Mission Impossible: Mormons take Harlem
The police appeared without warning one December night in Harlem, hustling five passing young men against the front wall of the Mormon Church at 128th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. Just feet away, a Mormon missionary, wearing her long black coat and tall boots, was dispensing hot chocolate from an orange Gatorade cooler. She was adding to an already alluring display of steaming paper cups, laid out on a table next to blue pleather copies of the Book of Mormon. Two male missionaries in white collared shirts, black jackets and ties continued their animated conversations with passersby who had stopped at the table for a warm drink. And a fourth missionary, hymnal in hand, led a spirited group of young Mormons in singing Christmas carols.
The cops were frisking the young black men, a scene not all that unusual in Harlem these days, with New York’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy in full effect—a policy by which NYPD officers can stop and pat down anyone on the street based purely on the suspicion that they are carrying a weapon. More unusual was the presence of Mormons, members of a church formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There are now eighteen Mormon missionaries working in Harlem. The number has gone up from fourteen since January, when, according to Mission President Tom Morgan, the Church began to add ninety-seven new missionaries from around the world to its “New York New York North Mission.” As often as every six weeks, young Mormon missionaries arrive in Harlem, where Malcolm X once gave fiery speeches about racial separation; where a renaissance of art, literature, music and religion engendered a distinctly black American culture; and where cocaine use and gang violence are deeply rooted.
For four of these young missionaries, sharing their religion in this neighborhood has meant encountering both critics and those in desperate need of their presence.
Police activity at the front of the church was hardly enough to distract from the music and the aroma of hot chocolate. As the young black men, some wearing hoodies and others baseball caps, raised their hands to the wall, the missionaries just kept singing. They didn’t steal a glance or miss a beat. From “Joy to the World” to “Silent Night,” their carols were heard from blocks away by chilly Harlem residents, some of whom wandered by to sip hot chocolate and learn a bit about a modern American religion.
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It wasn’t until 1997, almost 160 years after the first Mormon missionaries arrived in New York, that their presence in Harlem showed signs of growth. In that year, a room in Sylvia’s Restaurant, famous for its soul food, became the first place of worship for a congregation of about thirty. A year later, a larger room in an old Jehovah’s Witness building on West 129th Street came to serve an expanding membership. In 2005, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened for service on West 128th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, also known as Lenox Avenue, which runs through the heart of Harlem. It has five floors and is home to three congregations, or wards—a Family Ward, a Spanish Ward for Spanish speakers and a Young Single Adults Ward.
For Mormons, missionary work is a longstanding and rich tradition. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t mandatory for all Mormons to serve missions, but the Church teaches that it is a privilege to do so—to share testimonies and knowledge of the Gospel with people around the world. In October 2012, the age at which Mormon missionaries worldwide are allowed to serve was lowered from nineteen to eighteen for men, and from twenty-one to nineteen for women. This change in Church policy has increased the number of missionaries around the world and, by extension, the number of Mormons in Harlem.
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Male missionaries in the Mormon Church are called “Elders,” even though they can be as young as eighteen. Elders Mickey Taylor and Seth Montierth were companions in the Harlem Family Ward from August to December 2012. Each morning they would wake up in their Harlem apartment at 6:30 for a required half-hour of cardio and strength exercises before breakfast. Both are tall and robust. Taylor is nineteen years old with short, wavy blond hair, and Montierth is twenty, slightly taller, with brown hair that he gels up in the front. In August, when the two became companions, Taylor was straight out of high school, having arrived in Harlem from Salt Lake City to begin his two-year mission. Montierth came to the tri-state area almost a year earlier from outside of Los Angeles, but spent his first six months in the New York City suburb of Yonkers. For him, moving to Harlem was a big change.
“Woah, this is different,” he said, describing how he felt when he first arrived. “I didn’t know anything about Harlem. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Taylor, just beginning his service, came to the area with especially fresh eyes. “I’m gonna go to Harlem and play basketball with all the boys,” he thought before his plane landed. “I was pumped.”
But those aspirations were quickly crushed. “They won’t let us play with the homeys because they shoot people,” he said.
