Holy Waters

Spiritual Life Returns to New York Harbor

At the height of a sunny Wednesday, four young Japanese women on their lunch break gather at Manhattan's East River promenade. There they sit, chattering about new haircuts and office matters. Then they grow quiet, bow to the bright blade of river, clap twice, and ascend into songlike prayer.

Kamurogi Kamuromi no
Mikoto mochite
Sumemioyakamu Izanagi
no Ookami . . .

This recitation of one Shinto chronology of creation and the cleansing away of evil unfolds between a shirtless middle-aged man baking himself on one park bench and a couple exchanging romantic smiles on another. Traffic along the FDR Drive is a steady whoosh behind the worshipers, while the boxy blue-and-white Sea Bull tugboat chugs under the strain of pushing three gravel barges south.

During Rosh Hashanah, Jews turn to the water for the washing away of sins.
photos: Rebecca Cooney
During Rosh Hashanah, Jews turn to the water for the washing away of sins.

Nearly a quarter of an hour passes before the women open their eyes to the river's glare. They have honored Susanoonomikoto, the kami, or god, who descends upon the East River and protects New York.

"This is like a shrine to us," explains Mariko, a stay-at-home mother from Queens. She and the other women have been meeting here twice a month for two years.

The East River a Shinto shrine? Yes, the insulted waters of New York City are again sacred passages, as they once were to Native Americans for millennia. Thirty years after the 1972 Clean Water Act, raw sewage no longer pours into vital waterways, and industrial pollution has largely been checked. We are witnessing the ecological resurrection of our rivers and bays, from the return of wood-eating gribbles and shipworms that devour our piers to winter visits by a small seal community. People are coming down to the water again to see rare birds, to kayak and to swim. And responding to an ancient call, they're coming down to the water to pray.

On June 8, African Americans will hold a Middle Passage ceremony at Coney Island to honor ancestors who died aboard slave ships bound for the New World. Reverend Mother Cheryl Byron, of the Yoruba-influenced Spiritual Baptist faith, will lead a closing prayer in words and dance and spread gifts of flowers and sweet food over the water. The service will open at noon and continue all day with music, dance, and spoken word performances. (For more information, call 718-270-4902 or 718-659-4999.)

In September, the Interfaith Center plans a waterfront service to bring together those who pray before the same waters but inhabit seemingly different worlds. Hindus standing in shoreline parks and industrial waterfronts see Mother Ganga, while Hawaiian spiritualists see Kanaloa. The deep is Mother to Wiccans and shamans, Yemaya to the kindred faiths of the African diaspora. Zoroastrians hold water sacred, and in global mythologies it's cast as a handmaiden both to creation and annihilation.

For Christians, these waters become the Jordan River, and for Muslims and Baha'is they are a sacred trust from God. Practitioners of feng shui trace the waterlines of the Hudson and East rivers to divine the health of a wounded city. For Jews—from the largely gay and lesbian Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Hudson-edged Greenwich Village to Brooklyn's Hasidim at Coney Island—water symbolically carries away sin in the Tashlich ceremony at Rosh Hashanah.

The harbor is our intercedent between the vast, unknowable brine and the mastered, utilitarian sweet water of our daily lives. "Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon," Herman Melville advises in the opening pages of Moby-Dick. "Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. . . . But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks . . . they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. . . . Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever."

In surprising ways, too. Chloe Faith Dzubilo says that while living in the East Village, she was moved by the vision of a goddess to go to the Hudson. So began a personal relationship with a deity she calls Shela, who hovers above the waters and wears a flowing red caftan ("I hate to say it, but very Stevie Nicks," Dzubilo confides). Shela has guided Dzubilo into a transgender identity and growing social activism.

"I think it's natural and very human to go to the river," she says. "When something happens to people who don't have special practices and they need to seek stuff out, it's sort of organic. They go outside. They go to the water."

Offering worship at the water's edge in a megalopolis is not without complications. A few years ago, Donna Henes, the "Urban Shaman," led a solstice procession to Staten Island. The merry band in sparkling costumes traveled on a bus decorated with garlands, rode the ferry calling out to the mother goddess, and lit a sacred fire on the beach. They were arrested for trespassing, though charges were later dropped.

Some worshipers worry about offering even simple prayer in a public setting for fear of being misunderstood. One elderly Zoroastrian remarks, "I have been here 32 years but I have never been near the water to worship. But in Bombay, I certainly would. My wife says, 'No, people will think you are an odd animal. Don't do prayers in a public place. New York police might think we are undressing.' "

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