New Yorkers and the Sacred Spaces in Their Homes

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As the sun rises over New York City, Yvette Arenaro, an evangelical Christian, prays on a wooden kneeler inside her bedroom closet; Lobsang Chokdup chants Tibetan Buddhist prayers at an elaborate altar in the living room of his family’s cramped apartment; and Nirmal Singh studies a Sikh holy text with his wife and daughter in their attic prayer room.

They are among hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from a myriad of faith traditions who set aside a part of their home as a sacred space to practice their religion, meditate or simply offer thanks for a new day.

“I wish I could wake up in the mountains every morning but instead I live in Richmond Hill,” said Mr. Singh, an engineer and writer who lives in Queens. “I designed this space upstairs where I pray, sing and study with my family and thank God for everything I have in my life.”

In some homes, altars mark the area where family members worship. In others, the space is sanctified — for a time — by actions such as lighting candles over a dining room table on a Friday evening or praying several times a day while facing east, on a rug in a living room. The many ways that New Yorkers practice their faiths inside their homes reflect the city’s diversity.

“New York most likely has more religions than any other city in the world,” said Tony Carnes, the founder of A Journey Through NYC Religions, a nonprofit that is mapping houses of worship and religious sites in the city. His organization has identified 39 different categories of religions in New York, but within those, there are at least 435 variations, many of which can be considered separate religions, he said.

While these sacred spaces have long existed throughout New York, they became even more meaningful during the pandemic, as many houses of worship restricted access.


Walking past Bharati Sukul Kemraj’s family’s home in the Soundview section of the Bronx, you can catch a glimpse of an altar in the bay windows, complete with statues of Hindu gods, flowers, candles and burning incense.

Every morning Ms. Kemraj and her mother, Chandra Sukul Kemraj, pray in front of the altar. Ms. Kemraj’s father, Vishnu Sukul, was a Hindu priest from Guyana. He built their house next to the Vishnu Mandir Temple, which he founded in 1996. He died in 2019, and his family now manages the temple.

“There should be a sacred space in your home where you wake up in the mornings, offer prayers and just give thanks for seeing another sunrise and another day,” Ms. Kemraj said.

Tibetan Buddhism

Surrounded by Tibetan tapestries, statues of Buddha, sacred texts, candles, a drum and a bell, Lobsang Chokdup prays, chants, meditates and studies for at least 12 hours every day. At midnight he pauses to sleep with his wife, Lhamo, in the living room of the small apartment they share with their daughter and grandson in Woodside, Queens, where he has lived for the last six years. He rises at 4 a.m. and begins again.

At 9 years old, Mr. Chokdup fled Tibet, over the Himalayas and into Nepal, after the Chinese invasion. He came to the U.S. in 2011 to be near his children. Today, Mr. Chokdup is 71, but if he lived to be 100, he said, “that would be a very short time,” because he could be reborn many, many times along a path to enlightenment.

“One hundred years on this planet is just one second for me,” he said. “I leave this body after that, but I might have to stay here a million years. So in a way I am a million-year-old man.”

After he dies, Mr. Chokdup said he could come back as “a boy, a girl or even a germ,” he said, but prayer, meditation and his actions can help him have a better new life when he is reborn.

“In reality this life is very important and you should do good things,” he said.

Evangelical Christianity

Before the sun rises, Yvette Arenaro slips into her small walk-in closet and kneels in front of a wooden prayer altar. Surrounded by her dresses, suits and shoes, she sings hymns, reads the Bible and prays — often with tears in her eyes.

“There’s a stillness at that time of the morning,” she said. “There are no interruptions and you can still hear the early birds who are already doing their worship of chirping.” Ms. Arenaro is a member of the Christian Cultural Center, a predominantly Black nondenominational Christian church in East New York in Brooklyn, where she has sang in the choir for 17 years.

When the pandemic began, her church’s services were only streamed live online for the next year for safety reasons and congregants could not attend. Ms. Arenaro watched every Sunday morning, but her religious life at home continued uninterrupted. Every day her prayer routine is different and can last more than 30 minutes.

“In any relationship you want to spend time with those that you love,” Ms. Arenaro said. “Why wouldn’t that be the same with a God that I fell in love with?”

When she is done in the closet, she eats breakfast with her husband and they pray together in their living room.

