Testimonies from the Inner City


Can the gospel really change lives on the streets of Harlem?

The New York City summer afternoon sizzles. Brick, asphalt, concrete, and metal absorb the heat and radiate it back into the air, making it difficult to breathe. On the streets of Harlem, children splash in chilly water gushing from an open fire hydrant. A boy of twelve strolls past them with a cane over his arm, a signal that he has drugs for sale. Groups of men gather on the steps of the “projects” (government apartment buildings). Some sit quietly, watching the passing cars; others stand, talking to one another in animated conversation. Graffiti is everywhere, its erratic lines pulsating in the background—on buildings, street signs, and even parked trucks.

From the hundreds of open windows in row after row of six-story red brick buildings come the sounds of radio music, shouting adults, and crying babies. On the shady sidewalk below, a couple dances, surrounded by clapping teens, and a homeless man lies curled on the concrete nearby, sleeping. At the curb, a drug dealer’s luxury car sits parked in front of a burned-out building; rats hide in the debris on the building’s steps. Next door, in a small vacant lot, stands a tattered scarecrow protecting a vegetable garden gone to weeds—now just a reminder of another dream that didn’t quite work out.

Upstairs, in a project building around the corner, Doug Haynes sits in a circle with several of his neighbors. Though he is the only member of the Church in the group, each person holds an open Book of Mormon. As Doug reads out loud, they follow along, some pressing a finger under each word.

“The more I read with others, the more I learn,” says Doug, a musician who plays twenty-six instruments and who has read the Book of Mormon several times. “I grew up in East Harlem. Drugs, drinking, and gambling are still all around me, but that’s what makes it all the more easy. I see what it does to other people and I don’t ever want to go back to that kind of life, especially when the gospel has brought me so much happiness.”

Since joining the Church two years ago, Doug has received the Melchizedek Priesthood and will soon receive his temple endowment. Though he has been confined to a wheelchair since an accident in 1987, he arrives at the Manhattan First Ward fifteen minutes early each Sunday so he will be ready to pass the sacrament.

“Those of us who are members of the Church in Harlem have discovered a better way to live,” Doug continues. “When you join the Church, you’re no longer a part of Harlem. You’re closer to God. Harlem is just a place where we exist. We’re out of Harlem.”

The Power of the Gospel against Social Ills

The Church is being planted one seed at a time among the millions of people who live in America’s inner cities. Many of these people live surrounded by some of the harshest circumstances in America: poverty, crime, drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse, and dysfunctional families. These challenges are simply part of the fabric of the inner city. Though not everyone who lives here is touched directly by these social ills, most are touched indirectly. Unfortunately, for those who are touched directly, life is filled with pain, despair, and hopelessness.

Does the gospel have the power to provide strength and hope for such people? Can it help them meet the challenges of such a severe environment? Members of the Church living in New York’s inner cities testify that it does.

“I Didn’t Understand the Suffering”

“In Harlem, everyone knows someone who has been affected by drugs, who has made a mistake and slipped into hell,” says Sheron Berre, who has adopted two children, one a baby who was born addicted to crack. “Drugs can make you forget who you are. So to survive, I cling desperately to the gospel—it keeps me alive.

“I realized I had to let go of some things to become truly righteous, and that included letting go of the people close to me who used drugs and alcohol. One of those people was my husband, whose drug use was dragging me down. I knew I was in danger of following him. But compared to what Christ did for me, my sacrifice was minuscule.”

Sheron, who works as a supervisor at the telephone company, searched many Christian and non-Christian religions to help her understand the suffering she saw around her. She read several translations of the Bible, as well as the Koran. “I didn’t understand the suffering. The knowledge I have gained since joining the Church has put the despair I see around me in perspective,” continues Sheron, a member of the Manhattan First Ward. “I retreat to the gospel when things seem unfair. There’s so much pain and grief here it’s overwhelming. It’s like walking on a tightrope, trying not to fall into it.

“I have learned that I don’t have to solve all the problems around me. I do what I can. Even though I want to, I can’t extend my arms around the whole city of New York and save it.”

“I Just Don’t Give Up”

Dora Jones grew up in a crime-ridden area of the South Bronx. Her home was like many in the inner city—several children and a mother who was a single parent.

“Mother was a drinker,” says Dora. As a preteen, Dora helped rear her younger brothers and sisters and care for her mother. “Even though she had this drinking problem, I could always go to her and sit in her lap and hug her,” she remembers. “I just wanted to be with her. I knew my mother still loved me. I knew it wasn’t her; it was what she was doing that got her to be like that, and she wouldn’t have wanted us to do it, too. I always said I was going to be different when I grew up. When my friends told me to do drugs or drink, I’d think of my mother and I’d stop.”

