BAY RIDGE, NY – As the congregation of New York’s Chinese Evangelical Free Church files out of their Sunday service, they take their hymn books with them, and leaders from the Arabic Bible Church usher in, placing worship materials on the chairs for their service later than evening.
At Bay Ridge First Evangelical Free Church, on 6th avenue and 66th street in Brooklyn, this is now a common practice, as four congregations – American-Norwegian, Chinese, Arabic, and most recently, Albanian – share the building.
‘To have that number of groups in one facility is pretty rare,” said Stephen Galegor, the church establisher of the Albanian Evangelical Fellowship.
“It’s definitely unusual,” commented George A. Jensen, the church’s Chairman. “But what’s unique is the Chinese church is the same denomination as us, so it’s not a landlord-tenant relation.”
The original Norwegian congregation, established in 1897, first branched out in the 1940s to establish an English-language congregation. When the current building was erected in 1963, it included two sanctuaries, one for each congregation. The smaller hall was later converted to a basketball court when the Norwegian community diminished.
The Chinese congregation, the fastest growing, consists of 80 people and offers simultaneous translation of Mandarin to Cantonese, explained the Church Leader, Rebecca Li.
The Arabic Bible Church, a congregation of 50 worshipers – Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian – also holds youth worship services, while the smaller Albanian congregation of seven couples is only meeting bi-weekly at this point.
“As the neighborhood has changed, new ethnic groups saw the need for ministering to their people,” said Jensen. “Most immigrants groups are not wealthy when they arrive,” he added. “They couldn’t buy a building, so they asked us if they could use ours.”
Galegor, who is originally from Indiana but speaks fluent Albanian, said First Evangelical was very curious about their new group.
“They were really open to the idea and offered to let us use their space,” he said.
First Evangelical’s openness is buffering it from the downsizing or threats for demolition that are facing many other shrinking congregations in the area. With one of the highest densities of churches in all of the five boroughs, Bay Ridge’s “faith alley” – where you’ll find a church on nearly every block along Fourth Avenue – has been increasingly up for sale.
While some of the sales have generated high large revenues – the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church sold for 9.75 million during the peak of the housing bubble – it points to a general decline in church attendance and a slowness to adapt to current demographics.
But at First Evangelical, leaders agreed that a shared emphasis on Evangelical faith, which places a strong emphasis on a personal relationship with God, was important for the church’s future.
“Our faith tells us to love each other and love our neighbors,” commented Satwa Attia, the pastor at Arabic Bible Church.
“We partner with the other congregations,” said Jensen. “We want to be part of them and they a part of us.”