Harlem Church Community Celebrates Historic Presidential Election

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

NEW YORK — Among the many communities throughout the Province that celebrated the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first African-American president was historic Harlem, where the friars said the neighborhood surrounding All Saints Church here reveled in exuberance.

Neil O’Connell, OFM, who was out and about on Nov 4, Election Day, in the largely African-American neighborhoods that comprise Harlem, said he had not experienced such an outpouring of joy since the end of World War II on Aug. 14, 1945.

“There was a sense of quiet, hopeful anticipation in the air as Harlem began experiencing the significant Election Day,” said Neil. Crowds at polling places ran high throughout the day, said Neil, giving an early indication of Harlem’s special interest in the election.

Daniel Sulmasy, OFM, a resident of All Saints Friary on East 129th Street in uptown Manhattan, tried to vote early in the day but was confronted with unusually long lines.

Arriving to vote at 6:30 a.m., Dan didn’t have time to wait on the line and returned to All Saints to lead the 7:30 a.m. morning prayer. He returned to vote later in the day.

Capturing the Historic Moment
Neil said that when Christopher Keenan, OFM, went to vote, a young man voting for the first time gave Chris his camera and asked him to photograph him as he selected Sen. Barack Obama.

Other young people were equally enthusiastic. Glenn Humphrey, OFM, who teaches at Rice High School, a Christian Brothers school in Harlem, said some seniors voted for the first time.

“They kept saying how proud they were to be part of making history. Personally, I just feel awe at having been able to experience during my lifetime the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and now, the election of a black man as president,” said Glenn.

Students were having their pictures taken the next day, according to Glenn, holding up national newspapers with headlines hailing Obama as president.

All Saints pastor Steven Pavignano, OFM, agreed with Glenn. “Harlem is pleased,” he said. “Our country has taken another major step forward. Let our prayers be for our president-elect and all elected government officials that they will move us toward real peace and justice.”

Steven added that since the election he has also talked with people who are balancing this renewed hope with a sense of reality of the situation that the president-elect will face. He said: “There are also the serious comments warning, ‘We cannot expect everything to change right away,’ and ‘We need to remember he is the president of the entire country’.”

Friars Witness History in Harlem
On election night, members of the All Saints Church Friary gathered for their weekly Tuesday community dinner, and watched election returns on TV until 10:30 p.m.  After that, Neil said he walked back to his residence at St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church at 125th Street and Morningside Avenue in one of Manhattan’s African-American neighborhoods.

As Neil passed the widely-known Sylvia’s Restaurant on Lenox Avenue near 126th Street around 10:45 p.m., he found people joyously running outside after Barack Obama had been declared the victor.

Continuing his walk home, Neil found a large crowd assembled around the plaza of the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building, where Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel had arranged for entertainment and a large TV screen.

“There was an atmosphere of great exhilaration,” Neil said. “Drummers appeared from various directions, and people began dancing spontaneously to the beat. Tears of joy were on many faces.”

A man in the crowd embraced Neil, calling him “brother.”

Some younger families of the newly-gentrified sections of Harlem were celebrating with their children, said Neil, along with students from nearby Columbia University. By the time Neil reached St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church, Pastor Philip Kelly had the bells of the church ringing.

Benedict Taylor, OFM, who lives nearby, said he feels a sense of unity in Harlem, where he has lived for 40 years.

“I see it among all people, black and white,” said Benedict,  who founded the Create social services agency  on Lenox Avenue in 1973.  “Harlem residents now seem to have a great sense of pride in self, community and ethnic backgrounds.”

Benedict said his reaction on election night was one of disbelief.

“I never thought that I’d see, in my lifetime, the election of an African-American. It’s like a dream, to use Martin Luther King’s word.”

Lessons Learned from the Campaign
The campaign inspired a parish of the Province on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to initiate a new program.

Angelus Gambatese, OFM, pastor of St. Stephen of Hungary Church on East 82nd Street, said the parish will soon offer a program called “Tolerance Sundays.”

“During the summer in discussions with our parishioners and neighbors, there was concern about anti-Semitism and the question of race in our presidential election,” Angelus said. “Feeling that we needed to address such issues, and to avoid the suspicion of a political agenda, the parish council decided to offer a series of Tolerance Sundays beginning in December.”

“At one Mass on the designated Sunday each month, we will host a speaker from a minority group that suffers discrimination from our culture”, he said. “In December, we have scheduled a speaker from the black community. We are presently negotiating with a rabbi for January. We shall continue the series for as long as there is a group or class of people our culture and/or our church finds difficult to tolerate.”

Shown in the photo above are two Rice High School students.

— Jocelyn Thomas is Director of Communications for the Province.