Last Sunday, La Iglesia del Encuentro con Dios was overflowing with congregants singing and praying in Spanish. Even as the elevated 1 train thundered overhead, shaking the small building to its foundations, the participants in the all-day services never missed a beat.
The church, at the corner of Broadway and 130th St., is a Manhattanville institution. It has over 300 parishioners and has existed in the same red stucco building for the last 45 years.
But if Columbia has its way, the space where the church stands will one day be enveloped by a new uptown campus.
"We really want to stay here," said Elaine Franco, the church's administrative secretary and a member of the Board of Directors. "We've grown tremendously and we need the space, but until we find somewhere [perfect] we're not going anywhere."
Much has been made of the fact that Manhattanville is a primarily commercial, not residential, neighborhood, meaning that relatively few families will be evicted if Columbia's plans for expansion go ahead. But cultural institutions like the Encuentro con Dios church and La Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church around the corner-both of which own their buildings-are threatened by Columbia's efforts to buy up all the property it can from 125th to 133rd Streets between Broadway and 12th Ave.
Franco said that while many members of the Encuentro con Dios church live in the West Harlem area, others come from as far away as New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Yonkers.
"They just like to come here," she said. "They like the atmosphere, [and] when they come here for the first time it's like they want to come again because of the welcome they receive."
Several people attending services on Sunday said the pastor, Rev. Henry Marcado, has informed the congregation about the potential need to relocate. Franco confirmed that Marcado has met with representatives from Columbia but couldn't characterize the nature of the meetings. She added that the church has started to look at other locations, but so far has not seen anything appropriate.
La Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church on 131st St. is also facing the need to relocate if it wants to avoid extinction. But unlike the Encuentro con Dios Church, it is a relative newcomer to Manhattanville. Tucked away in a basement and sandwiched between auto-body shops, it has been in this location for just eight years.
"We don't have any objection to what's going on, we're just trying to agree on something that can benefit our tenants [in the building above the church] and our church members," the church's pastor, Rev. Pedro A. Torres, said. "Now everybody's moving out, I guess, because Columbia's trying to do its new campus."
Torres said that his church, which owns the building at 622 West 131st St., was approached by Columbia and asked to relocate. With the University's help, he has already found a suitable building on 142nd St. and plans to move within the next two years. Since almost all the church's members live between 125th and 176th Streets, the most important consideration was finding a location nearby.
"We are in an old building and we don't have enough money to fix everything up," Torres said. "Now we're going to be able to have a new building and Columbia will have whatever they're going to do there."
Torres, 38, moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico when he was 17 years old. Like the Encuentro con Dios church, most members of his congregation have roots in the Dominican Republic. Torres said he thinks the Spanish-speaking churches play an important role in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood by helping the younger churchgoers retain the language. Both churches also supply some transportation for their members and provide assistance to the hungry and homeless in the area.
According to Liz Golden, a Columbia spokeswoman, the University recognizes the importance of these types of cultural institutions in Manhattanville.
"Columbia maintains a good working relationship with these churches, and we are optimistic that we can meet the needs of their congregations," Golden wrote in an e-mail. "Beyond that, the University does not comment on ongoing negotiations."
Both Franco and Torres said that despite Columbia's plans to expand, they don't foresee the type of gentrification that has become a growing concern citywide.
"Columbia is buying a small area compared to West Harlem and Washington Heights," Torres said. "This is a big area, so I don't think it's going to ... affect the community."