Growing in Brooklyn

by Glen Nelson

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    Like trees sprouting in the pavement, LDS youth in this tough place learn that challenges can make you strong.

    You’ve seen it on the news and in the movies. Brooklyn is a tough place, a city afflicted with violence, drug abuse, unbridled crime, and poverty.

    But talk to LDS teens in Brooklyn, the largest of New York City’s boroughs, and you’ll find they’re quick to defend their city. Sure, they’re aware of its problems. They face dangers every day as they go to school, ride subways, and walk in their own neighborhoods. But those challenges make them strong, they say. They’re like healthy young trees, unexpectedly growing out of the pavement.

    The LDS youth in Brooklyn also see the influence the Church has on them. It’s more than something they do on Sundays. It helps them keep their attitudes positive, focus on how they really want to live, and in a few cases, it has kept them alive.

    Take a 16-year-old we’ll call Joe, for example. One day, before he joined the Church, Joe was convinced by a friend to watch him sell crack. What Joe saw changed his life.

    “I saw young men come up to us who didn’t even have a shirt on their backs in the middle of winter—they had sold everything to get drugs. They should have been at a point in their lives when they see the world is opened to them, but the only look in their eyes was hunger and hopelessness. You could tell just by looking that no one cared about them and they didn’t care either.”

    That was all Joe needed to know. Soon after, he decided to join the church his family had been investigating. Now he has different friends and a different life.

    Shirley Izquierdo, 17, was converted to the Church two years ago. “I found something that strengthened what I already believed,” she said. “The Church has helped give structure to my life.”

    And hers is a busy life. Shirley studies drawing, sculpture, and printmaking at the Brooklyn Museum (one of the largest museums in the country). She is an excellent scholar and works in the New York New York East Stake as the Youth Executive Committee chairperson. She also participated in a Brigham Young University program that brings minority high school students to Utah for summer sessions.

    Getting It Together

    Brooklyn’s LDS youth need each other for support. But meeting is not that easy. “Even though you love the members of the ward, it’s hard to get together during the week because everyone is going in a different direction,” Shirley says. “We depend on the Church activities to bring us together.”

    Seminary classes and youth activities are held on Friday nights. That means the youth are in church when many of their friends are out partying. Why come to church on a Friday night? The response was unanimous: “It keeps us off the street. If we weren’t here, we’d be someplace we shouldn’t be.”

    Few young people in the Brooklyn wards go to the same schools. Their schools are far apart—one girl travels two hours on the subway each day to attend classes. “It’s chaos at school,” says Shirley. On any given day, for example, as many as two-thirds of the students will be absent. Dropout rates and vandalism are high. Drugs are everywhere.

    But the LDS students shrug off such statistics. “We are the future leaders,” Shirley says, “so we have to learn to be the initiative force.” They’re determined to make it. Each of the 30 people interviewed for this article hopes to graduate from high school and go on to college.

    Benjamin Juarez, 12, faces different challenges in Brooklyn. He was born in California, lived briefly in Mexico, and now, while his father is studying to be a doctor, Benjamin and his three younger brothers do what every successful Brooklyn child does: adapt.

    “You can’t live here the same as you do other places,” Benjamin says. “For your own safety, you have to keep your eyes wide open.” Once, at school, some bigger boys jumped him. He’s never let that happen again. “You have to be a little tough, just for safety.”

    That’s another lesson of city life: everyone takes care of himself, and that extends to the gospel. “My friends in the ward live a long way from me,” Benjamin says. “We only see each other on Mutual nights, Sundays, and for Scout activities. So everybody has to have his own testimony. He just can’t depend on anyone else for it.”

    The Bright Side

    But there is more to Brooklyn than its challenges. It can also be an exciting place to live. Osma Hernandez, 17, has friends from 40 different countries—from Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, and Barbados; from Italy, England, and Switzerland; from Africa and Australia; from Canada to Chile; and from all over Asia and the Middle East. These people are all in her ward.

    Having friends from so many countries is fun because, “We all have different views about things.” You’d think there might be culture clashes, but Osma doesn’t agree. “You forget about cultural barriers. We’re all just people. Diversity makes us stronger.”

    Day to day, the young men and women of the Brooklyn wards maintain this positive outlook. They live in a city where half of all children live in poverty—and many of these are their neighbors, their schoolmates. That’s why they believe they must give something back to the community. Their recent service projects have included serving food to the homeless and helping at hospices for children who have AIDS.

    They say the Church gives them strength to help others and to be strong themselves. “If you know, you’re less afraid,” says Malik Figueroa, who began investigating the Church at the invitation of his friend Osma. “The Church teaches you to go after what you believe,” he says. Malik is looking forward to baptism.

    In an anonymous survey the youth of the Brooklyn First Ward were asked why the Church was important to them. Here are some replies:

    “At Church I feel safer and more in the presence of real friends than out where the trouble is.”

    “It gives me spiritual strength just to go on.”

    “The Church helps me learn more about God, his plan for us, his children, and it reminds me of the alliances I have made with him.”

    They speak with conviction and reassurance. The LDS youth are like young trees—strong and growing—in Brooklyn.

    Photography by Richard M. Romney

    Members in Brooklyn all work to lift each other. Because they know what it’s like to feel isolated, they also have a deep appreciation for what it means to be loved.

    Life in New York’s biggest borough isn’t always easy. But the young people know Church meetings offer refuge from the world, as well as hope for tomorrow. “We are the future leaders,” one young woman says, “so we have to learn to be the initiative force.”

    Understanding grows here, too, as an investigator (far left) discusses the Book of Mormon and young men learn about service.