2008: David Gonzalez, The New York Times
4/1/2008
ASNE Staff
Award for Diversity Writing
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Diversity writing


David Gonzalez

Article list

A sliver of a storefront, a faith on the rise

HOUSE AFIRE
First of three articles
A Mission in the City

January 14, 2007

The storefront, it turned out, was more front than store: a drug den masquerading as an auto-sound business. And the sight of six hoodlums being paraded out in hand-cuffs was sadly familiar among the brick tenements of west Harlem.

But for Danilo Florian, who stumbled upon the police raid in November 2002, it was nothing less than a revelation.

“This could be a church,” he muttered. “Lord, that is the place.”

But for Danilo Florian, who stumbled upon the police raid in November 2002, it was nothing less than a revelation.

Mr. Florian, a factory worker by day and a pastor by night, was desperate to find a home for his small congregation, which faced eviction from its dank basement sanctuary. In a lucky confluence of real estate and religion, he tracked down the storefront’s building manager, cajoled him into a five-year lease at a nice rent and even talked him into joining the church.

Now, on most nights when the neighborhood winds down to rest, the fluorescent lights inside the room flicker to life, and the spartan, whitewashed space rattles under a sonic barrage of prayers, yelps and tambourines. As a teenage band pounds out bouncy Latin rhythms, men in crisp business suits that belie their dreary day jobs triumphantly pump their fists. Women in flowing skirts shout, stomp and gyrate wildly. The air crackles.

from the Dominican Republic, has grown to about 60, and they are bent on converting many more. For they are living Pentecostalism, the world's fastest-growing branch of Christianity, with a fervor and sense of destiny that resonate in the grand name they have chosen: the Pentecostal Church Ark of Salvation for the New Millennium.

Among them are reformed drug dealers and womanizers, cafeteria workers who earn barely enough to pay the bills and women whose sons or husbands are in prison. What they share inside this unlikely temple on Amsterdam Avenue near 133rd Street is a faith in God, in miracles and in one another. Religion here is not some sober, introspective journey or Sunday chore, but a raucous communal celebration that spills throughout the week.

Storefront churches like this have become part of the streetscape in New York and around the globe in recent decades. Tiny and makeshift, they sprout up almost overnight, wedged in among the bodegas and takeout counters. Just in these few blocks of Harlem, there are at least seven others.

Yet "los aleluyas," as the Pentecostals are called by their neighbors, sometimes dismissively, remain mysterious to outsiders — their intensity scary to some, comical to others. They can dress plainly, shun the simplest pleasures and warn of imminent catastrophe for those who are not born again. Children preach like adults, and adults wail like children. Here one day, their churches may be gone the next.

This is the story of one such church: its people, its pastor, their fight to survive and the emotional, sometimes extreme religion that fires them night after night.

It is also the story of Hispanic faith in the 21st century, seen in tight focus. Though Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Christianity, was born a century ago in Kansas and is often associated with the stereotypical "holy rollers" of the Bible Belt, it has made deep inroads in Asia and Africa. In this hemisphere, its numbers and growth are strongest among Latinos in the United States and in Latin America, where it is eroding the traditional dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.

Experts believe there are roughly 400 million Pentecostals worldwide, and this year, the number in the city is expected to surpass 850,000 — about one in every 10 New Yorkers, one-third of them Hispanic. Precise numbers, however, are hard to come by because there are scores of denominations and no central governing body.

Although several large Pentecostal organizations like the Assemblies of God have bureaucracies, colleges and legions of missionaries, about 80 percent of all Pentecostals belong to small or independent congregations. They have aggressively courted the poor, and imparted a work ethic that is nudging their members into the middle class and beyond.

Here, in cramped storefronts like Ark of Salvation, people whose lives are as marginal as their neighborhoods discover a joyful intimacy often lacking in big churches. They find help — with the rent, child care or finding a job. As immigrants, they find their own language and music, as well as the acceptance and recognition that often elude them on the outside.

They find the discipline and drive to make a hard life livable.

To spend a year with this congregation is to see a teenage single mother and party girl discover the strength to go to college, marry in the church and land a job. It is to see a former political radical and brawler pray over alcoholics in the park. It is to see the 50-year-old pastor roaming the city, driving the church's van to gather members for Bible class or trolling for converts outside an upper Broadway subway station —to keep the Ark afloat, and growing.

That growth could have profound implications. The Ark and other storefronts are already draining Catholic and mainline Protestant churches of the urban immigrants who have long filled their pews. Their striving members could refigure the political calculus of New York or even the nation, turning a historically liberal Hispanic population into a force for conservatism.

Then again, any of these churches could vanish, victim to a rent increase, a fickle landlord or a financial setback. They are trying to thrive in New York, of all places, where poor neighborhoods are gentrifying and housing prices are soaring, where strangers can be hostile and, on this block, dangerous. Their demanding creed, with its rigid moral code and almost daily churchgoing, can split families and alienate friends.

The souls who worship at 1463 Amsterdam Avenue have gotten by for six years on their faith, their wits and whatever breaks — even a drug bust — come their, way. As they chase outsize dreams of a bigger building and a far bigger flock, they are guided only by Scripture and a quiet man who assures them that the meek really shall inherit the earth.

"We are not complacent," Pastor Florian explained. "We are more ambitious than Rockefeller."

The Spirit of a Crusade

Pass through the drab metal doorway, behind the tightly drawn blinds, and the storefront starts to look like a church. Heavy green drapes flank a worn pulpit. Packed tightly below are dozens of chipped wooden chairs cadged from a Midtown bar.

And much of the worship here looks like any Christian service, if several notches higher in volume and passion. One recent Sunday, quiet prayers in Spanish gave way to singing, Bible readings and testimony from the congregation, then a collection, a sermon and a final blessing from the pastor.

But during the blessing, the band's hypnotic beat quickened. Prayers became cries of "Glory to God!" The crowd pressed forward, and a thicket of hands strained to touch the pastor's outstretched arm. Some women began to quiver and shake, their ponytails whipping from side to side.

The room grew hot, and a strange sound came rumbling from up front. "Omshalamamom!" shouted Lucrecia

Perez, her hand thrust into the air, her eyes clenched shut. "Shambalashalama."

She was speaking in tongues, an ecstatic and indecipherable flood of syllables that often erupts during intense worship —brought on, the faithful believe, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, part of the divine Trinity. Though uncommon or unheard of in most other Christian churches — even dismissed as hokum by some ministers — it is celebrated here as the very mystery that gives the faith its name.

On the day known as the Pentecost, according to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples after. Christ's resurrection, allowing them to speak in languages unknown to them. Later Christians occasionally broke into garbled prayer or prophecy, to the approval or alarm of church authorities, but it took nearly 2,000 years for the phenomenon to light a spark.

