Altar-native: How NYC’s Progressive Ministers are Celebrating Christmas

For many, the upcoming holidays means awkward office parties followed by eggnog hangovers, off-key caroling and tedious dinners with relatives — all culminating in a long church service.

But a growing number of spiritual leaders in the New York region bring their own flavor to Christmas. MetroFocus compiled a list of those who will lead a flock on Jesus’ birthday, but who still manage to have, shall we say, “mass appeal.”

Photo courtesy of Boon Lin Ngeo.
Rev. Boon Lin Ngeo
446 W. 36th Street, New York, NY 10018

The LGBT Rights Reverend

Queer activist, award-winning journalist, professor of sociology and gender studies.

Genesis: Ethnically Chinese, gay and Christian, Boon Lin Ngeo was a minority within a minority in his native Malaysia. He knew he wanted to become a minister from a young age, but knew that he could not be admitted to a seminary because of his sexual orientation; he hoped he would one day be able to “change.” Unable to attend public university because of his ethnicity, Ngeo decided to study journalism at a private institution.

I am what I am: Better known in Malaysia by his pen name O. Young, Ngeo won several prominent literary and journalistic awards at age 27, and received a scholarship to study sociology in the U.S. shortly thereafter. Profoundly impacted by his studies, Ngeo became the first public figure to come out of the closet in Malaysia in 2006, and was ordained through the Protestant Metropolitan Community Church in 2007. Today, Ngeo lives in New York City, where he works as a minister at the same LGBT-inclusive church, encouraging congregants to ask difficult questions about their faith. He also teaches gender studies at Hunter College and sociology at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey.

Once a year, he travels to Malaysia — where sodomy is still criminalized — to preach and give talks encouraging gay Malaysians to come out of the closet, because “we can never expect others to respect us or to be okay with us if we are not okay with ourselves.” On Aug. 31 — the day of Malaysian Independence — Ngeo married his partner, Phineas Newborn III, in New York City.

Christmas plans: On Christmas day, Ngeo will sermonize at the 11 a.m. service at the Metropolitan Community Church, where people of all backgrounds are encouraged to join.

Photo courtesy of Revolution NYC.
Rev. Jay Bakker
709 Lorimer Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211
The Punk Rock Reverend

Prodigal son of controversial televangelists, tattooed rocker and inclusive Williamsburg minister.

Genesis: Jay Bakker is the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the famous 700 Club televangelists who were embroiled in one of the largest  scandals in recent Christian history, complete with financial fraud and adultery. In the wake of the scandal, Bakker fils became disillusioned with what he perceived as rampant intolerance and exclusivity within the church, and turned his back on religion. Dark feelings turned into pervasive substance abuse. It wasn’t until he became sober that he set out to rediscover God on his own terms.

I am what I am: In 1994, Jay Bakker — pierced, tatted up and newly sober — founded the Revolution Church with like-minded friends in Phoenix, Ariz., preaching a philosophy based on a non-judgmental God. After several moves, Bakker wound up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Revolution Church now holds Sunday services at the Greenpoint hipster bar, Pete’s Candy Store. His ministry is LGBT- and subculture-friendly, and often features music and art performances. Recently, church services have included heavy discussion of Occupy Wall Street. He is the author of two books about his life and belief in a radicalized, inclusive understanding of grace, and in 2006 he was the subject of the Sundance Channel documentary “One Punk Under God.”

Christmas plans: Pete’s Candy Store will be closed on Christmas, but Revolution will hold a service on New Year’s Day at 4 p.m.

Photo courtesy of
Rev. Susan Sparks
30 E. 31st Street, New York, NY 10016

The Comedian Minister

Trial lawyer-turned-world traveler, motorcycle enthusiast, stand-up comedian and progressive Baptist minister.

Genesis: Born into a strict Southern Baptist family in Charlotte, N.C., biker-chick Rev. Susan Sparks was raised to worship a stern God who resembled a cross between “Walter Cronkite and Clint Eastwood in ‘High Plains Drifter.'” Disenchanted with a church that she says wasn’t accepting of women, Sparks deserted her religion as a teenager. After working as a corporate lawyer, while moonlighting as a stand-up comedian, for 10 years in New York, Sparks felt called back to God.

Confused, she left her practice, and took off on a two-year round-the-world trip. She climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. She drove the Alaskan Highway. Then, while working alongside Mother Theresa in Calcutta, Sparks had an epiphany in the form of the laughter of an impoverished little girl who’d been born blind and deaf. That was the moment she said her mission became clear.

I am what I am: Sparks wrote her master’s thesis on humor and religion at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Today, she is the senior pastor at what she describes as the open-minded and left-wing Madison Avenue Baptist Church, where her sermons double as stand-up routines. She also tours with a rabbi comedian and Muslim comedian — in and of itself the butt of many jokes — on the Laugh in Peace Comedy Tour. When not attempting to “break open the face of the church” through humor and acceptance, Sparks blogs for the Huffington Post, Good Morning America and Psychology Today, and can be seen cruising around town by motorcycle.

Christmas plans: Sparks will lead a Christmas Eve service at 5 p.m. and a Christmas day service at 11 a.m. at Madison Avenue Baptist.

Photo courtesy of
Pastor Kenneth W. VanLew
160 W. 146th Street, New York, NY 10039

The Hip Hop Reverend

Making the church welcoming to young people in Harlem by hosting hip hop services and rapping the Word.

Genesis: Born in the Bronx and raised in Mt. Vernon, Kenneth VanLew was 16 when a friend first introduced him to God. He spent 18 years investigating attorney misconduct for the State Supreme Court, but felt called to ministry in 2002, and was ordained in 2006 at the Greater Hood A.M.E. Zion Church — the oldest continuing black church in Harlem.

I am what I am: In addition to his duties as pastor, VanLew now leads services every Thursday at Greater Hood’s Hip Hop Church. Formed in 2004 by the former pastor and NYC rapper Kurtis Blow, the Hip Hop Church substitutes raps for hymns, and features DJ’s, a hip hop gospel choir and dancing. The idea, VanLew says, is to introduce Christianity to people who wouldn’t normally attend a Sunday service. The Pastor has, on occasion, been known to spit rhymes mid-sermon.

Christmas plans: The Hip Hop Church meets every Thursday at 7 p.m., but the pastor will hold regular Christmas day service at 11 a.m. on Dec. 25.

Photo courtesy of Deacon Greg Kandra.
Deacon Greg Kandra
110-06 Queens Boulevard, Forest Hills, Queens, NY 11375

The Journalist Deacon

Veteran broadcast journalist, Catholic deacon and blogger of note.

Genesis: As an altar boy in Rockville, Maryland, Greg Kandra thought of becoming a priest, but after 12 years of Catholic education he chose a different path. Kandra spent 26 years as a writer and producer for CBS News, working on 48 Hours alongside Katie Couric, 60 Minutes and other programs. In 2006, he co-wrote the Robert De Niro-hosted documentary “9/11,” which received several awards.

I am what I am: The death of his parents in the 1990s and the events of 9/11 caused Kandra to reassess his life. He began studying theology while working in news, and was ordained in 2007. Today, Kandra mixes his old vocation with his higher calling — running his own blog the Deacon’s Bench, serving as executive editor of the popular Catholic magazine One, freelancing and consulting for the Communications Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His prevailing mission is to spread a message of hope by making the church accessible by “meeting people where they are” and using his background in journalism to root his sermons in current events.

Christmas plans: Our Lady Queen of Martyr’s will hold Christmas day services at 8:30 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

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