Racial Equity

How a Punjabi Church in New York is Fostering Religious Harmony

By Heerea Rikhraj
Church crowd at Bethlehem Punjabi Church during their Easter Service. Photo curtesy of the media team at Bethlehem Punjabi Church.

Church crowd at Bethlehem Punjabi Church during their Easter Service. Photo curtesy of the media team at Bethlehem Punjabi Church.

Baldwin, N.Y. — By the intersection of Grand Avenue and St. Luke Place in Baldwin, New York, groups of people dressed in traditional South Asian attire stepped into Bethlehem Punjabi Church for their annual Easter day service on Sunday, March 31, 2024.   

Pastor Jatinder Gill stood in the middle of the hall, welcoming regulars and newcomers, before he took to the stage and started the service in Punjabi. Over the next few hours, different groups shuffled to the front of the fully packed room to lead Bible sermons and devotional hymns in a mixture of Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, and English.  

The audience, primarily South Asian, swayed with the words. Some amongst the crowd were from different backgrounds, like Sikhs and Hindus. All nodded as Pastor Gill addressed the crowd.  

“Everyone is welcome, no matter of faith, no matter of background,” Gill said.  

Children at Bethlehem Punjabi Church during their Easter Service. Photo curtesy of the media team at Bethlehem Punjabi Church.

Bethlehem Punjabi Church has been a pillar for South Asians in New York for over two decades. Gill founded the church in 2003 Richmond Hill, Queens, and they recently moved to Baldwin at the end of last year. Originally from Punjab, India, the pastor wanted to create a safe space for South Asians to practice faith in the tongue they grew up speaking.  

“It makes a difference for people to be able to connect with faith in the language familiar to them,” said Gill.  

At the time, the church was the first of its kind to offer service and the Bible in multiple South Asian languages. The staff also often works with the greater community to develop hymns sung in various languages.  

The church welcomes people of all faiths, emphasizing culture and spirituality rather than solely focusing on Christian teachings. Hindus and Sikhs are often seen attending church, and everyone collectively sits and enjoys food the church organizes after Sunday service. Some from other faith groups have started following some Christian way of life, however, not all are required to.  

Outside the doors of Bethlehem Punjabi Church in Baldwin, NY

“It’s about connecting people with spirituality,” said Gill.  

Gill also wanted to ensure that the church experience was relatable for immigrants, as many who attend the church are part of the South Asian immigrant community. His sermons often touch on dealing with the loneliness of being in a new country and apart from family.  

Over the last three decades, the South Asian community in New York has more than doubled. When the church first opened its doors in 2003, there were less than thirty attendees. Now, there are over two hundred. The board also organizes regular activities for the community, like offering Bible classes for youth.  

Donald Singh, a regular attendee and one of the church’s board members, has been grateful for the community. Born as a Christian in India, he sought a way to practice his faith in the context of his culture when he moved to New York in the late 1990s. Bethlehem Punjabi Church gave him that chance. He particularly enjoys the first few weeks of December, when church members go around caroling in Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu.  

“It’s always a joyous time,” Singh said. “People enjoy the caroling.”  

The church’s mission — to unite in the face of division — is more relevant than ever in today’s South Asian community, where certain political spheres have been emphasizing division among religious groups. Many of the church regulars have ties to India, where religious minorities are under threat from dominant political forces.  

Just earlier this year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the unveiling of the controversial new Hindu temple, Ram Janmabhoomi, which sits over the site of a Muslim temple that hardline Hindus demolished in 1992. While millions of Hindus celebrated the new temple, Muslims across the country feared that the religious divide has intensified since Modi’s reelection in 2019.  

Attendees in line for food in the welcome hall after Easter service. Taken by Heerea Rikhraj

Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), previously passed a controversial citizenship law that many analysts considered to be discriminatory against Muslims. The government was also recently accused of assassination attempts against Sikhs in Canada and the United States, who they said were connected to the Sikh separatist movement in India. As these instances against religious minorities become more common, those with ties to India fear what this kind of rhetoric means for communities abroad. 

“The biggest challenge the community faces is how politics back home can affect how we live,” said Gill.  

As the church emphasizes religious harmony, Gill’s current goal is to ensure that the ongoing politics in places like India do not hinder the community in New York. The church also regularly communicates with other similar communities back in India, and members are adamant about ensuring that faith brings people together rather than pushing them apart.  

“The more we divide, the more we fall,” said Gill. “We must remember that every different community isn’t our enemy; they are our friends.”  

Heerea Kaur Rikhraj is a New York City based journalist who covers healthcare and religion. She has previously reported from New Mexico, Uzbekistan, and the Middle East.