Holy Waters


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.

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.’ ”

Authorities are catching on that water access can be a First Amendment right, but there have been some legitimate concerns. Environmental and health agencies worry about some Latino and Caribbean spiritual practices that include sprinkling mercury on beaches. A few years ago, rangers at the Gateway National Recreation Area were caught between Hindus who came to Jamaica Bay for pooja—offerings of butter, grains, coconuts, mango leaves, sweet cakes, icons, and small brass or clay pots—and local residents who saw the remnants as unsightly. Today, the park seems to turn a blind eye to biodegradable items, but is stricter about foil wraps and plastics. And New York City police and firemen are fixtures at the Greek Orthodox celebrations of the Feast of the Epiphany, in which priests pour holy water into the Upper Bay and send boys diving from the Battery seawall into the frigid January drink to retrieve a cross.

Others have risked being tossed in. Edward F. Bergman, author of The Spiritual Traveler in New York, cites documents indicating that in 1657, the Dutch pastors of the Reformed Church complained that William Wickenden, “a fomenter of error, a troublesome fellow,” had the audacity to “preach at Flushing, and then went with the people into the river and dipped them.” Today, some African Americans still hold baptisms on local beaches rather discreetly.

Suppressing religious adoration of water would be a fool’s errand. Even the science of H2O lends itself to reflection over mystical dualisms. Hydrogen was the first element to rise from the quarks loosed by the big bang; oxygen is created as stars begin to die, and is scattered by supernovae, their final, violent spasms. And we humans, like all vertebrates, drink fresh water but are programmed to consume salts in our food, re-creating in our blood the brackish water of an estuary.

For the Lenape Algonquins and their antecedents, who made their home in this archipelago before Europeans arrived, water worship was nearly instinctive—there was no line between the sacred and the profane. Evan T. Pritchard, a Micmac scholar and author of Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York, says they believed the whales—then a fixture of local waters—to be especially sacred. They were considered higher beings than humanity, and their fins were dried into a powder that was burned ceremonially much like tobacco. The fingerlike bones within were used as sacred writing implements.

The Orient Point people, who spoke a proto-Mohican language, made their homes at the mouths of New York Harbor’s estuaries 3000 years ago. The names they lent to cherished sites linger, sometimes ferried through languages. According to Bob Singleton, president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the tiny Sunswick Beach in Astoria borrows its name from sunkisq, a word Pritchard translates as “the high woman’s place.” This woman—a shaman, chief’s wife, or chief in her own right—may have found, Singleton posits, that “valuable herbs and plants used in medical and religious ceremonies were along the tidal wetlands.”

That ground is still hallowed. A few feet from the Sunswick Beach waterline, offerings of open jars of honey and molasses, coconuts, apples, melons, bananas, and pastries can be found at the base of a tree or by small stone platforms and spent fires. Locals rumor of the occasional sacrificed bird, part of a rare Yoruba-Lukumi ceremony to transfer and transmute evil, though none were seen in many visits to the site. Remains of that sort are more often found along the Bronx Kill, on the northern coast of Randalls Island, and by the Brooklyn base of the Verrazzano Bridge, a place referred to by kayakers as Voodoo Point.

The Lenape also gave offerings from the earth to the water. Before making river crossings, they would spread leaves of cedar or tobacco (grown in what’s now Greenwich Village) across the face of the water, asking permission and protection for the journey.

Such convergence between modern and ancient happens time and again. Today’s Shinto worshipers turn to both a god and a goddess in the Hudson, a river subject to tides thus called “Muhheakunnuk” by the Algon-quin, for “the river that runs two ways.” Followers of the Yoruba-Lukumi religion, which is commonly labeled Santeria, consider the harbor sacred because it’s a meeting point between the ocean mother deity Yemaya and Oshun, another feminine force associated with sweetwater. Both powers, Yoruba-Lukumi priest Tony Mondesire adds, are ultimately aspects of a single God, as are we. Feng shui practitioners home in on this confluence as well. “Where fresh water ends, entering the ocean, there is very strong energy in that area,” says consultant and author Zaihong Shen of the Feng Shui Gallery.