As missionaries, Taylor and Montierth don’t watch T.V. They don’t listen to the radio or play video games. They email their families just once a week and call them just twice a year—on Christmas and Mother’s Day. While companions in Harlem, they shared one cell phone to answer questions and coordinate appointments, and every day wore black jackets, white shirts, slacks, ties and nametags.
“We’re called and set apart to be missionaries and be representatives of Jesus Christ. And so we’re here to work and teach people,” said Montierth, who appeared satisfied with the new focus of his life. “Back home I wasted so much time playing Call of Duty: Black Ops.”
Montierth also enjoyed rock climbing and surfing off the coast of California—two other hobbies he’s had to put on hold. And Taylor was so attached to his cell phone before his mission that after arriving in Harlem, he often felt ghost vibrations coming through the pocket of his slacks.
With regards to their wardrobe, New York New York North Mission President Tom Morgan explained that people should be able to pick out the missionaries from their dress.
“We want them to look different. We want them to look recognizable,” said Morgan. He also said that the missionaries have a reason to look nice every day: according to Mormon tradition, they represent Jesus Christ.
When eight a.m. rolled around, Taylor and Montierth would hit the books, first studying the Gospel on their own and then studying together in order to figure out how to best share their knowledge with the people they were teaching. By late morning, they would be out on the streets, knocking on doors in Harlem from 110th Street to 155th Street. They weren’t out to solicit or change minds. They simply asked to share their faith with those who would listen because they truly believe it can change lives for the better.
“We know that if we try to force it on someone…” Taylor finished his sentence by making the gesture to indicate “in one ear and out the other.” “Those people who want to listen, those are the people we look for.”
Montierth, whose father and grandfather both served missions, confirmed that to have faith in the Book of Mormon, to be baptized in the church and especially to serve a mission, you have to first desire it for yourself.
“We can’t convert people past our own conversion,” he said. “I’ve been reading the Book of Mormon almost every single day since I was, like, fifteen. I had problems with the law of chastity growing up. Seeing the difference and feeling the forgiveness after I repented…it makes us so much happier.”
Mormon doctrine teaches that every human being lived with God in a pre-mortal life before being born on Earth. A veil of forgetfulness shields this pre-existence from us, but once on Earth, the choices we make determine if we will reunite with God in the afterlife. We must have faith in Jesus Christ, repent for our sins, be baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and endure to the end. Once we die, we go to the spirit world, where we have a second chance to learn and accept the Plan of Salvation from those who have fulfilled their requirements on Earth. After three days in the spirit world, we are resurrected, like Jesus was, and brought to judgment. From there, based on our degree of acceptance of the Gospel, we go either to the Celestial Kingdom to live with God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost; to the Terrestrial Kingdom to live with Jesus and the Holy Ghost; or to the Telestial Kingdom to receive visits solely from the Holy Ghost.
“Do we seem, like, kinda weird?” Taylor asked me one day inside the church. “People think we’re just totally different. It’s like, dude, I’m a homey just like you.”
And aside from his missionary work, Taylor is just like any other nineteen-year-old. He’s even like many young New Yorkers, with a passion for hip-hop and clothes. But as a Mormon missionary in Harlem, he found it difficult to convey these similarities.
Montierth recalled a time when they knocked on a door just off Lexington Avenue. The man who answered swore profusely and threatened to shoot them if they didn’t leave. At another door, a Vietnam veteran invited them inside, showed them pictures from the war, told them that religion causes violence and said that the only happiness he has comes from marijuana.
“It can be hard. People can be pretty harsh, but then you get that one person who wants to listen,” said Taylor.
John Escamilla is one of those people who wanted to listen. An eighteen-year-old from the Philippines, Escamilla has lived in New York for over a year. He met Elders Taylor and Montierth on Malcolm X Boulevard near the church. Mormon missionaries in the Philippines had told him that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism in the 1820s, was himself confused about which religious path to take and was called to his own path. Escamilla could relate because his own family comes from a mixture of faiths and he felt torn about which way to go. When he arrived in New York, he was ready to learn more. In October, he was baptized.
