It’s the city that never sleeps. The economic and cultural capital of America. The top tourist destination in the country. And it’s full of Mormons.
But New York City wasn’t always that way. In 1837, Parley P. Pratt spent six months preaching there with little result. He reflected, “Of all the places in which the English language is spoken, I found the City of New York to be the most difficult as to access to the minds or attention of the people.” But after receiving what he believed to be revelation from God, he established 15 meeting places in the city, all of them “filled to overflowing.” He baptized almost daily, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became an unshakeable part of New York City’s religious landscape.
Today, there are six LDS church buildings in Manhattan alone, housing 15 congregations, including two Spanish wards, four units for single adults, a Chinese ward, and a sign language branch. A temple, dedicated in 2005, supports the more than 40,000 members who live in the area.
Church membership in Manhattan appropriately mirrors the diversity of the 1.6 million people who live there. Here are the stories of three Latter-day Saints who have made the Big Apple their home.
Lynda Todd: Manhattan Mom of Four
Lynda Todd is accustomed to being stared at when she walks down the streets of her Upper West Side neighborhood. With four children in tow, she and her family of six are a Manhattan minority — the average household size in the area is just two. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“New York is magical,” Todd said. “There’s just something about it — there’s an energy here. At any given moment, something is going on.”
Todd was born in Korea, and in the 30 years following she lived in Idaho, Utah, California, Indiana, Michigan, and Texas, where she met her husband. They moved to Manhattan together, starting out in a one-bedroom, five-story walkup (with no elevator), complete with a three-quarter-size stove and refrigerator. While some might have a hard time adjusting to life in the most populous city in the country, that wasn’t the case for the Todds.
“It was a wonderful thing, and we haven’t looked back,” Todd said. “We’ve had good and bad experiences. Within a year of moving here I got mugged. But it didn’t define New York for me. We are so grateful we made the choice to come here.”
Raising four children in the city is no small feat, and with tiny apartments, no car, and a complicated public school system, Todd admits it’s a different experience from parenting in “the country,” as her kids refer to anything that isn’t New York City.
“You’re always with your kids. You’re on top of each other a lot more. I pretty much know where their bodies are at any given moment, which is not the case when we visit family in the suburbs and they can come and go in and out of the house,” Todd said. “Here, you can’t just send them out on their own to play. When my kids need to run around, I have to physically take them somewhere.”
And taking them somewhere isn’t always easy.
“It’s winter, I have all four children with me, and there’s no minivan. The two younger children are in the stroller with sleeping bags and rain covers,” Todd said. “It’s a very physical city. It’s very pedestrian. Just imagine walking everywhere, doing everything with your stroller — it’s our version of a minivan. Logistically, it is harder and it can be stressful to get out and take four kids on the subway. But we do what we need to do.”
A stroller might not be able to haul a week’s worth of groceries from Costco, but city dwellers have found workarounds.
“It’s both harder and easier here,” Todd said. “You don’t have the trunk of your car to bring all your groceries home. But there are services here that don’t exist in other places. All the grocery stores deliver. We have Google Express. You use your corner bodegas more.”
Todd has found that living in New York hasn’t harmed her; instead, it’s strengthened her. She loves to entertain and have friends over, and living in a small apartment hasn’t stopped her from throwing huge dinner parties or hosting Christmas gatherings with more than 100 guests. Her faith has increased while dealing with misconceptions others have about the LDS church. Taking meals to a woman from the congregation who just had a baby isn’t always as simple as walking a tray of food down the street; instead, it might involve traveling 30 blocks with four little ones lagging.
“It takes more effort here to do the things you love,” Todd says. “You’ll be who you are in New York or anywhere else — you just have to pursue things more intentionally than you might elsewhere. Service is that way here. I don’t know how many times I’ve had my stroller laden with supplies and made four trips back and forth to the church just to get everything there for an event — and then I have to get it all back home! Living here tests you a lot, and I’m grateful for the experience.”
James Kissell: Following a Passion and an Opportunity
After James Kissell sold his event entertainment business in Utah, he headed to New York City on a one-way plane ticket. He’d always dreamed of living in the Big Apple, and his passion for advertising technology led him to a job at Google in Manhattan.
“I wanted to be in New York,” Kissell said. “People think of New York as this very finance-heavy place, but it’s also very much focused on industries like advertising and publishing — and with that comes technology and digital infrastructure.”
Kissell is nearly four years into his Manhattan residency, and while some may head east with plans to return to Utah after a couple of years, Kissell hasn’t set an end date.
“Coming here was an easy decision for me,” Kissell said. “I had an opportunity to follow my passion. I didn’t come here with a timeline, and I figured I’d be here for awhile.”
