Religion in Westchester: How Holy Are We?

Religion may not be the driving force it once was, but many Westchesterites are still keeping the faith.

Photos by Stefan Radtke

Religion may not be the driving force it once was, but many Westchesterites are still keeping the faith in their day-to-day lives.

Spend any time in Westchester, and you’re sure to see many houses of worship — more than 600, actually, according to the most recent numbers. From churches and synagogues to a mosque and a Hindu temple in Yonkers to a Buddhist center with outposts in Irvington and Mount Kisco, there are places for people of almost any religion and denomination to practice their beliefs.

But while the buildings are there — open and ready for their adherents — how many people faithfully show up?

There’s no denying that the importance of religion has changed in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, which surveyed some 35,000 people across the country, 53% of people called religion “very important” in their lives in 2014 versus 56% in 2007. Correlating with that, people who said religion was “not at all important” rose from 7% in 2007 to 11% in 2014.

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The look of religion across the country has shifted, too: According to the Religious Landscape Study, the number of people who identify as Christian fell from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. “Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated — describing themselves as atheist, agnostic, or ‘nothing in particular’ — has jumped more than six points, from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent,” says America’s Changing Religious Landscape, one of the Pew Center’s reports discussing the results of the Religious Landscape Study. They also point out the uptick in faiths outside of Christianity.

But what about locally? While the 2007 version of the study didn’t look at metropolitan areas, it did in 2014. In the New York City metro area — of which Westchester is a part — 48% of people called religion “very important” in their lives.  While that number is less than the nationwide average, it’s still close to half the population — which is significant.

Religion In Action

The Speaker

Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan

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Pleasantville resident Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, a board-certified plastic surgeon, was part of a group of local women who, at the close of 2001, came together to form the American Muslim Women’s Association (AMWA).

It was just after 9/11, and Hassan quickly realized that the impression people were getting of her Muslim faith, and of Muslim women in particular, wasn’t accurate.

“The impression was that Muslim women were not educated or couldn’t even work,” says Hassan, who was born in Pakistan and moved to the US in 1977. So she cofounded the AMWA, which provides outreach, education, and awareness about Islam.

And though things were slow-going at first, soon the group — whose board is made up entirely of women — was hosting luncheons with interfaith educational panels and coffee hours for community members, and visiting area schools to share the basic teachings of their faith. There were times in the years following 9/11 when Hassan, who runs a private practice in Sleepy Hollow, says she was doing up to three speaking engagements a day.

For Hassan, who serves as the organization’s chairperson, the effects of this outreach and engagement are palpable. She tells the story of how, around 2002, one of the women in the group hosted a coffee hour for neighbors. They were already gathered when Hassan arrived wearing a hijab. “I could see the color disappear in their faces,” she says, when they saw the hijab. But she sat and joined the conversation.

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“By the time we finished that coffee hour, the color was back, and the way they were talking to me, they thought I wasn’t wearing a hijab anymore,” she explains. “The only way we can [better understand each other] is when people see eye to eye: We look at each other; we feel each other’s touch; we hear each other.”

Rooted in religion

Anna Varghese, a Scarsdale resident and a member of St. George Orthodox Church of Westchester in Port Chester, falls into the category of those who cite religion as being very important.

“I would say religion is a way of life for me,” says Varghese. “I give utmost importance to my religion and my faith.” Originally from India, Varghese converted to Syrian Orthodox from Protestant after getting married. She credits her church community with helping her grow spiritually, strengthen her health and relationships, and navigate difficult situations.

This idea of community — and the seeking out of it — is a large reason why Westchesterites (and people overall) continue to frequent places of worship. “Religion is inherently involved in community,” says Peter Gardella, a professor of world religions at Manhattanville College, explaining that certain life events, like having kids, may have people turning back to a religious community.

On average, how often do you attend religious services?

Daily: 2%
Several times a week: 10%
Once a week: 37%
Several times a month: 10%
Once a month: 4%
A few times a year: 12%
Only on religious holidays: 8%
Never: 19%

Results from a Westchester Magazine online survey that ran in April 2019. Sample size = 359

Charlene Bodner, a White Plains resident who grew up Catholic and converted to Judaism as an adult, visited numerous synagogues in the area with her husband before their first child was born. But it was when Bodner was looking for a preschool for their second child that she came upon Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains. During Shabbat service one Saturday morning, Kol Ami’s Rabbi Shira Milgrom welcomed them — and then introduced the whole congregation to MeMe, Bodner’s son’s favorite stuffed animal, taking MeMe to help lead the service. “It was a special moment, and we just knew Congregation Kol Ami was the place we belonged,” Bodner says.

Today, Bodner teaches first grade at Kol Ami’s religious school. And the school is just one of the many community programs offered. “We have a million things going on,” says Rabbi Milgrom, who has been with the congregation for 33 years — from adult-learning programs to parenting classes and more. She says that while the congregation’s membership has remained stable, involvement has definitely seen an uptick.

“People are attracted to the institution whose vision inspires them or with which they connect best.”

