The streets of the South Bronx testify to the decay that has afflicted parts of modern American cities. In some ways, they resemble those of Mumbai more than those of gentrified Manhattan. Men lie prostrate outside empty storefronts or relieve themselves in broad daylight on the trash-strewn streets. It’s a hipster-less landscape of despair.

But it can also be a place of good works from those inspired by faith to meet dissipation with hope and a program of rejuvenation. At a time when big-city public schools are emptying, the Brilla Public Charter Schools offer Bronx parents an option that structures education along the lines of classical Catholic education—a model increasingly in demand these days. In 2021, Catholic schools saw enrollment growth of almost 4 percent.

At the suggestion of New York’s Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Brilla schools were founded as a partial replacement for the 60 Catholic schools that the archdiocese had to close in 2011. Since 2019, Brilla’s four nonunionized Bronx-based schools, with a student body roughly 70 percent Latino and 30 percent black, have doubled enrollments, even as public school enrollment has declined by 23 percent. Two more Brilla schools are planned. “We have a totally different approach,” explains Denise McCrummen, principal of Brilla College Prep Elementary. “We have a code of conduct that wants something better from the kids and parents.”

Halfway across the country, in the sprawling Houston neighborhood of Sharpstown—a racially diverse community that struggles with crime and poverty—a similar scene unfolds. At the Saint Constantine School, built around the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, children run free in a seven-acre yard, learning to garden or organizing their own games. Kids who might have been hobbled by a dysfunctional public school system are now immersed in a curriculum that includes instruction in Greek, Latin, or Arabic.

Like New York’s Brilla schools, Saint Constantine is growing rapidly—from 115 to 530 students enrolled since 2015. Houston’s troubled Independent School District, meantime, has lost 12 percent of its students since 2016. Made up largely of Middle Eastern Christian and Russian and Greek Orthodox students, the school focuses not only on academics but also on moral character—something rarely a priority for public schools. “We are trying to raise saints,” says Megan Mueller, VP of strategy and communications for the school. “Education is important, but building character is more so.”

Throughout the long history of cities, religion has played a central, even dominant, role, providing education, charity, and moral ballast in places where social chaos often flourishes. From the days of the earliest Mesopotamian cities to the modern metropolis, religion has served as a source of inspiration—as evidenced by structures from Saint Peter’s to Saint Patrick’s—and a consolation for populations that otherwise would be left to the vicissitudes of the mean streets or the cold mercies of the state. Even in an age of rationalist skepticism, religion remains indispensable to city life.

Religion is a central defining characteristic of civilizations,” observed the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. Its importance shows in the evolution of the earliest cities in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. Religion defined a worldview that helped people cope with disasters and the fear of death, offering hope for immortality. It provided a moral code and a means of social cohesion. In many places, priests were the architects of the earliest urban order.

Throughout the many crises of antiquity, religious groups stepped in to play a philanthropic role. Often the only ones willing to treat the sick during a plague, Christians expanded their influence. Their selflessness, notes Rodney Stark, brought many to faith in a divine creator. Recurrent plagues, along with the general decline of Roman institutions, notes historian Kyle Harper, provided “a moment of truth for the traditional religions of the classical world, leading to the uncanny growth” of Christianity, a formerly “marginal religious movement.”

During the Middle Ages, the now-powerful Catholic Church, despite often-outrageous internal corruption, fed the poor, educated the populace, and cared for the sick. Until the advent of the modern nation-state, churches offered the charitable services needed by the urban poor. “The church, not the government,” observed Barbara Tuchman, “sponsored the care of society’s helpless.”

Other religions played similar roles in their geographical domains. Islam, like Christianity, mandated that the wealthy help the impoverished. “The believer’s shade on the Day of Resurrection will be his charity,” wrote the tenth-century Islamic scholar Al-Tirmidhi. To this day, Islamic charities are involved not only with education but also in the delivery of medical care, food, and other assistance to the needy.

In East Asia, Buddhists and some Hindu sects did the same. One of the best-known and largest charitable institutions in Taiwan is the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation.Many believe that the foundation—the largest owner of private land in Taiwan—is the wealthiest religious organization in Asia.

