For nearly 25 minutes, Brent Belnap talked about the history of the Mormon Church in New York City, moving deftly across decades and geography. He described how the early Mormons were expelled, sometimes violently, from Upstate New York, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri before settling in what eventually became Utah. And by the time he turned to more recent events, such as the dedication of the Manhattan Temple in 2004 and the protest that took place outside it last month, his voice had become several shades softer and thicker with emotion.
“Without a doubt, absolutely, unequivocally, unmistakably there is no other religious denomination in the history of this country that has experienced such a long-term history of persecution,” said Belnap, the
former president of the Manhattan stake (the Mormon equivalent of a diocese). “The bigotry directed toward my religious faith is unparalleled in the history of America. There has not been the level and the extent of vitriol and exclusion. I think this exists, absolutely. It just has a different form now.”
While there is an undeniable history of persecution directed at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), as the Mormon Church is formally known, there are plenty who would disagree about where the persecution is directed these days. Last month, the passage of Proposition 8 in California banned gay marriage and ignited a firestorm of protest and anger. Much of the backlash was directed toward LDS members, who, according to varying news accounts, raised more than half the money spent in support of Prop. 8. Locally, plenty of bruised feelings on both sides of the issue still remain even now, more than a month after thousands gathered to protest in front of the Mormon temple on Lincoln Square.
It’s impossible to know how much of the estimated at $20 to 25 million raised by Mormons in support of Prop. 8 came from New York. But the church’s highest governing authority, the LDS First Presidency, issued a letter in June calling on all members to “[donate] your means and time.”
In response to these efforts, a demonstration began in front of the Mormon temple at West 65th Street and Columbus Avenue on the evening of Nov. 12. The crowd, carrying signs and chanting, swelled into the thousands; estimates of the protest range from 4,000 to 15,000 participants. (Three days later, a separate protest was held at City Hall in conjunction with similar events around the nation.)
“It was the largest-scale gay-protest action that I’ve seen in New York since the death of Matthew Shepard in 1998,” said Corey Johnson, a real estate developer active in local politics who originally planned the Nov. 12 event.
According to Johnson, the purpose of the protest “was to show the national leadership, the hierarchy of the Mormon Church, that their involvement in affecting public policy was unacceptable. The Mormons took a very large and public role, whether as part of phone banks or in funding millions of dollars.”
He hopes for legislative action in New York and elsewhere that will enact civil rights for gays and permit same-sex marriage. To that end, the next event on his agenda is a charity vigil—which has nothing to do with the Mormons—scheduled for Dec. 20 in Times Square.
Other participants perceived the protest as having a broader target.
“I definitely feel like it was focused on a general injustice,” said Matt Greenawalt, a public school teacher from the Upper East Side who was at the protest. “The Mormons were a group that was identifiable as one that had been influential in this process. Of the signs, maybe one in 10 mentioned Mormonism. I don’t think it was directed at Mormons as it was at the sense that they had had an unfair influence.”
It was notable that the demonstration eventually became a march that moved down Broadway and away from the temple before culminating at Columbus Circle.
Still, to many local Mormons, a burgeoning demographic, last month’s protest was an uncomfortable and upsetting experience. And though he did not draw a direct comparison, the sight of thousands gathered outside the temple may have provided a reminder for LDS members like Belnap of the mobs that occasionally hounded Mormons in the 19th century, including the one that murdered Joseph Smith, the movement’s founder.
“Proposition 8 was supported by the Orthodox Jewish community, the Catholic community, the general conservative community and the black community,” Belnap said, “but I haven’t seen a single protest in Harlem or Williamsburg or at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that has attracted the numbers or hatred of a certain group of people for what they believe. It appears that they haven’t been targeted in the same organized, concerted, bigoted, hateful, vitriolic way.”
Belnap emphasized that he was speaking only for himself and not in any ecclesiastical role, but rather in “a spirit of candor, to let people who might be interested know what a sense of dismay and hurt some members of the church feel.”
David Buckner, who took over as stake president for Belnap last year, also felt the Mormon Church was also unfairly singled out.
“It wasn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he said of the protest. “But it was disappointing that there was such a narrow target, that the church became a lightning rod because there had to be some outlet of frustration. It would be helpful if people understood our faith better. Considering how it is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, it surprises me that it is this misunderstood.”
As if to prove the point, Buckner rattled off the names of many prominent Mormons (such as hotelier Bill Marriott, television host Glenn Beck and U.S. Senators Harry Reid, Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch), but he then acknowledged that Mitt Romney’s recent presidential campaign encountered plenty of suspicion and mistrust for religious reasons.
“It’s sometimes bewildering,” he said. “Maybe it’s just a matter of time and integration.”