—Rabbi Chaim Marder, Hebrew Institute of White Plains

On the rise

When Ali Javed, PhD, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society, first moved to Chappaqua in 1990, he and his young family would travel to the Westchester Muslim Center in Mount Vernon, which was one of the only Muslim centers in the area at the time (and still there today). Javed, a human geneticist, wanted his young children to learn about the Quran, how to pray, and the values of the faith.

Other area Muslims were also making the trek from upcounty — and even farther north. Soon, new centers opened, including the Upper Westchester Muslim Society in 1997. These days, the center is renting space in the First Congregation Church in Chappaqua, though they are currently raising funds to build a permanent location.

Previously, the Mount Vernon center would have sufficed, but no longer, Javed says, noting that there are now a dozen smaller centers in the area. The growing Muslim population has been able to sustain them. While Muslims make up only .9% of the population nationwide (up from .4% in 2007), according to the Religious Landscape Study, in the New York City metro area, it’s 3%.

With which religious beliefs do you most associate?

Catholic: 40%
Protestant: 16%
Jewish: 15%
Other: 18% (answers included Methodist, born-again Christian, Pentecostal, and others)
Athiest: 7%
Agnostic: 4%

Results from a Westchester Magazine online survey that ran in April 2019. Sample size = 400

There are other pockets of change, as well, including within the Orthodox Jewish community.

Rabbi Chaim Marder — who has been at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, a Modern Orthodox congregation, since 1995 — says there has been a modest and steady increase in numbers  and a big change within the congregation itself, which has grown younger and much more involved. For instance, he says, 20-plus years ago, there might have been about 100 adults and some children on a Sabbath morning. Today, there are about 200 adults, with nearly 100 kids.

To what does he attribute the increased interest among the congregation? A clearly articulated vision, Marder says, has helped attract people. And in general, he notes, there are the usual reasons why people pick Westchester, like quality of life and strong schools. Plus, “Each of the Orthodox communities has developed its own character… people are attracted to the institution whose vision inspires them or with which they connect best,” he explains.

Religion In Action

The Seminarian

Savio Paul

As a child, when Savio Paul was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the now 25-year-old would reply that he wanted to be a priest — and an astronaut and a lawyer. “I was always open to the idea of being a priest,” Paul explains.

But it was a high school trip to Peru — and seeing people who lived in poverty but had a strong faith in God — that solidified Paul’s dedication to religious life, particularly to be a missionary abroad. He eventually decided to focus his efforts in the US, “to be a domestic missionary,” he says.

Today, Paul is in his fourth year of seminary at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, with two more to go. And while he has realized his path, he does acknowledge that fewer men are becoming priests, pointing to a number of different reasons, including outside distractions that might make it harder to hear — and heed — the calling, as well as rampant sexual-abuse scandals that have made headlines around the world.

“Also, church attendance has been on the decline, so people aren’t exposed to religion and see priests less often, so the idea of being a priest isn’t even on the radar,” Paul explains.

“Many are afraid to become priests and don’t trust priests either,” he adds. “To regain their trust takes a lot of time, and it can only be done through the example of good priests, who love their people and are willing to give of their lives for them like a true priest should.”

Paul calls his experience as a seminarian both “incredible” and “humbling.” But, as he is quick to point out, along with prayer and study, there’s fun, too, with movie nights and baseball games. “I can say that I have never laughed as much anywhere else as I have in the seminary,” he says.

As for where he sees himself in five years, Paul hopes to be a parish priest. “At the same time, however, a part of the vocation is being open to wherever God is leading me — even if it’s not what I may want or what I was expecting,” he says.

Changing demographics

One of the most salient points of the Pew study is that the percentage of people who identify as Christian has gone down. “The drop in the Christian share of the population has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics,” according to America’s Changing Religious Landscape.

Catholics, for example, went from 23.9% of the population to 20.8%. And while Evangelical Protestants make up the largest Christian denomination nationwide, in our region, it’s Catholicism. Of Christians in the New York City metro area, the largest group, at 33%, is Catholic.

At the Church of St. Eugene in Yonkers, Father Matthew Fernan, who’s been the pastor there the past four years, says there are about 2,000 registered families, with about 1,400 attending mass every week. “Just like everything else, a parish has an ebb and flow,” he says. These days, they’re in what he describes as a “grandparents community.”

He finds changing demographics to be one of the contributing factors: In decades past, larger families meant there were simply more people to attend church — and many of the kids in those families have since moved away from the area.

How religious do you think Westchester residents are today as compared to the past?

More religious now: 4%
Less religious now: 49%
About the same: 15%
I don’t know: 33%

Results from a Westchester Magazine online survey that ran in April 2019. Sample size = 343

But, he calls Catholicism “very, very strong here in Westchester” — and, when it comes to the Greater NYC area, the stats don’t disagree: Of Catholics in the area, 58% describe religion as being “very important” in their lives, with some 40% attending services at least once a week.

