On a Sunday afternoon in late December, Elna Baker stood in front of a class of around 20 young men in ties and women in skirts. Ms. Baker, who is 25 and has red hair and a bright red vintage coat, was wearing a plaid miniskirt, a black turtleneck sweater and black suede high heels. These shoes had replaced the black low-top Converse she had been wearing earlier, before she stepped through the threshold of the Union Square ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Ms. Baker, who has never been married, teaches a Marriage Prep class every week at her church. The day The Observer visited, her class was supposed to be focusing on what to do when you and your spouse get into a fight, but she had agreed to turn the class over to discussing how her students felt about the spotlight Mormonism has been placed under recently. Or as Ms. Baker put it, “I’m supposed to be talking about what you would do with your hypothetical spouse when you get into a hypothetical fight,” since none of the people she was talking to were married either.
Ms. Baker is a member of the Union Square “singles’ ward,” for church members ages 18 to 30, and every Sunday its 240 or so members show up for three hours—an hour of a more or less traditional church ceremony from 11 a.m. to noon, a mixed-gender class from noon until 1 p.m. and a single-gender class from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. The Mormon church has no paid clergy or teachers, and so members like Ms. Baker are assigned volunteer tasks by the ward’s bishop.
New York used to be a spiritual Babylon for the world’s 12 million Mormons; theirs was a religion more at home in the West (the church is headquartered in Salt Lake City), with its pioneer ethos and its libertarian leanings and its divorce from the East Coast political, social and religious establishment. Still, Mormons’ numbers in Manhattan have increased by about 50 percent in the past 10 years, though overall they remain a tiny percentage of the population—the community has gone from 3,225 practicing Mormons in December 1997 to 4,853 by the end of September 2007, according to figures supplied by a church spokesman. The numbers are probably relatively low because the church still has trouble converting New Yorkers—the growth is “not all organic,” said newly installed stake president David Buckner. (A Mormon “stake” is roughly like a Catholic diocese.) “Many people have moved in—transplants from the suburbs, or people did Wall Street internships and stayed.”
The church service I attended with Ms. Baker during the first hour was billed as a special holiday service, and it turned out to be part talent show (three women doing a warbly rendition of “Away in a Manger” ); part what Ms. Baker referred to as “kind of chicken-soup-for-the-soul moments” when congregation members “gave testimony”; and part religious observance (Mormons, like Catholics, take the sacrament, but with water instead of wine), with hymns from a Mormon hymnal.
When she’s not in church, Ms. Baker is a stand-up comedian and a hostess at Nobu. “I don’t want to be pegged as the Mormon comedian, or to be known for telling jokes for a religion that’s not that funny—it’s kind of a one-trick pony,” Ms. Baker said earlier that week by phone. “And yet, if I don’t include the fact that I’m Mormon, it’s almost like it doesn’t quite make sense. Why is the character making these choices?
“I think that everyone chooses to believe I’m their token ‘normal’ Mormon,” she continued. “In their minds, Mormons are still weird and crazy and I’m the only normal one. Everything that ever happens about Mormons, no matter where I am in life, I become the authority.”
But in a city like New York, the very existence of a thriving community of “normal” Mormons is almost head-scratching. Isn’t New York supposed to be a mecca for weirdos and drunks and late-night clubgoers and artists? Besides, aren’t there too many, you know, temptations here for Mormons, who, thanks to a code of beliefs called the Word of Wisdom, do not drink alcohol or caffeine, or do drugs, or have premarital sex (or any kind of premarital sexual anything beyond kissing)?
Apparently not. If there’s one theme you hear over and over again from young Mormons, it’s that the Word of Wisdom ultimately gives them a leg up in the ultra-competitive New York business world—they’re never hung over, after all, and they never have to worry about STDs or being pregnant or blacking out and knocking their teeth out. “I think it’s exciting to be in New York and experience the city in a more wholesome manner because I’m Mormon,” said Colin Wheeler, 30, who recently moved to Manhattan from Sacramento and works for the CW network’s morning show. “This city would be very cold and very lonely and very depressing if I wasn’t Mormon.”
“I like having rules that define my morality,” said Kieran, a flight attendant in Ms. Baker’s Marriage Prep class. She had dyed blond hair and was wearing a low-cut blue dress. “I need moral guidelines.”
Of course, there are other religions that subscribe to some or all of these tenets, but they’re usually sequestered in their own little communities—they’re not among us in the way that Mormons are—and the clothing they wear almost immediately identifies them as members of a conservative religion.