“I’ve only had two baptisms here in Harlem for the six months that I’ve been here,” said Montierth. “And we were just in the right place at the right time, and he was ready. So that was really cool. But I think any baptism or any time you’re able to share the Gospel with someone is a success. Those times when you know that you’re where God wants you to be, it touches your heart a little bit.”
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Every Sunday morning, an average of 170 Mormon residents of Harlem—men, women and children—stroll through the church doors to gather in the second-floor chapel for the hourlong Family Ward service. It is the first of three Sunday services, the rest devoted to the two other wards.
Many of the men dress in suits and ties, while most women wear skirts or dresses. Missionaries hand out programs and will often help to deliver the sacrament, but spend most of the service sitting with the congregation. Babies cry and infants squirm as Brother Cameron Kelly, first councilor to the bishop, introduces himself and begins presiding over the meeting.
Apart from those in top leadership positions, the Mormon Church is run almost exclusively by unpaid lay clergy. So leaders such as Kelly are drawn from the congregation and serve voluntarily. A thirty-seven-year-old father of three, Kelly is tall and slim with round glasses and blond hair. He is a video editor who moved to Harlem from the Upper West Side ten years ago in the hope of reliving his mission days in Kenya. He says Harlem is actually nothing like his mission, but he’s stayed anyway. He says it’s a unique place.
“I’ve had more people say ‘God bless you’ in Harlem than in all other neighborhoods combined,” said Kelly.
After some brief announcements, all remain seated for an opening hymn. Most of the congregants are white, yet there is a sprinkling of black faces. Following ward business, quarter-sized cubes of bread are passed seat-to-seat for the sacrament. This bread represents the body of Christ. After the bread is distributed and consumed by the congregants, inch-tall plastic cups of water begin circulating on plastic trays. The water represents the blood of Christ; to drink it is to complete the sacrament, to renew a commitment to Jesus. On the first Sunday of the month, members come forward to share emotional testimonies—to proclaim their thanks for Joseph Smith, their belief in the Latter-day Saints and their faith in Jesus Christ. They share their conviction that the Book of Mormon is true. And always, at the end, visitors are asked to stand so that they may be welcomed by this growing church, by this faith, by this community.
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Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reported having a vision of an angel called Moroni in the early 1820s. According to Smith, Moroni led him to a hill near Palmyra, N.Y., where golden plates were buried which contained the writings of ancient prophets. The plates told the story of a people who were led by God to the Americas from Jerusalem before the birth of Jesus. Smith was instructed by Moroni to translate the plates into English. The Book of Mormon—believed by the faithful to be Smith’s translation—was published and distributed by March of 1830. It was in April of that same year that Joseph Smith’s younger brother Samuel handed a copy of the Book of Mormon to a stranger at the Tomlinson Inn in the small western New York town of Mendon. That stranger was Phineas Young, the brother of Brigham Young, who, in 1846, after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, assumed leadership of the faith and commanded the Great Migration from Illinois across the plains to what would become the Mormon state of Utah. It was that early missionary gesture on the part of Samuel Smith that, according to Mormon lore, inspired one of the largest religious movements in American history, and it is the only major world faith that can claim its origin on these shores.
Earlier, in the spring of 1839, as the Mormon Church established a foothold in the Midwest, the Eastern States Mission was created and missionaries flocked to spread the Gospel in the great city of New York. In 1974, the name of the mission was changed to New York New York Mission and included Connecticut, the island of Bermuda, New York State as far north as Poughkeepsie and parts of Massachusetts and New Jersey. In 1993, the mission was split into the New York New York South and New York New York North missions, the latter of which now includes Manhattan, the Bronx and a small part of southwest Connecticut.
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While missionaries such as Taylor and Montierth serve their mission in New York for two full years, female missionaries, called Sisters, serve eighteen months and are equally passionate.
Sister Emily Johnson, from Gilbert, Arizona, spent the first seven months of her mission in the Bronx before coming to Harlem this past fall. She is twenty-two, tall, with striking blond hair that she usually wears up, and earnestly enthusiastic. She said that her grandfather was an alcoholic and that her mother turned to the Church in her twenties after she encountered Mormon missionaries in Cleveland. Johnson hopes to influence others as those missionaries once influenced her mother.
