On a small island out in the harbor, the Statue of Liberty raises a torch for all the world to see. If she turned her head to the left, she would stare straight across the water at the gleaming twin towers of the World Trade Center. On a brisk Monday last January, she could have seen the Manhattan Second Ward Mutual gazing down from the 107th floor at the sprawling maze of streets sardined between skyscrapers that stretches on forever—the city of New York that these teenagers call home.
“There, that’s Lower Manhattan. That’s where I live!” exclaimed Mary Esquilin, pointing to the north. “And see that apartment over there? That’s where Deborah Woodhouse lives.” It was hard for an untrained eye to pick out individual buildings. I could find the bridge-laced East River breaking the pattern of towers that rise like so many mountain ranges. And the famous green rectangle of Central Park, that refuge of trees and grass and lanes and lakes in an otherwise concrete and asphalt cosmos, was clearly visible. But when it came to picking out one tiny building …
“Okay,” said Harry Lee. “You know where Central Park is. The chapel is just two blocks from there.”
I thought back to Saturday morning when I had seen the chapel for the first time. It was just another building in a world of buildings, Number 2 Lincoln Square, across the street from the Julliard School of Music and kitty-corner to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera, until over the door I noticed the bold yellow letters spelling out “Mormon Visitors’ Center.” I knew I had found the complex that houses the center, the New York New York City Mission offices, and the Manhattan First, Second, and Spanish wards (the chapel, cultural hall, and classrooms are on the third floor).
When I arrived upstairs, the Mutual group was reviewing last year’s activities and planning for the rest of the winter, then spring and summer. They had done plenty of reminiscing.
“We have a lot of activities in Central Park,” 17-year-old Lily Lee explained. “It’s a novelty to have such a large, beautiful park so close at hand. It’s part of our culture. The New York Philharmonic gives free concerts there in the summer, and there are free Shakespeare performances. We saw two plays there last year.”
Lily’s brother Harry, who is 15, mentioned other activities. “There is a zoo and there is public ice-skating in the park. We have picnics, play softball with the bishopric, play volleyball, or sometimes just walk around.”
There are also lots of museums in the area, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is at the far end of the park. “The church is located pretty much in the center of everything, so it’s not hard to get around,” Lily said. “We try to plan things early in the day so it won’t be necessary to travel at night on the subways, and we always travel in groups.”
Deborah Woodhouse, 15, remembered other successful activities, like Christmas caroling, a night at the Nutcracker ballet, cleaning trash from streets near the chapel, and a trip to the United Nations building. Kirsten Anderson, age 12, said she enjoyed the personal feeling of birthday parties and holiday celebrations. “We had a fun Halloween party, and we had a good volleyball game with the Young Men one time. We made dinner for them afterward. The things we do aren’t usually big things, but when you do them with each other and use the time you’ve got, it’s important,” Kirsten said.
Lily said she particularly enjoys joint activities with the Spanish Ward. The seminary students from both wards often meet on Super Saturdays or at youth conferences. Despite the language barriers, they enjoy themselves.
Sister Linda Rane, the Young Women president, explained that the ward includes the Broadway theater district in its boundaries and that LDS actors sometimes help the Mutual with roadshows and skits. Ballet students, medical students, and musicians often live within the ward boundaries while studying, and “once we had a fashion designer who helped the Mutual girls make their own dresses and put on a show.”
The meeting at the chapel had adjourned with prayer. It was followed by a stroll through Central Park. We watched equestrians trotting along a horse trail, joggers pacing themselves along a road closed to traffic, and spritely drivers whose brightly colored hackneys painted a portrait of another era when hay, not gasoline, furnished horsepower.
As we rested near some park benches, the sun melted through the chilled air. I couldn’t help asking questions:
“I was born and raised in New York,” Deborah, 15, said. “But I have visited several other places as well. The people of the Church are the same everywhere. You may have different races and cultures, but you always get the same warm feeling all around.
“At school, people tend to look up to you. Kids are curious, and teachers get to know you and are interested in what you believe. I have a friend who says I must have a nice family because we’re not always fighting. I guess I talk about my brothers a lot, and she can sense the family love we feel.
“The greatest challenge that I feel is avoiding the lesser sins. It’s harder here because there are so many temptations, but it’s easier to resist the big temptations because they are so obvious.”
Mary said, “There are so many things to do and see. But there are challenges too. Most of us are converts. Sometimes we’re the only members in our families. So we rely on other Church members to talk to when we need someone who understands about the gospel.”
Mary, 18, and her sister Eileen, 12, joined the Church ten months ago. They were first interested by a friend who was a member and eventually came to meetings with her. “All I had heard about Mormons was awful,” Mary said. “But as I started going to Church, I had this wonderful feeling. I couldn’t even recognize myself. This was a new Mary. I’ve been a member for less than a year, but for me it seems like a lifetime,” she said.
Louis Perez, 13, and Frank Cerda, 14, said they feel New York is popular because it’s so busy all the time and because so many organizations are headquartered there. “There are people here from all over the world,” Frank said. “I think it’s terrific.”