Dora was fourteen when her mother died. Her aunts each took a few of the children to rear.

Years later, when Dora learned of the gospel, she was a single parent of three children. But she had been true to her childhood promise—drugs and alcohol were not a part of her life.

“When you receive the Holy Ghost, you can feel it, and it can be a comfort,” says Dora, who was baptized in December 1990. “When I need someone to talk to, He’s there.” Each Sunday, Dora brings her children, who range in age from fourteen months to fourteen years old, to church at meetings in the Rego Park Branch—traveling on the subway for an hour and a half each way.

“I just want to take care of my children,” continues Dora, who keeps her apartment in the projects scrubbed clean. “They keep me positive. You have to make an example of yourself for your children so they have something to follow. I know I’m here for a reason, and I just don’t give up. I feel good knowing I can live with my children again in the hereafter, and I want to go to the temple for my mother.”

A Light for Haitians

Yvon Miliem taught high school in Haiti for ten years, but personal tragedies, including the death of a loved one, motivated him to search for a better way of life in America. With dreams of supporting himself as a classical guitarist, he moved to Brooklyn. While living with his sister’s family, he found a French translation of the Book of Mormon left previously by some missionaries. A week later, having read the whole book, Yvon asked the missionaries for more books. They responded quickly. In the following weeks he read the French translations of every book the missionaries could give him, including Jesus the Christ and Articles of Faith by James E. Talmage.

“I felt that Alma 38:5 was written to me,” says Yvon, who in Haiti had closely studied many Christian religions as well as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. “I especially like the part that says that ‘ye shall be delivered out of your trials, and your troubles, and your afflictions.’ It is a comfort to me.”

Yvon has found success as a classical guitarist in New York as well as the peace the gospel can bring. He loves to go with the missionaries and help them teach the gospel to other French-Haitians. As a result of his strong testimony and enthusiasm, several French-Haitians have joined the Church. “I understand God now,” continues Yvon. “I understand why I’m here and where I’m going.”

“Oh, It’s a New Day”

Susan Lewis * used to traffic in drugs to support her $100-an-hour cocaine habit. A mother of three, she used drugs only on the weekends in an attempt to keep her drug addiction out of the view of her children. But her children found out and begged her to stop. After three years, she did.

“I went cold turkey in my house by myself, and it was scary,” says Susan, who grew up in the Bronx.

“My kids saw me go through it, and my seven-year-old son stood by my side every step of the way. How I thank Heavenly Father for pulling me through. I know if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”

Drug-free when the missionaries knocked on the door of her apartment on the third floor of a project building, Susan was ready to hear the gospel. Searching for something better in her life, she eagerly accepted the Book of Mormon.

“I changed so much, and I love it,” continues Susan, who was baptized in 1990. “The gospel changed my heart, my appearance, my attitude, and my feelings. And I learned to pray. Whenever I have a problem, I go to Heavenly Father and say, ‘Help me.’ And he sees me through it. Sometimes I get real frustrated with the world on the outside, but I handle it with prayer. Now when I walk, I walk with my head high because I know Heavenly Father’s beside me every step of the way.

“From my window I can see outside on the benches,” she continues. “When you take yourself away from that and look down on it, you say, ‘Oh man, I used to be like that, sitting out there with the partying and the loud music and all that stuff.’ My kids used to go outside and other kids say to them, ‘Your mama get high.’ Now the kids say, ‘Your mama go to church,’ and my son can be proud of me.

“Oh, it’s a new day. I lost a lot of things by wanting to be in this drug world—I lost my apartment, my son almost died in a fire, I lost my marriage, I lost happiness completely. But I got it back. Heavenly Father gave me another chance to start again. I’m new now—brand new all inside and out.”

“I Try to Share My Home with the Children”

Sheryl Poug of the Bronx Branch glows when she speaks of the gospel and her children—four of her own and thirty-two foster children.

“It was a real battle to find the gospel—not God, ‘cause I always had him in my heart—but the gospel. I went to many churches, but there was always something missing. It was the feelings and the commitment that was missing. That’s what I found that changed my life.

“Satan ain’t got nothing to offer me but a lot of trouble, a lot of headaches, a lot of confusion, and a lot of pain, and I’m tired of dealing with pain. I want some good in my life.”

As an emergency foster care parent, Sheryl welcomes boys and girls who have been neglected or abused. “I try to share my home with them because I love children and I hate to see them go through so much pain,” says Sheryl. “I try to bring them something good in their life because kids, even babies, go through so much in such a short time. Since I’ve been in the Church, I give from my heart just to see the joy on other people’s faces. And I listen; everybody wants to be listened to.”