Religion was crucial to the development of American cities. In New York, Catholic parishes past and present have given services to immigrants. John Hughes, an Irish immigrant gardener who became New York’s first Catholic archbishop, adopted programs with a focus on self-help, skills development, and efforts to reform the often-destructive behaviors of what he called “the scattered debris of the Irish nation”—vices that made the newcomers especially vulnerable to the biases of a Protestant-dominated society. Hughes was a major force in the building of New York City’s extensive Catholic education system. (See “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish,” Spring 1997.) These schools, buttressed by the self-discipline inherent in Church doctrine, helped transform the predominantly poor Irish Catholic population into one with well-above-average earnings and education levels, observes Duke University’s Lisa A. Keister. Religious groups helped Jewish immigrants get a leg up in America, too, as Irving Howe chronicled in World of Our Fathers, finding them lodging and employment and combating discrimination.

As they have across history, cities today face enormous challenges, ranging from refugee migration to failing schools and social disorder. Many of these problems are surging at the same time as churches are losing adherents. In 2023, the Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago surveyed approximately 1,000 American adults about the importance of various values, including religion. Only 39 percent of respondents called religion very important; a quarter-century earlier, in 1998, 62 percent had answered that way.

The generational shift is striking. For example, while 76 percent of baby boomers identify as Christians, barely half of millennials do. Half of boomers attend church regularly, while barely a third of millennials do. Younger Americans are leaving religious institutions at a rate four times that of their counterparts three decades ago. According to Pew, the proportion of those professing no religion (the “nones”) has risen from 5 percent in 1970 to 30 percent in 2020 and is expected to continue to go higher. In 1972, almost 90 percent of Americans were Christian; by 2070, the Christian share of the population, if current trends persist, will be barely a third. The erosion of Christianity among the young means fewer young people exposed to religious ideas, with their twin character of order and mystery. Among Catholics, the sacraments, especially baptism and matrimony, are critical, community-bonding events that sustain the faith over successive generations.

Most major faiths have witnessed similar declines. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, more Protestant churches closed than opened in the United States. The contraction has been particularly severe for mainstream—and overwhelmingly liberal—Protestant denominations, which have lost 5 million members in the past decade, suffering through what one analyst describes as “a bloodbath.” More conservative faiths—including some evangelical churches, Orthodox Judaism, and fundamentalist Islam—remain more robust, thanks partly to higher birthrates.

At Houston’s Saint Constantine School, built around the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, each day starts with morning prayer, with an Orthodox priest, deacon, or reader presiding. (Courtesy of The Saint Constantine School)

Confronting demographic decline, America’s religious institutions now operate in a largely hostile political and social environment. Cities like San Francisco are havens for the unmarried and childless, two groups that tend to be less religiously oriented than others. “The Irish all started moving to the suburbs,” notes attorney John Christian, a native San Franciscan trying to steer the city’s once-prominent archdiocese through a bankruptcy, largely through property sales. “The families have left, and we have more churches than we need.”

Because some religious leaders reject the left-wing cultural agenda—for example, on transgender issues or abortion—mainstream media like The Atlantic and the Associated Press routinely link them with far-right movements. Hostile presidential administrations have made churches the targets of FBI investigations. The Catholic Church is mocked in public forums—as it was in Dodger Stadium by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—in ways that would be considered outrageous if done, say, to Jews or racial minorities. In California, religious schools are denied any public funds, even to help vulnerable populations like students with special needs. Since May 2020, Catholic churches have suffered more than 350 attacks.

Today, urban Christian churches are striving again to be a spiritual and material bulwark for the poor and disenfranchised. Some religious leaders point to immigrants, particularly from Central and South America, as the hope for their own revival. Yet a Pew Research Center study found that the percentage of Catholic Latinos fell from 67 percent in 2010 to 43 percent in 2022, while the proportion of Latinos with no religious affiliation rose from 10 percent to 30 percent—the same level as that of the U.S. population as a whole.

Still, while religious institutions are depleted, they remain the most critical source of charity in troubled urban neighborhoods. The Catholic Church, for instance, maintains one of the largest urban hospital systems in the world. In April 2023, the Catholic Health Association reported that more than 665 Catholic hospitals operate in the U.S., with 74 percent located in urban areas and 26 percent in rural areas. Approximately one in seven patients in the United States is cared for in a Catholic hospital.