Her companion in Harlem, Sister Daniela Maldarizzi, came to New York from Brescia, in northern Italy. She spent the first eight months of her mission in the Bronx and came to Harlem in the summer. She is also twenty-two and has a distinct and intriguing accent. Growing up Mormon in nominally Catholic Italy, she used to give copies of the Book of Mormon to her friends as Christmas presents. She even gave one to the actress and singer Hilary Duff with a handwritten note when Duff came to visit Italy. And one Sunday morning in October, in a crowded chapel on Malcolm X Boulevard, she handed me a copy.
“It’s the most important thing that we can give to anyone,” she would later tell me.
I agreed to meet with Sisters Johnson and Maldarizzi to learn more about the Book of Mormon and how they teach it. The first chapter they had me read was Alma, Chapter 32. It contains the following passage:
“Behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.”
Although I made my intentions as a journalist clear, they still encouraged me to plant a seed of faith.
“Faith has to grow,” said Maldarizzi.
“I know you can have that certainty for yourself,” said Johnson.
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Many in Harlem will never consider putting their faith in the Book of Mormon because of a widespread belief—Mormons say a widespread misconception—that Mormonism is racially prejudiced.
Blacks have always been welcomed into the Church, but they were banned from the priesthood before 1978, and in the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites receive a curse that, to some, suggests racism. The Lamanites are, in the Book of Mormon, descendants of Laman and Lemuel—two brothers who refused to accept the revelations from God that were bestowed upon their father Lehi and embraced by their brother Nephi. They wage war on the Nephites, descendants of Nephi, and are cursed with “skin of blackness” for having rebelled against God.
But growing numbers of black Mormons—already about three percent of American Mormons, according to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center—are beginning to change the perception that the Church is racist. And the Book of Mormon also very clearly states, “Black and white, bond and free, male and female…all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). A recent official statement made by the Church declared: “The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.”
When Boureyma Zapsonre, who hails from the Ivory Coast, met Sister Maldarizzi in Harlem, the idea of racism in the Church didn’t stop him from receiving a seed of faith from a Mormon teacher.
Zaps, as he is called by friends, is thirty years old and came to the United States in August 2011 to pursue a master’s degree in economics. When it came to religion, Islam was all he knew growing up in West Africa.
“Especially in Africa, children follow their parents’ religion without asking questions,” Zapsonre said in French as he sat on a bench in Harlem’s African Square on West 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. “I was Muslim, but to tell the truth, I didn’t practice.”
He and his nine brothers and six sisters were made to pray five times a day. Zaps never wanted to. He explained that sometimes in the early mornings, he would make a noise in the house, as if he were getting up and getting ready, just to make his mother think that he was preparing for prayer.
“I hadn’t yet made my choice,” he said, and told me that when he arrived in the United States, he still wasn’t practicing a religion.
“It was necessary that I find a path to communicate with God. But which path? As if God heard my prayers, one day I was on the street and I met the Sisters.”
That day he met two other missionaries—Sisters Mekemeke Lavaki and Rosalind Ashley Lotulelei. At the time, Sisters Johnson and Maldarizzi were still in the Bronx, but it wasn’t long before Maldarizzi was transferred to Harlem and began teaching Zaps with Sister Lavaki.
“I’ve seen a difference in his life,” said Maldarizzi. “He started to be happier.”
Zaps met with the Sisters regularly and was impressed with their attitude and behavior. He quickly got to know the Mormon community.
“You know, the Mormons…I don’t know how God created them, but they are always happy. They are always smiling. They are nice. Really, the Mormons are marvelous, and it’s their religion that has influenced them.”
After much of his own research and self-reflection, Zaps was baptized on July 14 of last year. In recent years, according to Morgan, about 370 people a year have been baptized in the New York New York North Mission as a result of missionary work. Zaps was surprised and touched the day of his baptism to find the church full of supporters he didn’t even know.