On New Year's Day in 1901, a woman in Topeka, Kan., began speaking in tongues during a Bible-school prayer vigil and did not let up for three days. Pentecostal groups formed, and in 1906, a preacher named Wil¬liam J. Seymour started a series of jubilant meetings in Los Angeles, called the Azusa Street Revival, that are now credited with propelling the faith throughout the world.

Like other evangelicals, Pentecostals assert the Bible's word-for-word authority, the need to accept Christ and the duty to share

that faith with others before the end days, when the born-again will be whisked up to heaven in what they call the rapture.

But they differ in their intense conviction that the Holy Spirit descends on believers and blesses them with extraordinary gifts, especially the power to speak in tongues, that prepare them for those dark days, when everyone else will be left behind to suffer.

The message can be grim. The strictest Pentecostals — and Ark of Salvation has several "raj atablas," as they are called —can come across as humorless scolds, dressing severely and rejecting any distraction from God: television, popular music, even too much work.

If that were all Pentecostalism offered, the storefronts would be empty.

But the gloom is tempered by a noisy, col¬lective joy born of the belief that the faithful will be blessed in this world and the next. That joy lends a sense of freedom, and often abandon, to services at the Ark, where people break into song or their own spur-of-the-moment prayers.

Music flows through everything — not solemn hymns, but brassy Caribbean tunes. In fact, some sound exactly like the songs that hard-core members condemn — the pop and salsa on Spanish-language radio — but with religious lyrics that are repeated so breathlessly that some singers faint.

That ability to harness the local music and culture is one reason for Pentecostalism's swift spread around the world.

"It takes in everything and absorbs it," said the Rev. Dale T. Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary. "You get as a result this extraordinary emergence of churches."

In New York, the ranks of Pentecostals have grown 45 percent since 1995, said Tony Carnes, president of the International Research Institute on Values Changes in New York City, an independent group financed largely by foundations that has been surveying churches since 1989.

Pentecostals became the city's largest group of born-again Christians in the mid-1990s, and within a few years, a new storefront church was opening every three weeks in the South Bronx, he said. The 9/11 attacks set off a fresh growth spurt.

Another factor in that growth worldwide is the way the faith reaches out to people on society's edges and gives them vital roles. Unlike Catholics and some evangelical Christians, Pentecostals let women preach and lead; Mr. Florian's co-pastor is his wife, Mirian. The humblest member can take the pulpit to share testimony, a prayer or a poem. Recently, an 8-year-old girl preached excitedly to a rapt congregation, then laid her hands in blessing on a new convert.

Mr. Florian himself has few credentials other than three years of night-school Bible classes and a wrenching sense of duty. A lapsed Catholic from the Dominican Republic, he joined a small Pentecostal church 16 years ago after his 7-year-old daughter survived a grave bout with encephalitis. Six years ago he and eight others left that church and founded the Ark in the basement of a building riddled with rats.

The congregation, which draws members from all over Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, moved to its street-level space four years ago thanks to the drug raid, and a willingness to seize on opportunities. That pragmatism is also reflected in its religious practices, which are more moderate than in many other storefront churches.

While the Ark forbids smoking, drinking and dancing and discourages flashy clothes and jewelry, it issues few other edicts. While its members believe that Satan — the enemy, they call him — is as real as God, they conduct no exorcisms, as in some churches.

While some members speak in tongues, most do not, including Pastor Florian, a low-key man who explained the experience in surprisingly down-to-earth terms. "It is like a fax talking to another fax," he said. "Tongues are not a human language. It is Our spirit speaking with God."

And while nearly everyone in the congregation works and puts something into the brass bowls that are passed around at every service, Mr. Florian makes none of the urgent appeals for money — or promises of windfalls or miracles — that drive some churches. The pastor, who still works his factory job decorating expensive handbags, takes no salary from the church.

Not that the Ark celebrates poverty. Members are told that hard work and frugal living will be rewarded, perhaps not lavishly, but adequately. The dress code for serv¬ices is decidedly white collar: suits for the men, long skirts for the women. Children are urged to excel in school, and the pastor boasts of the several college graduates in the church — refuting what he says is the notion that born-again Christians are simple-minded.

"When you are a professional, people have no idea how you can be a believer," he said. "The Gospel is not just for the poor. God isnot a God of the ignorant."

The poor do get help, from the church's meager savings account or from other members ; it is not unusual to see a small wad of cash passed from hand to hand after services. But unlike many larger churches, the Ark has neither the mission nor the money to dispense charity to the needy outside — except as a means to convert them.

And its members, proud and stoic, are reluctant to accept handouts. When Ms. Perez, the woman who spoke in tongues, had her hours as a home health aide cut back, she and her daughter Genesis moved into a homeless shelter for eight months. For weeks before their eviction, she asked the congregation for prayers, but barely hinted at her plight.

"I can't ask them for money," said Ms. Perez, 46. "They don't have it to lend. They need what they have for a new church."

Last April, Pedro Garces, the building manager and a church member, found her an affordable studio. Whatever happens, members are constantly reminded, the Ark will bear them up.

"We will never be alone," Pastor Florian said one night during Bible study. "That is God's promise."

Hotheads and Warm Hearts

The first to arrive, as usual, was Ramon Romero. On a Thursday evening in July that was still hot and sticky at 6:30, he walked slowly from his apartment to the church, past reminders of the life he had left behind. Two laborers lounged on a grimy stoop, sipping beer, as men outside a bodega argued politics, and raunchy reggaeton music thumped from passing cars.

Mr. Romero, a handsome man of 73 and a founding member of the Ark, rolled up the church's metal gate and slipped into the silence inside. The others would soon arrive —with their own reasons for coming and their own styles of worship — but this was his time and his way. He knelt and clasped the slatted back of a wooden chair, his lips emitting no more than a low rasp.

That rasp, which can rise to a growl, is one hint that this stern, stony-faced man was once a scrapper. A strict father, he let his wife coddle the children, as he put it, while he wielded the strap. He was tough outside the home, too, active in leftist politics and unions in the Dominican Republic before he moved here in the mid-1960s.

"I was someone who did everything except stain my hands with blood," Mr. Romero said. "I was a hothead."

He paid for it. His efforts fighting the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo landed him in jail for seven months, he said. While driving a Pepsi-Cola route in the Dominican Republic, he helped workers unionize and strike for fair pay, but the bottling company lured everyone back to work, he said, then fired him — with the support of the same workers he had organized.

Years later, feeling betrayed by politics and worried about his wife's depression, he let a nurse bring her pastor to their home one night to pray. Mr. Romero converted quickly, with the same intensity he had brought to politics.

His wife, Esperanza, took longer to let go of her Roman Catholicism, particularly the room she had filled with statues of saints —worthless idols, according to Pentecostals, who believe that people should pray directly to God. Mr. Romero persuaded his wife that the statues had to go.

"I went in that room with a hammer, and I broke every saint that was there," he recalled. "I smashed a table, a fountain full of water, an expensive one. I broke it all. I tied it up in a bag and tossed it in the farthest dump."

