The Mormons Among Us

More than 8,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live in the Tampa Bay area. They share a commitment to family and spreading their faith message.

Tampa Tribune/February 8, 2002
By Michelle Bearden

Tampa -- They begin at daybreak, before the sun even rises.

Joshua Thompson and Justin Gibby, both 20, start their morning with a Bible study and discussion. By 9:30, dressed in white shirts, dark pants and neckties, they leave their north Tampa apartment, spiritually charged for the day's mission.

For the next 12 hours, they will knock on strangers' doors, visit church members who have fallen from the fold and deliver the Book of Mormon and religious videos to those who have ordered them. Dinner is usually at the home of a local church member.

"When you first come out, you're still kinda new at this and a little afraid,'' says Thompson. "But as you grow in age, you become more comfortable with yourself and what you share with the people.''

As missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thompson and Gibby will continue this work six days a week. They, like the 60,000 other Mormon missionaries worldwide, work in cities far from home for two years. They must walk, bicycle or ride in a church-owned car. And they pay for the privilege of serving - in Tampa, about $375 a month each for living expenses.

Both young men say they will return home, Thompson to Oregon and Gibby to California, to start college when their stint is up in six months.

"This is the time we give to God totally,'' Gibby says. "It's a life-changing experience. I've learned to be more sociable and to communicate better with people. That will help me later on in life.''

The missionary program is one of the most visible signs of a religion often regarded as mysterious and clannish. Through this outreach, outsiders get a personal introduction to the church. The volunteers will never ask for money; what they want is time to share their message.

Sometimes the door is slammed in their faces or not opened at all. But that doesn't deter them.

"For the most part, people are very nice, even if they politely tell you they're not interested,'' Thompson says. "So we just wish them a nice day and move on.''

Missionaries play a vital role in the church's growth. Mormons number about 11 million worldwide, according to church estimates; most of those are first-generation, born to parents who converted to the faith.

Young men are strongly encouraged to serve a two-year mission between the ages of 19 and 26. Women have the option to serve at age 21, although they are more likely to be on the marriage track by then.

Jack Clark, president of the Tampa Mission - the area from Brooksville to Naples - acknowledges it's a challenge bringing the Mormon message into the land of Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics.

Clark oversees more than 150 missionaries working the area. Like all church workers, he's an unpaid volunteer, called by his denomination to donate three years of his time and talents toward a higher cause.

"There's a lot of ignorance and misconceptions about our faith,'' he says. "It's our job to get out the truth. In a place like this, we just have to work a little harder.''

Climbing The Family Tree

While the missionaries must go to the people, Bette Wells can sit back and let the people come to her.

More specifically, they're coming to the Family History Center, 4106 E. Fletcher Ave., one of 3,500 church-operated genealogical libraries around the world that is open to the public.

Wells and her husband, John, have volunteered at the center for almost five years. She says their service is a "calling'' and compares it to the Peace Corps.

"You see people get all excited while searching for their roots, and you can't help but feel good for them,'' she says. "This is a rewarding place to be.''

The Tampa center houses more than 2 million rolls of microfilm containing genealogical records, more than 700,000 microfiche cards and nearly 300,000 books. Wells is assisted by about 20 genealogists on a rotating basis.

In all, the church has records on more than 2 billion people, with a majority of the information predating 1920. Missionaries double as microfilm camera operators all over the world, collecting birth, marriage, death, probate, immigration, military and other records through searches in courthouses, churches and other institutions.

For the hobbyist, these exhaustive records are a welcome link in the search for one's roots. For Mormons, they're vital.

The church maintains that people are eternally tied to their ancestors, but because many forebears never had the chance to know Jesus Christ, it is up to their modern-day relatives to have them baptized by proxy. That way, they can be together in the afterlife. The ritual takes place in a Mormon temple, open only to church members in good standing.

As keeper of the world's largest genealogy repository, the church took a technological leap in 1999 with the creation of its Web site. Users now have access to hundreds of millions of names via the Internet.

"It's something inside all of us,'' Wells says. "You don't have to be Mormon to want to know where you came from.''

The Church Will Provide

Many denominations claim to take care of their own. But no group does that with the diligence of the Mormons.

The church encourages members to resolve problems themselves. That includes maintaining a year's supply of nonperishable food to feed the family in case of an emergency.

When problems become too big, members may ask for help from relatives. The next resort is the church. A family struggling financially might get cash or goods from the local bishop's storehouse, stocked with goods supplied by Deseret, the church's private food label.

