, Boller said, the Catholic tradition possesses a life-giving tool of mercy, which should lead worshippers to accomplish good in the world. The Catholic ideals entail turning the other cheek, (Matthew 5:39).

“Differences of power and resources just give some people more responsibility of helping the common good,” Boller said.