Mormons Project Image as Diverse as Olympics

New York Times/January 26, 2002
By Laurie Goodstein

Salt Lake City -- The first time two Mormon missionaries knocked on the door of her family's house in Taiwan, Ming Chun Chen, a teenager, took one look at the young men in black suits struggling to introduce themselves in broken Mandarin and shut the door.

"Because they were American men, I thought this was a Western religion," said Miss Chen, whose family was Buddhist. "I didn't believe. So I told them, `Don't come back.' "

Four years later, another two Mormon missionaries knocked on the door, but this time they were young Asian women. In two and a half months, they succeeded in persuading Miss Chen to be baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with her older sister, two brothers and, eventually, her mother.

Now 25, Miss Chen is a missionary herself, selected to work here in Temple Square, the church's spiritual heart and primary tourist attraction. With the Winter Olympics fewer than three weeks away, the flow of tourists is increasing, and Sister Chen, as her name tag reads, is among nearly 200 young female missionaries from around the world who buttonhole visitors and initiate conversations with a perky, "And where are you from?"

Under their long wool coats, the sisters carry beepers that summon them to greet the tourists from their own countries and those who speak the same language.

If there is any single impression that the Mormon leadership would like to leave on their international visitors, it is that a religion with a reputation as an American upstart has matured into a global faith. One- third of the 60,000 missionaries knocking on doors for the church are foreigners, and not all are evangelizing their own countrymen. Spaniards proselytize in Tokyo, Brazilians in Lagos and Filipinos in New Zealand.

"We, of course, are under the mandate given by the Lord to teach the Gospel to every nation, kindred tongue and people," the president of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, said in an interview. "We have made it our practice to go in the front door with the full knowledge of the governments. They know of our presence. They know we are there, and we want them to know."

From its earliest days, when the church was fighting for survival in hostile Missouri, its founder, Joseph Smith, dispatched his brightest converts as missionaries to England. After 152 years of missionary labor, the church finally tipped the balance in February 1996, when the number of international members exceeded American members, according to its records. By 2000, there were 5.2 million Mormons in the United States and 5.9 million in 161 other countries.

The top leadership, however, does not reflect the church's diversity. Mr. Hinckley and his two counselors, who make up what is called the First Presidency, were born in Utah. Of the 12 men on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, all are Americans, with 8 from Utah. Only the next level down, the seven presidents of the Quorums of the 70, includes one non- American, an elder from Belgium.

Mr. Hinckley, who has at 91 proved as peripatetic as Pope John Paul II, has made cultivating indigenous leaders a keystone of his presidency. Asked why those leaders have not risen to higher positions, he said:

"As the church spreads, I think there is no question about it. We'll have an increasing number of people of foreign birth who will occupy positions of responsibility. But the fact is they're doing it now. They're carrying forward programs in a great way."

To new converts like the sisters on Temple Square, the makeup of the hierarchy is irrelevant. The church is at heart a local phenomenon, spread from one individual to another. Missionaries are trained to respond to the needs of the potential convert, from the social to the theological to the practical.

Sister Monica Mladin in Romania warmed to the church when the missionaries mentioned that Mormons did not share the idea of original sin, a doctrine that she said she had been unable to accept in her Greek Orthodox church.

"This is what I was looking for," she said. "I found out why I am here on this earth and where I came from and where I will go."

When she was baptized in 1998 at 18, she was among the first seven Mormons in Timisoara. As of 2000, Romania had 1,770 Mormons.

In the island nation of Mauritius, Sister Padmini Coopamah rebuffed two missionaries, a Briton and a Canadian, several times, until they invited her to play volleyball at the church meetinghouse, which as with most meetinghouses was built with space for team sports. She was still leery of the religion until they introduced her to the Mormon teaching that after death families continue living together intact for eternity. Her father, a doctor, had died three years earlier, when she was 16.

"The belief in families being together was something that brought us a lot of happiness," said Miss Coopamah, 23, who, like Miss Chen, was baptized at the same time as her mother and brother. In 2000, she left her graduate studies in international relations to be a missionary.

In contrast to Christian churches that send missionaries to evangelize among people who have never heard the Gospel, Mormons have succeeded by proselytizing primarily other Christians. Mormons work only where the government has given approval and concentrate not on the poorest of the poor, but on those with some means and education, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said in an interview.

There are places where the missionaries do not tread, including most of the Arab world and China, Mr. Holland said. Even in Nigeria and Indonesia, the missionaries confine themselves to predominantly Christian regions. In recent years, the church has reaped the most converts in Roman Catholic nations like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.

The church's future stalwarts abroad will be those who were missionaries, especially those elite women chosen for Temple Square. Sister Chen said she would never leave the church, because she, too, lost a beloved relative, her grandfather, when she was 10.

"We were so close," she said. "We went shopping together. We watched TV together. It's why I want to be a member. I really look forward to seeing my grandfather again."

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