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Religion for the non-religious goes weekly

Joseph Ferdinand is a lot of things. Passionate. Talkative. Tolerant. But religious?

“I’m not a churchgoing person,” said Ferdinand, 56. “I find religion controversial.”

And yet, Ferdinand is a charter member of New Day United Methodist Church. In the Bronx, religion for the non-religious is alive and well.

New Day will switch from monthly to weekly services on March 15.

“A different way of doing church” is how worship minister Jorge Lockward describes New Day. Lockward is more keyboardist than liturgist. A saxophonist and two drummers round out New Day’s band. They play hymns. They play gospel. They play songs from China, South Africa and Bolivia.

The church currently meets in the Bronx High School of Science cafeteria. Pastor Doug Cunningham held New Day’s first service in a funeral home.

Cunningham, 52, hails from Ohio by way of the Philippines, Baltimore and Crown Heights. For five years, he served as pastor at Brooklyn’s Bethany United Methodist Church. In 2008, Cunningham decided to found a new congregation.

His aim? To meet the spiritual needs of people like Ferdinand, non-churchgoing people. According to Cunningham, New Day promotes three simple principles.

“We’re about connecting with god, crossing social boundaries and confronting injustice,” he said.

According to Cunningham, social boundaries linked to race, class, sexual orientation and age often divide Christians. New Day members are black and white, Asian and Latino, young and old. The church boasts Spanish translation equipment.

“These days, people are hungry for multi-ethnic worship,” Cunningham said.

Last summer, Cunningham scoured the city for an appropriate neighborhood. He settled on the northwest Bronx.

“It seemed like a great area,” Cunningham said. “A diverse area with several strong groups doing what we want to do.”

Ferdinand volunteers for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. The Coalition campaigns on behalf of immigrants, tenants, prisoners and factory workers.

A Coalition retreat brought organizer and pastor together. Ferdinand promised Cunningham he’d visit New Day.

“With most of these churches, you have to dress a particular style,” said Ferdinand. “When I walked into the cafeteria at Bronx Science I thought, ‘This is a bit unusual.’”

New Day members wear comfortable clothes; Cunningham loves the church’s improvised home.

“A high school was just the space we were looking for,” he said. “Big and informal.”

Cunningham and Lockward won’t rush to secure a building. Many non-churchgoing people find pews and steeples intimidating.

“We want to concentrate on building a congregation,” said Lockward.

Lockward opened New Day’s January service with a series of slides – Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Cunningham’s sermon dealt with power, in the White House and in the community. New Day is 50 members strong.

“A lot of people don’t want to hear about church,” Ferdinand said. “I felt that way. But you go one time to New Day, and you become hooked.”

New Day is online at newdaybronx.org.

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