Brooklyn’s Window on the World

By Glen Nelson

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    Its membership is like a model United Nations.

    Attending meetings in the Brooklyn LDS chapel, to hear a visitor tell it, is like sitting among the General Assembly of the United Nations. And if you can’t exactly see the U.N. Building from the chapel on Coney Island Avenue, the international impact is felt in the small LDS meetinghouse. Two wards and a branch meet there, organized by language into English-, Spanish-, and Chinese-speaking units.

    But Brooklyn members are far more diverse than these three divisions imply. In the Brooklyn First Ward alone, members come from forty different countries that include Argentina, Australia, El Salvador, England, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Switzerland, and Trinidad and Tobago. The membership from the United States is nearly as varied, hailing literally from coast to coast. Even the indigenous Brooklyners claim ethnically rich heritages—Jewish, Italian-American, and African-American, to name a few.

    Brooklyn’s branch and wards hold a sampling of the world few other wards can match. First Ward Bishop Michael Goodson whimsically states that he is the only bishop in North America who knows the difference between Guiana, Guyana, Ghana, and Guinea. But although the diversity of language, culture, and race may fascinate tourists or new members, most Brooklyn members seem almost unaware of such differences. Instead, they are more attuned to ways that they are alike—alike in their testimonies of the gospel, alike in their coming-to-Brooklyn stories, and alike in their strong family life and commitment to youth.

    The history of the Church in Brooklyn reflects the history of the city itself—the fifth largest city in the United States even when it is separated from the other four boroughs that together make up New York City. Brooklyn’s tradition as one of the world’s crossroads is legendary. Estimates suggest that as recently as 1940, three out of every four Americans could trace their family history back to when their ancestors lived in or passed through Brooklyn.

    A branch of the Church was established in Brooklyn as early as 1837, and between 1840 and 1849, fifty thousand European converts arrived in companies organized by the Church. Afterwards, thousands of Latter-day Saints continued to sail into New York. Brooklyn remained the principle port of entry for LDS immigrants for many years.

    But Church growth in Brooklyn has not been steady and swift. Throughout its history, the Church in Brooklyn has served as a stopping-point for travelers who, sooner or later, continued their journey elsewhere. In 1846, the Church chartered the first ship to carry members to California as a commencement to the westward migration. The name of that ship: Brooklyn.

    In recent years, the composition of the Brooklyn wards has changed from the almost-entirely European Saints of fifty years ago to a large percentage of members who come from points nearer the equator. But whether members have emigrated from other countries or migrated from other U.S. states, almost everyone is a “foreigner” in some sense. Native Brooklyn adults are nearly nonexistent among Brooklyn’s almost 1,200 Church members.

    Mireille Petrus and her family are representative of the faithfulness and diversity of Brooklyn Latter-day Saints. They left Haiti eight years ago to come to the U.S. and relied heavily on the Church upon their arrival in an unfamiliar society. “The Church has helped us stay on the same spiritual level as before,” notes Raquel, Mireille’s oldest child. Sister Petrus serves as a Sunday School teacher for other French-speaking Haitians in the ward and doesn’t worry very much about raising four teenagers in a neighborhood notorious for crime and poverty. She has prepared them well, and they talk about frightening and dangerous experiences with calm and reassurance: “We have to rely on the Spirit all the time to know what to do and what not to do.”

    Strong families and an active Seminary program have produced enthusiastic and willing LDS youth in Brooklyn. But according to Randy Dow, a native of Maine who has worked with the youth for years, “A few years ago, we started Seminary with only a couple of students. One of the problems was that parents didn’t want their children out late at night.” Private cars are rare in Brooklyn, but rides were organized, and activities later followed the weekly classes. Now Seminary is held on Friday nights—the unanimous choice of the youth.

    Brother Dow is surprised by the challenges the youngsters face. He is also openly gratified by his work with the teenagers and the opportunity to make a difference in their lives. One of his original students is now among the top of his class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Answering questions about the difficulty of raising a family in Brooklyn as opposed to their native countries of Honduras and Nicaragua, Brother and Sister Gonzalo Ayerdis are optimistic. “It’s easier here,” says Sister Ayerdis. “At least you know that you can always get work.” They brought five young children to Brooklyn in 1962 and soon added two more to the family. At age forty-one, Brother Ayerdis found work as a carpenter that gave his family of nine eighty-five dollars a week. Just seven years later, they purchased their own home—a rarity in Brooklyn—where they still reside. Today, all of their children are married except for their youngest daughter, who recently returned from a mission in Arizona.

    Brother Ayerdis currently serves as bishop of the Brooklyn Second Ward, where meetings are conducted in Spanish. He recalls the day when he took his family to see the judge who would grant them permanent residency in the United States: “Our children sat beside us on the long bench—quiet, like angels.” The judge thought that New York would corrupt the children and said to the family, “What a shame that you had to bring your lovely children here.” Sister Ayerdis responded, “We left our furniture, our house, and our clothes behind. But we did bring our traditions.”

    Her response is what Brooklyn is all about. Latter-day Saints here feel very much at home in cultivating their own traditions, maintaining faith in unusual circumstances, and growing together in gospel living.

    Photos by Gregory Reece

    The chapel on Coney Island Avenue is home to two wards and one branch.

    Above: A rooftop view of downtown Brooklyn with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Left: Bishop and Sister Gonzalo Ayerdis of the Brooklyn Second Ward. Right: Choir practice in the Brooklyn chapel.

    Mireille Petrus and her family, immigrants from Haiti, represent the faithfulness and diversity of Brooklyn Latter-day Saints.

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    • Glen Nelson, a former Brooklyn resident, currently resides in the Manhattan Second Ward, New York New York Stake, where he and his wife work with members who are deaf.