Hispanics change face of Mormon faith

East Valley Tribune, Arizona/May 30, 2007
By Sarah N. Lynch

Mesa, Arizona -- Luis Cruz grew up in the Catholic tradition that his parents taught him in Chiapas, Mexico. But when he came to Phoenix more than three years ago, he developed a spiritual void that the Catholic Church was unable to fill.

"During the course of a whole year, I could not find a single church here," the 33-year-old landscaper said in Spanish. "I didn't know where there were masses. I couldn't find a Spanish church that was nearby."

That changed when a woman he knew in Mesa invited him to come and meet with two missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The meeting was the catalyst for his eventual move to Mesa and his conversion from lifelong Catholicism to Mormonism.

"What really impressed me about (the missionaries) was that they didn't speak badly about other churches," he said. "They speak to you about Jesus ... They speak to you about the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. It's the same thing they do in the Catholic Church. The only difference is that in the Catholic religion, there are saints."

Mesa, which was incorporated by Mormon pioneers in the late 1870s, is often thought of as a conservative, white, LDS-dominated community. But as the Hispanic population continues to grow, some newly arrived Mexican immigrants are abandoning their traditional Catholic roots for the Mormon faith.

At the beginning of 2002, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints only had five congregations within 10 miles of downtown Mesa that offered services in Spanish, said Elder Wilford Andersen, a church official who oversees LDS affairs in the Southwest.

Today, that number has more than doubled to 13 Spanish-speaking congregations throughout Mesa.

"I think that the church is growing among all populations, but the Hispanic population has grown fairly dramatically in Mesa and in Arizona and throughout the Southwest," said Andersen, a Mesa resident. "It reflects the general Hispanic growth in our area."

The growth in Spanish-speaking membership is also reflected globally. According to a church spokeswoman in Utah, the largest growth in membership from 1995 to 2006 occurred in South America. Membership there has soared to more than 3 million, making the continent's membership the second highest in the world after the United States. The number of Spanish-speaking congregations in the U.S. has also seen the biggest increase compared with any other foreign language. Between 2000 and 2006, the number of Spanish-speaking congregations grew from 389 to 639.

The church, like most others, does not ask about immigration status when it invites people to join its ranks. But those in Spanish-speaking congregations say it's likely there are many illegal immigrant members. Pablo Felix, bishop of the Liahona Second Ward in Mesa, said he cannot be sure about his congregation, but he suspects between 60 percent to 70 percent of the members could be here illegally.

The shifting demographics in Mesa are clearly having an impact on the increased Hispanic membership.

"As a whole, the Hispanic culture is a culture of us, the family, and not of individuals," Felix said. "You do things for the family. Generally speaking, in the United States, it's a culture about you, me, the individual."

The Mormon church prides itself on its family oriented nature. Mormon families are historically large, and the church suggests families participate in a traditional weekly event each Monday called Family Home Evening. That's when parents are supposed to turn off their phones, come home early and spend time with their children.

Unlike some other Christian denominations, the LDS church has a visible presence in Mesa and in many parts of Latin America. There are humanitarian efforts and a constant flow of missionaries.

In Mesa, there are about 14 Spanish-speaking missionaries who venture into often poor areas and make appointments, according to the Tempe and Mesa missions that serve this area.

"Latino people are very open, meaning that if missionaries go out and go door to door, they can get in and teach," said William "Tracy" Watson, president of the Arizona Mesa Mission.

The church does not take a position on immigration and does not affiliate itself with interfaith groups that do take a stand. But that doesn't mean that some prominent Mormon politicians haven't, and that's where things sometimes get sticky.

The most well-known of those politicos is Arizona legislator Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa, a staunch opponent of illegal immigration who has referred to his hometown as a "third world country."

Last year, immigration activists were angered that the church did not defend its Hispanic membership against Pearce, and Roberto Reveles, former president of immigration group Somos America, accused the church of "proselytizing on one hand and persecuting with the other."

For some conservative old-timers, the presence of illegal immigrants is a source of frustration, and some church members point to religious doctrine as justification for those feelings.

Sen. Karen Johnson of Mesa, also a Mormon, often references church doctrine when discussing her views on illegal immigration.

In addition to the Articles of Faith, which dictate that members must obey the laws of the land, she points to sermons made by a church apostle which say that people can be brought to God "without leaving their homelands."

"I think that as an LDS person, we are absolutely taught to be honest in all of our dealings with ... the government," she said.

As a bishop, Felix cannot discuss politics. He admits it can be difficult to walk the line between the political neutrality of the church and his personal views. He is the son of immigrants.

"I think some folks have a way of thinking and doing things," he said, speaking only for himself and not for the church. "It makes me sad in a sense because we are dealing with human beings."

The topic of immigration rarely comes up in conversation inside the church walls.

And when it does, Felix says he reminds the members of his congregation that all people -- including Russell Pearce -- are free to do and say what they please.

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