Sidewalk Salvation

Preach. Convert. Repeat.

Miami New Times/June 15, 2006
By Francisco Alvarado

On a recent spring evening, after a day of knocking on doors, Ben Stevens and Clinton Dowse settle in for a Haitian dinner at the North Miami Beach apartment of 49-year-old Flora Rulles. The two young, fresh-faced Anglos, at first glance, seem to share few traits with their host. Yet they are united in faith as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The sweet, pungent smell of plantains cooking in a frying pan fills Rulles's cramped apartment. Dowse and Stevens banter with Flora's thirteen-year-old daughter Florida and ten-year-old son Roger. Stevens, a Hobbit-size young man with a Caesar-style haircut and probing blue eyes, tells how he came to love Haitian food. "A lot of the members feed us," Stevens says. "That's what I enjoy about working with Haitians. They love Jesus and make great food. I think they are the coolest people. They are willing to give you the last cookie in their jar."

Before coming to the Miami stake's Haitian branch, Stevens was teaching the Mormon way in and around the Bahamas. "They have these Haitian villages there where the people live inside these little plywood houses," he says. "There was no running water. Makes you appreciate how humble Haitians are."

Dowse, a tall blond with strong Aryan features, asks Florida if she knows the "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" song, the rump-shaking single by the Miami-based Buckwheat Boys. He and Stevens, missionaries also known as elders, have never actually heard the song because they are not allowed to listen to hip-hop. Yet they know about it from their interaction with Haitian teenagers familiar with the popular ghetto tune.

"Yeah. Why?" Florida shoots back.

"Well how does it go?" Dowse replies.

"It's peanut butter jelly time! It's peanut butter jelly time!" Florida raps. "Where he at? Where he at? I don't know! I don't know! There he go! There he go!"

Florida balks when Dowse asks her to demonstrate the dance. Meanwhile, Stevens waxes on how Haitians are generally receptive to his and Dowse's Mormon teachings, even if they have no intention of converting to the LDS church. "I don't know if they want to hear our message or just want to hear a white guy speaking Kreyol," Stevens says.

After dinner, Dowse and Stevens chat briefly with Rulles about setting up a family night during which she, her husband, and their children can spend time reading the Book of Mormon. The LDS church demands family unity among its members. So one night a week, Mormon families gather to play songs and games and, of course, read from the Book of Mormon and discuss its teachings.

Rulles, a round-faced woman with eyeglasses, nods affirmatively to Stevens's instructions. They close the session with a prayer. Stevens takes out a small appointment planner from his shirt pocket and jots down the date of his next meeting with Rulles.

Later the same night, the elders pull up to a single-story house in the same neighborhood. They knock on the door. Stephen and Stephon Thomas, two oversize twelve-year-old twins, answer the elders' call. The twins were baptized into the LDS church less than a year ago. Their mother has been a Latter-Day Saint for more than twelve years, baptized in Haiti. Dowse and Stevens ask for their older brother Tito, who is not home. The twins inform the missionaries that Tito and their mother got into a huge argument. "He was cussing at our mom," Stephon says. "He took his clothes. I'm not sure he is coming back."

Dowse and Stevens decide to call it a night and head back to the Mormon building on 85th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. "That's too bad about Tito," Stevens laments. "We'll pray to the Lord to make sure he's all right."

"Dang it," Dowse says. "Where'd he go?"

Clinton Dowse, a nineteen-year-old from Kanab, Utah, is behind the wheel of a white Chevy Malibu, weaving in and out of traffic on NE Sixth Avenue in North Miami. He has been in Miami-Dade County for only six months, but Dowse has already made a keen observation about his new locale. "There are a lot of bad drivers in Miami," he says. "I'm trying hard not to become one myself."

Riding with Dowse is 21-year-old Ben Stevens from Portland, Oregon. The two college-age men are in South Florida for a single purpose: Introduce Miami-Dade's Haitian community to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as — despite the preference of the official church — Mormons, a faith of more than 12 million believers around the globe, including 123,209 members in Florida.

Mormons spread their Gospel through a vigorous voluntary missionary network of more than 56,000 college-age men and a few women spread across the globe, teaching their religion in 50 different languages. Dowse and Stevens are among 180 Mormon missionaries, called elders within the LDS congregation, who form the Salt Lake City-based church's Florida Fort Lauderdale mission, covering West Palm Beach to Key West. The South Florida elders proselytize in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Kreyol, and American Sign Language to existing church members and just about anyone who is willing to hear their lessons.

Approximately 18,000 Mormons live in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties and attend any one of the 44 local branches and wards for services in several languages.

The branches and wards fall under geographical areas known as stakes. Miami-Dade is divided into the Homestead, Miami, and Miami Gardens stakes, home to approximately 10,000 Latter-Day Saints. Over the past two years, the church has seen a growing number of Haitians, as well as immigrants from Central and South America, join the church in Miami-Dade. The missionary concept is the foundation of the church's growth, and the practice exposes, for better or worse, some impressionable and heretofore sheltered young men to Miami's freewheeling social mores.

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