Every weekday of the school year, Mormon students wake up before dawn. As the sun rises, they leave their homes for a walk to the church in Harlem for religious classes. They sing hymns, study verses, and share their spiritual journeys together.
Karen Bryner, a volunteer who has lead the Harlem educational program, is a fifth generation Mormon from Utah with the church’s scriptures in her blood. Her ancestors are intertwined with the development of Mormon doctrine and education from almost the beginning. She is a soft spoken woman with salt and pepper brown hair and thick rimmed glasses. While she is not married, she experiences her classroom of youngsters as a large Mormon family under her wing.
Year after year, Bryner and thousands of other volunteer teachers across the world lead the way for over a million Mormon youths.
Historically, faith-based education has been the vanguard of cultural development and scholarship in the United States. In 19th Century towns the local learned person was usually the pastor. Physicians, who are now most often the mostly highly educated persons in local communities, were then likely to be local barbers who had added surgery to their offerings. In the 21stCentury theologically conservative religious groups like the Mormons, evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews place a high emphasis on education. One researcher, Rebecca Kim, referred to the Asian American Christians on UCLA’s campus as “God’s whiz kids.” In New York City students at Orthodox yeshivas hardly skipped a beat during Hurricane Sandy, missing only one day of class.
Mormon churches organize four-year programs called “seminaries" to supplement the secular education of their teenage youth (ages 14-18). Forty-five minute classes are usually taught by an adult teachers who volunteer their time. Over four years, the students review the Bible, Book of Mormon, and the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants (which has scriptural like status). They memorize at least 100 verses for quizzes that cover basic doctrine and injunctions to learn such as:
Cease to be idle; cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated. (Doctrine and Covenants 88:124);
And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. (Doctrine and Covenants 89:18-20); and
Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come. (Doctrince and Covenants 130:18-19).
For a high schooler already balancing the demands of adolescence, the additional classes in the seminary and Sunday school adds a heap on a full plate of after-school sports, extracurriculars, and regular homework. None of the youths' seminary studies get high school credit. One must be self-disciplined and sacrificial at a time when their peers are busy prepping to be "cool" and college-bound.
However, the benefits of the Mormon seminaries are like a educational cram school. Young Mormons develop a disciplined life that is used to working as a community. In August 2011, LDS General President Thomas S. Monson wrote to the seminary students about this Mormon tradition: “Seminary for me was held at an early hour in a little house across the street from my high school. I thought, if my teacher can get up that early, I can get up that early.”
The Mormons educational network is worldwide and encompasses three universities, one college, seventeen elementary and secondary schools, and 8,039 seminary and institute programs serving approximately 1.2 million students.
The figures are smaller than those of other religious denominations, though the Mormon church is a much smaller, younger denomination. For example, Roman Catholicism dates back 2100 years and has 78 million members in the United States, over a billion in the world. Its elementary and junior high schools in America alone enrolled 2 million students for the 2010-2011 school years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr. recounted that the revelations given to him by God emphasized the importance of education. These revelations are part of the codebook of the Mormons, the Doctrine and Covenant. The book (section 93, verse 36) recounts that on May 6, 1833 Smith had an epiphany in Kirkland, Ohio that “the glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth.”
In more recent times, while serving as Commissioner of Church Education in 1971, Neal A. Maxwell
explained in a yearly summation that “Literacy and basic education are gospel needs.” Mormons believe education is necessary to maintain good spiritual standing with the Lord.
A Mormon seminarian turns into a Mormon leader
Bryner, 40, grew up in Provo, Utah in a close-knit Mormon family. She attended the church's seminary program in high school and stayed closed to home for college, eventually obtaining a Bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University in Early Childhood Education. She could have stopped her academic career there, but she didn't. Bryner kept going and moved to Boston.
In 2000, she enrolled in the masters program in international education at Harvard University. Five years later, she came to New York City to enroll in a doctoral program at Columbia University to study comparative international education. Her interest in Islamic education in Indonesia complements the Mormon focus on missions. More than 60% of the BYU student body speak a language other than their native tongue. Furthermore, approximately half have served in church missions around the world, acquiring fluency in a second language.
While studying at Columbia, she goes to the Mormon church in Harlem, which is a short walk from her home. She finds that teaching students at the early morning classes give her a high satisfaction. She admires the efforts that the students put into their classes. She speaks fondly of one dedicated student in particular named Bachir. He hasn’t missed a single lesson at dawn’s early hour. He seems to do his classes with ease without without any prodding from his parents.
Bryner has twice been president of the local church Relief Society. This distaff group focuses on charity with teaching. One of its programs is visiting teaching. Members of the Relief Society are paired to “visit teach” ailing and needy church members. They give moral support, material aid and instruction on how to overcome life’s problems. “Teaching” is more like a exemplary “buddy system” than a strict educational enterprise.
In March 2012, A Journey attended a Relief Society meeting. There, people gave testimonies on how the “visiting teachers” had helped them. One woman who had recently moved into the city talked about her love for the program. She was very lonely in this large city, but the visiting teachers provided friendship and crucial support. Bryner nodded her head in agreement. Like her, over half of the women in the Harlem congregation are single with lingering feelings that come from isolation.
The "visiting teaching" program also has the unannounced effect of tying Mormons together in deep empathy with other people.
During Hurricane Sandy, Lorianne Updike Toler, a Mormon in Manhattan, recounted inDeseret News, "What has added to my level of comfort is knowing LDS visiting and home teachers are at the ready. In sacrament meeting yesterday, all were encouraged to reach out to their home and visiting teachers to find out if they were prepared for the storm and if they needed anything. I received no fewer than four contacts from home and visiting teachers and from my Relief Society president."
Mormon education controversies
Some academics clash Mormon theology. Several professors have recounted how their questioning the veracity of Mormon scriptures, the supreme authority of the church or Mormon morality faced censure. English teacher Cecilia Konchar Farr opposed the church’s position on abortion and lost her job in 1994. In 2006, Jeffrey Nielsen, a visiting lecturer of philosophy, did not receive a contract renewal after submitting an editorial to the Salt Lake Tribune opposing the church's opposition to same-sex marriage.
The university denies that they fired the professors for their moral ideas but for other unrelated issues. The Northwest Association of Schools of Colleges and Universities continues to warrant accreditation to BYU. Nor have the controversies hurt BYU’s reputation. According to the U.S. News & World Report 2012, BYU ranks 71st in the Best Colleges category.
What the public can learn from the Mormons
The general feeling within the Mormon Church is that education never stops. The main lesson for the general public is to keep improving yourself, keep reaching out for knowledge, and keep committing yourself to a higher cause. It's not just the efforts put in, but also the consistency of the efforts.
Some Harlem residents say that the Mormon messages of self-reliance and improvement strike a cord with their values. They are concerned that Harlem young people need to be taught those values to do better in school and work. A survey by the U.S. Census found that of those 25 years and over in Upper Manhattan including Harlem, only 18.6% hold Bachelor's degrees. The rate of unemployment is greater than 50% among people between ages 16-25 in Harlem, according to Community Board 10 which covers Central Harlem. School dropouts and unemployed youth in Harlem are in a troubling idleness.
There's an old adage that rings true among Harlem adults and Mormons alike: idle hands do the devil's work.