He paused at the memory. "And nothing happened to me."

His wife died in 1999, but her name is still on the downstairs buzzer. In their sparely furnished apartment, Mr. Romero passes the time reading the Bible and, with a tinge of guilt, watching sports. His five children —some live nearby, and one is in the congregation — hardly talk to him. He wonders if he may have been a bit too strict.

But no matter. This night, as he settled into his regular seat near the front, he had achieved a kind of peace.

By then he had been joined by another early bird, Ramona Campaña, who enjoys the church's sociability as much as its spirituality. As others entered, Ms. Campaña, 73, looked up from her Bible, smiled and extended a hand. An elegant woman, she wore a long skirt and matching jacket whose only embellishment was a golden brooch bearing a cross and a lamb, the church's logo.

When she arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic 35 years ago, she worked in a hotel laundry, ironing until her eyes stung from the steam. Her lunch in¬cluded a bottle of Heineken stashed in her purse. She played the numbers. And, she said, she practiced the sort of once-a-v eek Catholicism that was more habit than conviction.

"You can sit next to me, and when the service is over you don't even know my name," she said. "You don't ask, 'How are you?' It's foom, and you're out."

That ended one day in the Bronx that was so jarring she still recalls the date : June 12, 1993. Ms. Campaña and her daughter had gone to the wake of a relative who had converted to Pentecostalism on his deathly- d. Most Christian wakes focus on the deceased, but the faithful at this service turned away from the open coffin and crusaded for new members, offering a stark choice: Accept Christ or spend eternity in hell.

Moved by the congregation's passion — "I saw unity in them," she said — she joined a Pentecostal group. After moving to 141st Street years later, widowed and alone, she heard about a new church in a nearby basement and went out asking, "Where are the aleluyas?" until she found the Ark.

"It's good," she said, "to be in a place where they see you not by how you look, but by what's in your heart."

As this evening's service started, Ms. Campaña lost herself in song, smacking a battered tambourine and swaying in rhythm. Like several other women, she was so taken with the prayers and music that she doubled over, feet stomping and arms flailing, until her neighbors eased her back up.

But others' worship was as varied as their lives. Young mothers sang cheerily alongside their fidgeting children. Grandmothers prayed aloud nonstop, as if in a running conversation with the Almighty. Two teenage boys exchanged a laugh. Near the front, Roy Guzman, a 25-year-old engineer who works for an international consulting company, sat motionless, immersed in his Bible.

"I don't just want to feel this," he said later, a little sheepishly. "That could be a flaw, but I like to have an intellectual knowledge of what I'm doing."

And then there was his cousin Chislen Peña, a normally soft-spoken young woman who fairly explodes when her time comes to preach.

Dressed austerely — long black skirt, pulled-back hair, no earrings or makeup —she paces the narrow stage with nervous energy, shouting, slapping her Bible and tossing her head back. She will pause, freeze the congregation in her gaze, then break into a grin and yell, "Aleluya!"

She is joyful — fiercely, severely joyful —even if her life has been anything but. Ms. Pena, 28, had her first child when she was 14, with a man who ended up in prison for murder. She had a daughter with another man who was deported for dealing drugs. She married for the first time soon afterward, only to divorce when her husband told her he had H.I.V. Her brother is in jail for murder.

"I once tried to kill myself," she said. "I heard little voices telling me to do it." She found her faith through an uncle, and like other Pentecostals, she preaches about her life to show that no one is beyond help. In the pulpit at one service, her voice hoarse and her forehead sweaty, she told of waiting for the results of her H.I.V. tests.

"I said forgive me — He forgave me," she said, to rising applause. "Praise the Lord! And the tests kept coming back negative! And negative! And negative !"

After the service, people lingered for conversation and food, hugging and thanking her. They all knew she had returned to school, earned a college diploma and found a job as a counselor in a drug treatment center.

Remarried in 2004 to a fellow Pentecostal, she was expecting her third child, a boy they planned to name after an Old Testament prophet who warned of impending punishment. Just saying the name made her smile. "Jeremiah," she said.

Saving 'el Mundo'

The end is near. This is actually good news at Ark of Salvation: At the start of the earth's final days, they believe, a trumpet blast will herald the rapture. But for those left behind, the Book of Revelation and sermons at the church lay out a litany of horrors that will follow: plagues, poisoned rivers, smoke that will pour from the earth and blot out the skies.

The Ark's ultimate mission, then, is to save the nonbelievers — not just for their sake, but for the church's. To keep going, Pastor Florian says, the Ark must grow.

So as much as its members mistrust and revile the secular world — "el mundo," as they call it — they must leave the church's embrace to spread the word to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

"God sometimes sends you to places you do not want to go to — like you have to go somewhere where you can be robbed," the pastor reminded them one night with a smile, shrieking in mock terror: "Oh, no! Not 134th Street!"

They exhort relatives and friends, schoolmates and co-workers, with promises of hope or warnings of damnation. They hold weekly services in people's apartments and invite neighbors. In good weather, they haul out the drums and amplifiers and preach on the sidewalk. They walk up to strangers in parks and supermarkets.

Eneida Vasquez was window-shopping at a 99-cent store one day when she spotted Kenia Ledesma, a sad-eyed woman with three young daughters and a rocky marriage. She walked up to the stranger, told her she was not alone and hugged her. Ms. Ledesma joined the church that week.

But the congregation leaves little to chance. One July afternoon, three teenagers sat in the church, neatly sorting piles of religious tracts. One girl stamped the Ark's address onto the leaflets, which are printed in Spanish with color photos and graphics.

"We order them from the Dominican Republic, 10 for a penny," Pastor Florian explained. "They are bigger and different from the ones you usually see around here. That way, when someone gets it they can't say, 'Oh, I saw this already.' "

Before the teenagers headed out in small groups, he gave them precise instructions: Approach the person with a smile. Hold out the tract with the cover facing up. Leave with a "God bless you."

The payoff, however, was slim. Everyone could see the aleluyas coming, by their dress, their smiles, their persistence. Some neighbors were polite, but from others they got snubs, catcalls or worse.

Outside El Mundo, a store on Broadway that sells $100 suits and $10 dresses, a drunken man glared at Frankie Lora and Stephanie Dionisio, both 16. He cocked his head and leered at Stephanie.

"You good?" he taunted. "You good?"

She fumbled for a tract, the one that said drunkards will never enter heaven. As he staggered off, cursing, Stephanie turned to Frankie. "Tell him Jesus loves him," she pleaded. "Tell him!"

On days like this, members console themselves with the knowledge that they did their duty. Maybe, they speculate, the person they approached in the park joined another storefront — for there is little sense of competition among the neighborhood's many Pentecostal congregations, which sponsor events together and visit one another.

That camaraderie, however, does not extend to the institution that once loomed large in so many members' lives : the Catholic Church. Pentecostals believe that Catholics and many Protestants will not be joining them in the rapture. Only born-again Christians, they say, will be saved.

