The Brooklyn Tabernacle Moves On Up

Church and temple attendance has reportedly fallen off again nationally after a post-September 11th spiritual surge, but you wouldn’t notice it on Sunday at the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Founded in 1965 by Clair D. Hutchins, a globetrotting evangelist, the Tabernacle has grown from an all-time low of 20 members in 1971, to more than 7,000. Its choir, led by Hutchins’s daughter Carol, has won three Gospel Grammys (and was nominated again this past year). Its pastor, Carol’s husband, Jim Cymbala, is a best-selling author of five inspirational titles and a frequent guest on Christian radio and television shows such as the 700 Club. Youth groups, Promise Keepers, and entire out-of-town congregations pilgrimage to the Tabernacle throughout the year; tour buses, taxis, and ice-cream trucks clog Sunday traffic on Flatbush.

Behind its unassuming modern brown brick façade, which (apart from the large plain white cross) resembles that of a dental practice, the Tabernacle’s splendid interior testifies to the building’s former life as an old-time movie theater. Huge brass chandeliers hang from elaborately filigreed grilles in the ceiling, a confection of rosettes and acanthus leaves in pink and white. The rampart-like rows of comfy tapestry-upholstered pews hold 1,400, but each of the four Sunday services is like the reenactment of a biblical parable in which the number of pews, like loaves and fishes, appears wholly inadequate for the arriving multitude. A team of about 30 friendly volunteer ushers does an efficient job of packing in the worshippers, who file in from lines wrapping halfway down the adjacent Prospect Place. Still, some congregants stand, and some are turned away.

For the benefit of lay folk and baffled fellow clergy, Jim Cymbala documents the Tabernacle’s success story in his 1997 book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire (published by Zondervan, a Christian press in Grand Rapids, Michigan). The Cymbala husband-and-wife team started out in the top floor of a two-story building in a downtrodden, drug-ridden strip on Atlantic Avenue. When Clair Hutchins, who was busy preaching at and starting up churches elsewhere, asked them to take over the faltering Brooklyn franchise, Jim, a lifelong Brooklynite of Polish-Ukrainian descent, was a college graduate with no Bible college or seminary education, and Carol was a young mother and a talented albeit untrained pianist; to this day she cannot read music. They credit hard work, faith, and God’s grace with their survival of this early wilderness period; it’s a kind of Reverend Horatio Alger story that the mainstream media would eat up if they could somehow tease out the Jesus part.

In 1996, after more than 20 years of ministry, Cymbala and his co-pastors (there are currently eight) discerned that God wasn’t nearly done growing the Tabernacle. They added a fourth Sunday service, at 9 a.m., to the lineup (12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and the blockbusting Tuesday night Prayer Meeting), and this early session soon became the best attended. Then Pastor Cymbala had visions of an exodus to someplace roomier. During a sermon last July, standing before a large screen displaying an artist’s rendering of the Tabernacle’s new home, Cymbala recounted the search for a suitable structure.

They had considered factory buildings, warehouses, and the Daily News building on Third Avenue and Carroll, but in each case the expense of bringing the facility up to code was prohibitive. Constructing a brand-new church would, per city regulations, require also developing a separate parking lot. Cymbala noted dryly that buildings commissions are not exemplars of godliness, and community boards are not always Christian. He told the congregation about the day he learned that a long-vacant former Vaudeville venue, the Loews Metropolitan Theater on Fulton Mall, was on the market. The sellers wanted $8.9 million, but Cymbala thought the Tabernacle could negotiate down to 6 or 6.5. The place needed a new roof and a new façade and would cost about $30 million to renovate. With a capacity of 4,000 in an area of heavy foot traffic and good public transportation in downtown Brooklyn, it was a bargain.

MERCHANTS AND THE TEMPLE

The Loews Metropolitan, completed in 1920, was designed by Thomas Lamb, the architect of the original Madison Square Garden. The theater’s 392 Fulton entrance, newly renovated by the Tabernacle in a red brick and limestone Federal-esque style, is about 25 feet wide and wedged between a VIM Jeans store and Fulton Plaza Beeper, Perfume, Sneakers and Smokes. Across the street is Goldmine Jewelry Inc., the Hot Spot, a Payless Shoe Source, and a wig store. The modest Fulton-facing portal, which one can easily charge past without seeing, belies the vastness of the establishment: The Metropolitan is still one of the five largest theaters in the city, and when it’s complete, the Tabernacle’s sanctuary, administrative offices, child-care and education centers will eventually take up almost the entire block.

