Urban missionaries take message to the streets
October 13, 1996
From Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Luke Blais, 21, and Justin Starr, 20, are Mormon missionaries, logging miles and souls along Harlem's mean streets.
"We have a message about Jesus Christ for you. Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" is a standard opening as they pound the pavement seeking converts for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Decked out in pressed suits and crisp white shirts, the Mormons often draw stares from residents. Some listen to questions like "Do you know why John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ?" Others don't want to be bothered.
Still, the two don't give up.
"Most people around here are very religious, so the people are good and respect us a lot," Starr said. "Every now and then we come across a little hostility. It's mostly just verbal. You just kind of smile and keep going."
Before coming to New York, Blais had a stereotypical view of New York.
"I heard it was bad," he said. "We were going to get mugged -- all this stuff. It turned out to be a lot different. The people are nicer."
Blais and Starr are just two soldiers in an army of about 50,000 Mormon missionaries around the world. As a result, church membership has grown from 900,000 in 1950 to more than 9 million today. Nearly half the converts live outside the United States in places such as Africa and Latin America.
For years, the Mormon church was accused of racism because it refused to allow African-Americans into the priesthood. But that changed in 1978 when the church's president claimed to have a revelation that made African-Americans eligible to become priests. Since then, the church has seen more minorities enter its ranks.
"That's why we're here in New York City, of all the melting pots in the world," said Ronald Rasband of New York's North Mission. "We have many missionaries in this city who speak many different languages, and they are out visiting people in their own neighborhoods on their own streets, speaking their own language."
Though white, middle-class Mormon missionaries tending to predominately black and Hispanic congregations may seem out of place, church scholars say the faith's appeal to inner-city residents makes sense.
"There's been a great change in the world and I think Mormonism has appealed to people in times of social transition, when they're looking for a spiritual anchor," said scholar Richard Bushman. "That was true in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution was disrupting lives and many converts were working class people."
Bronx resident Yessenia Acosta was baptized two years ago. She says she was looking for a change.
"I was Roman Catholic and it was really mixed. But then I had a real rough life and stuff," she said. "After they started talking to me, I was sharing with them my life and they were sharing with me the gospel. I felt so great."
Many missionaries are single men between the ages of 19 and 26. They leave behind families and live for two years in faraway places soliciting new members.
"We don't watch TV. We don't read the newspaper. We don't date, don't listen to the radio," Blais said. "We really don't have much time for all those things (because) we do this 9:30 (a.m.) to 9:30 at night. You're so tired, you go to bed."
None of the missionaries are paid, so living conditions are spartan. But there are rewards.
"It's helped me with every aspect of my life. I know when I go home now I'll be more prepared for college, for a future job. (I'll do) better talking to people," Starr said.
"It taught me a lot about relationships. Being a companion 24-hours a day ... what better way to prepare for marriage?"
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