Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles greets a member in Harlem, N.Y., after a meeting marking the 20th anniversary of the first branch in the area on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. Photo by Joel Richards.
By Sarah Jane Weaver, Deseret News
Elder Ronald A. Rasband exited the Church’s prominent 33,000-square-foot meetinghouse located in the heart of Harlem, New York, on Sunday, Oct. 22, and walked one block down the street. There he looked in the windows of the iconic Sylvia’s Restaurant where, two decades earlier, the first church of Latter Day Saints branch met in Harlem.
Recalling the birth of the Church in the historic northern Manhattan community, Elder Rasband, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who served as a full-time missionary and then mission president in New York, thought: “This is what it is all about.”
“A piece of my heart and a piece of my testimony exists here in Harlem,” said Elder Rasband, who was in Harlem to participate in the 20th anniversary celebration of the Church that is located on Malcolm X boulevard.
It was while Elder Rasband was serving as president of the New York, New York, North Mission from 1996 to 1999 that it became apparent that members and missionaries needed a place to meet in Harlem.
Congregations from numerous denominations were gathering on nearly every corner in Harlem; Latter-day Saint converts also wanted to worship in their community.
“We were having a very difficult time finding a place to lease,” said Elder Rasband. Then Van Woods, an LDS convert, offered Elder Rasband and the Church his famous soul food restaurant.
Thinking of all the storefront churches in New York City, Elder Rasband thought, “Why can’t we meet in a restaurant on Sunday mornings?”
Church leaders formed the Manhattan 9th Branch, better known as the “Harlem Branch,” in 1997. Members met in the iconic Sylvia’s Restaurant. As the Church was welcomed into the prominent business, the way the community perceived the Church changed, recalled Elder Rasband.
Church membership thrived in Harlem, and the Latter-day Saints soon outgrew Sylvia’s. Construction on the first Church-built meetinghouse in Harlem began several days before the dedication of the Manhattan New York Temple in 2004. Today the five-floor meetinghouse on Lenox Avenue and 128th Street stands in the heart of Harlem. Three wards meet in the building.
Elder Rasband said he knew as a mission president that great things were in store for Harlem. He quoted from the biblical verse in Proverbs 29, “where there is no vision the people perish.”
“The Harlem Branch, now three wards, is an example of people having vision,” he siad. “Look what has now happened in Harlem. Dream big.”