The block’s three other sides (the Gallatin Place alleyway, Livingston, and Smith streets) are now, apart from the Living Stone Jewelers (on Livingston) and Gothic Cabinet and Craft (on Smith), bereft of retail. On the Livingston Street side, the Original Hair Design Institute (“a small, personalized beauty school, est.1964”) and a tax service agency (or perhaps just its sign) are abandoned and mostly obscured by the Tabernacle’s scaffolding. Standing as perhaps the most poignant markers of economic transition are two large shuttered windows on the Smith Street side, next to a vacant office building. Above each window post-apocalyptic gray and dingy raised letters spell out “Schrafft’s.” The sight of the remains of this famous New York candy and soda emporium elicits in me a daydream of ambrosiac encores to evenings with Preston Sturges or Cecil B. DeMille, at the Loews Metropolitan.

Some may mourn the passing of such establishments (and the removal of their carcasses), but Lou Carbonetti, director of the Fulton Mall Business Improvement District, is feeling no pain. In fact, he’s more enthused than usual at the prospect of new “religious use” in a retail strip. “We’re not talking about some fly-by-night church here,” Carbonetti says. “Speaking selfishly: Sundays, Saturdays, weekday evenings – we’ll have hundreds of potential shoppers.” Carbonetti’s office had tried for three or four years to get businesses in the building, at one point considering a complex including restaurants and a bowling alley, but the potential tenants either couldn’t afford the space or wanted to tear it down and rebuild. As a nonprofit, the Tabernacle won’t be paying property tax. Although Carbonetti says the lack of revenue with “hurt” (the estimated 2001 property tax for a space on the Mall a fraction of the new Tabernacle’s size was $64,000, according to the Department of Finance) he admits the city hasn’t been making anything off the empty space anyway. “Speaking unselfishly,” he says, “It’ll be good for the community. I’m not the most religious person, but I think every area can use a little church.”

If Carbonetti has been BID director of the Tabernacle’s decrepit first venue 30 years ago on Atlantic near Third Avenue, he might not have been so positive. Community boards and business groups, Christian or otherwise, don’t tend to like storefront churches cropping up in shopping districts. According to the Department of City Planning, “retail continuity” provisions are inserted into the zoning code for certain areas to prevent non-retail use on the ground floor. Retail continuity depends on pedestrian walking slowly and making maximum eye contact with active storefronts, rather than rushing past vacant lots or darkened windows. These days, laws forbidding liquor stores within one hundred yards of a church are invoked by community boards to keep start-up churches out; to preserve not pious sensibilities but alcohol sales.

And the Fulton Mall, according to Carbonetti, is one of the highest-grossing commercial strips in the city. To preserve that revenue, the Department of City Planning has designated the Fulton Mall as a Special Zoning District, a category created to promote retail. Churches are explicitly disallowed in Special Zoning Districts, but because only the Tabernacle’s lobby is actually on the Fulton Mall (lobbies are a permitted use, according to City Planning), and quite modestly so at that, the Tabernacle was able to secure permission to develop the rest of the block. The noncommercial worshipping will be taking place just outside the Fulton Mall Subdistrict of the Special Downtown Brooklyn District, far enough from the bustle of Fulton Street not to disrupt it, but close enough, the neighbors hope, to contribute to it.

 

The VIM and Fulton Plaza managers were not available for comment on a recent Saturday when I came to ask how they felt about the Tabernacle’s moving in (both stores were also so packed that day that it was hard to imagine business ever slowing down). A manager at Gothic Cabinet and Craft, who didn’t want to be named, shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know what it would do for his business, but he thought the Tabernacle’s presence would “make the community nicer.” As I proceeded up Smith, past the Schrafft’s, a man handed me a full-color leaflet that read “Do You Know For Sure That If You Died Today You Would Go To Heaven?”—a message from the Brooklyn Tabernacle.

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR

It remains to be seen whether having a “little church” will in fact enhance the Fulton Mall community. Rick Russo, executive director of the North Flatbush BID, which oversees the Tabernacle’s current location, is skeptical. “They certainly do bring a lot of people to the area on Sunday, but they haven’t exactly been a good neighbor.” Every fall the BID stages a street fair, for which part of Flatbush is closed down, and every year, according to Russo, the Tabernacle complains: “Last year they went so far as to call the police because they didn’t want the artists and vendors standing in front of their facility.” Meanwhile, the crowds of Sunday worshippers prove to be a mixed blessing. “Flatbush is difficult vehicularly anyway,” Russo says, “and it’s incredible how they tie up traffic with their huge buses. We’ve made overtures, inviting their choir to perform at the street fair, trying to get them involved with our summer youth program, with no luck,” says Russo. “One time we approached them about using their facility for a meeting of merchants, and they flatly refused. There just doesn’t seem to be any community involvement or any real participation.”

