Located on 14th East 109th street, the St. Edward the Martyr church has a history and influence that extends beyond Harlem. Emerging from what is called a “violent religious disagreement”, in 16th century Europe the English Church split from Rome’s Catholic majority and to create a Protestant sect of Christianity that would be more open to the public and encompassing of more liberal values. The offshoots of this breakaway was the Episcopal Diocese.
Today, the Anglican Communion is the largest religious community in the United States. They read from the Common Book of Prayer, and the New York branch is one of 30 major Episcopal national religious houses of worship. The Harlem branch was founded on the same principles that started the breakaway from the Roman church – to try to accomodate individual spiritual conscience and become a spiritual resource to as many people as possible. It is known for it’s large Latino constituency, (which begs the question as to why this isn’t in Spanish Harlem), LGBT advocacy, nonforprofit initiatives fundraising for relief funds for environmental catastrophe overseas (most recently it’s Haiti Relief Fund), and it’s recompensation for victims of slavery.
I talked to the secretary inside, who handed me a pamphlet that explained more about this unique initiative that seems to be so grounded in the cultural history of Harlem and of the history of religious conflict with blacks throughout the United States. The pamphlet read: “Reparations is the process to remember, repair, restore, reconcile, and make amends for wrongs that can never be singularly reducible to monetary terms. The process of reparations is “an historical reckoning involving acknowledgement that an offense against humanity was committed and that the victims have not received justice”. This quote was from the Executive Minister for Justice Ministry, form the United Church of Christ.
When I asked the woman why specifically the church, even on a national level, seemed to advocate for slavery reparations while showing a stronger affiliation with the Spanish population in Harlem, she replied, “Everyone has a history. Somewhere in their ancestry, someone has been enslaved for one reason or another”. She went on to tell me that their main purpose was to provide spiritual relief from the decades of oppression inflicted by slavery on a person’s conscience. Physically, however, St. Edwards works closely with the Yorkville Common Pantry, located right next door. She says that the church believes the greatest strife inflicted on a human being is hunger, and they work with Yorkville to provide a space with resources to alleviate that strife. While many churches in Harlem go beyond spiritual guidance as part of community outreach initiatives, few have direct affiliation with non-religious non-for-profit organizations in such close contact. The woman also added that many of the congregation’s constituents come directly to church from Yorkville for their Sunday lunches.