ELLIS ISLAND, N.Y.
The large city skylines and Statue of Liberty is more than just a far-off view for sisters serving in the New Jersey Morristown Mission. As part of their proselyting responsibilities, some companionships spend a few hours a week with people from around the world in the American Family Immigration History Center located on Ellis Island, New York.
Ellis Island, known for being the gateway for many immigrants between the years 1892-1924, has become a destination for many from around the United States and world to visit and learn more about their ancestors. But for many patrons, it is more than a chance to learn about their family — it is a chance for a positive exposure to the Church.
The American Family Immigration History Center has had strong ties with the Church from the very beginning. A collaborative effort, done by 12,000 members of the Church before the center opened in 2001, helped to research, document and transcribe historical immigration records from microfilm. The records included the names of people who immigrated to the U.S., the ships they traveled in and other personal information. The time Church members spent documenting the records and manifests, which spanned seven years and millions of hours of work, produced 24 million names of people who had immigrated to the United States specifically through Ellis Island (See Church News, April 21, 2001).
That work continues to benefit visitors today.
From May to October, Wednesdays through Saturdays, different companionships of sisters serving in the New Jersey Morristown Mission take one day a week and travel to the island to volunteer from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in helping people do their family research. Through volunteering their time, missionaries are able to introduce people to the Church, just by wearing a missionary tag.
"These missionaries are there to serve and help," said President A. Lee Bahr, who presides over the New Jersey Morristown Mission. "And hopefully help people more likely to be interested [in the Church] later, although that isn't the purpose. It is really just to help people."
The American Family Immigration History Center opened on April 17, 2001, and has been a great resource for tourists and locals alike to learn more about their ancestors. Although missionaries are not allowed to actively proselyte while working in the family history center, they are able to answer questions patrons have about the Church and lead them to more information.
"We explain how to search and find the most information about their family that they can," said Sister Maxine Fonua, who is from Salt Lake City. "Some people ask about more information and we can give them the Church Web sites. Some have more questions [about the Church] and we explain about being a missionary."
In addition, missionaries explain why the Church spends so much time focusing on finding families.
"Just connecting people to their ancestors gives people a sense of family and of being a part of Heavenly Father's family," said President Bahr. "People have a natural sense of that, whether they are members of the Church or not."
Even without much talk of the Church, visitors are touched by the spirit of Elijah — that of turning hearts of father and children to each other — as they learn about generations of family that came before them.
"I've been there and watched people with tears in their eyes as they find their ancestors and realize the importance of their family," said Sister Carol Ann Bahr, President Bahr's wife. "It is a very spiritual experience for them. They have a sense of gratitude and honor for their ancestors."
Above all, the service rendered by missionaries is a great opportunity for people to come closer to Christ.
"As I've watched the people look at the name tag," said Sister Bahr, "they can relate the service to that of Jesus Christ."