Ordinances take place next. Baptism, always by immersion, usually at age eight, occurs elsewhere, but new members are often "confirmed" in Sacrament meeting with a special prayer that confers Church membership and bestows "the gift of the Holy Ghost." The newly baptized person sits in a chair while several male priesthood holders put their hands on her head, and one of them speaks the prayer. A more common ordinance, particularly in this congregation, is the blessing of new babies. Male family members and friends circle the infant, each putting a hand beneath the baby and the other on the shoulder of the next man. The circles may have three to twelve men. Someone holds a microphone while the father, or another man, gives the infant "a name and a blessing." In this case, friends of the law-student father participate as he prays for wisdom in raising his son. The men gently rock the baby, and most babies are quiet through their blessings. When the prayer is completed, the beautifully dressed, handsome child is held aloft for the congregation to admire. Efforts to include mothers in the blessings have been unsuccessful. One young father commented on this practice. "In the family, the woman has the baby, carries the baby, struggles with it, nurses the baby. The only role a man has is to bless the baby. I think it's appropriate that the man has that role. It gets him involved in the family."
Next comes the Lord's Supper, or the "Sacrament," with bread and water arranged on a table at the side front and covered with a white cloth. A more solemn congregational song refers to the Crucifixion. Two young men read ritual prayers, first over the bread and then the water. These are among the few set prayers in Mormondom and are found in two books of Scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Mormon. If the young men stumble while reading these prayers, they must repeat them. The Sacrament is the high point of congregational ritual in an informal Church meeting. This Sacrament promises a forgiveness of sins. Members reflect on their "baptismal covenants" and take upon themselves Christ's name so that God's Spirit will be with them. Silence is encouraged, and the congregation is thanked for reverent behavior.
Now come the testimonies of the people who choose to come to the pulpit and speak, a voluntary and often spontaneous decision. Not even the bishop knows who will bear testimony. Speakers are told to say their names and be brief, but they often forget. Occasionally the bishop may stop a speaker if he or she drags on too long, but most say whatever they wish, as in Quaker meetings, and the audience is tolerant. Speakers testify about their personal blessings, relate faith-promoting experiences, or expound on the Scriptures. Sometimes a testimony will have a confessional aspect. In this New York City ward, many people speak during the allotted twentyfive minutes. In smaller congregations, minutes of silence may tick by. No one worries too much about these silent times. On this day, one of the bishop's counselors opened with his gratitude for the help and service of the members. During the time his young son had been hospitalized with a bone infection, the doctors had been amazed by the Church support system. Members, new people as well as old friends, had provided meals and childcare. He thought that his family would be moving soon, and people at work were surprised that he was willing to relocate. They didn't understand that he had a community of LDS friends wherever he went. He testified that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and that Jesus Christ lived, a familiar coda. The congregation echoed his "Amen." The counselor then invited all who wished to speak to come forward and sit on the stand, reminding them of the meeting's closing time.
The speakers this day represent the diversity of this congregation. Elijah, a lively convert from Nigeria, speaks frequently, regretting the need to be brief. He is followed by a Latino convert, a divorced, single father who testifies about the power of God in his life. He had prayed for help and found the Church. Since then, things had worked out well for him and his daughter. When he sits down, a young missionary from Russia, a convert herself, translates the comments of a Russian woman who has joined the church, though she cannot yet speak English. Next a young couple introduce themselves. She is a convert, an aspiring actress, and he is a life-long member. They are glad to have this church community to join and involve themselves with. "We all have missions to accomplish," he says.
Parents and family of newly blessed babies often speak. The father who blessed his baby is grateful for friends who have participated in the blessing and for his Native American descent. His mother, visiting to help, next takes the stand. She is proud of her worthy children and her ninth grandchild. She is grateful for the Atonement of Christ. A television news anchor, a local celebrity, says she is grateful for her strong grandparents and for the good example of her family. She testifies that "we come to where we are for a reason." A lively, outspoken young man notes that he would be a "real slacker" if he did not acknowledge the three big blessings in his life: The Lord, his wife, and the ward-particularly for the love and compassion of the members and their mutual service. He has spent his best years in this ward and particularly likes the music. He testifies that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith and the Church's current president, Gordon B. Hinckley, are both "true prophets."
The twenty-five minutes allotted for testimonies is over. A few members now awake from naps. The counselor makes a few more announcements, followed by a rousing congregational song. An organ interlude before the final verse raises the key half a step upward for a climactic finish. The spouse of the person who opened the meeting pronounces the benediction. Fast meeting is over. But it is not time to go home. This meeting is the first of three in the regular three-hour meeting block. Sunday School comes next, and the congregation divides into smaller groups for gospel study, the largest group studying this year's text, the Old Testament. The third meeting divides women and men, instructing them separately. Additional classes provide instruction, music, and gospel activity for the children and the young people.
The Fast and Testimony meeting includes many elements of contemporary Mormon worship. Visitors and new people are very much at home because people are friendly and the programs are universal throughout the Church. Paradoxically, individual, public, personal expression is a regular part of this authoritarian church. The meeting is both structured and free. Gratitude for family, for Church connections, for religious foundations, and for sacred works and leaders are basic beliefs. Although the people are very different from each other, and without the Church would be unlikely to meet, they are comfortable together, bonded by common beliefs and commitments. Some permanent New Yorkers, some transient people, some life-long members, some new converts, and some natives of distant countries come together for a religious service. They tell stories of divine intervention in common phrases. They believe God has restored His church to the earth. Far from their childhood homes, in a tall building in the world's megacity, they find community and friendship in their ward family.
Leaders are fond of noting the differences between Mormons and others by quoting 1 Peter 2:9 KJV where the apostle says to Christians, "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." Mormons feel equally chosen, peculiar in good ways, clinging to virtues of the past in obedience to moral doctrines and principles. President Hinckley tells young people of this "chosen generation," members of "this peculiar people," that they "cannot with impunity follow practices out of harmony" with what they have been taught. He challenges them to rise above the "sordid elements of the world" and remain peculiar.