Nicholas Dunne treks around Harlem and sees the churches work there
FOR millions of people around the world, America is the land of prosperity and opportunity. It is the country where anybody, given a little bit of luck and an appetite for hard work, can make a decent living, if not a fortune.
There were, indeed, many fortunes made in the 1980s, but in the reassessments now being made of that decade it is apparent that there were many more who failed to make it beyond the poverty line.
Whilst it is estimated that the top ten per cent of Americans hold near 65 per cent of the nation's wealth, nearly a third of all blacks and more than a quarter of Hispanics are below the poverty line. Nearly a fifth of all American children are classified as poor.
During the 1980s, the gap between America's rich and poor has widened significantly, and this is nowhere more striking than in New York. In this city of stark contrasts, one street can mark the dividing line between affluence and dereliction.
This is true of Manhattan's 110th Street which runs east to west along the edge of Central Park. South of this divide, the tenement blocks are fashionable; north of it they are crumbling.
Above 110th is Harlem, an area whose residents are almost all black or Hispanic migrants from the Caribbean and Central America. In many areas the tenements are derelict and gutted in such vast numbers that the devastation seems almost absolute.
The street sellers working the queues of big, battered cars stopped at traffic lights reflect a scene familiar in the cities of the developing world. This could be Manila or Bangkok, but, unlike those cities, it is the drug dealers, not the prostitutes who are most visible on Harlem's street corners. On 150th Street and St Nicholas, they gather to sell their "Cess" and "Skunk".
A few blocks west, on Broadway and 150th Street the lethal "crack" is for sale. Some of the deals are aimed specifically at children. A poster in the local health centre warns of stickers in the shape of a blue star of cartoon characters. These have been impregnated with LSD. Once a child handles or licks them, the drug enters the bloodstream, and the dealers have another customer, perhaps for life.
Not that life need be particularly long. It is said that the average life expectancy of a male in Harlem is ten years shorter than that of a man in Bangladesh. Over on Broadway and 151st Street the area is known as "Little Vietnam", not because of the local population no Vietnamese live there but in recognition of the number of battles that are fought on that particular street corner.
To a new visitor, the sense of menace is everywhere. How can anyone live a "normal" life in such a hostile environment?
The truth is, people do. After a day or so, the initial shock wears off. You begin to get used to the derelict buildings, even notice that a few are getting renovated. You smile and say "no thank you" to the drug dealers, whilst making sure you don't catch their eye as you walk past.
There are genuine smiles and friendly conversation in the local shops moments which lighten the day and prompt the glimmerings of affection for this battered neighbourhood. Your wariness remains, however; active but suppressed whilst you get on with the business of everyday life.
Fairly soon, too, you also realise that religion is all around in Harlem. For every derelict building there seems to be a place of worship; for every drug-dealer on the corner there's a neatly dressed lady selling Watchtower. Religion is everywhere, with a bewildering number of denominations and sects jostling each other for your attention.
But what percentage of the population do they attract? Many of these chapels have, in fact, only a handful of followers. How does the Catholic church fare? When I found only 40 or so people at the Church of St Catherine of Genoa's Saturday evening mass on 153rd Street I began to suspect the answer was "none too well".
"It is a great struggle" said Fr Pierre, a 64 year old Frenchman who had been with the parish for several years,"The culture, the media all say 'Get this, get that' always it is now, now. now. 'Drugs, money, sex you must have it now.' The church's task is to preach Jesus' message of human dignity and the love of God. It takes time to bear fruit. The benefits are not instantaneous. We have to be patient. Many people don't like that."
Fr Pierre had his own direct experience of poverty, in France during the 1940s. His father died when he was a boy, and the family had to struggle together to survive. Their trust in the church was vital to them. It was not, therefore, Harlem's economic problems that disturbed Fr Pierre the most.
It was the breakdown of the family, and of personal morality that he saw as the most serious. That, and the pressure from within the church for her to water down her teachings on sexual issues, particularly with regard to contraception.
Fr Pierre viewed the debate with dismay. The church was fighting against great evils. In such a battle it had to take a firm position. The guidelines had to be very clear, and very consistent. Handing me a copy of the Cathechism for Adults he said: ''It's all in here".
Yet, in a battle one also has to make compromises in order to survive, to give some ground in order to hold some other. I was troubled by the image of a church remote in its purity. Was Saturday's sparsly attended mass an indication that this was so?
Was the church in Harlem relevant to the people who lived there?
The parish's main mass was the one said in Spanish, so, with these questions in my mind, I joined them on Palm Sunday morning.
The ceremony began outside the church with the blessing of bundles of palms. People gathered around the priest, and the crowd began to shift and shove as soon as the palms began to be given out. Ceremony became reenactment. It was as if we were at the original day itself and people were excitedly reaching out for the long green blades of palm to welcome Jesus himself into Jerusalem.
By the time the priest and his entourage entered the church, the building was packed with people. The choir of three young teenagers, backed by an excellent rock group playing drums, electric bass guitar and keyboard, sang a mournful Spanish melody, Everybody sang, the palms held high, with the sway of the music.
It was one of the most moving masses I have taken part in. The atmosphere and the music touched me, releasing emotions that made the experience very full and very real.
A lot of time and care had gone into its preparation and everyone responded with enthusiastic applause at the end. Whatever the doubts and debates that were in peoples' minds, this church was something special to them. For an hour and a half on 153rd Street the message that joy and hope can overcome sadness and despair was alive, and abundantly clear for all to see.