Pastor Florian does not preach much

about other faiths, and in fact his three children have attended Catholic schools on scholarships. But his feelings are clear. The day after Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, the pastor began his sermon with a pointed remark.

"We are not sad," he said. "Our leader is not dead. Our leader is Jesus Christ. And he is alive!"

Around the corner is the Church of the Annunciation, a thriving Catholic parish where Mexicans and Dominicans make up most of the roughly 1,100 worshipers who fill its sanctuary on Sundays.

Its pastor, the Rev. Jose Maria Clavero, knows that the Catholic Church has lost many Latinos to Pentecostalism, but he sees those converts as nominal Catholics who were never part of any parish. "If they are taking in people who were not anywhere, blessed be God," he said. "At least they are in church."

He and other priests, remembering when large parishes were the vibrant heart of New York immigrant life, give the small storefronts credit for building intimate, supportive communities in some of the city's most forlorn neighborhoods. And Annunciation, like many Catholic and mainline Protestant churches around the world, has even embraced Pentecostalism's ardent worship style, as part of the charismatic renewal movement that began in the 1960s.

A small charismatic group meets for prayer every Monday, and Father Clavero makes a point of attending. At first it was to keep the group in check; he was alarmed by what he saw as an overemphasis on healing and miracles — the same sort of zeal that makes Pastor Florian nervous.

But the group has matured, the priest said, and its exuberant songs echo through the church each Sunday.

"It lifts you up," he said. "You'd have to be a stone not to feel it. They give life."

The Politics of Purity

The sidewalks along St. Nicholas Avenue were thick with weekend shoppers and booming with music. Slowly, a faint background rumbling grew into a roar as 200 people strode into the middle of the street, part of the annual "Great March for Christ" in Washington Heights.

"A Christ who is against adultery!" hollered a Pentecostal preacher leading the procession. "A Christ who is against homosexuality! That is the Jesus we represent:"

The marchers — including a delegation from Ark of Salvation — prayed, sang and urged repentance. Some scurried to hand out tracts and invitations to a religious rally.

But while they wooed the public, one figure was courting them. Adriano Espaillat, a Democratic assemblyman then running for Manhattan borough president, stood among them, casting for votes, not souls.

"God bless you," Mr. Espaillat said with a quick handshake to each marcher. "God bless you."

Pastor Florian turned his back on him. "He is a politician," he said curtly. "I cannot even look at him."

The prevailing image of evangelical Christians in America is one of militant churches and politically ambitious leaders, like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who have built a national base of like-minded Christians determined to shape public policy, especially on sexual issues.

But while Pentecostals strongly oppose abortion and gay marriage, they have a long history of shunning political involvement. Though some notable Pentecostals have run for office — John Ashcroft on the right and the Rev. Al Sharpton on the left — most politicians are seen as agents of the secular world.

"I think Pentecostals realize ultimately their trust is in God and not in politics," said Loida Martell-Otero, a theology professor at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. "The people in power have traditionally rendered them powerless."

That has not stopped political leaders from trying to convert them, especially in cities like New York, where Latino Pentecostals are seen as a large and growing bloc that could turn to either party. Republicans invoke causes like banning abortion and gay marriage, while Democrats promote economic programs for the poor who fill so many storefront churches.

Pentecostals do vote, and are eager for more involvement, according to a study released in October by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that 79 percent of Pentecostals wanted religious groups to speak out on political issues.

In New York, the poverty and independence of many Pentecostal churches have kept them from coalescing, said Mr. Carnes, whose International Research Institute on

Values Changes has studied their growth. But Pentecostals are teaching a tireless work ethic, he said, that will vault them —especially their children — into more professional and managerial jobs in coming years, and make them a major economic and social force.

The next step, Mr. Carnes said, could be leveraging that force into political clout. "The key for these pastors will be to connect up with disaffected leaders in the centers of power — some councilman or businessman looking for something different," he said. "You could have a huge change in the city."

Now, though, many pastors are torn.

Mr. Florian would love to have a soup kitchen or an after-school center for teenagers, and the congregation turned to its city councilman, a Democrat, for help in finding a bigger building to house them. But they dropped the effort after the councilman invited them to help out at a neighborhood health fair, and the pastor learned they would not be allowed to preach there.

"I only want to do things for the Lord," Mr. Florian said. "I do not like to ask any man for favors."

He and other storefront pastors would seem natural allies for the Republican Party, which has courted Latino Pentecostals, political analysts say, with government grants for churches that run "faith-based" social services. But the Ark, like most small churches, has neither the space nor the staff for such programs.

Mr. Florian says he supports President Bush "for his principles," and has urged his congregation to vote for candidates who share their moral values. But he cannot vote; though he is a legal resident and says he intends to become a citizen as his wife did, he has not assembled the paperwork.

And unlike many Christian ministers, he has little to say about most public issues: Iraq, terrorism, even immigration. He and others at the Ark are busy enough with the troubles they see in their own streets and homes : crime, drugs, splintered families.

In fact, before abortion and gay rights dominated political discourse, Latino Pente¬costals in New York invariably supported liberal candidates who reached out, as they did, to the poor and forgotten.

Today, the Rev. Ruben Diaz, one of the first Pentecostals to venture into New York politics, pursues evangelicals with a of social-spending liberalism and family-values conservatism. A Democratic state senator from the Bronx, Mr. Diaz warns that his party's support for gay marriage and abortion rights could alienate his religious constituents.

"The evangelical churches will be the Achilles' heel of the Democratic Party," he said, "unless it opens the door to a segment of the population who does not think exactly like them."

There is no doubt where the Ark stands. Yet even on the moral issues that matter most to the congregation, Pastor Florian has little faith that a political party or sprawling bureaucracy can get the job done. He is even wary of close ties to other religious groups with their own agendas.

So for now, at least, the Ark will go its own way — the slow way — as it tries to save the world and realize its Rockefeller ambitions. Praying and singing. Supporting one another. Approaching strangers on the street. Changing minds and hearts, one by one.

After one fruitless afternoon handing out tracts, a girl in the congregation ran up to tell Pastor Florian that a woman had promised to visit the church. His face lit up.

"Do you know what it is to save a soul?" he asked. "Just one soul? Priceless."


Article list

Building a church, and paying off a sacred debt

HOUSE AFIRE
Second of three articles
Mr. Florian's Calling

January 15, 2007

As his 7-year-old daughter lay near death, Danilo Florian raged. The doctors could do no more. His prayers — a desperate turn to the religion he had abandoned long ago to pursue a successful jewelry business — seemed equally futile.

He had come to New York years earlier from the Dominican Republic with nothing but the desire to prosper as a family man and businessman. Now, is it all fell apart in a Manhattan hospital, he sought few moments of silence in a dimly lighted room off the intensive care ward.

Then it happened. Out of nowhere, he says, came a voice.

"Do business with me," it demanded.