The system is funded through donations by members, who are asked to go without two meals a month and contribute their value to the welfare program. That's in addition to the required 10 percent tithe.

In addition, every ward, or church, has its own employment specialist to help jobless members find work. The goal is self-sufficiency.

"We want to be the best example we can be in our communities, and that includes helping those who need it most,'' says Jeff Dietzel, who manages the Bishop's Storehouse in Plant City.

That volunteer service takes 20 or more hours a week; Dietzel also runs a disposable medical supplies business with his wife.

With the Winter Olympics in the shadow of the Latter-day Saints headquarters, Dietzel hopes to see some positive exposure for the church, which he feels is sometimes maligned by a misinformed public.

"I want them to know we're a Christ-centered church, not a cult,'' he says. "We make a commitment to our faith, to our families and to being good citizens.''

Together Forever

That complete commitment to the family perhaps defines Mormons better than anything else. Family forms the core of church teachings, with the promise that kin will be bound together for "time and eternity'' through a special ceremony. For their time on Earth, parents are given the spiritual directive to build strong, stable homes.

In the church's early days in the mid-1800s, founder Joseph Smith and other leaders practiced polygamy and deemed it divine. That put Mormons at odds with the rest of U.S. society.

In 1890, the church abandoned plural marriages under pressure from the federal government, which had refused to grant Utah statehood because of the practice. To this day, some rogue Mormon settlements in rural Utah ignore that church condemnation - as well as the law.

Still, the tradition of large families remains strong among members, with many Mormons having four or more children. Mothers may be college-educated, but once the children start arriving, they often settle in as full-time homemakers.

"You'll never see a pregnant bride at a Mormon wedding,'' says Janice Gillrie, a local church spokeswoman and mother of six. "But it's not unusual for the mother of the bride to be pregnant.''

Church activities are the center of a devout Mormon household. Sunday worship spills into classes and committee work, lasting up to three hours. High school students take a religious course at 6 a.m. weekdays for four years, studying the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon and church history before regular school begins.

Evenings are devoted to youth activities, church-sponsored charitable works and organizations such as the Boy Scouts. Monday nights are set aside for Family Home Evenings, when the clan gathers for prayer, play and Scripture studies.

"It is the focal point of everything we do,'' says Shannon Hodges, a Tampa father of four who sells dental materials. "Whatever I do revolves around what we do as a family. We believe we will be together forever, in this life and the next.''

Hodges has known this faith since infancy. But his wife, Sarah, is a convert. Growing up, she had only spotty exposure to religion. She learned about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and began investigating it on her own.

After serious reflection, she joined when she was 18, drawn by the church's family values and its web of support. She takes her role as mother seriously and considers it her first priority to raise "righteous, honest and kind children'' who will be good citizens.

"It's such a warm and peaceful feeling when you have the knowledge that you know this is true,'' she says. "It just felt right for me. I knew this is where I'm supposed to be.''

A Short History

"Mormon'' is a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The name comes from members' belief in the Book of Mormon.

The church was founded in New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith, known as the Prophet. He says he had a vision in 1823 of the angel Moroni, who told him of golden plates that would reveal the untold story of America during biblical times. He received those tablets four years later on Mount Cumorah, in upstate New York, and later translated them into the Book of Mormon.

Church members accept the Bible as the word of God. But they also consider it an incomplete record. They consider the Book of Mormon, a history of the early people of the Western Hemisphere, to be divinely inspired and as such, holy Scripture.

Other Facts

With 109,000 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members, Florida has the largest population of Mormons of any state east of the Mississippi. An estimated 8,000-plus members live in the Tampa Bay area.

Church structure mirrors that of many denominations, but the terminology is different. A ward is a church; a branch is a mission not yet large enough to be a church; a stake is a group of wards. A bishop is called by church headquarters to lead a ward; a stake president oversees the district.

The church operates through an unsalaried ministry. In the Tampa Bay area, 22 bishops and hundreds of other men and women serve local congregations.

Church teaches members to abstain from premarital and extramarital sex, alcohol, drugs, caffeine and nicotine.

The Mormon priesthood is a true patriarchy, giving males divine authority and power now and in the hereafter. Men will preside over their descendents in the celestial kingdom to come.

Blacks became eligible for the male-only priesthood in 1978. That occurred after a special "revelation'' that happened to coincide with an outpouring of criticism aimed at the church's all-white power structure.

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