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Harlem and Thailand: parallel universes in the Mormon world

A Journey special report from New York City and Chiang Mai, Thailand*

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JUMP! Young Mormon missionaries, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions


Which is the more difficult mission ground for Latter Day Saints: Harlem, New York City or Chiang Mai, Thailand? Harlem is in the state in which Mormonism was founded. Eight thousand miles away, Chiang Mai has been home to Buddhism (the Theravada variety) for over two thousand years. Harlem’s architecture is notable for its Black churches, while Chiang Mai's old city perpetually beams from the sun's glares reflected off its many Buddhist temples.

Buddhism came to Thailand over 2000 years ago. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

The first Mormon missionary to New York City came in 1837. The first New Yorker to covert to Mormonism also happened in that year. However, growth of the church in Harlem didn’t come until after 1978 when the Mormons changed their theology to give complete acceptance to African Americans. Now, there are three congregations in Harlem, and the majority of Mormons in New York City are ethnic minorities. After 184 years, there are forty-two congregations in the city. In 2010 the Religious Congregations and Ministries Survey reported that Mormons numbered had 35,000 members in the city.

The first Mormon missionary to Thailand arrived in April 6, 1854. The first Thai convert came into the church not until 1966. The congregation in Chiang Mai got started in 1970. The Book of Mormonwas not translated into Thai until 1976, roughly the same time that African Americans were welcomed as full members into the church. There are now seven congregations and thirty two smaller groups meeting together in Thailand. In 2009 the Mormon church reported that it had 16,000 members in Thailand.

Mormon church in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Mormons believe that missionary work in Thailand will be similar to that done in Harlem. "The same principles of evangelizing still applies [in Thailand] even though the background is different,” argues  Russell Wagstaff, a Mormon missionary in Chiang Mai who looked barely 21 with his crew cut sandy brown hair and glasses. He took a hiatus from studies at Duke University to participate in the mission. A Journey encountered Wagstaff and another young missionary Brigham Shipley in the Mormon church, which is located in the center of Chiang Mai.

Shipley, from the New York City region, chimed in, “Our job is to find those ready to listen to the teachings.” In other words, they believed people are people no matter where they live in the world.

However, both missionaries agreed that Thailand is a unique missionary ground because of the difficulty of the language. Prior to their mission, Shipley and Wagstaff attended a 12 week language intensive program in Utah to get them up to speed in their Thai. Luckily for Shipley, his college, Brigham Young University, is located in the same state as the Mormon church's language institute.

Shipley pointedly noted that his brother, who is completing missions in Brazil, only had to take a six week language program for Spanish.

Like the Mormon Harlem Church, the Chiang Mai Church is run by locals—Thai locals. As there are few English speakers in the church, Shipley and Wagstaff reach out to the community by teaching weekly English classes.

The Mormon Chiang Mai Church probably gets more tourists than the Harlem location too. “This area [Chiang Mai] has a lot of religions and temples. People start to think of the spiritual and want to find a Christian place to pray,” remarked Shipley.

Wagstaff looked at his partner, then looked at me, and said, “Tourists who come here say they've been disillusioned with religion, but they're looking for something.” Whether in Thailand or Harlem, the Mormons are looking for you.

This way to Mormons, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

*This is A Journey through NYC religions’ second report from outside the United States. The first was by our freelance photographer in Guyana. We are experimenting with doing articles in urban areas of other countries that connect to New York City religions.

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