Sixteen years later, the girl is a young woman, and Mr. Florian is keeping his end of the bargain. The jewelry business is long gone. He abandoned it to heed the call to serve God, plunging into Pentecostalism and founding Ark of Salvation, a shoebox of a storefront church in west Harlem

that explodes most nights with prayer and song.

Today, the word "pastor" hardly describes this dynamo who propels a flock of 60 — most of them Dominican immigrants of modest means — round the clock and through the week. Teacher, chief cheerleader and social director, he is even the chauffeur who ferries them to services all over town in a secondhand airport van, usually after eight hours at a factory job making luxury handbags.

To the adults, he is the confidant who counsels them through crises. To the teenagers, he is the surrogate father who praises them and takes them on outings. To the needy, he is the benefactor who slips them a little cash. To all, he is the leader who promises a glorious future in a grand new church, even though they have saved a small fraction of the fortune it would cost.

"Pelea, pelea, pelea," he murmured one night as he made his rounds in the church van, mouthing the words to a hymn. Fight, fight, fight.

The battle is not just for this storefront. In thousands of tiny, sometimes fly-by-night churches around the globe, men like Pastor Florian get things started and keep them going against tremendous odds. Their success or failure may decide whether Pentecostalism continues growing faster than any other Christian group.

They work largely on their own, without the hierarchies or resources that sustain the clergy of other faiths. Many are self-taught and self-supporting. Mr. Florian, 50, who takes no salary from his church, has only a few years of night-school Bible classes, no pastoral training and no ambition to join a larger denomination, as some storefront pastors do.

His ministry reflects the startling inti¬macy that has been Pentecostalism's essence since it began a century ago: what matters the most — even for a leader of souls — is a transforming personal encounter with God.

Like many storefront ministers, Pastor Florian lives modestly in the same kind of rough-edged neighborhood as his members. But unlike his peers who hurl brimstone or promise miracles, he is cautious and quiet. A serene figure even when worship is frenzied, he can silence the crowd with a raised hand.

He is also human. Disorganized and absent-minded, he loses cellphones, gets lost driving, forgets appointments and would miss even more if his wife and co-pastor, Mirian, did not keep careful watch. At the end of his hectic days, exhaustion tugs on his sturdy frame.

And though he is too private to discuss it much, he struggles with disappointment. Although he believes that the deal he struck with God saved his daughter, his two younger children have drifted away from the faith.

For a man who sees himself in so many ways as a father, that is painful. For a storefront pastor, it is also useful, allowing the people who walk through the church doors on Amsterdam Avenue to see themselves in him.

"It unites us, because he is human," said Lucrecia Perez, who recently spent eight months in a homeless shelter. "He has to work like us. He has gone through need."

A Business Proposition

Father figures always let him down.

His father was a businessman, making a nice living running cockfights, a taxi service and a bodega in the Dominican towns where Mr. Florian grew up, the oldest of five children. But by his teenage years, he says, his father had squandered it all on bad bets, strong drink and frequent affairs.

The boy thought he had found someone to look up to in Padre Camilo, the pastor of the Roman Catholic church where he was an altar boy. But one day the rumors flew that the priest had gotten drunk in a bar and begun shooting his pistol.

"I didn't believe it because I admired him and loved him," Mr. Florian said. "Whether it was true or not, I still don't know. But it got into my mind."

His faith vanished as the family's tumbling fortunes forced them to a poor neigh¬borhood in Santo Domingo, the sprawling capital, where his mother ran a candy store and a fruit stand. Their comedown was humbling : He had to sell ice cream to his high school classmates at recess.

"They would look at you like you were really poor," he said. "Like we were less." Like any adolescent adrift, he searched for something or someone to rely on. He found both when a friend invited him to a crusade led by Yiye Avila, a fiery traveling preacher from Puerto Rico who is now one of the most popular Pentecostal evangelists in the Americas. He converted that night.

But his new faith was tenuous. After juggling two jobs to help pay for college, he followed his family to New York in 1979 and found a job at a jewelry factory that consumed his time. He even met Mirian, a Roman Catholic, through a factory friend. They married in 1982 and had a daughter, Dianne, the next year.

His labors began to pay off. After he started a lucrative business making buttons and medals at home, a client in Mexico hired him to set up a factory there, and in 1990 proposed a huge deal: commemorative jewelry that churches would sell for Pope John Paul II's visit that year to Mexico City.

Then Dianne fell ill with encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, ending up in the intensive care ward at St. Luke's Hospital. For 10 days, her body was racked with convulsions.

One afternoon after Christmas, Mr. Florian said, doctors told him they could do nothing for the little girl who lay comatose, tethered to tubes and surrounded by religious statues his wife's family had brought. That evening, he sought quiet in a room off the ward.

"There's no hope," he recalled thinking. "She's only 7. Who could help? I did everything possible."

Then, as he tells it, came the voice.

"Work with me," he heard.

He looked around. He was alone, and frightened.

"Do business with me," the voice commanded. "Reconcile with me."

He thought of the jewelry business that had consumed him, and of the religious medals that would make him even more money. Ambition and greed had brought him to this, and he felt shame.

He tried pushing the matter out of his mind. But the voice returned, he said, warning that if he did not agree in 15 minutes, the girl would die.

"It was a strong voice," he said. "Like a horn. I thought I was going crazy. I cried, I cried and I cried. And in my mind, I left everything."

Tranquillity washed over him, though it was fleeting as he returned to his daughter's bedside. A nurse scrambled from the room, and a stench wafted through the air. He thought Dianne had died.

"She was sitting up in the bed," he said. "She had vomited something black. But she sat up."

The child recovered and, sticking to the bargain, the Florians searched for a congregation. Mirian felt unwelcome at the local Catholic church, and they faded into anonymity at a busy Pentecostal congregation. Then they found Exodo, a small Pentecostal group near their apartment on Amsterdam Avenue.

Mr. Florian insists he had no intention of becoming a preacher. But his playfulness and patience with young people led to his be¬ing named co-pastor. In 2000, upset with how Exodo was being run, he and eight others went looking for a place to pray until they could join another congregation.

One of them, Ramón Romero, discovered a basement room on 134st Street that was crawling with rats inside and drug dealers outside. He and Mr. Florian drove out the rats with a machine that blasted high-pitched noise. The landlady was so relieved to see Christians instead of crack addicts that she provided the space free.

On the street one day, someone called Mr. Florian "Pastor." He laughed it off, but Mr. Romero did not. "You will be our pastor," he declared. "We do not need to find another church."

On the cusp of 2001, they chose a big name for their little sanctuary, befitting the year and their quest: the Pentecostal Church Ark of Salvation for the New Millennium. For Danilo Florian, the work had just begun.

A Home Divided

Sunday is no day of rest for Pastor Florian. On this particular one, he was deep into his sermon, preaching about hope and home life. "If anyone is the enemy of the family, it is Satan," he said. "Every family has to struggle against the beast in the home."

