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Harlem is home to growing number of members

Area's first meetinghouse 'can't be built fast enough'

MANHATTAN, New York — A man walking along Lenox Avenue one evening in New York's Harlem stopped to peel back a piece of plywood lining the construction site of a new meetinghouse.

"Looks like the Mormons are coming," he said to a passerby.

Unknown to the man, he was addressing Joseph Appiah, a recently married young man who was on his way to a Harlem Branch presidency meeting.

"Little does he know; we're already here," Brother Appiah thought.

Construction on the first-ever, Church-built meetinghouse in Harlem began several days before the dedication of the Manhattan New York Temple on June 13. Since then, the foundation has been laid and construction is underway. Located on Lenox Avenue and 129th Street, it will have high visibility in an area recognized for its strong ethnic mix.

Plans to build a meetinghouse in Harlem initially stirred the resentment of some area residents several years ago when property was purchased and plans were announced.

"I don't know how receptive Harlem is going to be to Mormons trying to transform people," said Stanley Gleaton, chairman of the Community Board 10, as quoted in an Aug. 18, 2001, New York Times article.

Some local officials didn't understand why the Church wanted to establish a major presence in a black neighborhood.

Assemblyman Keith Wright was outspoken in his concern. His feelings changed months later when his son's youth football team was aided by former BYU coach LaVell Edwards. After the boy's team received donations from professional football teams because of Brother Edwards, and after a banquet sponsored by the Church at the end of the season, Assemblyman Wright became a friend of the Church, spending an afternoon at the Manhattan temple open house.

Efforts by the Church's Harlem Bridge Building Committee to foster goodwill has reshaped opinion among civic leaders, allowing the four-story project to continue.

The committee has been inventive and aggressive in the community, according to President Brent Belnap of the New York New York Stake, describing how members of the committee and branch have taken high-profile roles in community events, and helped organize neighborhood block parties where they provided hot dogs and buns. They've assisted the police and mentored inner city students. Some of their most effective efforts may have come from working with other denominations.

For three years, members of the branch have sponsored a family history booth as part of the annual Harlem Days festivities. Many residents have stopped at the display to search their ancestry and left with friendly feelings toward the Church.

"The patch garden beside the current meetinghouse has become the pride of the neighborhood," President Belnap said. Once a vacant lot of rubble and weeds and scattered debris, members created a beautiful garden of flowers and vegetables.

"People walk past the meetinghouse and see members working in the garden and yell to ask if they can help," President Belnap said. "Can you imagine the beauty a green garden brings to Harlem?"

Some people view Harlem as a poor place with people lacking in faith, said Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Seventy, who is a "great proponent of Harlem," having served as the New York North mission president in the late 90s, and as a missionary in the Eastern States Mission in the early 70s.

"But Harlem is a very religious place," he said. "Many attend church on Sunday at their corner neighborhood church wearing their Sunday best. They love our missionaries. If anyone causes problems for our missionaries, people come out of their brownstone apartments to defend them."

While serving as mission president, Elder Rasband learned through interviews with his missionaries that it was a challenge for investigators in Harlem to buy a bus or Metro fare to Lincoln Center to attend meetings. Cultural differences also created a barrier to joining the Church and remaining active.

"I couldn't go to sleep at night knowing that investigators and members in Harlem had no place of their own to worship," Elder Rasband told John Stone, then president of the New York stake. A Harlem Branch was soon formed.

In the early days, the branch met in Sylvia's, a prominent soul food restaurant owned by a member of the Church. A perceived "white church" welcomed into a prominent black business "created a huge amount of interest," Elder Rasband said.

Over the years, membership in Harlem has grown from a scant handful of members to where there are now not enough chairs or space for the 90-110 members to meet. "The new meetinghouse can't be built fast enough," President Belnap recently told Elder Rasband.

Serving in the branch presidency is something of a homecoming for Brother Appiah. A convert at age 8 when his parents and brothers joined the Church in Ghana, Brother Appiah served a mission in the New York New York North Mission from 1998-2000.

Elder Rasband remembers the tearful exuberance that Elder Appiah exhibited when he was assigned to serve in Harlem as his first area. He arrived the week members were moving their meetinghouse from Sylvia's to a building that looked like a modified auto repair shop, formerly owned by another faith.

"There was one member in Church that Sunday," Brother Appiah said. "Six missionaries, a branch presidency of white leaders from the West, and one single, elderly sister came on that rainy Sunday."

Elder Appiah remembers leaving the apartment one morning with his companion. "My companion warned me to be careful, that this was not a place to be cheery," he said. On this morning, "We'd taken only 10 steps out the door when a man in his 30s with a bat in his hand walked by."

Elder Appiah greeted him with a "good morning." The man pounded the bat in his hand and snarled back, "You're not here on a friendly mission," and he raised the bat to Elder Appiah's face.

But Elder Appiah soon saw the fruits of his labors when he and his companion baptized seven members one month, including a family of four.

Brother Appiah, now employed by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young in Manhattan, serves as second counselor in an all-black presidency with President Dan Hiatt and first counselor Herbert Steed.

"The youth are doing very well," he said. "They don't have much parental support. It brings a tear to my eye to see how they arise early for seminary. They brave the Metro, which isn't safe at that time of morning, to ride to 65th Street where seminary is held. They go to Scout camp, and have performed baptisms for the dead.

"I love Harlem," he continued. "My wife, Margaret, and I could live anywhere in New York, but we choose to live near Harlem."

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