Russo suspects the Tabernacle’s isolationism stems from the BID’s decision 15 years ago to treat the church as a commercial entity, demanding $1,200 from them annually in property tax. Nonprofits are normally charged a nominal $1 fee, but an exception was made in the Tabernacle’s case because of the “large footprint” it made on Flatbush. Russo says the Tabernacle has voiced objections to the tax every year, but “not with lawyers.” Whatever the reason (the Tabernacle would not comment on its relationship with area businesses or the BID), the church seems to have excommunicated the North Flatbush BID. “They seem very unwilling to share information about their activities,” Russo says. “We don’t even know what’s going to happen to the Flatbush location when they move.” As it turns out, at the time of this writing the Tabernacle didn’t know either; the facility may be sold or it may be retained as an education center.

The Tabernacle and the North Flatbush BID seem to have divergent notions about just who are the people in their neighborhood—the Tabernacle sees itself as part of a larger community of believers, rather than a neighbor on any mapped avenue. It may consider hobnobbing with local businesses and politicians (or talking to the secular press—none of the pastors would grant an interview) to be a distraction from its true mission. The marigold-colored visitors bulletin, available upon request during services, contains a list of the Tabernacle’s objectives: Exaltation, Edification, Evangelism, and Extension. “Extension” means “extending the Kingdom of God locally and worldwide through men and women sent out from our church in crusades, seminars, church planting, and permanent missionary settlement.” Accordingly, the Tabernacle has 10 “daughter” congregations, as Cymbala reports in Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, including thriving outposts in Coney Island and Elmhurst, Queens. In effect, the Tabernacle’s community, its neighborhood, its kingdom, exists not next door or across the street necessarily, but wherever people are gathered in Christ’s name, to paraphrase the Bible verse.

The tabernacle’s idea of “service to the community” and “outreach” differs from that of Community Board 6 or the North Flatbush BID, or ever that of many so-called mainline churches (Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other). The adult literacy program Cymbala describes in God’s Grace from Ground Zero (Zondervan) comes with some theological strings attached. Cymbala relates the story of an Arabic-speaking family of Muslims who came to enroll in the course to improve their writing skills about a week after the World Trade Center attacks. Although the next few sessions were full, the family was admitted because the registrar sensed “God working in their lives.” “Now,” Cymbala writes, “three nights a week, this Muslim family is being surrounded by Christians, the Bible, and the Gospel of Christ!...Who knows if world events, combined with love-filled churches and ministries, will provide a harvest of Muslim men and women for our Lord Jesus Christ?”

SANCTUARY

The tabernacle’s merger with the Metropolitan has produced one blessing the godless can appreciate: a resurrection. According to Lou Carbonetti, who has visited the site, the Metropolitan is being fully restored, down to period lighting and the last plaster curlicue, in a labor of love that, at press time, had consumed three years and $40 million. Pam Slighter, project manager for Kapell & Kostow architects, who are handling the renovation, marvels at what she feels amounts to an act of generosity: “They’re not getting any tax credits or anything,” Slighter says. “It’s just astonishing the lengths they’ve gone to and how much of their budget they’ve spent to restore the auditorium. I am just thrilled every day when I walk in there.”

According to Matt Kinne, an editor at MovieGuide, a Christian magazine and website, about three times as many Americans attend religious services as go to the movies in an average week. This isn’t surprising when you consider that there’s always something new playing at church (or so I’ve been told). The decline of the great film palaces has lyrically lamented, but from a growing church’s point of view, the displacement of cinematic spectacle by charismatic worship, a sort of ecological succession, makes earthly sense. Whether it’s a woebegone Odeon outside Detroit or the 6,000 seat Valencia (now the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People) in Jamaica, Queens, a defunct theater meets fire code, doesn’t require new parking, has good acoustics (or at least the potential for them), and in some cases, comes complete with an exalted ambience in need of little more than dusting off.

The rebirth of the Metropolitan has been a massive project, though, and the Tabernacle’s attention to historical preservation is all the more remarkable in light of the church’s very contemporary technical needs. Acoustic Dimensions, a performance space renovations consultancy, was hired to hook up the Tabernacle with state-of-the-art audio, video, and recording equipment. The biggest challenge, according to principal consultant Eric Seifert, was working with the architects to ensure that the stage could accommodate a platform loaded with 250 choir members and a band including two organs, a piano, an electric bass, guitar, and drums, in such a way that the worshipers in the audience and those onstage will be able to see and hear and exchange energy to maximum effect.