As he recounted his experience leading up to his baptism, Zaps often paused in thought, carefully considering his words. Before we parted, he said with confidence, “If everyone knew exactly what Mormonism was, everyone would be Mormon.”
* * *
Sister Johnson proposed a date for my baptism.
“We can teach you a lot about the Gospel and what we do as missionaries, but it’s not going to bless you unless you act on it,” she told me.
One evening, Young Men’s President Darren Jackson joined the Sisters and me for a lesson in the church. Jackson is a law student at Columbia and currently works with young men in the Spanish Ward aged twelve to eighteen. He grew up in a Mormon family in northern Virginia and did his mission work in North Carolina.
While Sister Johnson took out notebook paper and drew the Plan of Salvation for me with colorful markers and bubbly labels, Jackson used his skills in law to offer a logical reading of the three kingdoms of the afterlife. He said that if there existed only heaven and hell, the cutoff would be too extreme. Someone who just barely missed getting into heaven would be stuck in hell for eternity with the perpetrators of terrible things. But in the Mormon Plan of Salvation, people are more fairly distributed among the Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial kingdoms. This, he observed, is a system that a just God would approve of. He also cited the spirit world—the realm of existence after death and before resurrection in which everyone is given a second chance at salvation because lives can be cut short, and difficult circumstances can prevent us from fulfilling our obligations—as another example of God’s justice and understanding.
He and the Sisters encouraged me to pray, to ask God myself if the Church is true and if the Plan of Salvation provides the meaning of life. They told me that even if we’ve never spoken to God, and even if we are unsure He exists, we can still pray, because if we do so, God will help us know He is there.
Their religion is not for me, and baptism is not my path. But I listened with respect and even admiration for their steadfast belief and their undeniable devotion.
* * *
Two days after that cold night of hot chocolate, Christmas carols and police, Elders Taylor and Montierth left from the church to ring doorbells at Savoy Park—a sixteen-floor apartment complex at 620 Lenox Avenue and 140th Street.
As they walked up Lenox Avenue towards the apartments, I asked them, “What do you do for food?” With few exceptions, missionaries fund their own missions, and I knew that most days they didn’t have time for casual activities such as going to the grocery store.
Taylor answered without so much as a smirk. “We eat this Mormon food,” he said. “They give us this vegetable…”
He was kidding.
In actuality, they pooled their money with the two other missionaries who were living in their apartment and went to Costco on Wednesdays—Preparation Day. On Wednesdays they had time to go grocery shopping, do laundry, write emails and even walk around the city. Montierth explained that walking through Times Square and reading the news ticker can be a good way to get caught up on the news since missionaries don’t read anything other than the Bible, the Book of Mormon and related materials.
Taylor remembered the time he and Montierth heard a new Chris Brown song coming from inside an apartment in the projects. “I couldn’t move,” he said. He was too into it and he hadn’t heard that kind of music in a while.
“I could never do a mission my whole life,” said Taylor.
Yet, despite the struggle to stay connected with the world, Taylor said his morning studies of the Gospel have provided him with a new excitement for learning and a love for reading—two things he’ll take with him to the University of Utah after the end of his two years.
As they neared a crosswalk, Taylor suddenly began to laugh. It was a low and painful laugh.
“I have a side cramp from walking,” he said.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Must be that Mormon vegetable.”
He grinned, and then was briefly distracted by a display of tweed jackets that were for sale on the street.
Taylor is known by friends to have a shopping addiction. A few days later, he would pass a display of ties on 125th Street and buy five.
“That’s all we can wear, man,” he would say. “That’s all we can switch up is ties. You gotta be able to swag that.”
Finally, they made it past the jackets, crossed 140th Street and took a right towards the entrance of Savoy Park. As they entered the apartment complex, Tony, the janitor, gave them each a high five. They’d been there before. They stepped into the elevator and hit the button for the eighth floor. Montierth had written down on a pocket-sized planner the numbers of several apartments whose residents had asked them to come back on a different day. They wanted to hit those places before moving on to apartments they’d never been to.
At those first few doors, either nobody was home or no one wanted to answer.
