Faded Rage

As a Divided Community Begins to Forget, a Court Reopens Old Wounds in Crown Heights

Just down President Street from the spot where Gavin Cato was killed, there is a small storefront, a cross welded to the fence post. Above the roll-down steel gate, the sign reads "Eternal Sacred Order of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church." Inside, two dozen parishioners, Nigerian Pentecostals, are reading psalms and singing hymns. The church is only six months old. "We have a lot of members around here," explains Sunny Diri, the pastor. These new immigrants have come to find new opportunities, not fight old battles.

Diri's congregants arrive with picnic coolers and bags of fruit. They change into their white robes and four-cornered white hats. As the service gets under way, the men pound out rhythms on congas under the sagging, stained ceiling tiles as two women stand barefoot, swaying softly, singing, "Jesus watches over me." Diri leads the congregation through passages from Revelations, and then they take turns testifying, asking the Lord for protection from sickness, from loss of work, from the kidnapping of their children. "I spoke with my family back home in Nigeria," says a man. "And they are fine. Thank you, Lord." A score of young children kneel in prayer at the folding chairs, some sneaking snacks from a clandestine bag of Doritos as they follow along on tattered Bibles.

Diri has no problems with his Jewish neighbors; they have much in common, he believes. Historians, he points out, refer to "Judeo-Christian" religions. "The main difference between us is the Jesus thing," he explains. "We believe Jesus is the Messiah."

Outside 1681 President Street, where Gavin Cato was killed
photo: Michael Kamber
Outside 1681 President Street, where Gavin Cato was killed

Diri was one of the earlier immigrants from Nigeria; unlike many of his parishioners, he was in Crown Heights in 1991. "It was a bad time," he says. "Tense, dangerous."

Relations have improved dramatically in the decade since the riots, yet, for many here, the devil is in the details. "On the 10th anniversary, everyone wanted to come together, to show solidarity," says the director of a community organization, who asks to remain anonymous. "But mention the details, and the tensions—the wounds—just open up. We had to say discussion of the details was off limits."

Pastor Diri agrees. "I just try to forget about it," he says. "If we keep looking back, we bring up issues we should not bring up. We keep hearing about who killed Yankel Rosenbaum, but I keep thinking, 'What happened to the driver—why was he not brought to justice? Where is he now?' They talk about the Black guys who started the riot, but they never talk about the Jewish driver who killed Gavin Cato. So I say it's better to just forget it. It's 10 years now—the boy is dead, the driver is gone. Let's just forget about it and continue with life."

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