Kataliya Caiazzo of White Plains had an atypical religious experience growing up, which she feels was seminal to her spiritual development. Her father was Catholic; her mother was Buddhist; she was raised Catholic. “I truly believe I grew up in a very special and very unique environment,” Caiazzo says. “My exposure to more than one religion, I believe, has given me a stronger value system and a greater respect for all religion, and in general, a greater acceptance of differences.”

Today, she and her husband are raising their children Catholic, which she feels provides a solid value system. “Our children will have the values of Catholicism and will be able to make a choice of what they would like to follow when they are adults,” she says.

At Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains — which falls under Mainline Protestant — Reverend Siobhan Sargent, the senior pastor who has been at the church for close to three years, says there are about 120 people on their roster, with active attendance closer to between 50 and 60. Since Sargent’s arrival, she has started new programs; the seating has been changed; and there are plans to open a coffee bar, among other ideas.

“You have to be excited about what you’re doing, as opposed to sustaining an institution or a church just for the sake of it continuing to be there,” she says. “When a church or a faith or a congregation is inspired, it generates a momentum that other people want to be a part of. That’s where I think the spark of growth is.”

Religion In Action

The Next-Gen Religious Leader

Rev. Siobhan Sargent

You might have an idea in your mind of what a religious leader looks like — and so did Reverend Siobhan Sargent. “Growing up in more conservative backgrounds, it didn’t occur to me that my calling could be lived out and pursued in the Church. For me, the image of a pastor was often embodied in the form of a white, gray-haired, heterosexual man,” says Sargent. “Hence, being a young female who identified as a lesbian, in my mind, automatically excluded me from churchwork and especially ordained leadership positions.”

But the 36-year-old did eventually find her way to religious life: She became a faith-based community organizer in Nashville and says, “It was then that I began to see churches, synagogues, and mosques authentically living out their faith in integrated and holistic ways. Not only were they preaching love and justice, they were practicing it, as well. After my experience in Nashville, I felt called back into the Church.”

Today, Sargent is part of the next generation of religious leaders. She has been the senior pastor at Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains since 2016, where she has spearheaded new initiatives both within the church and that are open to the community.

But just as attitudes on religion are shifting, so are things within churches themselves. The United Methodist Church, for instance, recently took a stance against both gay marriage and LGBT clergy, which Sargent thinks will have an effect on things going forward. “In my opinion, there is going to be a split,” she explains. “My hope and prayer is the split can be as amicable as possible.”

For her part, when asked where she sees herself in the next five years, she hopes to be at MUMC. “There is a lot of possibility and potential in this area to do good and make real lasting change that fulfills our purpose and call to care for the least, the lost, and the marginalized of our community. I hope to be able to participate in that work for the long haul,” she says.

Looking beyond religion

Melanie Rush of Elmsford and Jackie Carr of Hastings, who both identify as atheist, are the co-organizers of the Secular Humanists of Westchester, a group whose aim is to “raise awareness and stir action among the humanists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and other like-minded citizens in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam Counties,” according to their page. Started in 2012, the group meets monthly, usually for dinner, and has about 120 members.

“For me, personally, I wanted to be with people who were like-minded about religion,” says Rush. “Even though I’ve been agnostic or atheist for many, many years, I didn’t start to feel alone until I had three losses in my family over just a couple years.” People started to tell her they were in a better place or looking down on them. “I don’t believe any of that, and it made me feel very alone. And that’s when I started seeking out atheist and/or secular groups,” she says.

In the Greater NYC area, according to the Religious Landscape Study, 24% of people identify as unaffiliated or religious “nones,” while 15% fall in the group who say they believe in “nothing in particular.”

How important do you consider religion in your life?

Very important: 54%
Somewhat important: 19%
Neither important nor unimportant: 9%
Somewhat unimportant: 3%
Not at all important: 15%

Results from a Westchester Magazine online survey that ran in April 2019. Sample size = 344

“I don’t currently identify with any specific religion, but I consider myself to be a spiritual person,” says Katie Corritori of Elmsford. “I grew up Catholic, and while I connected to the rituals, music, and some of the stories, I never felt really connected to mass in the way I feel connected to other practices as an adult, such as meditation.”

She’s not alone. In the Religious Landscape Study, about 41% of people in the NYC metro area said they meditate at least once a week. Professor Gardella from Manhattanville says people are much more interested in meditation and mindfulness these days than in the past.

Corritori hosts monthly women’s circles — in which women get together to journal, meditate, and set intentions — at The Ixchel Center in Hartsdale, and while she says these aren’t religious in nature, they are spiritual. “For me, meditation, visualization, writing, and creating sacred space all feel spiritual,” she says. “I connect deeply to myself and to my spirituality through these types of practices. I get clear and connect to my heart, rather than being in my head. Doing this in community feels like an even more sacred expression of our spiritual nature.”

So what is the state of religion in Westchester, then? While only so much can be garnered from stats and studies, it’s essentially a topical cousin to politics, with its don’t-talk-about-at-a-dinner-party (or post on social media) admonitions. It comes with ups and downs, changes and choices, and people, families, and communities trying to figure out what they identify with — and what works best for them.

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