The Strict New Life

By Katerina Zachovalova


Zoria Clarke, 26, an unemployed nanny from Brooklyn, was nervous. It was her birthday, but what mattered more this October Sunday afternoon was the way how she was going to celebrate it. In few minutes, the white loose linen overalls she just put on soaked wet. Water dripped from her black hair. As she emerged from the water in a small light green pool, her new life began. She was baptized in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


In Brooklyn, the Mormon Church has grown steadily. According to a study on religion participation, the number of Mormons in Kings County rose by almost 60 percent in the past decade, from almost 2,000 to more than 3,000 members.

The study, “Religious Congregations and Membership: 2000”, which is based on self-reporting of denominations, was conducted by Glenmary Research Center and sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Its data were made available by American Religion Data Archive.


The work of Mormon missionaries and the broadcast of television advertising are the keys to the success. But it is not only the message about Jesus that attracts people. The healthy life style and the sense of community the church provides, and the involvement and the set of rules it requires draw people in, the experts and church officials say.


“I was not taking part in the churches I attended before. Being in this church now, I feel I am part of this,” Clarke said after the baptism with excitement in her voice. She came to the United States from Saint Vincent in West Indies three year ago. In Saint Vincent, Clarke was an Anglican, who attended a Catholic Church mass ever since she studied at a Catholic convent high school.


Her new life started by an accident. She saw a commercial on TV offering a free video tape about crucifixion. She called in to order. To her surprise, the tape did not come in the mail, but young missionaries brought it to her door step. Clarke invited them in, but after the visit she was determined to not open the door again. “I did not know why I answered the doorbell,” she said, “It is a destiny. I don’t usually open my doors. At first, I wanted to get knowledge about the church. As I got the knowledge, I decided to take this path.”


As a Mormon, she believes that Jesus Christ came to the Americas after his resurrection. She considers the Book of Mormon a testimony of his life. As a Mormon, Clarke also does not drink coffee, black tea, or alcohol. She does not smoke, and she has to follow other commandments, including chastity. She appreciates the limitations and direction given by the church. She also said it helps her put up with her mother’s disease. “When I am feeling down I read the Book of Mormon,” she said, “Before, I would be just flipping the channels on TV, just to pass time.”


John Henlon, 73, a retired operation engineer, was baptized in the same pool a month before Clarke. He moved to Brooklyn more than 30 years ago from Jamaica. Henlon said that the baptism changed his life spiritually. “The warmth and friendship that I receive here, I was not receiving in my church. I am looking for spiritual guidance, and I see I can receive the spiritual guidance here, in this spiritual organization. I am comfortable here,” he said.


Henlon grew up as a Baptist, but later on he joined the Anglicans. “There were certain things I did not like there,” he said, “I don’t believe that they were taking care of less fortunate members, helping them with their family. I heard about the Mormons and the way they take care of their members and their family, so I called the number that they advertise.” 


Like Clarke, Henlon said he agrees with church’s demands. He said that he does not mind to give the church 10 percent of his income. “My church used to tell me, pay what you can afford to pay. This church says pay ten percent. I agree because I see where the money is going. They have the system to help their members and their families, and I believe that is a good thing.”


Clarke and Henlon have joined a ward, as Mormon churches are known, where the smell of the babies constantly lingers in the air. On an ordinary Sunday morning at the church of Latter-Day Saints on the corner of Court and Union streets in Brooklyn, toddlers and preschoolers fill the chapel with a constant sound layer of mumbling, and soft-voice shouting. 


            As the gentrification pushed its way to a number of Brooklyn neighborhoods, the make-up of the congregation in Park Slope has reflected the demographic change.  Almost all Park Slope ward members are young urban professionals who came to New York City from the west to pursue their careers. They rock young children in their laps. While the church members take turns behind the wooden pulpit, the others are trying to keep their kids quiet. They come and go, but they are the majority in the ward.


The eight to twelve converts who join them each year are a diverse mix. A thirty-year-old ward bishop, Chris Williams, said that African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Caucasians are among the new members of his congregation. “People are attracted to a church that has strong family values, and that provides community. It gives them security and love,” he said.


According to Williams, people also appreciate that they can be involved. “You can’t be passive living the religion. It is a church where you are actively engaged in the community. Every church member should have a calling. For a lot of people the active nature of the faith is very compelling,” he said.


Sister Vance, 21, a Mormon missionary serving in the same part of Brooklyn, said that those who search for new religion are often poor. “A lot of those we contact through media referrals live in the projects. They are lacking something in their life. They realize that there is something more to their life, and they want a better life for their children,” she said.


But even those members of the congregation who were born into Mormon families say they had to search. Eric Heywood, 30, a stylist from Scottsdale, Ariz., who is Clarke’s and Henlon’s Sunday school teacher said that he reached the point when he doubted his faith. “You have to find out for yourself,” he said, “Every member has to be, essentially, a convert.”