LDS members conflicted on church's illegal-migrant growth

Drawing converts vs. upholding the law

The Arizona Republic/April 2, 2009

The Mormon Church is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the country, and much of that growth is coming from an unlikely source: Latino immigrants.

Latinos overwhelmingly are raised Catholic, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is aggressively reaching out to them by touting the religion's heavy focus on family and community, pillars of the Mormon faith that are also at the center of Hispanic culture.

As a result, Latinos are joining the Mormon Church at a greater rate than members of any ethnic group, even Anglos, church leaders say.

But the outreach has created some unusual conflicts because the majority of the Latino converts are undocumented immigrants, which goes against a major tenet of the Mormon Church: obeying the law.

At the same time, some Mormons who say the church teaches compassion are upset that fellow members, including Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, have spearheaded a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

"What has happened among a good number of LDS members is that they have been shaped by the Republican Party of the last 40 years. They gravitate to the Republican Party, and the party has become very anti-immigrant, culture-wars-oriented," said Brigham Young University history Professor Ignacio Garcia.

Men on a mission

One recent afternoon, Daniel Oakey and Daniel Maxwell knocked on the door of an apartment in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in west Mesa. They wore the uniform indicative of Mormon missionaries: short-cropped hair, white shirts, plain ties, dark trousers and backpacks.

Miguel Chavez, an 18-year-old Mesa Community College student, was expecting the two for his weekly Mormon lesson.

Chavez, a native of Colima state in Mexico, came to the U.S. five years ago. Raised Catholic, he attended Mass weekly until two missionaries arrived at his door one day.

At first, Chavez thought "they were crazy."

But the missionaries kept coming back, and Chavez began to like what he heard.

"My father died a few years ago in a job accident in Colima," Chavez said. "They told me that families can be together forever, and we can see each other after this life. I really want to see my dad again."

Spreading the faith

Since Joseph Smith Jr. founded the Mormon Church in 1830 in upstate New York, proselytizing has been a cornerstone of the Mormon faith. The church sends missionaries all over the world.

In recent years, the church has been teaching missionaries Spanish, not only to proselytize in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, but also to tap into the surging Latino population in the United States, including the 1.8 million Latinos in Arizona

The Mormons are not alone. Many denominations, from Baptists to Methodists, are vigorously trying to reach Latinos. But perhaps none has done so as methodically as the Mormon Church.

Of the 186 missionaries assigned to the Mesa mission, the largest in the state, 52 are Spanish speakers. Their work has helped grow the number of Spanish-speaking Mormon congregations in the Phoenix area from fewer than five a decade ago to more than 30 today, church leaders say.

The majority of the Spanish-speaking congregations are in Mesa, which was founded by Mormon settlers in the late 1800s, but congregations have also sprouted in Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Peoria, Glendale, Chandler, Queen Creek and Gilbert.

There are now about 7,000 Latino Mormons in the Valley.

Garcia estimates that nationwide, 70 percent of all Latino converts in the past 10 to 15 years are undocumented immigrants.

"Our position is to invite everyone to learn more about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his plans for his children independent of national origin," said Mark Bassett, president of the LDS Mesa mission. "We don't know what their immigration status is. We are not the government or the police."

No questions asked

Under the gaze of a Catholic statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Oakey and Maxwell prayed in the yard of Sergio Jose Galvez Garcia, a 20-year-old immigrant from Colima.

The missionaries, both also 20, spent nine months studying Spanish in Utah before arriving in Arizona. Now Oakey and Maxwell can roll their R's as well as the Spanish speakers they approach on the street.

To appeal to Latinos, the missionaries emphasize the faith's focus on family and community.

But perhaps more importantly, the missionaries don't ask about immigration status and don't care if an immigrant reveals he is in the country illegally.

They are assigned to the Liahona Second Branch, a Spanish-speaking congregation in Mesa. At times, church members provide food, clothing, job referrals - even a chance to earn some money doing yard work or other odd jobs - when they learn immigrants have lost jobs due to the economic downturn or laws aimed at cracking down on the undocumented, said Pablo Felix, the congregation president.

"Our job is to bring souls under Christ," Felix said. "The Lord doesn't look at documentation. He just looks at our faith as members."

Obeying the laws

Some state lawmakers, on the other hand, are trying to drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona.

Pearce said his immigration legislation, including the state's 15-month-old employer-sanctions law, is rooted in the Mormon Church's 13 Articles of Faith.

"We believe in laws and the sustaining and obeying of the laws of the land," Pearce said.

At the same time, Pearce said he is sympathetic toward illegal immigrants.

"I tell you, most of these are good people," he said. "But you are still taking jobs from Americans, suppressing wages and breaking the law. We can't tolerate that."

Still, he doesn't believe Mormons are undermining his efforts by reaching out to Latinos.

"They are not providing sanctuary policies for them, unlike some folks who hide behind their religious status and are (promoting) sanctuary policies. This church simply doesn't ask (about immigration status)."

Some Mormons, though, think the Pearce-led crackdown hurts immigrant families, including the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, and goes against the Mormon faith's emphasis on families and compassion.

Pearce's role in the immigration legislation has fueled perceptions that the Mormon Church is behind the crackdown.

Wilford Andersen, a member of church's Southwest governing body, said Pearce does not speak for the church.

"Just like any church, there are people with different opinions," Andersen said. "People have the right to disagree on political issues and the right to consider issues carefully and come to their own conclusions, and we respect that, as do other churches."

The church has not taken a position on immigration, Andersen said.

"But we feel it is our responsibility to minister to all of God's children, regardless of (immigration) status," he said.

Immigration has touched off a "quiet revolution" within the Mormon Church, said Garcia, the Brigham Young professor.

The church sees Latinos as the best opportunity for growth because of their numbers and openness to new faiths, but there is resistance from Mormons who tend to be conservative Republicans, he said.

'More open' culture

Between appointments, Oakey and Maxwell tried approaching people on the street. The first were Anglos, but they ignored the missionaries.

The next people, however, Sandra Muñoz, 27, and her daughter, Sarah, 6, stopped and prayed, then agreed to talk more the next day.

"Generally, the Hispanic people are more open to street contact," Maxwell said. "I think it is the Hispanic culture. They are loving and open."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.