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Religious communities beckon Long Islanders from afar

Bernard Edwards of Brentwood, second from left, drives

Bernard Edwards of Brentwood, second from left, drives about an hour to worship at Holding Out Hope in Middle Island with his wife, Luisa, second from right, their son, Tyler, 14, far right, and their nephew Emmanuel Delrosario, 9, in August. Annemarie Davin, left, of Riverhead, also travels a distance to the same church. Credit: James Carbone

On a Sunday in Middle Island, the worship ministry plays guitars and drums on the platform. Bernard Edwards, 53, and his family, along with close to 30 other people, stand and sing, swaying and clapping to the beat.

“I told Satan to get thee behind, victory today is mine,” they sang.

When church ends, Edwards will say his goodbyes to the pastors and fellow Christians at Holding Out Hope Church. Then he and his family will drive home — about an hour away to Brentwood.

Commuting long distances to work is commonplace, but doing so for religion is a rarity. According to the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey, only 9 percent of American churchgoers travel more than 30 minutes to their place of worship.

No exact numbers exist for Long Islanders, but those who travel an hour or more are in the minority, said Anthony Achong, director of administration for the Long Island Council of Churches.

The right place

And most who travel long distances don’t do it because churches are scarce; there are at least 800 churches on Long Island. A common reason Achong cites: People who travel back to their home church after moving to another community.

“If they, for instance, liked the clergy they had, I can see why they would continue to go there,” Achong said.

Andrew Sweeney, 34, said the first church he grew up with spiritually and attended regularly was Church on the Sound, an evangelical Christian church in Stony Brook. He lived nearby in Selden.

But he married last year, and the search for a new house — plus high housing costs on Long Island — led him farther away. His father-in-law offered to help pay for a house in Aquebogue so that his wife could be closer to her family in Riverhead. So Sweeney and his family travel close to an hour to back to Stony Brook for Sundays at Church on the Sound.

“We thought about it, and we talked about it. We said, for now, we really love the church we have,” Sweeney said. “It served us best.” Lower bills would also allow him to contribute more to his church and community, he said.

Personal preference drives others to travel, said Pastor Sunny Philip of the Gateway Christian Center.

“There’s a consumer mentality, where they are shopping around for churches,” he said. “When people find the church they fit in, they don’t mind traveling.”

Edwards and his family had tried about four churches in or near Brentwood, but none seemed a match. The veracity of the teachings is important, Edwards said, adding that he often checks the Bible to confirm what he hears on Christian radio stations. Sometimes, he finds teachings inaccurate.

It was through radio, around 2014, that he discovered Pastor Rich Anderson of Holding Out Hope Church, and he was impressed by what Anderson was preaching.

“One of the things on my mind was the distance of the church, which delayed me in trying it out,” Edwards said. Once he did, “honestly, I thought this was a really long drive.”

His wife, Luisa Edwards, thought Bernard was being extreme when he first brought the family along, too. They love the church now, she said, and look forward to attending.

“People drive to Manhattan an hour and a half to make a $150,000 salary, and they would do it every single day,” Bernard said. “How much more important to me is this?”

Beyond Christianity, nevertheless, the scarcity of places of worship does cause long commutes. For example, there are no Jain temples in Suffolk County, and there are just two in Nassau.

So Bakul Matalia, 69, of Sayville, who practices Jainism, travels to Hicksville or New Hyde Park, both close to an hour’s drive from his home. Before the two temples were built, he drove to Queens.

“I wish there was a Jain temple in Suffolk County where we are,” he said.

Effects of traveling far

The longer the commute to church, the less likely weekly attendance is, the Baylor Religion Survey said. Only 32 percent of churchgoers who travel more than 30 minutes attend weekly, compared with 53 percent who travel up to five minutes.

Even when religious commitment doesn’t decrease, it can be tough to fully participate in the religious community.

“We are not as involved as we were living closer,” said Andrew’s wife, Jackie Sweeney, 36. “It definitely puts a damper.”

It’s hard for her to attend weekday church events, she said. Jackie works in Central Islip, so when work ends, she heads home to Aquebogue to care for their dogs. To go all the way back to Stony Brook would be hard, she said.

Matalia experiences similar restrictions.

“If there’s a Jain temple close by to us, we can attend more celebrations, events, things like that,” he said. “Because of the travel constraint, many times . . . it’s difficult. We cannot do it, so we stay at home.”

Fortunately, most events fall on the weekend, Matalia said, and his home has a “house temple,” a place dedicated to worship.

Conversely, Annemarie Davin, 53, of Riverhead, said her drive to Holding Out Hope in Middle Island brings her closer to her religion.

“This morning, I popped in a CD from last week,” she said on a Sunday in August when the pastor was preaching the second installment of a series. “So I said, let me pop in so I can listen, so today when he continues part two, I’m already refreshed.”

Davin said her solo commute, which varies from 45 minutes to an hour, is her time to be alone with God.

“You get distracted throughout the week with things,” she said. “It’s the equivalent of someone saying they’re going into a prayer closet, because there’s no one with me.”

Ultimately, these Long Islanders say, the religious community that welcomes them makes the trip worth it.

“I was an immigrant, I was struggling, first-generation, didn’t know too many people,” said Matalia, a native of Gujarat, India. “The only way to connect with other Jains is the Jain temple.”

“It’s like a family. You come in and sit down. We could be talking for an hour after Wednesday night service, a few of us even leaving 11:45 at night,” Bernard Edwards said.

“For some people, the church is just like a to-do list, in and out, looking at the clock the whole time,” said Jackie Sweeney. “We’re not going for convenience. We’re going for the experience.”

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