Spokane _ The Mormon women were practically giddy as they worked in the Celestial Room of their new temple, making it, well, celestial.
Hanging more than a thousand pieces of lead crystal onto a chandelier, they chatted about their families, summer vacations and the upcoming dedication of their $4.5 million spiritual center in the Spokane Valley.
"This is a very, very special time for us," said Sue Borders, a South Hill resident. "I get excited thinking about what's happening."
After a decade of growth throughout the Inland Northwest, Mormons have emerged in critical mass.
When they open their temple to the public Friday, it will be a coming-out party of sorts. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims the most members -- 85,000 -- of any religion in the Inland Northwest.
The temple, at 40th and Highway 27, is a single-story affair framed in 16,000 square feet of marble and topped by a golden angel blowing a trumpet.
Its existence lends legitimacy to Mormons as a worldwide religion and highlights the differences between the American-born faith and other Christians.
"This is not an easy church to belong to," said Greg Timothy, 49. "One of the strange things people don't understand is our level of commitment."
Secrecy and suspicion have surrounded the faith since its inception in the 1830s. Detractors describe the church as non-Christian at best, a cult at worst.
But sociologists scoff at the idea, saying much of the anti-Mormon sentiment that is popular today is identical to anti-Catholic sentiment rampant in this country until modern times.
"There is no supreme court on Earth to say whether a church is Christian or not," said Jan Shipps, a professor and author of several books on the Mormon Church and the history of American religions. Many of the rumors and jokes circulated about Mormons are identical to those circulated about Catholics 50 years ago, Shipps said.
>From conspiracy theories to tales of weird sexual practices, to stories of mind control and pagan rituals, the Mormons are a popular punching bag, she said.
It was in hope of dispelling such suspicions that Mormon leaders in Spokane persuaded authorities in Salt Lake City to extend the traditional three-day open house for the Spokane temple to eight days. Volunteers are prepared to usher 1,000 guests an hour through the building.
"We know people have a lot of questions, especially when it comes to our temple practices," said Garry Borders, president of the Spokane Stake, one of several geographic areas similar to a large Catholic parish. "We want to answer their questions. We are proud of our faith. We are excited about this temple."
The church was founded in upstate New York by Joseph Smith.
Smith claimed he was praying in a wooded grove when an angel revealed to him an additional scripture. He claimed the text, known as the Book of Mormon, documents the ministry of Jesus Christ in the Americas after his death and resurrection 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.
Mormons believe that after the 12 apostles who founded the Christian faith died, the church fell into apostasy, until Smith's vision restored the faith.
Among the many unique aspects of Mormon theology is the teaching that deserving humans who join their church and participate in the proper rituals are destined to become gods in the afterlife, occupying their own heavenly kingdom. Mormons also reject the Trinitarian understanding of God that most Christians embrace.
Because of their different theology and the practices that stem from Mormonism, Smith's followers were driven across the country by other Christians, until they settled in the Salt Lake Valley.
There they became known for their fortitude in the face of a harsh environment as well as their polygamous practices, which the church later renounced.
Today, Mormons are known for their clean living and dedication to church and family. They disapprove of abortion, homosexuality and birth control. But that same dedication sometimes raises eyebrows. Because the church operates without any paid staff, every member is expected to take on a job, known as a "calling," to help run the church.
Members are also expected to tithe 10 percent of their earnings to the church, spend three hours in worship and education on Sundays and fast once a month.
High school students start every school day at 6 a.m. in seminary training, where they learn the church's teaching.
Even more than their rigid requirements for daily living, the secretive rituals that go on inside Mormon temples raise questions among some non-Mormons.
Once dedicated, only Mormons can go inside, but not all Mormons. Members must get a special "recommend card" signed by two elected officials -- a bishop and a stake president. The "recommends" are good for one year.
The signatures are only proffered after an interview with each official to ensure members are "worthy" to enter the temple.
Roughly one-third of all Mormons in Eastern Washington and North Idaho have never been to a temple. For most, the time and expense of the 290-mile trip to Seattle, the nearest temple until now, was too much.
UPS driver Carlos Gonzales and his wife LaRayne, a dental assistant, were waiting for their interviews last week at the Spokane Stake Center on East 29th Avenue.
The couple, who are both 31, and their two teenage children are heavily involved in sports, which consumes most of the family's spare time.
"I'm hoping to go a couple of times a month, now that we have one here," LaRayne Gonzales said.
Greg Timothy, a manager at Ryder Transportation, breezed in for his interviews after a round of golf. He and his wife, Denise, a pharmaceutical salesperson, haven't been to the Seattle temple since this past spring. They are hoping to go here once a month.
"When you go to temple, you are associating with people who are committed at the same level as you are to living the standards of the Gospel," Greg Timothy said. "It's pretty powerful."
That exclusivity evokes the ire of some Christians, particularly evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Spokane's largest church, Calvary Chapel, 511 W. Hastings, recently brought in a California minister whose sole purpose was to condemn the Mormon Church as non-Christian.
Jim Rowe, who describes himself as a "Bible-believing" evangelical Christian, operates a similar ministry in Spokane. Through fliers and the occasional advertisements, he encourages people to call a recorded message, where he attacks Mormon theology.
Rowe finances his work through his day job at Union Gospel Mission, which is not affiliated with Rowe's organization, "Present Day Saints."
"The evangelical tension will increase around the dedication of the temple, but then it should subside," said Armand Mauss, a Washington State University professor emeritus of sociology and religion, who is also a Mormon.
Mormons and evangelicals are on a collision course, Mauss said.
Both groups have grown rapidly since World War II. In America, both groups target the same demographic population for conversion: people under 30, aspiring to upward mobility and moderately educated.
Only the Mormons, who have 60,000 missionaries at work, have conversion down to a science.
When Mormons were a small sect settled mostly in Utah and portions of Southern California and Arizona, they didn't garner much attention.
But Mormonism is no longer a church embedded in a particular culture -- white, conservative and middle class. Now it's a belief system present in many cultures. The church has 10 million members, more than half of them outside the United States.
Its members are also much more likely to be involved in social or political activities than in the past, Shipps said.
In the mid-1980s, the church hierarchy issued a proclamation that encouraged its members to get involved in the world around them.
"This was a dramatic change, because it said the church is only one part of your life and you are supposed to be a part of the culture where you live instead of separate from it," Shipps said. "It used to be that if you were Mormon, all your time and energy were tied up with the church. Now, Mormons are just as likely to be volunteering at the school, leading a Girl Scout troop, running for office...."
It used to be that the lifestyle of Mormons and their small numbers made them different.
But as the three-martini lunch has disappeared from American society, no longer does no drinking, no smoking, no caffeine and no swearing seem so odd.
"Now it's the temples," Shipps said. "The temples distinguish them from being just another church."
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