Tabernacle services involve a lot of movement, too; the congregation stand for much of the service, many sway and raise their arms in attitudes of praise, and scores of people must be able to get to the stage quickly for “altar calls,” the climax of many services, during which there is more focused prayer or conversion experiences. In the current location on Flatbush, pastors, choir members, security guards, ushers, and “Kiddie Church” workers are in constant motion between the sanctuary and church offices; a red LED display above the lectern summons individuals to various locations during the service (“Marjorie please report to the nursery”). In the new building there will be a large video screen, the music and sermon will be viewable and listenable from almost everywhere in facility, including the dining halls and the reading room. Seifert says it will be tough to finish before the hoped-for opening, March 19, in time for Prayer Meeting that evening.

HARVEST TIME

The Brooklyn Tabernacle is nominally non-denominational; it draws a little bit from many groups, but is not formally a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, nor is it affiliated with any other organization. But services are strongly reminiscent of those held among Pentecostal groups, whose members number 400 million worldwide. Rollicking music dominates, and prayer takes the form of what Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox, in his book Fire from Heaven (Da Capo Press) calls “ecstatic utterance”—it’s not exactly speaking in tongues (it’s intelligible English), but it’s certainly unlike anything this Presbyterian-bred reporter has ever heard before.

In search of support for a Pentecostal classification of the Tabernacle, I went to the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism’s website, which lists 22 sub-denominations under the heading “Pentecostal-charismatic.” Among them are the Assemblies of God (the largest group) and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, both of which have sent evangelists or pastors to speak at the Tabernacle and have provided blurbs for Pastor Cymbala’s books. On the other hand, Cymbala also counts renowned conservative and politician and fundamentalist Pat Robertson among his fans; he revealed during a service that Robertson had contributed one million dollars toward the new-building fund.

Robert D. Carle, a professor at Kings College in Manhattan and coeditor of Signs of Hope in the City: Ministries of Community Renewal (Judson Press) confirms my diagnosis. Carle is familiar with the Tabernacle and says that “Holy Spirit infilling” of the kind demonstrated during worship there is one of the features of Pentecostalism. He notes that true glossolalia (speaking in tongues) during services is discouraged by some Pentecostal denominations. “It can get messy,” Carle says. “Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians talks about putting limits on speaking in tongues; for example, that churches should only allow it when someone is there to interpret what has been said.”

Pentecostals currently constitute the largest Christian group in New York City, and the rise of Pentecostalism here has been underreported in the mainstream media, Carle says, probably because it’s a predominantly nonwhite phenomenon: most whites in New York are of Jewish or Catholic heritage, he notes, while about ninety percent of weekly Pentecostal church attendance is Black, Asian, and Latino.

One of the Tabernacle’s most striking features, also putting it firmly within the Pentecostal tradition, is its racial and national diversity. When Pentecostalism was born (by most accounts, in Los Angeles, circa 1906) it distinguished itself as a denomination in which white and black men and women shared leadership roles and worshiped side by side. Tony Carnes, coeditor of New York Glory: Religions in the City (New York University Press) says the Tabernacle is unusual even for a Pentecostal church in the level of unity and blending of cultures it has achieved under a white pastor. At one service I attended last summer, an altar call of new members yielded about forty people including recent arrivals from Libera, Japan, Nigeria, Trinidad, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. In one row of pews near me, there were about fifty white teens from the Sweetbriar youth group of Alabama; to my left was a black mother-daughter duo from Barbados; to my right, a twenty-something bobbed blonde from Queens clocking her third service of the day.

Denominational hairsplitting aside, the Tabernacle has clearly tapped a powerful vein of spirituality in the city. While the mainline groups, such as the Episcopalians (whose New York City diocese has shrunk to half its 1960 size), consult with shamans of the “church growth industry,” to find out what went wrong, Pastor Cymbala can recall single Sunday services in which 50 people committed their lives to Jesus. More than likely, the Tabernacle’s unwillingness to categorize itself has contributed to its success: since it is its own thing, ostensibly not affiliated with any old thing (except Scripture), it’s perfect for people who are starting their own lives over, perhaps in a new country or culture.

The Tabernacle promotes (arguably better than any secular institution) the idea that every person is a potential brother or sister, that everyone has an equal shot; in this case the brother and sisterhood is in Christ, and the shot is at nothing less than talking directly to God, 24/7 (you can sign up for a 3 am shift with the Prayer Band, or send them an email with your prayer request at www.brooklyntabernacle.org)—a truly liberating theology. In the most powerful Protestant tradition, the Cymbalas and the Tabernacle also embody that up-from-nothing American dream, in which a poor, uninitiated, untrained, unaffiliated person can put out a shingle one day and years later emerge as an economic force to be reckoned with. To hear the Tabernacle tell it, it’s all a matter of hard work, God’s grace and knowing when it’s harvest time.

Now, if we could just get them to restore Schrafft’s…

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Emily Votruba

Emily Votruba is the copy chief at Cargo magazine.