Lily said, “A lot of people wonder if you can find the Spirit of the Lord here. You can. The things He manifests to everyone, He manifests here, too. New York has a lot of good people, and the pure in heart will build Zion wherever they are.”
“I talk to my friends at school,” Mary Ann Iavarone, 14, said. “I share my testimony with them. We talk about religions almost every day. Lots of kids tell me that our Church sounds great. I tell them I have fun here, too, but that the most important thing is that it’s true.”
“I think Eileen (Esquilin) showed me a good example of fellowshipping,” Daisy Cerda, 12, said. “I met her the first time I came to Church, and she was my friend. Then I met Kirsten, and so on. Everybody’s my friend now.”
“Having gone through the conversion process myself makes it easier to talk to others about the gospel,” Mary said. “I can tell them my experiences, that I used to feel the way they feel.”
Lily is student-body president at a high school where she is the only LDS student. “It’s a challenge, but it’s not as difficult as everyone says,” she said. “Living in a place like New York, there are so many backgrounds and cultures that when you say you believe in something, people accept it. At my school, for example, there are a lot of Greek Orthodox students, and it’s not unusual for someone to say they’re not going to a party because it’s on Sunday or to say they don’t smoke or drink. They understand. So it’s important to share all the facets of the gospel with them.”
Deborah, also the only LDS student in her school, said missionary work is a great challenge: “I’ve got 3,500 students to convert.” But she said that many students know about BYU because of its athletic programs and many of her Jewish friends want to discuss the Old Testament with her because she has studied it in seminary.
“I find that for a lot of my friends it’s difficult to get in front of a classroom to give an oral report,” Lily said. “I have to do it in front of the whole student body, but it hasn’t been hard. At first I didn’t know why. Then I realized what training I have had. I’ve been giving 2 1/2-minute talks all my life. Forget about the religious part of the Church programs and just look at their positive influence. Then add in the truthfulness of the gospel, too, and you have the best thing on earth.”
Terry Burdick, 14, who attends the Second Ward Mutual because he is the only Mutual-age teen in the First Ward, said that growing up in an all-member family has helped all of them feel close. “I have a growing testimony,” he said. Frances Pizzaro, 17, felt the gospel had strengthened her family as well. They were already holding family prayer when the missionaries tracted them out. “My brother and I joined the Church, and my mother will soon join,” she said. She also said she learned things in seminary that “help me every day. I study the scriptures every morning and my workbook at lunchtime at school. Other people say, ‘Oooh, what’s that?’ And then everybody starts talking about it. It’s great.”
Iris Rivera, who graduated from Mutual last year, said one of her blessings has been the fellowship she has shared with Mary as Mary joined the Church. “I’ve seen her grow a lot. And now we’re going to be visiting teachers together starting next month.”
The noise of Harry rattling the door brought me back to the top of the World Trade Center. He was trying to gain access to the rooftop observation area, but it was locked and a sign said the wind was so strong no one would be allowed outside.
“Sorry,” he said. “That’s the best we can do.”
And I remembered again. I remembered his patience as he explained to me over and over the subway system the morning the group went to the Statue of Liberty, and finally how he said, “Just follow me and don’t get lost.”
I remembered the wind whipping over the bow of the ferry and the steamy cups of hot chocolate the young women shared back on the pier. I remembered stopping to read plaques at the statue and the young members’ feelings of pride in their country and in their hometown that were genuine and unpretentious.
And then I remembered interviewing some of the group in between meetings on Sunday. The young women’s lesson had been on developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The young men had discussed morality. All of them had commented afterward about the influence the lessons exerted throughout the week.
“These activities and lessons keep us together,” Mary said. “We share our testimonies and they grow. We treat each other like brothers and sisters because we are.”
Mary Ann nodded agreement. “From my friends’ testimonies, I can build my testimony. They are a great influence on me.”
“The lessons help me keep my mind off things I shouldn’t think about,” Harry said. “I have a strong testimony of the gospel, and I know it’s good to be together with my friends in church. I need the recharge I get from being with them.”
“As you can see, we have a lot of fun together. We like each other a lot. But the neatest thing is that when I leave, I feel the Spirit coming with me, helping me choose wisely and do what’s right,” Mary Ann said.
“I’m glad to have friends who help me honor my priesthood,” Frank said. “When I carry the sacrament, I feel proud.”
And that made me think of a comment one of the adults made that same Sunday. “I admire these kids tremendously,” he said. “New York is beautiful and fun, but it’s also a difficult place to live righteously. There’s a lot of pressure on these kids from their friends not to follow the teachings of the prophets. I think they’re real heroes to live the gospel as they do.”
The group walked to the south side of the tower for one last look at the Statue of Liberty. One thought lingered in my mind. I was in the company of heroes. Real heroes, with a mission—to live and share the gospel with all of New York City. Somehow, in my heart, I knew they would be equal to the task.