Such integration is certainly increasing throughout the city. When Belnap first arrived in New York in 1986, there were about 500 Mormons in Manhattan. Now there are nearly 5,000, with even larger communities in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. The four Manhattan wards (or congregations) of 1986 have multiplied into 14 today. There are six conventional wards, four dedicated to singles between 18 and 30 and another four that are language-specific to either Spanish, Mandarin or American Sign Language.
For LDS members of a certain generation, the growth is a bit mind-boggling. According to Belnap, Mormons were in New York City since the church was founded 188 years ago. Joseph Smith passed through in 1832, and a permanent presence began five years later, one that has been mostly continuous through the present era. But as the church left the Finger Lakes region Upstate where it was founded and moved progressively westward, few Mormons put down roots in New York. Most New York City LDS members were immigrants from Great Britain or Scandinavia who were passing through the city on their way to the Mountain West. The first New York City stake was formed in 1934 at a converted synagogue on West 81st Street, but even then the numbers were still small.
“Up until the 1980s, New York was a place that a lot of Latter-day Saints came to only for educational and professional reasons,” Belnap said. “You just didn’t see a lot of people, a lot of families putting down roots here. Urban life was foreign to most Mormons. For a good portion of my young life, it was perceived as scary, as something to flee from.”
As the city became more livable, Mormons, like everyone, began staying. Both Belnap and Buckner are transplants and Utah natives originally. Belnap came to New York only to attend law school and said he never intended to stay. Now he lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and six children. Buckner resides on the Upper West Side with his family, runs his own consulting and business-training company and is a professor at Teachers College.
For Belnap, perhaps the biggest factor encouraging Mormons to stay in the city was the creation of the first singles ward in 1991. He can remember only five LDS marriages taking place in his first five years in New York. But during his four-year tenure as the leader of that singles ward in the 1990s, he says there were at least 75.
Missionaries also found many converts, especially among new immigrants in the outer boroughs. Along with the Lincoln Square site, there are now chapels in Harlem, Inwood, the Upper East Side, Union Square and on Canal Street. In 2004, the church said there were 42,000 members in the tri-state area.
That was the same year that the temple, the 119th in church history, was dedicated. It was originally planned for Harrison, in Westchester, but was stymied by local opposition (the main stumbling blocks were concerns about property values, traffic congestion and the proposed size of the building). There was also plenty of resistance to the Manhattan temple, according to Belnap, who cited antagonism from Evangelicals and zoning problems with putting up a spire. For him, such attitudes are just additions to a historical continuum of discrimination.
“There’s been a lot of shock in a personal, quiet way because we’re a quiet people,” Belnap said of his community’s reaction to the latest protest. “With a history of persecution, we keep our heads down and don’t wear our religion on our sleeves. For us, it’s not a matter of hatred toward any group. It’s a matter of preserving what we think is ultimately God’s plan for the human people, which is family.”
He added that there have been unintended, positive consequences for Mormons, saying that he has seen an increased number of lapsed members returning to services in the past month. Belnap also noted that other religious groups have spoken out in defense of the church. On Dec. 5, for example, a full-page ad in the New York Times declared, “The violence and intimidation being directed against the LDS … church, and other religious organizations—and even against individual believers—simply because they supported Proposition 8 is an outrage that must stop.”
The ad was sponsored by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm based in Washington, D.C., and was signed by a selection of public figures, including some Catholic, Evangelical and Jewish leaders. Truth Wins Out, a New York City nonprofit, responded a week later with an ad in the Salt Lake Tribune titled “Lies in the Name of the Lord.” It described some of the Times ad signers as “culture warriors” who only share with Mormons “an uncommon zeal for promoting anti-gay discrimination.”
The war of words will doubtlessly continue.
Despite any lingering resentments, Buckner remains focused on bringing his church closer to the community.
“The Mormon Church has been one of the most persecuted faiths in American history, so it’s sad that it sometimes continues,” Buckner said. “On the other hand, that protest is the nature of democracy.”
He also mentioned the Manhattan stake’s support of the Harlem Hellfighters, a youth football organization, and the group plans to donate four truckloads of supplies to the Food Bank for New York City.
According to Monica Blum, president of the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District, the temple sponsors one of the malls, or gardens, on the Broadway median and also contributes the use of its gym as a performance space every winter.
“They’re just as supportive if not more so than the other local property owners,” she said.
“There is a lot of outreach that takes place,” Buckner said. “I think it’s important that we stretch out. You have to participate in the community, so we have bridge-building groups that go to police precinct committees and community boards. We’re doing all we can to go in as neighbors, learn what we can do in the community and find ways to reach out. I don’t think we’re fully there yet, but we’re here, we’re available and we want to help.”
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