In suburban communities, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints go door-to-door in pairs, preaching their gospel to prospective converts. While doormen on the Upper East Side make it more difficult to save souls, the organization informally known as the Mormon church is making inroads in the neighborhood — recently opening a five-story, 39,000-square-foot building on East 87th Street.
The multimillion-dollar, Gothic-style structure, which opened to worshippers in October, houses two wards, or congregations: One is composed largely of young families, and the other is made up of singles ages 18 to 30. The brick church was built with ambitious expansion plans in mind — it could easily accommodate at least two more wards, each made up of 300 or more people.
The Upper East Side family ward, which serves residents living between 50th and 110th streets, met across town until last fall. Since moving into the new building, attendance at the group’s Sunday service has grown by about 25%, to about 150 people, its spiritual leader, Bishop Joseph Jensen, said. The bishop said the Upper East Side is home to a growing number of young Mormon families. He attributed the growth to good schools and some reasonably priced housing stock — relative to other Manhattan neighborhoods. He predicted that at least one other ward would open at the East 87th Street church within five years.
Church doctrine emphasizes proselytizing, and neighborhood missionaries hoping to convert new members have their work cut out for them. “This area is tough, because missionaries just can’t get access to so many buildings,” Bishop Jensen said.
Missions last two years, during which missionaries cannot date, watch television, or read newspapers, magazines, or books other than scriptures and church-published works.
Because building security so often precludes going door-to-door, New York missionaries must seek out would-be converts in other ways. Last Saturday, for example, six missionaries spent an hour handing out hot chocolate and religious literature on East 86th Street, near Second Avenue. About a dozen people picked up brochures and DVDs, and a few even vowed to visit the Upper East Side church.
The missionaries’ work could be affected by the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who is a Mormon. The church’s theology and rituals have been the subject of national discourse, with some polls showing that about one-third of Americans would think twice about voting for a Mormon as president.
According to church doctrine, Jesus Christ reappeared in upstate New York to a Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, in 1820 – thereby restoring the original Christian church, which had been discontinued more than a millennium earlier. Church members today are expected to abstain from drugs, alcohol, caffeine, vulgar language, premarital sex – and, despite a very common misconception, polygamy. (The church sanctioned polygamy until 1890, when plural marriage was banned.)
Dispelling such myths is one challenge facing missionaries across the world.
Getting on-the-go urbanites to stop long enough to take in the gospel, or at least a brochure, is a particularly high hurdle for New York missionaries.
“New Yorkers are busy people,” church member Chrysula Winegar, 38, who lives on the Upper East Side with her husband and three children, said. “We’re very ambitious and driven, — those are qualities needed to stay alive in this town — but that can also make us less willing to ask the big questions.”
The two missionaries assigned to the Upper East Side, Trey Reed, 19, and Gabriel Ferreira, 21, rely heavily on old-fashioned pavement-pounding. Each week, the cleancut, suit-clad Messrs. Reed and Ferreira approach about 200 people on the streets and on the subway.
While most of those people reject their efforts out-of-hand, Mr. Ferreira, who grew up in Brazil and Orem, Utah, said some New Yorkers can be surprisingly open-minded. “Sometimes I find someone and think, ‘He would never talk to me,’ and then he’ll sit down and listen and talk,” he said, noting that in the past month he and Mr. Reed have convinced one person to convert.
They also ask local church members for referrals of “investigators,” or nonmembers interested in learning more about the church. Members often host in-home gatherings, where investigators observe Mormon family life and meet with local missionaries.
Some congregants, like Mrs. Winegar, and her husband, Warren, invite prospective members to join their “Family Home Evenings” on Mondays, when parents and children come together to strengthen their familial bond through studying scriptures, singing hymns, or playing religious-themed games. After attending one or more such gatherings, some prospective members will agree to visit with a pair of missionaries.
“If you’re exploring something new to you, it really helps to meet with people who are living it,” Mrs. Winegar said.
There are about 42,000 Mormons in New York City and its suburbs — and 371 missionaries stationed in the region, a church spokesman, Ahmad Corbitt, said.