“I’m Just Looking for Higher Heights”

Barbara Jackson’s * family moved from Trinidad to Brooklyn when she was seven. The next to the youngest of twelve children, her wild life-style as a young girl led to drug use, drug dealing, and the birth of several illegitimate children. However, motherhood tamed Barbara. She quit using drugs and started looking for some way to protect her children from the problems of the inner city. When two lady missionaries knocked on her door, Barbara let them in because she loved the Church’s “Homefront” spots on television. She recognized the gospel as something she was looking for.

“Joining the Church was like choosing life over death,” says Barbara. “It made a big change in me. I’ve seen a lot of bad things in my life. Once, a man was killed in my own living room and, I hate to say it, I’ve seen worse things than that.

“In Relief Society, they give me pointers on how to take care of my children. Before, my family was loud. Now, everybody is calm. We have family home evening twice a week and family prayer at night. Each of my children take turns saying the prayer. I only have four books, all Church books, and I read from them late at night after the kids go to bed.

“I try to do good,” continues Barbara, who is caring for her sister’s two boys, one of whom was born addicted to cocaine. “They say when you do good, good will follow you. Times are rough now, but better days are coming. Now I’m just looking for higher heights. I want to really dig deep into the gospel and reach that peak. I’m going to get up there; I know I can. I have a lot of determination in my heart.”

Hope amid Despair

Night covers the streets of Harlem with warm darkness. Firemen have long since shut off the water that gushed from the fire hydrants during the heat of the day. Otherwise, not much has changed, but the noise has intensified. More windows are open in the six-story project buildings. The music is louder, and so is the shouting of adults and the crying of children. The sidewalks and steps are now filled with groups of people: some talk wildly; others crouch down and toss dice against the red brick buildings; some do drugs in the shadows. Occasionally, the sound of police sirens howls through the streets.

Barbara’s children are asleep. She pulls down one of her four books and begins to read, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. …”

In another building, the missionaries teach a woman the gospel. Distraught over the death of her son, she weeps as they tell her of the plan of salvation.

In the Bronx, while Sheryl is helping her children say their prayers, the phone rings. “Yes, I’ll be glad to take the two boys for the night,” she answers.

Dora can’t sleep. Tomorrow she is going to the Washington Temple to perform the temple ordinances for her mother.

Slowly, steadily, the gospel scatters hope throughout the inner city, changing it—one life at a time.

Making a Difference

As people in the inner city join the Church, they generally begin their Church service by fellowshipping others. Some learn teaching and leadership skills in family home evening groups arranged by the missionaries in several areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn. Early involvement in these groups helps contribute to the high retention rate of inner-city members. Like most new converts, they rely heavily on their ward or branch for strength and support.

But as their testimonies grow, inner-city members make important contributions in their wards or branches. Elder Andrew Thompson, from Portland, Oregon, says, “The presence of inner-city members is being felt as they share their testimonies and accept Church callings.”

Inner-city members are making a difference. Elsie Paul, who works as a social worker in the Bronx, serves as a Relief Society teacher in the Brooklyn Branch, and Iyowana Cookey serves as ward mission leader. Karen Goolcharan, of the Manhattan First Ward, is now serving a full-time mission in Las Vegas, Nevada. Herman Orellana, who works as a counselor in a drug rehabilitation center, serves as Young Men president in the Rego Park Branch. In the Bronx Branch, seventeen-year-old Richard Aballay serves as first assistant in the priests quorum and in the Scouts; and Carol Francis, who is currently attending school to become a nurse, serves as Primary inservice leader and as an assistant to the second counselor in the Relief Society presidency.

“Many of these people have attended the temple,” continues Elder Thompson. “I think that someday there will be branches throughout Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, fully staffed and led by the inner-city members who live there.”

Missionary Work in the Inner City

In the afternoon sunshine, Samuel and Dorothy Toomer exchange hugs with missionaries and friends in the parking lot of the Rego Park Branch in Queens. Dorothy’s hair is wet, and tears flow freely down her smiling face. Only an hour earlier, her husband, Samuel, baptized her. Among those congratulating Sister Toomer are Josephine Walker from Harlem, who introduced the Toomers to the gospel, and Elder George Plum and Elder Robert Gailey, who taught them. “I love the Toomers,’” says Elder Plum, from Chandler Heights, Arizona, who baptized Brother Toomer two weeks earlier. “They are like my own parents.”

Similar scenes are repeated more than one hundred and twenty times a month throughout the New York Mission, which includes a portion of upstate New York; the city of New York (Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island); Fairfield County, Connecticut; Long Island; and Bermuda. Two hundred missionaries, from places as diverse as the West Indies, Utah, Hawaii, and Kansas, spend their days looking for and teaching potential members of the Church. Success in New York’s inner cities has been particularly dramatic during the last two years.