Religious Americans also account, as they always have, for the largest share of charitable contributions. Three-quarters of all who attend church weekly give to the poor, compared with 41 percent among the nonobservant. Charitable donations among those with any religious affiliation average $1,590 annually, compared with $695 among those with none. Overall, 73 percent of all charitable contributions come from organizations and individuals with a religious affiliation. Faith-based institutions account for 60 percent of all beds for the homeless. Churches have taken the lead in serving the new migrants coming into the country—for example, in El Paso, Texas. But the decline in religious affiliation reduced the number of volunteers by 10 million between 2010 and 2015. Karl Zinsmeister, writing in Philanthropy, suggests that the erosion of church life means that “the philosophic sharing that has long powered social reform and self-improvement could sag in the future.”

As was the case in the European ghettos and on New York’s Lower East Side, religious organizations often augment sketchy public provisions for security and emergency services. “You have to be careful in the mean streets that are taking over L.A.,” suggests Simcha Mandelbaum, who directs Hatzolah, a community-funded emergency-services provider for people speaking Farsi, Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. “People are comfortable with people they know and who can respond quickly.” Another organization, Magen Am, serves as a de facto Jewish police force. Its members have experience in the U.S. military as well as the Israel Defense Forces. They regularly patrol a two-square-mile area of L.A.’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood—a community laced with synagogues, kosher markets, and shops selling the modest clothes worn by religiously observant Jews.

In Los Angeles, the 2020 riots saw the vandalization of a nearby synagogue and rising crime, notes Rabbi Yossi Eilfort. The onslaught eroded confidence in public systems, causing many to turn to Jewish volunteers instead of depending solely on state and local governments for support. “It’s a good thing in these times for Jews to depend on each other for security,” including protection for the area’s myriad synagogues, Eilfort says. “The crime is terrible, and we have to respond ourselves. People are afraid to do anything and sometimes don’t feel comfortable talking to the police.”

Most L.A. synagogues engage in some form of philanthropic activity, but Orthodox philanthropies increasingly lead the way. They operate an extensive food and clothing operation and deliver meals to struggling families. As analyst Steven Windmueller notes, 30 percent of L.A. Jews are struggling economically, and 12 percent earn less than $50,000 a year, a meager sum in an expensive city. By contrast, only 9 percent of L.A. Jews report annual incomes between $250,000 and $500,000, and another 3 percent report incomes exceeding $500,000.

These services help 635 families, most with one adult, or sometimes two adults, in the workforce but struggling to pay private school bills, the high cost of kosher food, and L.A. rents. Watching 150 volunteers, mostly young people, packing boxes of supplies for the Sabbath while listening to Israeli music, one can sense the connectiveness that has helped Jews worldwide survive through much harder times. “Our faith leads to charity,” notes Irving Lebovics, a local dentist and major contributor to these charities. “It’s the key to maintaining the community.”

The decline in religious identification is an unwelcome development for urban education. Over the past decade, more than 1,000 Catholic schools have closed. Such schools have long been a place where working-class students can escape poor public schools to find a path to a better life. Overall, Catholic school students easily outperform their public school counterparts. In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average score among Catholic school fourth-graders is about 1.5 grade levels ahead of their public school peers. The differences are particularly marked among black and Latino students.

Thankfully, ambitious organizations like Seton Education Partners are pursuing a strategy to revive inner-city Catholic education. Founded in 2009, the group uses funds from private donors like the Simon Foundation and the Gerstner Family Foundation, notes Seton’s cofounder and managing director Stephanie Saroki de García, to develop classically oriented schools that reflect Catholic values but operate independently of the Catholic Church. (In 2017, Seton became the management organization for the Brilla schools.) So far, Seton runs 21 schools in California, New York, and Cincinnati, with another 18 planned for the next five years.

A demand clearly exists for such religiously oriented education, and this new wave of schools is spreading. Like Seton, many are not officially part of the Church. They also run independently from teachers’ unions and boast curricula that challenge students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Crew members from Hatzolah, a Jewish community-funded emergency-services provider. (Daniel Barry/Getty Images)

The Brilla schools focus on classical education in areas like history and literature, topics often given scant attention these days in public schools. They also seek to engage parents, visiting with them regularly, and to integrate the school into the surrounding community. “We think parents are the first educators,” notes Brilla’s McCrummen.