Yoruba-Lukumi believers perform rituals at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, also sacred ground for the Lenape. That was the location, Pritchard says, of “the place of stringing beads.” Wampum beads, ground and polished from the abundant local shells, served not only as currency but also as ritual objects and tools of prophecy, Pritchard writes. Not far away is a site along the Bronx River where a turtle petroglyph was discovered, a place an Amazonian shaman independently rediscovered on his first visit to New York, Pritchard recalls.

The beaches of Staten Island, Coney Island, the Rockaways, and Sandy Hook are the sites of large Wiccan, Yoruban, and shamanistic celebrations. It is also from these places, Pritchard thinks, that Lenape people may have revered the “Red Road,” the sun trail path by which the dead return to the creator.

The idea of the sun trail guiding souls to the afterlife is something Reverend Kenjitsu Nakagaki of the New York Buddhist Church on Riverside Drive immediately grasps. He hopes to perform an Obon ceremony this summer on the Hudson River downtown in honor of those who died in the World Trade Center attacks, “to let all of the spirits go back home to Buddha’s land.” Worshipers face the setting sun and place upon the water shoe-box-sized boats bearing rice-paper lamps marked with the names of the dead and with prayers.

After 9-11, America’s most prominent island people, the Hawaiians, were moved to provide comfort to the grieving and make offerings to the dead. In October, the Pohala Foundation and others went to the Chelsea waterfront, lit torches, danced, and from kayaks and outrigger canoes set 6000 flowers strung into leis onto the southward-running Hudson, carrying bright, fragrant petals past the smoking ruins.

The power of that terrible event still consecrates the waters for Milton Hoolulu Desha Beamer, an ethnic Hawaiian living in New York. When a beloved mentor died back home, Beamer paddled an outrigger into the Upper Bay to offer up prayers and flowers. “His spirit was in the ocean and will always be in the ocean. It really doesn’t matter which ocean you go to, to offer myself up to him because all are protected by the same gods,” Beamer says. But he carefully chose a space “between the tremendous loss of life at the World Trade Center, and Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It was a point of welcoming, and hopes, and dreams. People were willing to be fulfilled.” The opposing emotions of those sites give the water between them powerful “mana,” or life force.

Long before 9-11, New York’s waters received our dead. “Sleeping with the fishes” is a standard Gotham punchline, and more deaths on the water have occurred through personal accident and disaster than can be recounted here. But how many New Yorkers realize more soldiers of the American Revolution died in the East River along the Brooklyn waterfront than in all of that war’s battles combined? Hunger and disease tore through as many as 11,000 men and boys held by the British on dilapidated prison ships, with the bones of the dead consigned to the river and its muddy shores. If a secular ideal like liberty has a sacred water, it’s not the Delaware River Washington so famously crossed. It’s the East River’s Wallabout Bay, where the general strategically abandoned his ragtag grunts rather than free them in a swap for his own prisoners, the enemy’s well-trained troops.

These days, the East River is entrusted by associates of Sri Chinmoy to guard the memory of U Thant, a devout Buddhist who served as the third United Nations secretary-general. Across from the Secretariat building, hardscrabble Belmont Island holds a “oneness arch,” a time capsule of the international civil servant’s personal items, and nothing more. Leased from New York State and unofficially renamed U Thant Island by the group Sri Chinmoy: The Peace Meditation at the United Nations, it was dedicated in 1977. Hurried currents and riprap rock make the island nearly unlandable, assuring reverent quiet.

“The silence is the power. The silence of U Thant’s memory will bring his ideals forward,” explains a Sri Chinmoy spokesman, who asks not to be identified.

That kind of contemplative abstraction, a sensing of the energy without personifying it, is the heart of feng shui, which translates to “wind and water.” Elderly Chinese go down to the East River at the South Street Seaport each morning at dawn to practice tai chi. Water is the most powerful conductor of chi and the best place for such practices, explains Zaihong Shen.

Believers from each tradition say that energy must come from waters that are healthy and alive. Faith inspires environmental action, but prayers have value in themselves, too, they say. “Most people crap, piss, and throw garbage in water,” says Mondesire, the Yoruba-Lukumi priest. “The Mother side of God gives all this goodness to us, and so a small group is giving something back.”