Of Religious Freedom:
Continuing To Welcome The World's Faiths
the very beginning of its history, Queens has been a place where
religious freedom has been cherished, and people of all faiths and
creeds have come together to live in harmony, without fear or
Flushing during the 1600s, an Englishman named John Bowne fought for
his religious beliefs. Today, people of all religions pray freely in
is the place where the first document of religious freedom in the
country was drafted, and the spot where the Bowne House – a symbol
of religious tolerance – still stands as a reminder of the
borough’s open-minded roots.
as the borough’s foreign-born population continues to increase and
new religious practices are continuously being practiced within the
borough’s borders, Queens’ belief in religious freedom is more
evident than ever. And no place acts as a better microcosm of
Queens’ religious diversity than the birthplace of religious
tolerance in the borough – Flushing.
story of Queens religion begins in 1657, when New Amsterdam Governor
Peter Stuyvesant mandated that his Dutch Reform religion be the only
one practiced in the area. A group of Quakers in the Town of Flushing
known as the Society of Friends rose in opposition, which angered
Stuyvesant, and led him to issue an order forbidding anyone in
Flushing from admitting Quakers into their homes for any reason.
Quaker Meeting house on Northern Boulevard is where a group of
Flushing townspeople signed the Flushing Remonstrance in 1657
declaring free worship for all.
Photo by J. Davis
Bowne, an Englishman who was sympathetic to the plight of the Society
of Friends, welcomed the Quakers into his Flushing house, where Sunday
services were held in his kitchen. As disdain grew for Stuyvesant’s
strict religious policies, residents saw the need for action, and in
1657, drafted the Flushing Remonstrance.
historic document stated, “We are bound by the law of God and man to
do good unto all men, and evil to no man; and this is according to the
Patent and Charter of our Town given unto us in the name of the States
General which we are not willing to infringe and violate.” The
Remonstrance extended free worship to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as
well as Quakers. The document was signed two days after Christmas by
30 people who risked losing their jobs and their land by supporting
who was not an original signer of the Remonstrance, continued allowing
his house to be a place of Quaker worship until Dutch officials found
him, jailed him, and banished him from the colony.
Bowne was banished on a ship that was due to sail to
“wherever it may land,” and ended up landing in Ireland.
made his way to Amsterdam, and eventually pleaded his case with the
colony-owning Dutch West India Company, which declared Bowne a free
company then sent the Dutch New World officials a note: “Let
everyone remain free.”
Bowne returned to his Flushing home, and the Flushing
Remonstrance served as a reference for both the Declaration of
Independence and First Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
Fellowship For A Diverse Community’
turning south from Northern Boulevard, the Bowne House stands on the
same block as the Bowne Street Community Church, which lies at the
corner of Roosevelt Avenue.
A sign in front of the church reads, “Diverse Fellowship for
a Diverse Community,” and the church offers two morning services on
Sundays - one in English, and a later one in Taiwanese.
The church slogan is reflected in the variety of places for
Hindu Temple Society
of North America – the continent’s
Kissena Jewish Center, located on Bowne Street between Cherry and 45th
Avenues, has welcomed members for over 50 years.
“People in this neighborhood pray any way they want to,”
says Norman Bernstein, a Flushing resident and 30-year member of the
don’t know of any other place with this much religious diversity.”
Bernstein says there are many more types of faiths represented
near the Kissena Jewish Center now versus when he first became a
good neighbors,” Bernstein says of the members of all the
surrounding houses of worship, including Shree Swaminarayn Mandir, a
Hindu temple across the street, and the Boon Church of Overseas
Chinese Mission down the block, located across the street from a Sikh
Temple called Singh Subha.
Singh, general secretary of the Sikh Temple, which was established in
1986, says that his fellow congregation members have no disputes with
any of their neighbors.
“All religions are like flowers,” says Singh, “created by
God and free to blossom on their own.”
Members of this group of Sikhs - which means disciple or
learner - attend meetings at nearby churches for meals or just to hear
other community members’ speeches on religion.
Sikhs, who do not believe in conversion, welcome people into
their Temple to observe their prayers and learn about Sikhism.
“We are pleased when anyone’s going to church or synagogue
or temple on Bowne Street on Sunday,” says Singh, who emigrated from
Punjab, India in 1988. “It means that they’re celebrating their
kind of celebration has been at the foreground of community
organizations in Flushing that aim to unify people regardless of skin
color or religion.
One such organization is the Network for Intergroup Harmony,
which was founded in 1987 through the work of Julia Harrison –
councilwoman at the time – in order to ensure peace between peoples
of Flushing after a racially charged murder had occurred in Howard
children sing praise
to their faith in Flushing.
network convenes monthly to update representatives from local
churches, mosques, synagogues, as well as the City’s Human Rights
Commission on local multiracial and religious affairs.
“Some people are more vocal than others about fully
integrating our community,” says Rita Cassel, the network’s
secretary, who has lived in Flushing for the past 76 years.
“I believe that people are accepting of others, especially in
a community like this where you have a representation of the entire
Sept. 11, the Network for Intergroup Harmony – headed by Reverend
Nicholas Tweed of the Macedonia AME Church – convened members of
several houses of worship for a program at a local mosque.
The meeting was intended to show non-Muslims that not all
Muslims are violent fundamentalists.
on Bowne Street, the Hindu Temple Society of North America - the
continent’s first Hindu Temple - convenes in an ornate gray building
with sacred images adorning its entryway.
The temple, which welcomes members from around the tri-state
area, hosts interfaith activities among the neighborhood houses of
religious freedom and diversity here is amazing,” says Kadayam
Srinivasan, administrator of the temple’s community center.
Srinivasan, who emigrated from Bombay, India four years ago,
says that he learns a lot from other religions, and finds many
similarities in the faiths nearby. “These houses of worship all have
faithful members, and all their members love God, regardless of the
name of the religion.”
the end of Bowne Street - at Rose Avenue - sits Iglesia Evangelica
The church, which welcomes members from all Central and South
American nations, is now opening its doors to Korean Presbyterians.
Diversity on this one strip of Flushing, however, is evidenced
by more than just religious buildings, as one stretch road is lined
with storefronts in Russian, Spanish, Korean, and English.
Queens is the most religiously and ethnically diverse community in
America,” says R. Scott Hanson, a visiting associate professor of
American History at Philadelphia University, who wrote his doctoral
dissertation at the University of Chicago on the religious composition
Bowne Street Community Church
is a multi-ethnic religious haven.
Photo by J. Davis
such a variety of people living together in less than one square mile.
It’s a fascinating place.”
Hanson, whose book, City of Gods: Religious Freedom,
Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens - New York City
1945-2000, is under review for publication, asserts that the rise
of religious diversity in Flushing came from a 1961 zoning law -
making it easier to build houses of worship, as “community
facilities” - and the area’s demographic change from the 1970’s
“Flushing’s composition reflects the rest of our
country.” says Hanson, “It’s overwhelmingly Christian, and to a
lesser extent Jewish.”
work compares Flushing with places in Israel, and questions why
similar religious strife does not occur in our borough.
While the area’s history as a beacon of religious freedom may
be a clue into the peace with which everyone on Bowne Street prays,
Hanson believes it’s just because so many different peoples are
New York - and Queens in particular - everyone rides the subway
together and lives in a tightly knit community.
If you grow up with that kind of diversity, you’re going to
become more tolerant of others.”