The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people...
The Rev. Andrew Stehlik greeting congregants at Rutgers Presbyterian Church.
The Rev. Andrew Stehlik greeting congregants at Rutgers Presbyterian Church.CreditCreditGabby Jones for The New York Times

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

“It’s something I never thought would happen,” she said of the bond she has forged with the church’s community, if not the tenets of its faith. She was drawn to the church, she said, by “something in the spirit of Rutgers and something in the spirit of the outside world.”

Katharine Butler, an artist, was lured into Rutgers when she walked by a sandwich board on the street advertising its environmental activism. Soon, she was involved in more traditional aspects of the church, too.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this, singing away and all the Jesus-y stuff,” she said. “It was wonderful to find a place larger than me, that’s involved in that and in the community and being of service. It’s nice to find a real community like that.”

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary. Instead, the community there has been cobbled together by a different code of convictions, pulled in by social justice efforts, activism against climate change, meal programs for the homeless and a task force to help refugee families.

Houses of worship — including Christian churches from a range of denominations, as well as synagogues — have positioned themselves as potent forces on progressive issues, promoting activism on social justice causes and inviting in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But religious scholars said that Rutgers was reaching a new frontier where its social agenda in some ways overshadowed its religious one.

“Rutgers has periodically reinvented itself as the Upper West Side has gone through changes like this,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University. “This isn’t the first reinvention. It is one of their more interesting ones.”

The approach at Rutgers reflects how spirituality has shifted in fundamental ways. Those who enter the unassuming brick-and-limestone sanctuary on West 73rd Street find a place for fund-raisers, activism and developing ties to a neighborhood.

“People who otherwise feel marginalized or pushed out by regular congregations, more thoughtful people, say, or those who like to ask questions about faith, started to gather around our congregation,” said the Rev. Andrew Stehlik, the senior pastor at Rutgers.

“Not all of them are deeply interested in becoming yet another member of a denomination,” he added. “They are still coming and worshiping with us. We call them friends of the church. Often, they’re a substantial part of the worshiping community here.”

It seems that the worshiping community could use an injection of people. Mainline Protestant denominations like Presbyterianism have seen their followings diminish in recent years. (Leaders of the Presbyterian Church put out a news release in April announcing that fewer followers were leaving, declaring that they were “encouraged by the slowing trend downward.”)

To address shrinking congregations, some pastors are searching for new ways to use their churches and redefine what fellowship means. Churches have the space and the good will, after all, to commit to community works, social justice or arts and educational projects. And opening their doors in this way can bring in those looking for more than a Bible study class.

“You just welcome those who are seekers,” Mr. Stehlik said.

Rutgers traces its history to 1798, its name derived from the street in Lower Manhattan where it opened its first sanctuary. The congregation has worshiped on the Upper West Side since 1888, and now has just over 100 members. For decades now, the church has been anchored near the bustling intersection of West 73rd Street and Broadway, where its “unapologetically progressive” outlook, as Mr. Stehlik described it, is on display.

A large “Black Lives Matter” banner hangs from the front of the church, and nearby are colorful Tibetan prayer flags. Inside, there are buttons for worshipers to wear to declare their gender identity: he/him, she/her, they/them. And during services, worshipers recite alternatives to the Lord’s Prayer that use more inclusive language.

Many members of Rutgers are drawn to the inclusive nature of the church.
Many members of Rutgers are drawn to the inclusive nature of the church.CreditGabby Jones for The New York Times

“It’s down-to-earth, so to speak,” said Harry A. Thompson Jr., a singer during Sunday services who is 89 but claims to have the voice of a 40-year-old. “In other words, they’re doing what they say. I’m a Christian, but I’m larger than that.”

Rutgers’s appeal, for some, is rooted in the frustrations and anxieties that have taken hold in left-leaning neighborhoods like the Upper West Side in recent years, fueled by the policies and rhetorical approach of the Trump administration. The church, which has a largely white community drawn from the neighborhood around it, has become a political sanctuary, and it has created a designation for so-called associated members who are part of the congregation but are not part of their faith.

“It’s part of their DNA, in a way, that they are constantly thinking about other people and ways to make the world right,” said Ms. Butler, one of the associated members. “It’s not just through proselytization and pointing fingers, but by working. There’s very little moralizing or the stuff that turned me off when I was younger.”

Clare Hogenauer sees the appeal of the church’s progressive spirit. As a lawyer, she challenged the death penalty, and a few years ago she plopped down topless in a plaza in Times Square to support the painted performers whose bare bodies had stirred controversy. (“It feels nice, actually,” she told The New York Post as she read a newspaper on a sweltering August day.)

Members of the church are Presbyterian, but also Catholic, Jewish and even atheist.
Members of the church are Presbyterian, but also Catholic, Jewish and even atheist.CreditGabby Jones for The New York Times

But activism is not the reason she is a Rutgers regular.

Ms. Hogenauer, 71, has various ailments and relies on a rolling walker to navigate the neighborhood. She happened to come to the church several years ago simply because it was close to her apartment.

Ms. Hogenauer does not consider herself an observant Christian. “I believe he was a good guy,” she said of Jesus. But she found comfort in finding people who hugged her, asked about her health and joked with her.

“I’m more into the social aspect,” she said. “I care about a lot of the people, and they care about me.”

During a recent Sunday service, people were asked to share their joys, sorrows and concerns. One woman introduced a relative visiting from out of town. Others prayed for a regular who had been away and for the parents dropping their children off at college.

Ms. Hogenauer spoke about a health dilemma, as a medication prescribed to treat her severe pain did what it was supposed to but also left her feeling tired and groggy. She did not know what mattered more: relief from intense physical discomfort or a clear mind.

She said she wanted to share with them. She wanted her community to know what was going on in her life. She was not asking for their prayers, she said. But they prayed for her anyway.

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