Religious Diversity in Queens
By James L. Muyskens
President, Queens College
Reprinted from Queens: What to Do, Where to Go (and How Not to Get Lost) in New York’s Undiscovered Borough by Ellen Freudenheim, copyright 2006 by St. Martin’s Press.
Walk the streets of Flushing on a busy day and take in the ever-changing sea of faces and the dozens of languages on the signs and shop windows. At such a time it is possible to believe that the final thing the builders of the Tower of Babel agreed upon--before God scattered them to the four corners of the earth--was that they would hold a reunion 6,000 years later in Queens. And since God sent them all off speaking different languages, they would return the favor by coming back worshipping different gods.
Without a doubt, the Borough of Queens has the most extraordinary mix of religions in the world. In Flushing alone there are over 200 places of worship within a space of two-and-a-half miles, many offering services in five or six languages. Brooklyn may be called the city of churches, but Queens is the city of temples, synagogues, mosques, and gurdwaras, as well as hundreds of Korean and other churches.
Queens has a long history of religious tolerance. In 1657 a group of its citizens wrote one of the New World’s first defenses of religious freedom. Known as the Flushing Remonstrance, this document defended the right of Quakers to worship as their conscience dictated. A remarkable thing about the authors of the Flushing Remonstrance is that not one of them was a Quaker. (The house of John Bowne, where the Quakers often met, has been declared “a national shrine to religious freedom.” It is fitting that it now shares Bowne Street with about a dozen houses of worship.
A more recent impetus for the influx of religions to the borough is the Immigration Act of 1965. This did away with the quota-by-nation system in favor of one based on a person’s skills and profession. As a borough with two major airports—and pockets of exceptionally liberal zoning laws—it is no wonder so many immigrants settled in Queens.
The new diversity in the borough led to an explosion of new businesses and a blooming of ethnic and language studies at Flushing’s own institute of higher education, Queens College. We now have programs, centers, and institutes that study the rich histories of Asians, Jews, the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Latinos, African Americans, and others, and offer a thriving English as a Second Language program. Our New Immigrants and Old Americans project has published six books on the effects of this new wave of immigration. And our professors can often be found giving their students tours of the community laboratory that is Flushing, and even leading groups of people from outside the borough who are eager to learn more about us.
Early in my career I lived in Flushing for 17 years. When I left in the 1980s to take a position at the University of Kansas, there was much tension between blacks and whites in the borough. One of the things I have noticed since returning is the lack of tension between groups. At first I found this puzzling. After all, the number of ethnic groups in Flushing had grown dramatically in the years I had been away. Perhaps just as a little learning can be a dangerous thing, maybe a little diversity is dangerous also. But when you are overwhelmed with diversity, differences no longer count for much, and you look for the things that unite rather than divide.
The Flushing Remonstrance ends: “[I]f any of these said persons [Quakers] come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free ingresse and regresse unto our town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences.” And, to a great extent, this is what the people of Queens still do.