A bulletin board hanging outside the bishop’s office of the Harlem First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints displays pictures of congregation members — a sea of various ethnicities and backgrounds. Church member Ned Gardner, the former president of the ward’s Elders Quorum, matches the smiling faces to countries of origin. “Honduras, the West Indies, she’s from Iran, Panama, Brazil, Pakistan,” he says, pointing to each picture.
Bishop Jay Salmon — who began his tenure about three months ago and has been a member of the ward, the name for a large congregation, for two years — explains that the Harlem ward prides itself on the diverse makeup of its congregation. “We’re one of the most diverse wards in Manhattan because of the local people born and bred in Harlem,” Salmon says. “Other congregations are full of interns or students, where our ward is much more local.” Church members say that individuals, like students, stay in a ward only temporarily while they are in school. Their congregation feels like more of a long-term community.
About 160 people attend services at the Harlem First Ward on a weekly basis, compared with the 50 to 75 individuals who attended before the ward moved to its present home on Lenox Avenue in 2005. Eighteen baptisms have been performed since January.
Joseph Smith started the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York in 1830, but the movement soon moved West and is based in Utah. Mormons are not a natural fit in Harlem, where churches that adhere to African-American culture dominate most blocks. “There was resistance to the church having a presence in Harlem,” Gardner says. “It’s seen as this very white religion.”
Yet, the areas of Harlem the ward covers are about 60 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic, and the congregation reflects the area’s demographics. “The church can be homogenous in different areas,” Gardner says. “In the West, families are similar-seeming. Here you’ve got people from every walk of life.”
Salmon notes that this variety might be shifting. “I think with the gentrification happening in Harlem, we’re seeing a slight influx of Caucasians,” he says.
The ward works to keep close ties with the neighborhood. “The intention is to come into the community and impact it in a good way,” Gardner says. When its new building opened, the ward held an open house and invited Harlem choirs to sing gospel music. “We were trying to sway; I looked awful,” Gardner says. Tourists often come to the church expecting the gospel music for which Harlem is famous and find themselves confused when they hear what Gardner refers to as the church’s “very Protestant sound.”
Harlem residents seem to have gotten used to the church’s presence, but nevertheless question how much it fits in the neighborhood. “I thought it was kind of weird when they opened,” says Jose Lopez. “They don’t really bother anyone, but it doesn’t make too much sense.”
The church itself has a tense history with African-Americans; members of African descent were restricted from participating in certain crucial religious aspects, such as holding priesthood and achieving the highest level of salvation, until 1978.
Despite perhaps clashing with Harlem’s culture, the ward tries to assimilate. The church holds a Christmas drive to collect and donate toys and also opens its indoor basketball court on Thursday nights for anyone to play. “We like to be considered another church in Harlem that provides open doors to anybody and everybody,” Salmon says. Every August, the ward sets up a genealogy booth during Harlem Week where volunteers work with individuals — regardless of church affiliation — to find ancestral history. Mormons emphasize genealogy in their teachings, so the booth allows the ward to extend its expertise into the greater community.
Being in Harlem even drove the ward to adopt what many members cite as one of their favorite traditions. New members stand up at the end of services and introduce themselves, after which the entire congregation verbally welcomes them. Influences such as Bishop Edwin Pabón, who grew up in Harlem and served for five years before Salmon was called, bring a more colloquial flair to worship.
However, when the church moved from its windowless, overcrowded home around the corner to its current location, many community members opposed the shift. Squatters in the derelict building the church bought and tore down protested in front of the new structure with sandwich boards claiming they had been forced out. “That just stopped after a while,” Gardner says.
Protesters drew graffiti on the facade and at one point attempted to throw a garbage can through the front doors. An individual from a rotating corps of the congregation now serves as a security guard throughout services, and security cameras were installed outside the building. Members say such incidents have ceased as the community has accepted the church.
As the newest leader of the church, Salmon simply hopes to continue what he considers the proud legacy already established at the Harlem location. “I think we’ve really improved the image here as a whole,” Salmon says. “People are happy that the building is there. It adds a legitimacy to that corner.”