One of the highlights of Kissell’s life in the city is his associations with a broad spectrum of people.
“There is so much diversity here — not only in occupations and talents, but in religion and culture ,” Kissell said. “The diversity is something I appreciate and love. It broadens your perspectives. It helps you become more aware of the world. New York City is a place to surround yourself with talented people who challenge your viewpoints and have different perspectives and who help you stretch and grow and become a better person.”
And that diversity doesn’t stop at his own LDS congregation.
“There are more converts here in the church, so you have people from different backgrounds offering different perspectives,” Kissell said. “You have people who are very talented professionals with specific skill sets. Your ecclesiastical leaders are very successful and can mentor you — you receive not only spiritual guidance but professional guidance as well. The church is very strong here. There is a family feeling — we’re dependent on each other and we rely on each other.”
Kissell has also taken full advantage of the east coast brand of recreation. Growing up in Utah, he was accustomed to camping and fishing in nearby lakes and rivers. In New York, it’s about cycling and running through Central Park and sailing on the Hudson River.
“I like to sail, and being in New York has allowed me to really develop those skills and get more involved in the sport,” Kissell said. “I’ve sailed in a corporate league, multi-day regattas, and the 2014 U.S. nationals in Massachusetts. In the summertime we race down by Ellis Island and past the Statue of Liberty. We watch the sunset from the Hudson River. It’s those experiences that are unique and specific to New York. New York is a wonderful place to be.”
Tara Bench: Foodie Fame in the Big Apple
During her 15-plus years in New York City, Tara Bench has done a lot of things most people have only dreamed of. She’s been on the Today show. She’s worked side by side with Martha Stewart. She’s been a judge on the Food Network. But, like most New York success stories, she began at the bottom.
After finishing classes at BYU and Utah State to earn a bachelor’s in culinary arts and a minor in journalism, Bench needed to complete an internship to officially graduate. So she began to make phone calls. And she heard a lot of, “We already have interns.” Until she got to Martha Stewart.
“The test kitchen director said they’d consider me, so I flew myself out to New York,” Bench said. “They had me cook certain recipes and make certain things. It didn’t go so well. I was right out of school and I didn’t know anything. I had to convince them that I’m a fast learner.”
Bench’s internship at Martha Stewart turned her into a New York resident, and now, more than 15 years later, she’s still there. When her internship ended, she was hired on as a freelancer, continuing to test recipes, help with food styling and food prep, and even cater personal parties at Martha Stewart’s homes. She eventually worked her way up to the position of food editor, creating articles for Martha Stewart Living magazine and products for Stewart’s catalogs.
“I’d learned how to develop recipes, food style for photography, produce a photo shoot,” Bench said. “That propelled my career.”
Bench next spent a few years freelancing for cookbooks and magazines, until she fell into a job at Ladies’ Home Journal as the food and entertainment director — another major career boost. When that magazine folded in 2014, Bench returned to life as a freelancer. She develops recipes, she consults on big-picture projects, and she blogs. Through it all, her love of her career and her home has grown.
“I’ve never necessarily had a career goal per se,” Bench said. “I’ve always just really enjoyed what I was doing at the moment. The thought of moving back west crosses my mind maybe every couple of years. But it’s New York. I love it here. It’s the best place to live. It’s where I’ve built my career; it’s where all my clients and connections are. I have a great church family here. Nothing has ever been able to pull me away from New York.”
But that doesn’t mean life in New York is perfect.
“Laundry has never been easy in New York!” Bench said. “Very few people have a washer and dryer in their apartments, let alone in their buildings. You have to cart your laundry up and down stairs, down the street, and around the corner to the laundromat. And we don’t have cars. Laundry is always on your mind. For me, it’s six flights down the stairs. I literally use doing laundry as my workout for the day.”
But laundry aside, Bench has lots of love for the city.
“Any time of day or night I can walk out of my apartment and to the corner of the block, and there are people out and places open. You’re right in the middle of everything in New York,” Bench said.
And the diversity and opportunities are unmatched.
“There is no homogenous LDS ward in New York,” Bench said. “You can find every walk of life, every type of person, every level of testimony. Being with so many people who aren’t the same as me — people who don’t dress or think like me — has strengthened my testimony. It’s possible to live the gospel without having to conform to a community.”
And that unique community has afforded Bench the chance to grow and lead in ways she likely wouldn’t have experience in a predominantly LDS area.
“I’ve had so many opportunities to learn through leadership,” Bench said. “I don’t see that happening in, say, my parents’ community in Utah. Never would a single woman in her 30s be called to be the Relief Society president in her family ward. Never would a single 20-something be a counselor in the stake Young Women presidency. I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had here. I’ve been blessed with that.”