Brooklyn’s Window on the World

By Glen Nelson

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    Attending meetings in the Church’s Brooklyn chapel is rather like sitting among the General Assembly of the nearby United Nations. Two wards and a branch meet there, segregated by language into English-, Spanish-, and Chinese-speaking units.

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

    The history of the Church in Brooklyn reflects the history of the city itself—the fourth largest city in the United States even when it is separated from the other four boroughs that together comprise New York City. Its 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 1890, fifty thousand European converts arrived in companies organized by the Church. Afterwards, thousands more Latter-day Saints continued to sail into New York. Brooklyn remained the principle port of entry for Church immigrants for many years.

    However, 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 non-existent 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 United States 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,” says Raquel.

    Strong families and an active seminary program have produced enthusiastic and willing Latter-day Saint 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: “One week, our seminary discussion began with one of the youth telling us about a murder at his school. There are experiences here I’ve never had before and probably won’t again.” But he is also openly gratified by his work with the teenagers and the opportunity to make a difference in their lives.

    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. Seven years later, the family was able to purchase their own home—another rarity in Brooklyn. Today, all of their children are married except for their youngest daughter, who recently returned from a mission in Arizona.

    Spanish is still the language of choice for the two parents, who are proud that their children speak both English and Spanish. “When we moved here,” says Sister Ayerdis, “there weren’t any bilingual schools or Spanish-speaking wards, so I made the children speak Spanish in the home so they wouldn’t forget it.”

    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 may have left our furniture, our house, and our clothes behind in our native land, but we did bring our traditions.”

    Brooklyn’s branch and wards hold a sampling of the world few other wards can match. 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.

    Photography by Phil Swetz

    At left: Residents of Brooklyn since 1962, Brother and Sister Gonzalo Ayerdis made sure their children did not forget their cultural heritage. Brother Ayerdis now serves as bishop of the Brooklyn Second Ward. Below: Members of the Brooklyn First Ward, Cheryl Roberts and Lisa Morgan.

    Left: When they moved to Brooklyn, the Petrus family of the Brooklyn First Ward, learned to “rely on the Spirit all the time.” From left: Raquel, Gregory, Sarah, Mike and their mother Mireille. Below, top: The ethnic mix of the New York Stake includes members of the Chinese Branch like Thomas Ko, fellowshipping a visitor, Alice Chew. Bottom: Bonifasi o Ganis Rios, first counselor in the Young Men presidency, Brooklyn Second Ward.

    Randy Dow of the Brooklyn First Ward, has worked with youth for many years, but faces experiences in Brooklyn that he has “never had before, and probably won’t again.”

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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.