Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center for Religion and Culture, questions the panelists.
Photo by Leo Sorel

What drives New Yorkers to begin, operate or work for organizations that serve those in need? Is it faith? Faith certainly plays a part, according to an interfaith panel of some of the city’s most inspired citizens who discussed faith-based activism on March 16 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.

“We can’t talk about the work we do purely in a secular form,” said Alexie Torres-Fleming, executive director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a leadership development organization in the Bronx. “We’re not trying to raise a bunch of angry secular activists. We’re just trying to show love for our neighbors.”

Torres-Fleming was joined by:

• Robin Bernstein, executive director of the Educational Alliance, a community-based organization offering a wide range of programs throughout downtown Manhattan.

• Abdel Hafid Djemil, teacher and mentor at W.E.B. DuBois High School in Brooklyn.

• Charles J. Hynes, district attorney for Kings County.

All were interviewed for the book Hope Matters (Bartleby Press, 2007), written by John A.
Calhoun, founder and former president of the National Crime Prevention Council and former state and federal administrator of family and child services in Massachusetts.

Calhoun was a special commentator for the forum discussion, “What in God’s Name Are Some New Yorkers Doing? The Untold Story of Faith-Based Activism in the Big Apple,” sponsored by the Fordham Center for Religion and Culture (CRC). Peter Steinfels, co-director of the CRC, moderated the discussion.

“These panelists balance the line between proclamation of faith and proselytizing,” Calhoun said. “They’re clear on where they stand, but they aren’t beating people up with their faith.”
Panelists largely discussed their reasons for serving. Although faith plays a part in their work, their reasons for serving are more personal.

“I always knew I was going to be a social worker,” said Bernstein, who recalled the death of her father when she was eight years old. “I went into this work 31 years ago to heal myself. Each time I open a new senior center, preschool or soup kitchen, the hole inside of me gets a little smaller.”

Hynes, who has developed programs to tamp down the recidivism of the formerly incarcerated, said his work is a product of the physical abuse of his mother at the hands of his father. As for his faith, it is part of who he is, even if it does not play a direct part in his work, he said.

“Could I do my work without my faith? I think so, but it wouldn’t be that good,” Hynes said. “At the most important time in my life, I prayed and my prayers were answered.”

Djemil, a devout Muslim, recalled an instance when a boy stole his radio out of a lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He confronted the youngster at his home, where he lived with his grandmother.

“He told me that no one cared about him. Since then, I started looking at youngsters and how to help them,” Djemil said. “I also never thought I’d teach at a high school, and now I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

Steinfels said the CRC held the forum to seek out the “untold story” of faith-based activism.

“Why is this an untold story? Because it is a human story submerged by constitutional and other partisan concerns,” Steinfels said.


Gina Vergel is Senior Director of Communications. She oversees the digital news coverage, public relations, and social media for the university. Before joining Fordham in 2007, Gina worked as a reporter for the Home News Tribune, and The Ridgewood News, where she won Society of Professional Journalist (New Jersey chapter) awards for breaking news and feature writing, respectively. She can be reached at [email protected] or (646) 579-9957.