“Some days are better than others,” said Montierth.
They began buzzing at new apartments.
“Who is it?” asked a distant voice from behind one door.
“It’s the missionaries,” Montierth had to shout.
“It’s the missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
“I’m still in bed.”
Montierth and Taylor both instinctively glanced at their watches. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. They moved on to the next door.
Eventually an answer. An older gentleman stood framed in the doorway.
Taylor did the introductions and added, “We’re sharing a message about Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon. Is that something you would be interested in?”
He wasn’t interested.
Door after door held similar responses.
“My boyfriend is a former Mormon,” said one friendly young man. He didn’t talk long before closing his door.
This prompted Taylor to reveal that his own older brother is gay and that he left the Church after serving his mission. But Taylor was clear that his family completely supports his brother even though the Church doesn’t stand behind his actions.
More doors opened. More doors closed.
Finally, a young African-American man was willing to listen. As he held his door open, a small dog darted out into the hallway and a boy quickly followed in pursuit. The man said his name was Keith. He said he had never heard of the Book of Mormon. Even after the boy returned with the dog, he said he was willing to take a copy and to have the missionaries come back and teach him more. Montierth and Taylor handed him a card with their number on it and discussed times he might be available for them to return.
After they said their goodbyes and the door was closed, Montierth and Taylor looked at each other with eyebrows raised. As they headed down the hall, Montierth said calmly, but with a smile, “That’s what we try to get,” and then he rang the next buzzer.
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By the end of December, Sister Maldarizzi was transferred out of Harlem to Kingsbridge, in the Bronx. She explained that the mission president makes these decisions. By praying for guidance from God and studying photos of the missionaries, he establishes new companionships and moves missionaries to new locations at the end of certain six-week cycles. For the missionaries, this means uncertainty of where they will go next and when they will have to leave. For the Mormon community in Harlem, this means a slow but consistent shuffling of young faces.
Sister Johnson began working with her new companion, Sister Lavaki, and would soon be transferred to Yonkers, then to Olmstead, in the Bronx, and then to Stamford, Connecticut. Elder Montierth would also go to Olmstead, then Stamford, and Elder Taylor to Newtown, Connecticut, then New Rochelle, N.Y. Both Montierth and Taylor would become district leaders in charge of a number of other young missionaries.
Their transfers made it difficult for me to stay in touch with them, since mission rules forbid missionaries from calling or meeting up with anyone outside of their direct community. But despite that, a few weeks after Sister Maldarizzi’s transfer, I received a letter from her at my Harlem address:
Reading the Book of Mormon two days ago I read that we should be like a child, ‘submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord sees fit to inflict upon us.’ The mission is the best experience I had in my life. Sometimes I wish the mission could never finish! All the difficulties have helped me to grow. There is a lot of rejection in the world towards the Gospel, but I know that the Gospel is true and I never remember the rejections because when we find someone that is ready for the Gospel and willing to accept, our joy is GREAT and we forget the rejections. I truly rejoice when I share the Gospel because it can help people in everything with school and with job, with their family relationships. The Gospel helps us to know what is the PURPOSE OF LIFE!! Why we are here on this earth. In the Book of Mormon we find answers to the questions of our souls and people need to know…
Daniela Maldarizzi, Emily Johnson, Mickey Taylor and Seth Montierth—they come from different walks of life, and yet they are united by the same devotion to their faith. They chose to give up eighteen months or two years of the lives they knew to come to a city they didn’t and to neighborhoods some people feel they don’t belong in. Many in Harlem see Mormonism as obscure, illogical and even threatening. But the missionaries know that even in this neighborhood, there are people who want them around—people like John Escamilla and Boureyma Zapsonre, who need the community and theology they offer. For this reason, the missionaries will continue knocking on doors from 110th Street to 155th and beyond and striking up conversations on the sidewalks.
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Jeff Tyson is a freelance journalist. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester. You can follow him on Twitter at @jtyson21.
Kyria Abrahams is a photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of "I'm Perfect, You're Doomed—Tales From A Jehovah's Witness Upbringing (Touchstone, 2009)."