Church leaders from across the East Valley united with Hispanic community groups Friday to denounce recent racially charged political statements, but did so without the support of one of the most established religions in the area.
Representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints were noticeably absent from the proceedings, which were held in front of the monument in Pioneer Park, directly across the street from the Mesa Arizona Temple. Leaders from many religious organizations in the area attended to lend their support.
The conference was called mainly in response to Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who this week sent an e-mail that contained a link to a white-separatist group. Pearce, a member of the Mormon church, also voiced support on local radio for a pre-civil rights-era mass deportation program called “Operation Wetback” that targeted illegal Mexican immigrants.
“(Pearce’s) words have brought us together,” said Rabbi Bonnie Koppell. “This is an issue that really touches the soul of the Jewish community. We were called upon as religious people to speak out and join the voice.”
“We wanted to be able to gather the support of all religious leaders, regardless of denomination,” said Pat Esparza, executive director of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. The group and members of the other Hispanic groups who organized the event asked Mormon leaders to participate, Esparza said. They turned down the invitation, saying their participation would be too political.
“You can hide behind politics, but this was simply a representation of of faith-based leaders,” Esparza said. The location for the conference was also specifically chosen.
“We wanted to be close to the temple and close to the (Mormon pioneer) statue,” Esparza said. “It’s representative of what Mesa is, and we felt it was appropriate.”
Don A. Evans, a spokesman for the Mormon church in Arizona, said the church is sympathetic to the issues brought up at the conference, but said it uniformly does not participate in any political debate.
“This is a political issue and we do our best to keep politics and religion separate,” Evans said. “We encourage our congregation to vote and be involved in the political process, but we will not tell members how to vote and who to vote for.”
Evans said the church believes in including all cultures, and said its international missionary work gives members a diverse and accepting world view. Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in the Mormon church, and there are several congregations in Mesa and statewide where the services are conducted in Spanish, he said.
Some felt that the Mormon church spoke volumes by not participating in the conference.
“Their absence from any participation in the press conference leaves the question, where is the conscience of the Mormon community?” asked Roberto Reveles, president of Somos America. “It shows that the Mormon leadership is afraid to take a stand on issues said by a prominent member of their community and congregation,”
Reveles said the number of Mormons who are Hispanic should have encouraged church leaders to show their support.
“They are proselytizing with one hand and persecuting with another,” he said.
Phillip A. Austin, president of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, said the Hispanic community has attempted to connect to Mormon leaders in the past by inviting them to a series of breakfast meetings, but so far only one of the meetings has taken place. Austin said Friday’s conference “was an opportunity for (the Mormon church) to join in on a simple call that promotes civility and decency,” and that choosing not to attend was the church’s decision.
Mesa City Councilman Kyle Jones, who represents a largely Hispanic area of the city, discourages people from allowing Pearce’s statements to frame their opinions of the Mormon church, of which he also is a member.
“Let the actions of the church stand, and not just the words of of one or two members,” he said. “Russell is not a spokesman and does not represent mainstream church members, and he needs to be more careful about what he says.
“Many, many of us are disappointed at what he has done and it gives us a black eye. He is on a limb by himself.”
Jones said he wasn’t sure why representatives of the Mormon church did not attend Friday’s conference.