Financial necessity brings distinct congregations together
Pastor Johnny Mercado’s excitement was palpable as he stood in front of the Bright Temple A.M.E. Church’s board at a meeting in October.
“We want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to share this place,” he said.
When Mercado learned recently that the landlord planned to raise next year’s rent on the Hunts Point Ave. storefront where he leads the Pentecostal Iglesia Cristiana Emmanuel, from $1,800 to $2,000, he knew it was time to go. In addition to worrying about rising rent, Mercado said, Emmanuel has outgrown its 65-person capacity.
Bright Temple’s own pastor, Reverend Kahli Mootoo tried to put Mercado at ease.
“This is not our house, this is all of our house. Because it’s God’s house,” said the broad-shouldered Mootoo, towering over the others at the meeting.
Bright Temple board member and city bus driver, Reverend Harry Isaac, stood up to embrace Mercado.
Emmanuel has been using space in Bright Temple’s historic building on Faile Street for its Sunday school, but now its Pentecostal congregation will share space with the host church’s African Methodist Episcopal congregation under one roof in late November.
Although they follow different doctrines, the churches have joined forces out of mutual respect, and necessity. By sharing pews and a pulpit, they hope to not only survive but also thrive.
“It’s a big change, but we have to make it,” the soft-spoken Mercado, 51, told his congregation at an October service.
Mercado, who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic nearly 30 years ago, is now a social worker at P.S. 211 in West Farms. After years of worshipping at a Washington Heights church, he arrived in Hunts Point around the same time as Mootoo. The two have since formed a strong bond.
Over the years, Bright Temple has undergone many changes. Built in the 1860s as the manor house for a country estate, the landmarked building was known as Sunnyslope until Jewish residents bought it in 1919 and converted it into Temple Beth Elohim. It was sold in 1966 as the neighborhood’s Jewish population thinned out, and it became Bright Temple AME Church.
Mootoo, 41, has been trying to restore Bright Temple to its former glory since becoming its pastor in 2010. He is no stranger to the neighborhood. He often visited family in Hunts Point while growing up in Soundview. He received his Ph.D. from New York Theological Seminary, where he wrote his thesis on the effects of HIV and AIDS on prostitutes working the streets of Hunts Point.
Leading a financially troubled church is just the latest challenge on a resumé that includes working for an AIDS education organization, preaching in prisons and serving as president of the National Action Network’s Bronx chapter. Aside from a leaky roof, the building’s poor insulation has led to high heating bills; many pews don’t have bibles; and cash was so low recently that Mootoo went without a paycheck for three weeks.
To earn the money his church needs for repairs and supplies, Mootoo is trying to broker a deal that would lead to the construction of affordable housing on the Lafayette Ave. side of the church’s property. The proceeds could keep the church afloat for years, he said.
Until then, the budget remains tight.
“This year, we are fasting and praying,” Mootoo said.
But with the rent it will start receiving from Emmanuel — including an advance payment already made to help fix the boiler — Bright Temple hopes to finally compile the cash it needs.
Live music, soulful hymns and impassioned preaching are staples of both churches. Backed by gospel music that draws people in from the street, Mootoo’s rollicking sermons often end with his suit unbuttoned, forehead glistening with sweat and members on their knees in prayer. Mercado’s standing-room only services feature a full band, his youngest daughter belting out songs, parishioners shaking tambourines and sometimes speaking in tongues.
Members of both energetic churches are optimistic there will be harmony under Bright Temple’s roof.
“Now we’re going to have bilingual spirit up in here,” said Isaac.