A reminder of those trials was slumped in the back row. His teenage son, Danilito, glumly played with his cellphone and held hands with his girlfriend, an older girl who had a baby by a previous boyfriend.

"How glorious it is when a father can say, `There is my child,' " the pastor continued. "How joyful a child would feel to hear you say, 'I am proud of you.' "

Danilito, chatting with his girlfriend, ignored him.

Family is a pillar of any church's life, and even more so at Ark of Salvation. The day the Florians converted, their three children joined them at the altar, and went on to sing or play music at services.

But at the Catholic schools they have attended, they have been exposed to different beliefs. As teenagers, they have pulled away from their parents and sometimes their faith.

Dianne, now 23 and fully recovered from. her illness, remains the stalwart. Until her student teaching in New Jersey made increasing demands on her time in recent months, she was a fixture at services, singing with a throaty growl. On New Year's Eve, she was married at the storefront, with her father officiating.

She is not shy. During Bible study at church, she has sparred with her father over women's role in marriage. One summer, she drew her parents' ire for spending too much time at a catering job. She treasures her independent streak, which she credits to the Jesuits who taught her in grade school and at St. Peter's College in Jersey City.

But her assertiveness is tempered by a feeling that because she is the pastor's daughter, the congregation watches her every move. "You try to live your life in the right way," she said, "so people don't say things to other people."

And her life, after all, is intertwined with her father's conversion. She says a big reason she stays in the fold is the debt she owes — and the gratitude she feels — for her recovery.

Her father puts it far more bluntly. "The Lord gave her her life back," he said. "If she leaves, she could die."

He and his wife were less strict with Dianne's 22-year-old sister, Danitza, now a senior at St. Peter's. Last summer she moved in with her boyfriend. Her father now wishes he had kept her at home.

Until recently, Danitza attended church sporadically. One Sunday, she showed up in a tight T-shirt with the word "sexy" emblazoned across the chest. But she respectfully joined the line of supplicants waiting for a final blessing.

As her mother anointed the girl's forehead with oil, Pastor Florian stood to the side and sobbed.

Tearful moments like that are the few public hints that all is not well with his fam¬ily. One Saturday, as he plopped down on the parlor sofa for an interview at their house in Bedford Park in the Bronx, the quiet was broken by giggles behind the locked door of his son's room.

Danilito, who at 18 looks like a younger version of his father, was inside with his girlfriend, Silka. Although the congregation agreed that Danilito was a gifted drummer and singer, his father had expelled him from the church band.

"Someone who is sinning cannot touch the instruments that are used to adore the Lord," Pastor Florian said, moments after the boy cracked open the door, grabbed his sneakers and dashed off with Silka.

Danilito has since taken up with a new girl, but he has also flirted with real danger. Last summer, he hung out with friends outside a nearby building where neighbors suspected that drugs were being sold.

"It fills me with such shame," his father said. "The image everybody here has of my family is of my daughters going to college with God's help. Now they see him with those boys. It's like he threw everything to the gutter."

The pastor pleaded with him to stay away, but he refused — until September, when one friend was shot dead.

Out of respect, the congregation says nothing about the family's troubles. And though Pastor Florian wishes he could confide in someone besides his wife, he keeps his feelings to himself.

"I can't talk to anyone because there would be gossip," he said, "and that destroys a church."

The children of many pastors, he says, fall away from religion. "Maybe because you do not give them as much time as you should, since you have to spend time with the other children," he speculated. "They could become jealous."

He and his wife take comfort in believing they have done all they could for their children. "They have a foundation," he said. "God will call them like he called me."

`I Don't Sleep Anymore'

The streets of Bedford Park are mercifully quiet at 6 a.m. when Pastor Florian gets up, pulls on a polo shirt, khakis and sneakers and walks to the D train for the 45-minute commute to the garment district.

He has worked in factories since arriving in New York, spending the last dozen years at Judith Leiber, where he polishes stones and precious metals for intricately jeweled handbags that fetch thousands of dollars.

The bags may be delicate, but the work is exacting. When he gets home around 5 p.m., he trudges up the creaking stairs.

Then his real job begins.

He rests for a few moments, grabs a snack and dons a natty suit, tie and shined shoes. His wife by his side, he climbs into the church van to round up the congregation for that night's services, driving all over the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. Whatever they do, he is with them, even if he is not preaching. He must set an example.

"You can't say, 'I go to church once a week' and leave it closed the rest of the week," he explained. "When I have a church, it is open seven days a week."

Ark of Salvation almost meets his ideal: There are no services on Monday. Bible class is on Thursday, youth services on Friday and adult services on Wednesday. Tuesdays and Saturdays, a small delegation conducts a service in someone's apartment or visits another church, as far away as Queens or Brooklyn. Sunday is the week's highlight, as the Florians preside over three hours of song, testimony and preaching.

Afterward, the couple linger to counsel people. They help clean and repair the storefront. Intent on keeping the teenagers off the streets during the summer, Pastor Florian leads day trips to the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania or quick jaunts to Yonkers for hot dogs and video games.

The fact is, from the moment he wakes to when he dozes off 20 hours later after reading Scripture or researching sermons, he hardly pauses.

"I've always worked," he said, shrugging. "That's why I don't sleep anymore."

Despite the unending demands, he is calm and cheerful, almost unnaturally so. Annoyance flashes across his eyes when he looks down from the pulpit at a paltry turnout. But if more is bothering him, he seldom lets on. "A pastor always has to have a happy face and be in his glory," he said.

Yet not too happy or too glorious. While other Pentecostal ministers shake or shout, Pastor Florian prefers to pray quietly. He is careful how he acts in church, especially after visiting revivals where preachers made wild claims.

"If someone says they are going to heal the sick, leave," he warned his congregation. "For a miracle to happen, people need faith. Their faith heals them. Man does not do miracles."

And because he knows that some preachers care more about lining pockets than sav¬ing souls, his appeals for money are few and understated. Inside his home, he pauses to make something clear : "Everything I have, I had before becoming a pastor."

The Florians' boxy house is tucked into a neighborhood whose noisy fringes are plagued by drugs and violence. The pastor has been stopped by the police and questioned, but he says those slights bring him closer to the lives of his congregation.

He dotes on the house, painting or ripping up carpets. Proud of his self-taught craftsmanship, he showed off a new door he had installed.

"Give a Dominican a piece of thread, and he'll make you an airplane," he said with a laugh. "Ever since I came to New York, I was told that if they ever ask you at a job if you have experience, say yes."

His wife and her mother run a day care center in a warren of colorful rooms on the second floor. She is a whiz at multitasking, feeding one child while comforting another and answering her phone.

Small wonder that the pastor relies on her at home and in church, where she is known as Pastora. For years she drove a school bus, and still navigates the city better than he. In those days, she imagined they would be living in Miami by now, easing into a slower and more affordable life.

"I knew if he became pastor, that would be it for Miami," she said. "It's not easy."

