(by Heather Haddon online.wsj.com 8-29-13)
A surge in housing and office development here in recent years has been heralded as a sign that New Jersey's largest city is turning a corner, but Newark's growth has earned another milestone: Its Mormon population is big enough to warrant a church.
A 35,000-square-foot church topped by a 45-foot steeple now stands adjacent to the Newark Broad Street station downtown. The multimillion-dollar Newark Meetinghouse began services in June and has scheduled an open house on Sept. 14.
The central church administration pays for all of its churches and only does so when there is a significant population, said Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest Mormon assembly.
"This new building gives us a focus," said John Hendrickson, a retired, 69-year-old church member who is serving on a mission in Newark. "It shows it's permanent here."
Newark's population is 52% black and 34% Hispanic, while Mormons are more typically white. But the religion has opened churches in inner cities in recent years as it has expanded and grown more diverse, particularly after blacks were allowed to become priests in 1978.
"It's just part of the general diaspora of Mormonism and the change of policy on African-Americans," said Kathleen Flake, a Mormon studies professor at the University of Virginia. "Mormonism has found a way to make meaning that attracts people from a variety of cultures."
Still, the numbers of Mormon worshipers in Newark remain small compared with the city's Baptist and Methodist communities. The Mormon Church in Newark counts 895 members between its English-, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking congregations, official said. The Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark, in comparison, reports more than 7,000 members.
Founded by Joseph Smith in upstate New York in 1830, the Mormon Church teaches that salvation is achieved through Jesus Christ. Adherents read the Old and New Testaments, along with the Book of Mormon.
The church counts more than six million members in the U.S., making it the nation's fourth largest, according to a 2012 ranking by the National Council of Churches. There were more than 127,000 church members in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, up 10% from 115,000 in 2005, church figures show. The congregations spoke more than 50 different languages.
The Mormon Church's growing diversity was on display Sunday during a service in Newark, where women in African headdresses sat near many African-American and Hispanic believers.
Asha Massaquoi, a 58-year-old Newark resident originally from Liberia, left her Muslim faith and converted in 1988 after a missionary knocked on her door when she was staying with family in Minnesota. Her family was confused, but Ms. Massaquoi said the church embraced her and she never looked back.
"The church has helped me a lot," said Ms. Massaquoi. "I've begun to love people."
Two Mormon congregations were founded in Monmouth County 175 years ago. Today, the church counts 32,744 members in New Jersey. Other churches are in more suburban areas, such as Morristown, North Caldwell, East Brunswick and Short Hills.
The Newark flock grew gradually. In the 1970s, a congregant would shuttle about a dozen believers in a van to shared meetings spaces, said Herminio Ramirez, president of the church's Spanish congregation. In Elizabeth, they met alongside an Alcoholics Anonymous group.
Around 1988, church members began meeting in a leased space in the city's Ironbound section. Work on the new church began in 2011 on the site of a factory destroyed by fire a century ago.
Neighbors were curious about the building when it first started to rise, said Newark Councilman Darrin Sharif. But all faiths are welcome to worship and attract new members in the city, he said."They are very well-mannered," said Mr. Sharif about the Mormons he has met in Newark.
Young missionaries spend their days proselytizing in Newark—not always easy, they said. One recalled a woman calling him a devil, and several others remembered being approached by people who seemed to be high on drugs. But none said they had been threatened.
"This is the most successful mission I've had," said David Smith, a 20-year-old California native, who said he had converted six people in Newark out of a total of 23 during his 19 months of missionary work. "They come to church every week now. They are miracles."
As they walked Tuesday in Ironbound, Mr. Smith and his companion—both Spanish speakers—were treated politely. Nearly all of the dozen or so people they approached were Roman Catholics.
"I have my God. I talk to my God and that's it," said Glenn Goncalves, a 50-year-old Newark resident originally from Brazil, who spoke to the missionaries but wasn't swayed.
The pair found a receptive audience with 63-year-old Jesus Lamadrid and his 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer Galeas. After chatting outside their home, the pair entered their basement apartment, and they prayed together in Spanish.
Mr. Smith gave them the Book of Mormon, written in Spanish, and he and his fellow missionary promised to return the next day.