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Posted 27 Aug 2001   For week ended August 24, 2001
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Sent on Mormon-News: 24Aug01

By Kent Larsen

Unknown Tenant Brings LDS Church Trouble in Harlem

NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- A tenant that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn't even know it had could make the Church's bid to build a four-congregation chapel in Harlem the focal point of local fears over gentrification. Long a symbol for the inner-city Black community, Harlem is facing an influx of whites and rising real estate prices that are driving out poor blacks. Now the LDS Church has discovered that it must relocate a poor black tenant in order to proceed with construction of the chapel, and local leaders are calling the situation, "a test of how the church treats a black man in Harlem today."

The difficulty arose when the Church tried to shut off electrical power to the set of buildings on the corner of 128th Street and Lenox Avenue that it purchased in February. The buildings are located just 3 blocks north of Harlem's central boulevard, 125th Street, where the world-famous Apollo Theater is located. The local utility company, Con Edison told the Church that the power could not be shut off because a tenant, Victor Parker, was faithfully paying his bill each month.

Parker has lived in the building since 1984, when he moved to New York City from Virginia. The 56-year-old black man earns just $300 a week working as a handyman at a Bronx laundry. He also claims that he paid his rent faithfully, but in 1993, after all his neighbors were evicted for not paying their rent, he lost track of who he should pay the rent. No landlord has contacted him about the rent since then.

Evidently, the building's landlords also lost track of Mr. Parker at that time, and when the LDS Church purchased the buildings in February, the previous owner told the Church that the buildings were vacant. Parker first learned of the change in ownership when the Church turned off the water, and then the power was cut off and workmen entered the buildings. Parker told the New York Times that he has been without power for several months, and that he has since gone to housing court about the water and power being cut off. There a Judge asked New York State Assemblyman Keith Wright, who represents the area, to help resolve the problem.

The LDS Church has already faced some opposition from the local community. Harlem's Community Board 10 learned of the Church's plans in May, several months after the purchase, when the Church presented its plans at a Board meeting. The Church's local officials don't need any zoning or planning approvals to build the chapel, and its appearance at the Board meeting was a courtesy to the community. Nevertheless, reports of the meeting indicate that it didn't go well, with Board members wondering why a "White" Church wanted to build a chapel in a predominantly black neighborhood. The Board's Chairman, Stanley Gleaton, told the New York Times, "Historically [the LDS Church] are not known to embrace black and Latino populations, so I am surprised they want to come here. I don't know how receptive Harlem is going to be to Mormons trying to transform people."

While it is true that before 1978 blacks were restricted from the priesthood in the LDS Church and generally not sought out in missionary efforts, in the 23 years since then many blacks have joined the LDS Church, especially in New York City. A study last year by local Church member Jim Lucas, published in a chapter on Mormons in the book "New York Glory: Religions in the City," indicates that black and Latinos dominate the Church in New York City, comprising an astonishing 70% of the Church's membership there. Also, a majority of the members of the branch in Harlem are black.

But in spite of the actual make-up of the Church in New York City today, it is still perceived as a "White" Church, and that perception doesn't help the building plans in a neighborhood that believes it is under siege from invading whites. News stories, including a series of three articles by the Times' Amy Waldman that mentioned the Harlem branch and its current home, have highlighted the changing nature of Harlem. Other news reports indicate that much of Harlem's revitalization, and thus the influx of whites, come from US government programs that allow inner-city property to be purchased at firesale prices.

Local LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter says that the Church is trying to resolve the problem, "We're a Christian church -- we want to help take care of people," he told the New York Times. He affirmed that the water had been cut off because the Church thought the building was empty and didn't know that the power was off. He also said that the workmen would not work on the building, except for removing asbestos, until Parker was resettled. In spite of his low income, which Assemblyman Wright suggests isn't enough to rent in Harlem today, Parker says he wants to stay in the neighborhood, "I really love the place," he said.

Meanwhile, the LDS Church is making some efforts to reach out to the community in Harlem. On Saturday, just as a New York Times article on Mr. Parker's plight was hitting newsstands, Church members were setting up a booth at the annual Harlem Days street fair, trying to let people in Harlem know about the Church and its programs. In addition to the standard tracts, flyers, referral cards and Books of Mormon distributed by missionaries, several members brought laptop computers loaded with the Church's Freedman's Bank CD-ROM, and helped visitors to the booth search the records for their ancestors and learn about tracing their roots.

Those members staffing the booth said that the only difficulty they faced was the booth's initial placement across the street from a Budweiser booth, which was playing music so loud that it was difficult to talk with visitors to the booth. They were able to arrange for the booth to be moved elsewhere, and were pleased with the reaction from Harlem residents, most of whom walked away with a tract or flyer and a positive reaction to the Church.


Long-Overlooked Tenant Stands Between Mormons and New Harlem Chapel
New York Times 18Aug01 D1
By Amy Waldman

See also:

Look at Harlem Block Discovers LDS Church Among Changes

LDS Author Darius Gray Speaks to African-American Members in Harlem

New York Books See Mormons in the City

Growing New York Stake Needs Expensive Real Estate

New York Glory
More about "New York Glory: Religions in the City" at


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