Beyond the Storefront

The church van smelled of quickly eaten fried-chicken dinners as Pastor Florian cruised up Amsterdam Avenue with a dozen people crammed inside. As always on a Saturday night, they were visiting another church. As always, something was on his mind besides the traffic and the sermon he was about to give.

Real estate.

"There was a place on 152nd Street for $580,000," he told his wife. "There is another place available on 156th Street. The owner used to have a cafe downstairs and prostitutes upstairs."

As the van passed building after building, he rattled off the history of each one that fit the bill for his ideal church. Mirian's eyes widened when she saw a meticulously restored brick structure on 126th Street. "That would be good for a church," she said. "The first floor!"

He said nothing, but smiled faintly.

This is how he found the Ark's current home: traveling the streets, keeping his eyes open. But today that rented storefront hardly meets the congregation's needs.

Last spring, they were homeless for two weeks after an upstairs neighbor left the bathtub running and the ceiling collapsed. The room is cramped, with no space for all the community services Pastor Florian feels he needs to attract new members and keep the church growing: a soup kitchen, youth programs, immigration counseling and activities for the elderly.

So even as he tackles his overstuffed schedule, he always has one unfinished job, and it is his biggest ever: finding a permanent home where his congregation — not some landlord — can control its future. A place where it can graduate from storefront to institution.

That means money, and lots more than the church has in its anemic savings ac¬count. Collections bring in about $2,500 a month, half of which covers the rent. On average, $1,000 goes for insurance, utilities, gasoline and help for people in a pinch. If they are lucky, maybe a few hundred dollars remains.

At that rate, it will take decades to raise the $200,000 down payment Pastor Florian estimates they need to buy a new place. So far they have only $13,000, from special collections and food sales.

Time may be running short. The neighborhood is gentrifying, pushing real estate prices higher. One nearby storefront congregation has already been forced to move in with another.

Even the pastor's own finances are in peril. His employer has told him he will be let go next month, joining dozens of workers laid off since last summer.

Yet that setback and the church's meager finances do not seem to faze Pastor Florian, who reassures his congregation that God will provide. Somehow, faith will trump finances.

"We are not guided by logic," he told them one Sunday. "Having a temple in New York is difficult. We may not have the resources, but we have faith we will get one."

And as strange as it may sound, he harbors a small hope that the storefront will be their last earthly home.

Just as God's voice came to him in the darkness 16 years ago, he lives each day awaiting a second call: the trumpet blast announcing the rapture, the day when most

Pentecostals believe they will be summoned to heaven — rising out of their busy factories, church vans and frantic schedules.

The sidewalk outside the Ark was rank and grimy one Wednesday night in May. Scraps of food spilled from trash bags that had been picked clean of cans and bottles to redeem. The usual clutch of men in the bodega argued about politics and baseball.

But inside the church, the walls thumped with music. Several congregations from other parts of town were crammed into the seats, and more people squeezed in through the narrow doorway.

The room was unbearably hot. The noise was deafening. Pastor Florian was beaming.

"I am full of joy," he said. "It does not matter if you are from Brooklyn or Queens, for wherever we are, God has called us to be one people."

He peered over the top of his reading glasses.

"I wish the Lord would come tonight," he said. "After the service is over, I'd love to hear that trumpet sound."


Article list

A church’s challenge: Holding on to its young

HOUSE AFIRE
Last of three articles
Playing for Keeps

January 16, 2007

When Frankie Lora chuckles, his bass guitar bounces and he loses the beat. Sometimes the pianist next to him stumbles and can't keep up with the choir. And one singer gets so emotional that she veers off into tearful shouts of praise.

If music is the motor that drives Pentecostal worship, the band and choir at Ark of Salvation for the New Millennium, a little storefront church in west Harlem, could use a tuneup. Ragged and off-key at times, they are easily outclassed when they sit in with the seasoned musicians at other churches.

Yet they grab attention for one simple reason: They are often the only teenagers in the room.

As Pentecostalism advances across the world, winning converts faster than any other Christian denomination and siphoning believers from more established faiths, it is also suffering its own slow leak: young people who are falling away from the faith.

Mainline Christian churches have grappled with the problem for years. And recently, evangelical leaders in the United States sounded an alarm over "an epidemic of young people leaving."

But the loss is doubly distressing for Pentecostals, evangelical Christians who can be especially zealous in seeking new members and rejecting the secular culture they feel is luring adolescents away from religion. Against that backdrop, Ark of Salvation is an unusual success. Unlike most of the other Pentecostal churches they visit, this 60-member congregation has attracted a devoted core of teenagers — more than a dozen — who sing and pray at every service. This is no accident.

When the first of them showed up two years ago at the austere storefront on Amsterdam Avenue, dragged along by friends or family, they had little inclination toward religion or music. But Pastor Danilo Florian saw in them the seeds of his church band. More important, he saw in this motley bunch of knockabout youngsters the future of his fledgling church.

He gave them instruments. He paid for music lessons. And he lavished gifts that few of them had ever known, growing up in fractured families and on dangerous streets : Attention. Praise. Expectations.

Today, they are thriving. The bassist, Frankie Lora, looks as if he may defy his mother's fears that he will end up like his brother, who is serving a life sentence for murder. The pianist, Juan Carlos Matias, once lonely and aimless, is studying to become an engineer. And the singer, Jessica Marte, who was cutting class and fighting at age 12, now dreams of opening a clothing store for Christian girls.

They have also embraced a strict — and sometimes strait-laced — moral code, which they are urged to spread to friends and strangers.

But they are still teenagers, living in a city filled with temptations for quick pleasure and easy money that the founders of Pentecostalism a century ago never imagined. At school, they have classmates who live only for the latest music, gadgets or fashions, or friends who sell drugs. At home, some have parents who ridicule their faith.

And being teenagers, they have their own doubts and questions about their newfound religion's many rules and rituals. Frankie still recalls his disbelief when he saw people shouting, crying and twitching at his first service. "I was looking at them like they were retarded," he said. "I never saw jumping like that in the street."

Reaching these young people took a lot of work. Keeping them in church as they enter the wider world may prove even harder.

For the pastor and the other adults who lead the congregation's youth group, that means striking a balance between keeping them in line and letting them find their own way. It means shielding them not only from the evils of the world, but also from the excesses of some other churches.

And for the teenagers, it means navigating a tricky adolescence in which the boundaries are strict, but not always understandable. They can have cellphones and video games, but are told not to watch television. They can date, but preferably only other Pentecostals and then sometimes only with a chaperon. Dancing is taboo, but they can gyrate in religious ecstasy. Horror movies are bad, yet preachers regale them with gruesome visions of the apocalypse.

These young people struggle. They sometimes bend the rules, or drift away from religion altogether. But for now, at least, most have their faith in God, and something else just as powerful: the feeling that for the first time, someone has faith in them.

Frankie's Fight

Frankie lives the way he plays his bass —trying mightily to get it right.

