While in Utica, I had been working on a story on the changing religious landscape of Utica. I did the reporting in my own time on the weekends becaise I thought the story was important. Much of the story (still incomplete) was written over cups on coffee in parking lots and in the confines of my apartment. I am posting it here because it reminds me of Utica ...
The day before I left, I went to the site of the mosque and saw Avlim Tricic, the president of the Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica, putting the cresecent moon on top of the former church. To me that was symbolic ....
The story ...
Every Monday, Julius Wandover walks into the former St. Mary's Church chapel and scrubs the floors clean, polishes the windows and makes sure everything is fine. He has been the caretaker for 18 years and was a member once, too. But when the church closed about two years ago, he started attending St. John's. Now he doesn't. But he hasn't given up on St. Mary's. When he pushes the doors open and walks into the familiar chapel, you can tell Wandover is experiencing a mix of emotions.
There's excitement, but there's also a sense of loss much like when you have to sell your ancestral house to a new neighbor because you can't keep it anymore for whatever reason.
In this case, the reason was the church's dwindling population. Almost nobody came to the church anymore. Maybe a few elderly women and some old-time members, Wandover recalled.
Now with the new Karen congregation, a lot has changed. While he is happy the church is not one of those abandoned buildings, he misses the worship services when fellow Catholics were around. It used to be lot quieter then and faith was much stronger unlike these days, Wandover said.
Now the church is packed to capacity, and in way it is reminiscent of old times. But the worship service is different. It is longer and there's too much singing. The Karen refugees have a different culture, he said.
The two confessional cabins are no longer used. The Karens admit to their sins in front of the whole congregation and ask for forgiveness, he said.
"It must be so embarrassing," he said.
But then, with so many other things, Utica is changing and so is its religious landscape. Gone are the days when you would see churches, mostly Catholic, full of people on Sundays. They would be dressed in their fine clothes and come to the church for some serious praying, Wandover said.
He is one of that generation, he said, wiping off his thick glasses.
And while the church is a leftover from the past that Wandover must stick to and preserve even though it has a new character, for many of the ethnic Karen, the church is the symbol of a new era.
Wandover is very proud of the stained glass windows that members had paid for in the old days. And then there are stations of Christ on the wall, a Catholic thing, he said.
So the church itself is suspended between two identities, its former self still prsent in the architecture, in the stations of the cross, in the stained glass, Wandover said.
But for Saw Kler, it doesn't matter. It is the house of God, he said.
But on Sundays, the Karen enter the church dressed n their traditional woven shirts, and talk in their ethnic language. To them, having their own church is the first step toward calling the new country home, Kler said.
The Utica Karen Church, the first of its kind in United States, is sort of a statement - We are here. This is us, And its ours and for our children.
For many years, the Karen worshipped at the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
But it wasn't their own place. Yes, the church welcomed them, and helped them but the church's traditions were different, Saw Kler said.
So, about 80 members left the church and for almost two years carried worship services at each other's houses. Then they bought the church on South Street with a loan of $125,000 from the Wesleyn Diocese in Syracuse. Two weeks ago, the church held its dedication ceremony. The loan carries no interest for the first five years and the 250-member church hopes to pay it off soon, Kler said.
Over the years, Utica has seen many changes. In the 1970s and 1980s, population halved. Many of the manufacturing units shut shop, and moved elsewhere. The city's landscape with its boarded-up brick buildings is still a reminder of the days when it was a booming factory town with a working class citizenry. Then with the refugees
who came to the city to rebuild their lives, Utica saw a revival of some sort.
As they moved into old houses that the city had given up on, some of them also filled the empty pews in area's churches. They became the new congregations.
The Tabernacle Baptist Church that has a large Karen population started offering worship services in Karen and has a Karen pastor, the Rev. Daniel Htoo.
As the refugees started to adapt to a new country, taking on its customs and values and practices, they also wanted to preserve their own tradition. They didn't want their children to forget who they were.
And religion was the first on the list.
It first began with the Cambodians who built the first temple on Steuben Street and Monk Chamreun Khorl left Cambodia to serve the community here. Buddhism, he said, is a way of life for them and they need to practice it.
Then the Burmese Buddhists established their own temple in small apartment building. But then as the community grew, they began looking for a bigger place. Finally, they bought 1005 Miller Street earlier this year to serve as a monastery and a community center.
But the biggest transformation was when the Bosnians bought a former Central Methodist Church on Court Street next to the City Hall to convert into a mosque. The Bosnians, like Somali Bantus and Burmese muslims, worshipped at the Kemble Street mosque for years before breaking away from it to form their own mosque in a one-room building at the corner of Mary and Albany streets last year to serve as a place
of worship until they found a bigger place.
The church that was listed on the Urban Renewal Agency's Web site was perfect. It was large enough for the congregation's needs and could house a community center and a religious school, too.
In June, after taking possession of the church building, the community members started to repair the structure and make necessary changes to it like taking off the cross, putting up velvet hangings that depicted Mecca, and inscriptions in Arabic.
In the future, they would like to have minarets, too, members of the Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica said.
For experts, this is the coming of age for immigrant groups. Mosques or other religious places of worship with a particular cultural flavor isn't uncommon, they said.
But it isn't just that newcomers are changing America's religous landscape. Their own practices have changed, too.
In Myanmar, a monk has no material possession. He is a spiritual leader, the "son of Buddha" who must rely on alms to survive.
But here, Pyinnyar Nanda drives an old Toyota Camry, buys and sells property and organizes fundraisers. He has to. Who else will do it if not him, Nanda said.
The Bosnians build their own mosque
From the outside, the old brick building on Court Street is still a church. The cross is still intact. There are no pronounced external symbols - no crescent-shaped moons, no splash of green, nothing yet - that can tell a passerby that the this is the site of Utica's first big mosque.
But the transformation has begun. In the mornings, and through afternoons and evenings, Bosnians park their station wagons or trucks in the parking lot that still says 'Church Parking" and disappear into a tiny door that leads to a damp basement. It's there you can hear them at work.
In the big hall where once a congregation sang hymns from the Bible, the change slowly begins to unfold. The cross on the wall behind the pulpit has been taken down. On the shafts, carefully carved crecsent moons and stars, the symbols of Islam, are hard to miss.
Some Bosnian Muslim men sat on the long benches, chatting and smoking, while a man in the corner relentlessly worked on fixing a door. They have all been volunteering their time to help repair the structure and convert it into a house of worship similar to what they had known in their lives before the war when they left the familiar to come to America to start all over again. This is their mosque where they can follow their customs and the Bosnian ways.
But in the midst of all this, the church itself remains in a limbo. The cross is gone but the other symbols of its former self remain.
Burmese Buddhist monks work on a new monastery
A few blocks away, on Miller Street, a 62-year-old monk is busy drilling holes into logs. For years the Burmese Buddhist monks worshipped in a small building on Kemble Street, where the community members jostled for space in the tiny living room where the deity was housed.
In March, the community members, through donations and small personal loans, raised enough money to buy 1005 Miller Street. And in July, the monks moved to the new place. The windows are broken, the floors creak, and the paint is coming off but they hope to fix everything on their own.
They have big dreams. They want to build a monastery, a school where the monk can teach the children their language and religion, and a community center, too.
"We are going to keep trying," Soe Htut, a Burmese refugee said.
Without a temple, it was difficult connecting with their new country. The temple is the anchor. They needed the temple, he said.