Guyanese in Queens diversify Mormon church

On a recent Sunday, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Jamaica gathered in a second-floor conference room for their weekly meeting. During the sacrament prayer, members ate pieces of bread and drank thimble-sized plastic cups filled with water instead of wine because Mormonism requires abstinence from alcohol, as well as tobacco, gambling and even caffeine.

Then congregants rose to sing “I Stand All Amazed.” The first chords rang out and the room was filled with accents from Africa, the Dominican Republic and Guyana.

For many Americans, the term Mormon may conjure a popular and incomplete stereotype: a largely white, Utah-based religion of missionaries. But the gathering in Queens offers a different glimpse. Of the 50 church members attending that day, more than half were immigrants, most of them from the West Indies.

Brother Bhojdeo Ramnaraine, 58, is the newest convert. “This church teaches what is beautiful, and how to be good and loving,” says Ramnariaine,who became a Mormon three months ago. “But even as missionaries, we try not to force anybody into it. If you digest it, it’s yours.”

The first Mormon was baptized in Guyana in 1988. Eight years later, the church boasted 500 members, a number that quadrupled over the next dozen years, according to the Latter-day Saints.

Today, there are more than 4,807 Mormons in Guyana, making it the fastest growing membership in the West Indies. In a 13.5 million-member religion, the diverse languages and heavy concentration of foreign-born congregants, like Ramnaraine, make church wards in Queens unique.

Over the last several years, German-born Philippe Urbanowski, the bishop at the Jamaica ward, the Mormon term for a single church, has seen his congregation grow into a melting pot of culture.

“There’s something very special in this area,” Urbanowski said. “With the languages and slang and food from everywhere, it’s a beautiful thing.”

After receiving sacrament, nearly a dozen congregants took turns at the lectern, testifying to their faith. Some wept, some gave thanks to God and the ward community, and one young woman from the west introduced herself, having just arrived for her two year-long mission in New York.

There were nearly 76,000 members in New York state in 2008, three-fifths of whom were officially tracked by their ward membership. While the Latter-day Saints do not record membership by city borough, 475 New York City residents have converted so far this year, according to the New York City mission. Because the Mormon Church is rooted in proselytizing the gospel, missionary work is a crucial practice.

In Guyana, a small South American country of 773,000 people, the Mormon population of 4,807 marks a doubling since 2006. This rise makes it the second largest membership among West Indian countries after the country of Jamaica, whose membership is 5,990. However, the percentage of Mormons within the entire Guyanese population is higher than in Jamaica.

In Queens, Imran Hack is the Jamaica group’s head clerk. In 1993, Hack was at a friend’s barbecue stand in Georgetown, Guyana, discussing religion with three others — a Muslim, a Hindu and a Christian. Unbeknownst to Hack, who was born to a Muslim father and a Hindu mother, two missionaries were standing behind him. They brought up the Book of Mormon, and through a series of conversations, solidified his lifelong fascination with the church.

Though his mother “sang even more hymns than Christians could have sung,” Hack said Islam and Hinduism did not appeal to him because he didn’t agree with their ideas on the afterlife and reincarnation. He was comforted by the Mormon concept of salvation whereby the faithful rejoin God, as they believe they were together before birth. Hack was baptized into the church in 1994.

He served as president of the Georgetown ward for six years before moving to New York in 2006. Now, as head clerk, he oversees records and financial matters at the Jamaica ward.

Ramnaraine’s wife, Lallita, said she felt similarly eased into her conversion in 1990 when approached by missionaries in Guyana.

“My country is a friendly country, so it made sense coming into the church,” Ramnaraine said. Since moving to New York seven years ago, she and her family have gained a strong support system from the ward. Last year, when her husband was laid off, the church helped feed the Ramnaraines as they worked through their financial troubles.

Despite daily exposure to Mormonism through his marriage, Bhojdeo Ramnaraine took nearly 20 years to commit himself to the religion. Finally, this fall, he was submerged in a special baptism pool at the Richmond Hill ward and baptized by Urbanowski.

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