He stopped screaming at his parents and has cut back on cursing, but sometimes the words still slip out. His grades are improving, but Italian class still vexes him. "I might have to copy from a friend," he joked.

Sometimes he prays to be strong. He certainly looks it, with a bruiser's thick arms and barrel chest, and a scowl to match. Just three years ago, Frankie ran with a rowdy pack. At 14, he was arrested and handcuffed to a pole at the local station house for stealing Pokémon cards from a Barnes & Noble. His mother grounded him for a year.

She was not overreacting. She knew what could happen to neighborhood boys like Frankie when they turned 16. "The same age my brother was when he started killing," he said.

Until his mother died of cancer in November, Frankie's new faith was the lifeline she clung to, hoping he would not turn out like his older brother, Jose, who is in prison for two murders.

In the mid-1990s, their stretch of 109th Street was awash in cocaine and bullets. Jose and his crew killed a rival dealer and later avenged the murder of his father's friend. They called themselves Natural Born Killers.

"My brother had beef with everybody on the streets," Frankie said. "My mother would hear gunshots, and she would go downstairs looking for him to see if he was alive or dead."

For years, she refused to let Frankie leave their apartment, finally letting him go outside, he said, only after "everybody got locked up." On evenings when she was away, he hung out with friends at a bodega, bragging about fights, sex and girls. They rode their bikes around Manhattan all night, or drank rum and beer.

"We were the baddest ones in the neighborhood," he said. "Crazy stuff."

The Loras went to Sunday Mass, but weekends were better known for family parties filled with music and liquor. Nobody blinked when the boys tipped a few beers.

Two years ago, Frankie and his cousin Juan Carlos Matias visited an older cousin, Roy Guzman, who was excited about a new storefront church he had just joined. The three were close, playing basketball and video games. But Roy grew serious that night, warning that if Christ returned, the two boys would be damned.

That message, from an admired older cousin, nudged them to visit the Ark. A week later, they joined.

Up front, their future beckoned: a keyboard and drums, untouched since the pastor's son was expelled from the band after taking up with an older girl. Jefferson Abreu, a friend Frankie had invited to church, asked to play the drums, and Juan Carlos began noodling on the keyboard. Frankie was already studying the bass.

Today, his calm demeanor defies both his looks and his past. Pastor Florian connected with him. "The pastor is cool," he said. "He doesn't lie to us. He is a little kid, like us."

Frankie enjoys a joking camaraderie with his band mates, sometimes cupping his hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh or rolling his eyes at a sour note. But seeing his old friends can be awkward. When they curse, he laughingly tells them to stop. When they talk about fighting or sex, he stays quiet.

He tried getting them to visit the church. "They're now selling drugs, hustling," he said of the boys on the block. "I tell them to think about God. They say, 'Yeah, it's true.' But they don't feel like coming. They got to make money."

His home life has been hectic. Before she died, his mother, Altagracia, had been hospitalized repeatedly for gall bladder cancer, returning home weak and needing care. His father, Francisco, he said, insults the Ark, calling it a scam to fleece them of what little money they have.

A rough-looking man, Francisco Lora is the only family member who has not converted to Pentecostalism. He scorns the congregation's belief that their prayers kept his

wife alive through years of surgery and chemotherapy. And he scoffs at his son Jose's conversion in prison last year.

"What is the use if you already killed a lot of people?" he snarled while mopping at the bodega where he works. "If you do something bad, you should think about God before. But they look for God afterward."

Frankie tries to ignore his father's rage, focusing instead on all that has to be done: schoolwork, practicing the bass and praying for his brother's release — even though Jose is ineligible for parole until 2054.

"I wish he was out," Frankie said. "To see what it feels like to have a brother."

'We Are the Bridge'

Frankie is not the only teenager yearning for an older brother or sister. So when Pastor Florian looked for someone to start a youth group and nurture his congregation's future, he picked the man who had brought Frankie into the church — his cousin Roy Guzman — and Roy's wife, Giselle.

A newlywed couple in their mid-20s, the Guzmans are old enough to be confident in their beliefs, yet young enough to remember being city kids confused about school, dating or friends who think your religion is crazy.

"Most of the people at the church are very mature, very old," said Giselle, a petite, bubbly woman who easily passes for a high school student. "We are the bridge between both generations. If young people have questions, they are not going to ask the elders. They're going to ask us."

Not that the elders are stingy with advice. Ramon Romero growls that the young musicians rush through prayers to spend more time practicing. Eneida Vasquez warns them about watching anything on television. Jeans in church or earrings anytime are for bidden, and the pastor even discouraged one boy from buying a pink shirt.

Sometimes the thou-shalt-nots seem endless. When the teenagers trooped one evening into Juan 3:16, a basement church celebrating its 37th anniversary, festive music and balloons promised a party. Instead, a glowering, skeletal woman — a visiting preacher — railed against reggaeton music away: a 16-year-old who had stopped attending regularly, just before she was to preach her first sermon — and around the time her father went back to prison.

Pastor Florian was particularly worried about one boy who liked hip clothes and sweet cologne and was friendly with even the toughest guys on the block. The boy was troubled. The task was daunting. The pastor turned to Roy — who had converted Frankie and others — to pray for him every day.

"You cannot let him go," the pastor implored.

Just in case, he assigned a second adult to pray for the boy.

But Roy's life was becoming complicated. He and his wife were expecting their first child, and he had started a job with an international consulting firm that has kept him away from home during the week.

Three other adults now lead the youth group, and attendance at meetings has grown spotty.

Frankie still shows up. At 17, he is still not quite sure where he is headed, especially since the chilly November day when the congregation crowded into a funeral parlor in Washington Heights. His mother was laid out in a silver coffin, dressed in white with a lacy veil gracing her head.

"Now I'm left here to suffer," Frankie said. "But if she's in heaven, I'm O.K. She's watching over me."

Others may be watching as well. His bandmates still count on him to make time for practice. One woman promised his dying mother she would make sure he didn't stray from church. His father is looking to him to help pay the bills.

Frankie said he might have to enroll in night school so he could work during the day. But his brother, Jose, hopes Frankie will heed his urgent — though unlikely — career advice.

It started when Frankie visited him in prison recently and encouraged him to turn to God for help. "He said God doesn't do things quick," Frankie recalled.

Instead, Jose is depending on Frankie. He told him to become a professional baseball player so he could get a signing bonus, get a lawyer and get him out.

Chalk it up to teenage bluster or blind faith, but Frankie said he might try out for his school team, even though he hasn't stepped on a ball field in two years. Maybe, he said, he could find a baseball camp upstate where a scout could discover him.

"Right now I'm depending on baseball," he said. "I'm only depending on baseball."

Pastor Florian, however, is depending on Frankie. For his future. For his faith. For his church.

What he whispered into the boy's ear just before baptizing him in the Delaware River was this : You are destined to become a preacher.

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