The knowledge of one’s ancestry is knowing who you are, your place in human history, and, according to Mormon theology, your opportunities to invite your ancestors into heaven.
Consequently, Mormons commemorate the work of Alex Haley who received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1976 novel Roots: the saga of an American family. The story follows his ancestors from West Africa through slavery in North Carolina and Tennessee. The television series Roots remains the highest rated TV miniseries in television history. The book and show sparked immense interest among African Americans in tracing their roots. The Mormons offer to Harlemites a super-tool to do this.
With nearly 20 billion records, the Church has the most extensive genealogical archive in the world. In New York State, there are 50 Family History Centers, including at least one in each borough of the city. In Manhattan you can visit centers in Inwood, Harlem, Upper West Side, Upper East Side and Chinatown. The most well-equipped center is at 125 Columbus Avenue, open from Tuesday to Saturday. The centers differ in resources depending on how large the congregation is. At minimal, it contains a computer with internet access and microfilm stations.
Now that we're in the digital age, the Church has also established Familysearch.org, a website that makes it easy for a lay person to simply log on the internet and trace their family tree. The individual can view birth certificates, land deeds, death reports, Census data and other files without ever leaving their house slippers. “It's about the importance of not believing everything you read in the history books and seeing the academic side of ancestry,” said Christensen, emphasizing the do-it-yourself mentality of Mormons toward researching ancestry.
Church theology teaches that if a Mormon can discover his or her ancestors, then the relative can establish a familial bond that endures through the afterlife. Mormon founder Joseph Smith started the genealogical emphasis. He wrote, "The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead.” The relative can baptize the ancestor into the family tree of the church which makes it possible for those in the after-life to decide whether to accept God and move into the higher reaches of Heaven. Polly Dickey, who plans on baptizing her deceased parents into the Mormon church, said confidently, “One day we'll get to meet again.”
In the Spring of 2012, the Mormons in Harlem hosted the 8th annual African American Genealogical Conference in their church. The event, which was in partnership with the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society, was free and open to the public.
“The church wanted to reach people in the community and offer a service that was not religiously based,” said Latter-day Saint Minde Christensen, who attended the event. She observed that the conference was becoming bigger and more racially and religiously integrated. Hundreds of letters were sent throughout Harlem inviting churches to partake. About 225 people attended, including representatives from Abyssinian Baptist Church, Grace Baptist Church, and Second Canaan Baptist Church.
The keynote speaker of the conference was Pearl Duncan, a NYC African American who was able to trace her ancestors across three continents with the help of the Mormon database and a DNA test. She found that her ancestors were Akan people in Ghana, Jamaicans and Scots. Duncan illustrated to the audience how they could begin to trace their ancestry using the free tools that the Mormon genealogical centers provide.
Mormon Saint Yurwildy Sealy is attracted to the idea that she can trace her ancestors back so that they can all together return to heaven. She has traced her ancestry back to 1837. Her maternal great grandmother was a needle worker in the Caribbean, but her family's has ties in Barbados, Scotland, and England. “The Lord's house is the house of order, to return to him is to return as a family,” exclaimed Sealy.
Sealy grew up Methodist and emigrated in 1986 from Barbados to the United States. She was inclined to join a church and was interested in a TV commercial about the Mormons. However, it took another decade for her the church to find her. After missionaries came knocking on her door, she decided to get baptized in 1997.
Sealy is a dark skinned woman with a strong presence. Her shoulders are broad and she stands tall. Her exterior show a possible harshness that comes with stoicism. However, she is actually very warm, open, and uplifting. Now, she wants to bring her ancestors into the Kingdom. She sees Mormon theology of ancestry as tying together earthly and heavenly concerns.
She believes that Blacks should take more initiative to find out about their origins. “More Blacks should be interested in their family ancestry,” said Sealy. “They have to make a start, they might be surprised.”
Duncan points out that when she learned that she had a long history that transcended times of slavery and oppression she gained a larger vision of her place in the world. “Once you access the African people, you can embrace the culture, not the suffering. It becomes clearer that slavery was something our ancestors suffered through, but it does not define who they are,” she told The New York Times.
However, some Jewish groups have objected to Mormons putting Jews within their theological history and religious rituals of ancestry baptism. The controversy flared when it became public that the Mormons were baptizing Holocaust victims posthumously. In response the Mormon church promised in 1995 to remove Jewish Nazi victims from its International Genealogical Index, the church's ancestry database. However, it is inevitable that some Mormons will continue the practice of baptizing their Jewish ancestors who were Nazi victims. In exasperation in 2008, the American Gathering of Jewish Survivors said that it would no longer negotiate with the church to prevent secondhand baptism.
In Harlem Mormons are treading carefully to offer their genealogical resources to the community. They hope that the resources can turn out to be a life-changing gift to Harlemites still bruised by memories of slavery and discrimination..
Over the phone, Sealy hoped that genealogy can contribute to the ability to see across racial boundaries. “We must forgive. We are all one under one God.”