NBA exec taking leave to guide Mormon missionaries in western Pa.

Asscociated Press/October 29, 2005

Pittsburgh -- Mormon missionaries have found western Pennsylvania to be one of the hardest places in the country to gain converts, so the church has asked an NBA marketing guru to lead a missionary push in the region.

Jay K. Francis, 59, has taken a three-year leave from his job as senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the Utah Jazz and the Larry Miller Group, the entity which controls all entertainment enterprises for Jazz owner Larry Miller.

"If someone is interested in learning more about the church, great," Francis told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We would hope the spirit would touch their hearts. You don't sell someone into joining the church the way you sell Jazz tickets."

Francis, who is a lifelong member of the church, will oversee 120 missionaries aged 19 and 20 from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in western Pennsylvania, and parts of West Virginia, Ohio and New York. The mission field Francis will oversee stretches from Uniontown, about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, to Jamestown, N.Y. That area has about 10,000 Mormons, about 7,900 in greater Pittsburgh.

"Pennsylvania has the smallest number of Latter-day Saints per person of any state in the union," said Evan Stoddard, mission leader for a Mormon congregation in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood.

One in 53 Americans is Mormon, but in Pennsylvania, the ratio is 1 in 301, and in greater Pittsburgh, 1 in 702, according to an almanac published by the church.

Stoddard, associate dean of liberal arts at Duquesne University, a Catholic school, said the stable, traditional, family oriented outlook of people in western Pennsylvania _ many of whom have family ties to churches _ make it a difficult place to win converts.

"People often aren't too open to look at other ideas beyond those they have traditionally held," Stoddard said.

Mormons believe the Christian church fell into apostasy shortly after Jesus Christ's 12 apostles died and that Joseph Smith, who is viewed as the first Mormon prophet, was chosen to restore the one true church. Smith founded the church in 1830 in New York state.

Among other beliefs that separate the church from other Christian denominations is a belief that Jesus Christ visited America after his resurrection, a story related in the Book of Mormon. The church also believes divine revelation continues through the church's president, and that faithful Mormon families _ not individuals _ can become gods in the afterlife.

Francis will have a home and car provided by the church, but he and his wife sold property to finance their move her along with their 14-year-old son, Jordan, the youngest of four.

"We didn't have to say that we'd come," Francis said. "I could have told them to pick someone who is older. I still have to work. Life is not set for me."

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