“I believe this is one of the toughest missions in the Church,” says Elder Cree-L Kofford of the Seventy, former president of the New York Mission (1989–91). “These missionaries think they can do the impossible, and they do. The more I see the dramatic changes in the lives of our members from the inner city, the more I am convinced that only the gospel has the power to solve the social ills rampant here.”

“I’ll Knock on a Thousand Doors”

Missionaries working in New York’s inner city locate most of their investigators in three ways: knocking on doors, responding to referrals from members, and following up on responses to television spots offering a free Book of Mormon.

“I figure that we have one baptism for every thousand doors we knock on,” says Elder Mark Coumbs of Los Molinos, California. “But seeing the changes the gospel makes in a person’s life keeps me going. I’ll knock on a thousand doors willingly because I know there’ll be someone like Doug Haynes (see page 36) waiting behind one of those doors, ready to hear the gospel. I can knock on as many as four doors at the same time in the projects. I wait to see who opens their door, then I pick one of them to teach, and make appointments with the others.”

“We call Harlem the celestial kingdom because the people are so humble,” says Elder Devyn Smith of Pleasant Grove, Utah. “We always try to be friendly, smile, and say hello to everyone on the street. Even people you wouldn’t expect to answer at least nod or smile. We’re not afraid to go into these areas. Our name tags set us apart, so most people recognize who we are. As long as we obey the mission rules, the Lord protects us.”

Once, a group of boys gathered around two missionaries and threatened to beat them up if they did not give them their bicycles. Before the boys could do anything, adults came running from the surrounding apartment buildings and pulled the boys away from the elders. “We like these missionaries in our neighborhood,” said one mother. “They are good. Leave them alone.”

“I Love My Elders”

New members are grateful to the missionaries who brought them the gospel that changed their lives. Missionary support has contributed to the better than 70 percent retention rate among new members.

“My old friends came over to my apartment to visit,” says Mark Riley, of Harlem. “By 4:00 A.M. their visit had turned into an out-of-control party. I had been a member of the Church for only about a month, and my old friends wanted to pull me back. I was confused. I needed some excuses to not change my new ways instead of excuses to go ahead. I needed some reassurance, so I called the elders. I knew if I didn’t make that call, I was lost.” After Mark talked to the elders, he had the courage to insist that everyone leave his apartment.

“My kids love the missionaries,” says Sheryl Poug, “especially Elder Daniel Winger, because he has red hair. They call him ‘carrot top’, and they wrestle him to the ground like a big brother. I try to show him I appreciate him. If he hadn’t walked through that door, I don’t know where I’d be today.”

“When I said I was not being baptized,” says Mary Guluzian, a member of the Manhattan First Ward from Armenia, “they bring eight elders and they pray on their knees. That picture really affected me. I felt the Spirit, and I got baptized. I love my elders. I do anything for them.”

“One time I almost turned away from the Church,” says Janice LeGrand of the Rego Park Branch. “I almost got caught back out there in the world of partying. But my elders came around and gave me strength and prayed with me. Once I talked it out with them, I was okay.”

[photos] Photography by LaRene Gaunt, except as noted

[photo] Hope shines in the face of this Latter-day Saint girl.

[photo] Doug Haynes willingly helps those in need in his Harlem neighborhood.

[photo] Background: Children play during recess in a Harlem school courtyard filled with bright murals. (Photo by Bill Anderson/Superstock.)

[photo] Dora Jones and her son, Dai’shon, of Queens.

[photo] Yvon Miliem, of Brooklyn, finds fulfillment in writing music.

[photos] Above: Tasha Young of the Bronx. Background: A hot summer afternoon in Harlem. (Photo by Ken Heyman.)

[photo] Carol Francis, a young mother of two, was searching for additional scripture when the missionaries told her of the Book of Mormon.

[photo] “My sister asked me why I joined the Church,” says Daniel Bendahan of Queens. “She said, ‘What is the difference?’ I told her the difference is in my heart.”

[photo] Displayed on this street in the Bronx, a vast array of produce reflects the cultural diversity within the inner city. Leaning against a truck are tall stalks of sugar cane from the Dominican Republic.

[photo] Background: Inner-city project buildings as seen from a freeway.

[photo] Above: Kimberly Rojas, age seven, of Queens.

[photo] Background: Fruit stands, with their cheerful colors and sweet smells, offer a welcome contrast to graffiti-covered buildings known as “the projects.”

[photo] Samuel Toomer of Queens, and his wife, Dorothy, whom he has just baptized, stand with Elder George Plum, who taught them the gospel, and Josephine Walker of Harlem, who introduced them to the Church.

[photo] Mark Riley of Harlem, one of the many who have made dramatic changes in their lives since gaining testimonies of the gospel.

Show References

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    Names have been changed.