It's a sweltering summer Sunday on the west side of Manhattan, with the temperature in the mid-90s and humidity near 100 percent. The heat in the catacombs of the New York subway system is stifling, and uncooled buses and taxis feel like ovens on wheels. Yet hundreds of Latter-day Saints seem oblivious to the discomfort as they make their way to the New York New York Stake Center - located just west of Central Park across the street from the Lincoln Center - via a variety of mass transit means.
Church is about to begin.Once inside the lobby of the mid-rise facility, members and investigators take one of two elevators to the third floor, stepping off into a foyer and building layout that resembles most any other Church meetinghouse. Ahead is a large chapel, with its padded benches and an attractive pipe-organ in the front. Down the hallway to the right are myriad classrooms, a Relief Society room, multipurpose rooms, a cultural hall and stage, and a meetinghouse library.
Fortunately, on a hot summer day like this one, there's a drinking fountain readily accessible.
Members greet each other cheerfully yet reverently, in a scene akin to what occurs at Sunday Church gatherings worldwide. If there is a uniqueness here, it probably is the diversity of Saints gathered under the same roof -- a microcosm of the city itself, with its many cultures and nationalities shoehorned into a small geographic area.
The New York New York Stake encompasses Manhattan, the Bronx and southern Westchester and includes 14 wards and branches. About 40 percent of its membership speaks Spanish, according to Stake Pres. John R. Stone.
The stake center is home for seven units. In addition to the chapel and rooms on the third council room on the fourth floor, a family history center on the second floor, and a lobby at ground level that previously was used as a visitors center.
Each Sunday here, Church services are conducted in English, Spanish, Korean and American Sign Language. In addition to two traditional wards, there are also a singles ward with a large membership of students and young professionals, deaf and Korean branches, a Spanish ward and a Spanish branch.
The other seven units in the stake meet in two buildings in the Bronx and one in Westchester.
In addition to the New York New York Stake headquartered in Manhattan, New York City also is home to the Queens and Brooklyn districts, which are part of the New York New York South Mission. To the north of the city is the Yorktown New York Stake. To the west, in New Jersey, stakes are headquartered in Caldwell, New Brunswick and Morristown.
Pres. Stone, an investment counselor, is an amiable Texan who has lived in New York for 25 years. Most of that time has been spent working in midtown Manhattan, but his office was recently moved north to White Plains. He speaks Spanish, which he said is almost a necessity in working with the large number of Hispanic members within the stake. During a few spare minutes on a busy Sunday, he reflected on the history of the stake and its challenges.
Three years ago, the southern half of the Yorktown stake was divided off and added into the New York stake, he explained. Pres. Stone had been serving as a counselor in the Yorktown stake presidency and was called as a counselor in the New York New York Stake. He then was called as stake president in September 1991.
"We were challenged by the Brethren a few years ago to more fully bring the Church to people in the inner city. The work has taken off since that time. We have grown and are just submitting our recommendation for our 15th unit.
"The New York New York North Mission was divided in 1993, and now we have double the missionaries to work with. The mission covers our stake and the Yorktown stake. Missionary work is blossoming, and the Church is growing quickly in the inner-city."
Pres. Stone noted that primary challenges faced within the stake are struggling families, a lack of priesthood leadership and transportation.
"There are families being raised with both parents struggling to make a living, and there are many single-parent families. We have more faithful sisters than faithful brethren. This challenge of priesthood leadership seems to be a Churchwide challenge, however.
"Some of our members, because of the difficult environment in which they live, need to learn basic principles of how to treat friends and neighbors within the Church and how to live honestly and morally. Very few of our members in the inner city have cars. But all of these things can be overcome as people accept the gospel and begin living its principles.
"The positives are many and include the large number of people accepting and living the gospel. Your heart would be touched as you go into some of our units in the Bronx and see Church programs and principles at work. In those units and throughout the stake are many faithful, faithful Latter-day Saints. They love the Church, and they love the Lord. Everything is positive, really. There are challenges, but that is just a sign that things are moving ahead."
Clifford and Robin Raines and their daughters Adriann, 5, and Kaitlin, 2, moved to New York City three years ago from Miami, Fla., when Brother Raines was transferred by the Coast Guard. The parents said they have the cultural benefits of the city while living on the physically secure Coast Guard base on Governor's Island.
"We can leave our house unlocked and enjoy very secure circumstances compared with the rest of Manhattan," said Brother Raines. "We really enjoy the city, particularly the arts and cultural activities. There are some negative things. You see a lot of the negative side of the world in Manhattan, a lot of homelessness, which makes you stop and think about other people and about how good we have it.
"We especially enjoy the people in the ward (Manhattan 2nd). You find some real spiritual giants in a ward like this. People have to sacrifice because of a lack of transportation. Home teaching for many is a sacrifice, because at times we go into neighborhoods that are less-desirable. But I haven't heard of anyone getting in any trouble."
Sister Raines added: "We have people in our ward who are opera stars, and we get to hear them sing during sacrament meeting. That's one of the fun benefits of living here."
The Raineses said the Manhattan 2nd Ward is very missionary-oriented, with 30 missionaries serving within the ward boundaries and baptisms taking place nearly every week.
"Sometimes there are some challenges here in the building," added Brother Raines. "It's not always cool enough, but if you open the windows you get the honking horns from the street below and you can't hear. That's the way it is in downtown New York. You hear the traffic, the sirens, all of the noise of the city."
The Raines family is one of few in the ward that own a car. To get to Church meetings each week, they drive to a ferry, which takes them from Governor's Island to the lower end of Manhattan. They then drive uptown and allow about one-half hour to find a place to park. Their entire trip usually takes about an hour.
If there are parades or other events compounding the ever-present traffic congestion, they take the subway. What for most people would be adventuresome trips into the city have become, for them, part of their Sunday routine.
Dotsie McLeod, 74, was baptized May 12 of this year after coming into contact with the missionaries last fall. A member of the Manhattan 1st Ward, she usually attends with her great-grandson, 8-year-old Clifton Baldwin.
"Two young gentlemen showed up at my door one morning as I was getting ready to go out," she recalled. "We made an appointment, and they came back; they've been coming back ever since.
"I had heard of the Mormons before, but I never knew anybody who was a member of the Church. Then later on, I heard my cousin mention the Church, and she told me how much she liked it. The elders invited me to attend, and I liked it very much. I was baptized in May and have been very blessed."
Henry Farnum, 75, joined the Church in 1989 and is a member of the Manhattan 2nd Ward. "My baptism changed absolutely everything," exclaimed Brother Farnum. "These have been the most wonderful years of my life.
"My introduction to the Church came when I wrote about the Church in a book about the New York World's Fair. The Church had the first pavilion when you came off of the train and walked into the fair."
Brother Farnum lives near the East River close to the United Nations Building and travels to the stake center every Sunday on the bus.
Elder Troy Matheson is a full-time missionary from tiny Parowan, Utah, a town of about 2,000 people. He has been in New York City less than four months. He said that he's just getting used to the subways and other aspects of city life.
"That's been the biggest adjustment for me, coming from a town of 2,000 people to a city where there's 2,000 people in a single housing project. It's been a big adjustment. But I think the biggest thing I've realized is that it doesn't matter if you're in southern Utah or New York City, the gospel is still the same, and the Spirit is still the same. People are going to be converted the same way. The gospel changes people's lives in New York just as well as is does in southern Utah."