Since March 2019, Mohammed Jabed Uddin has spent most of his waking hours helping his neighbors in Astoria and Long Island City, Queens, cope with the fallout from the pandemic. He has arranged for the distribution of thousands of free meals and bags of groceries and masks; and has organized Covid-19 testing and vaccination drives. Mr. Uddin has gone shopping for blind older neighbors and translated for sick community members in emergency rooms.

For months the mosques in New York were closed because of the pandemic, but every single day he has tried to find the time to pray.

“It doesn’t matter what important thing you do in the world,” Mr. Uddin, a taxi driver, said. “This is the duty of our life to follow the rules of Islam and do the five-times-a-day prayers.”

When he prays at home, Mr. Uddin washes, puts on fresh clothes and unfurls a rug in the living room of his apartment in Astoria. There are no religious images on the wall, which is customary in Muslim homes. After he finishes his prayers, he heads out to continue his work as secretary of the Astoria Welfare Society, a Bangladeshi-American nonprofit that provides assistance to anyone in need.

“Islam says it is important for humanity to help each other,” he said.


Every day Julio Mazariegos kneels in prayer with his wife, Francisca, and their three children, Jenny, 23, Edgar, 21, and Jesús, 18, in front of the altar he built in the living room of their apartment in Jamaica, Queens. Though his wife grew up in a very religious Catholic family with daily devotions in the home, Mr. Mazariegos’s family life was less religious, and more challenging. In his teens he fell into a life of “drugs and other vices,” he said.

But they met and fell in love in Guatemala, and he slowly found his way to the church after they came to Queens in 1995. As Mr. Mazariegos became more involved with his church and their family grew, he built an altar in their home because, he said, “an intimate space needs to exist with family.”

The family attends the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church, where they are all deeply involved in church activities. Each of the children has made smaller personal altars by their own beds where they pray before going to sleep.

“You enter in your room and you pray in front of your father who is present with you,” he said. “It is a moment of intimacy with God.”


Nirmal Singh designed his home in Queens with a space in the attic for his family to study, sing and pray. At the center of the room is the Adi Granth, a handwritten volume of the sacred scripture of Sikhism. Every morning before dawn, Mr. Singh reads out loud and his wife, Rajinder Kaur Bhamra, and daughter, Taranjit, play musical instruments as they all sing prayers.

Afterward his daughter walks to the public pre-K center in Ozone Park where she teaches.

“It becomes so embedded into your daily lifestyle you cannot live a day without doing it,” Taranjit said. “If I feel very anxious or I have an important task ahead, there’s a place I can go to feel one with God and to learn about some of the scriptures.”


Growing up in Brooklyn, Friday nights were like any other night of the week in Laurie Hanin’s home. Her family was Jewish but not observant, though her father went to synagogue on Yom Kippur.

Jennifer Johnson was raised in a religious Christian home in Memphis, but converted to Judaism as an adult before she met Ms. Hanin on an online dating site for Jewish people. Today they are married and live in Forest Hills, Queens, with their 9-year-old twin boys, Adam and Gabriel.

Six days a week their apartment is in a state of slightly organized chaos: sounds from video games echo through the home, along with their sons’ occasional arguments over what TV shows to watch.

“On some days it feels like I spend 50 percent of my time yelling,” Ms. Hanin said.

But on Friday, the dining room is transformed. Ms. Johnson and her sons bake challah, and as the sun begins to set, calm prevails. Sabbath candles are lit, prayers recited, and they hold hands as they bless the challah.

“I’m trying to give my kids the Jewish rituals, and the understanding of their meaning, that I only learned as an adult,” Ms. Hanin said. “This feels like family.”

Haitian Vodou

This summer, Jean Saurel Francillon gathered with 15 friends and family members around a green, red and black pole in his East New York basement in Brooklyn. The group sang in Haitian Creole to drumbeats; some of them moved with trance-like gestures.

“The body is like an envelop,” Mr. Francillon, a vodou priest, said during a break in the five-hour service. “The spirit comes in like water filling a container and there’s a transformation. When it does it brings messages.”

He created the windowless space so his family and followers can worship as his ancestors did in Africa, he said, and “maintain our harmony with nature, the deities and with ourselves.”

“You have to know where you come from to understand and know where you are going,” he said. “If you don’t know where you come from it’s very easy to get lost on the way.”

Author: desi123 is an online news portal that aims to provide the latest trendy news for Asians living in Asia and around the World.

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