[Paleopsych] NYT: For Mormons in Harlem, a Bigger Space Beckons
checker at panix.com
Fri Oct 7 00:55:54 UTC 2005
For Mormons in Harlem, a Bigger Space Beckons
[Christianity as a whole became non-White about 1980. I don't know if it's true
for LDS yet.]
By ANDY NEWMAN
The pilgrims' progress began in a back dining room at Sylvia's.
In 1997, a handful of members of the Mormon Church began meeting on
Sundays in a mirror-lined banquet hall at Sylvia's restaurant, the
venerable cathedral of soul food in Harlem.
Now, after seven transitional and increasingly cramped years in a
windowless brick shoebox on West 129th Street, the congregation is
moving around the corner to a gleaming new five-story structure on
Malcolm X Boulevard, one of Harlem's main arteries. Never again will
the members have to cut services short to make way for Sylvia's
overflow brunch crowd.
There is only one problem with the new building, in the view of
Herbert Steed, whose title with the newly established Harlem First
Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is first
counselor. "I think it's going to be too small soon," he said.
As they have across the world, the Mormons continue to multiply in the
New York City region, from one congregation in 1965 to several dozen
in 1985, to 129 today, serving more than 41,000 members.
Last year the church opened a temple - a place where high rituals are
performed - across from Lincoln Center. It is the only Mormon temple
between Washington and Boston.
But church leaders point with special pride to their expansion in
Harlem. They say they hope it dispels any lingering misconceptions
that the church, which until 1978 barred blacks from full membership,
remains a bastion of whiteness.
A 1998 survey by a Mormon and amateur sociologist, James W. Lucas,
found that about 20 percent of Mormons in New York City were black.
"We're not in Harlem because of affirmative action," said Ahmad S.
Corbitt, the church's Northeastern public affairs director, who is
black. "We're in Harlem because we love people."
The new building, a bright red-brick haven scheduled to open by
month's end, looks a bit like a schoolhouse topped by a 50-foot
steeple. The resemblance is apt: Much of the space is filled with
classrooms for religious education and a gymnasium that the church
promises to open to the neighborhood. The sanctuary seats 350, and the
baptismal font accommodates full-body immersions.
The soon-to-be-former place of worship, in contrast, recalls nothing
so much as the waiting room of a government office, with dingy
industrial carpeting, folding chairs, fluorescent lights and a dropped
ceiling. As at most Mormon churches, the walls are bare. The only
visual clue to the room's function is the list of hymn numbers posted
at the front.
But last Sunday, as usual, the 150 chairs were filled and people stood
at the back. Also as usual, the room was one of the most racially
integrated in Harlem, with about equal numbers of white and black
worshipers. (The Mormons have separate congregations for Spanish
The members approved a formal upgrade of the congregation from a
branch, the smallest worship unit, to a ward, which must have at least
Then, after sharing a sacrament of white bread and water, they took
turns speaking. (The Mormon church does not have specialized clergy,
and preaching duties rotate among its members. Most adult males are
ordained priests, which entitles them to perform marriages and
baptisms. While women cannot be priests, they do preach and teach.)
"Because we stood strong together, this is what happened," a founding
member of the congregation, Polly Dickey, 59, testified through tears.
"This is what this church is about. As long as we stay together, we
can accomplish anything." The Mormon Church, founded in 1830 by Joseph
Smith Jr., is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, with
more than 12 million members; half are in the United States, mostly
in Western states. It is based on what Smith said were transcriptions
of gold tablets he had found hidden in a mountain in upstate New York,
which told the story of a lost tribe of Israel that fled to the New
World and was eventually wiped out.
Many members of the Harlem church said they had tried several other
religions before being converted by Mormon missionaries who came to
"It's the common sense of it," said Wilbertine Thomas, 53, a
Baptist-turned-Catholic who was baptized in February. "At Our Lady of
Lourdes they don't tell you the details of how to live your life."
The "details" part of the service came when partitions went up and the
congregation broke into study groups. A dozen of the newest members,
mostly black, gathered in a back room to learn Gospel essentials from
three well-scrubbed young white teachers in short-sleeved white shirts
One teacher, Blake Carter, a graduate student at Columbia University,
narrated a lesson in obedience, using the other two as actors. The
young man who did as his parents instructed was rewarded with car keys
and an extended curfew. The one who rebelled and stayed out late was
arrested. Mr. Carter deployed his tie as a makeshift set of handcuffs.
"We have the obedient one who has freedom," Mr. Carter said. "Then we
have the disobedient one - what's his situation?"
"He really has no freedom now," Ms. Thomas said.
Exactly, Mr. Carter said: "You gain freedom by obedience to God's
commandments and obedience to man's commandments: the local laws.
Commandments are just blessings waiting to happen."
The newest member, Bruce Rochester, who works restoring tires and who
was attending only his fourth service, said that though he had been
looking for a religious home after his wife died last year, he never
pictured himself as a Mormon.
"When the missionaries came, I thought when I saw the church it was
going to be a one-sided race thing," said Mr. Rochester, 55, who was
wearing an electric-blue dress shirt and tie. But he said he quickly
"I've been to churches that have different races, but this is
different," Mr. Rochester said. "There's more love. I felt like I
belong here. I hardly ever felt that at other churches."
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