“We want kids and parents to learn that we are more than just flesh and blood,” suggests Yeime Valle, executive director of the Brilla Schools Network and former director of Seton’s El Camino Network, an after-school Catholic religious education program that attracts roughly 40 percent of the Brilla student base. “The true mission of the school is to foster good character and spirit.”

This marriage of moral instruction with high academic standards can also be found at Houston’s Saint Constantine School. Saint Constantine president John Mark Reynolds uses classical education—including instruction in Greek or Latin—to sharpen kids’ ability to think for themselves. Unlike Brilla, Saint Constantine is private and charges tuition in the $10,000–$15,000 range, but scholarships are widely available. The academic results seem impressive: Saint Constantine sends 90 percent of its students to college. But equally important, notes Reynolds, are the school’s efforts to build a moral structure for its kids. “You don’t have to be religious to be here, but you do have to put up with us,” Reynolds jokes. “What we are trying to do is bring classical education back to the city. The Great Tradition is the passport to global success.”

Such committed philanthropy could help cities emerge from their current malaise. Despite the coarseness and vacuity of much of our culture and the turn away from organized faiths, there remains a spiritual hunger in America. Today, fewer people than ever attend church, but two-thirds of unaffiliated Americans still believe in God or in some universal spirit. Surprisingly, one recent survey found that more young people now embrace the existence of a higher power than just two years ago—perhaps a reaction to the pandemic and its dislocations.

The power of religious communities lies not in sounding like a politically correct Disney character but in their focus on timeless virtues and ethical principles—and their devotion to building a better life for families. Populations with high religious observance tend to have higher birthrates than the less observant. Demography may favor the forces of post-familialism for now, but, given their fecundity, the religious may yet “inherit the earth,” in social thinker Eric Kaufmann’s words—especially as secularized societies continue to disdain critical personal values tied to family and parenthood.

A religious revival will likely require some adjustments, including a greater embrace of new communication technologies. At Orange County’s Saint Verena and the Three Holy Youth Coptic Orthodox Church, classes for young people are taught in English, not Coptic, and are oriented toward skills training and sports. “Young people want a learning church,” says Father Gregory Bishay, a former electrical engineer. He uses social media to spread the gospel to the faithful. Being able to help students with their math homework, he adds, doesn’t hurt.

Even in the technological heartland of secular America—Silicon Valley, where companies like Google host drag shows and Christianity is, as one observer notes, “borderline illegal”—signs of religious interest can be spotted. Founded more than a half-century ago, Our Lady of Peace Church and Shrine lies along the US-101 freeway in Santa Clara in the heart of the Valley. It is marked by a massive, 33-foot-tall stainless-steel statue of the Virgin Mary. The church, notes Father Brian Dinkel, is open all day, and its priests hear an estimated 50,000 confessions a year. It has continued to grow and now has more than 3,000 families.

The key, notes Dinkel, lies in serving the unmet spiritual needs of his heavily Asian, tech-oriented flock: “People who may be doing well also want something more.” In schools and universities, young people are trained to be “anti-religion,” he says. “Our people work at Google and Apple, but there’s a real search for the truth beyond tech.”

Even the most privileged yearn for people and institutions animated by a spirit of giving and sacrifice. Someone needing assistance in a disaster is more likely to look to a committed church member than to a woke nonprofit for help. Secular social-justice warriors may be passionately committed to their causes, but it’s usually groups like the Baptists or the Mormons who come to the rescue faster and more effectively in a crisis.

Indeed, in a period of obvious social decline, spiritual revival—whether in San Jose or the South Bronx—offers a remarkable salve, as the American Enterprise Institute’s May 2021 American Perspectives Survey reveals. Participation in church generally correlates, according to a January 2022 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, with better health outcomes and longer lives, greater financial generosity, and more stable families—all desperately needed in a nation with rising rates of anxiety, particularly among the young.

As our cities struggle to absorb new immigrant populations, religious institutions continue to help bring together people of disparate backgrounds and economic status, building social bonds and serving as unifying transmitters of tradition and cultural identity. A world without traditional religion might still include people with some spiritual awareness, but it would be short on the blessings provided by institutions that have for so long promoted and sustained community, sacrifice, and faith.

Top Photo: A music student at Seton Education Partners, which runs 21 schools in New York, California, and Cincinnati that reflect Catholic values but operate independently of the Catholic Church. (Courtesy of Seton Education Partners)


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