On a soggy afternoon in Harlem, in New York City, a group of Latinos gather for their weekly church service. As the rain streams down outside, the mood inside the meeting house is cozy and welcoming. An elderly woman waves to a little girl seated nearby, saying “Hola chiquitita!” There is an abundance of small children, as well as a few Caucasians listening to the Spanish-language service with audio translation headphones.
The first hymn, Creo en Cristo (I believe in Christ) is followed by a series of testimonios (testimonies). One woman exclaims to her rapt audience, “Yo sé que este libro es un libro milagroso!” (I know that this book is a miraculous book!)
While many Americans associate Mormons with Mitt Romney, Donny & Marie Osmond and the missionaries depicted in Broadway’s Book of Mormon, it is a religion that is becoming increasingly Hispanic. Not only are Latinos fueling the growth of this religion, they stand poised to play a significant role in shaping its future.
The service is a snapshot of the changing face of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), more commonly known as the Mormon Church.
Professor Ignacio Garcia of Brigham Young University told NBC News that the Mormon Church is not growing in Europe or among white Americans as it once did.
“The growth of the LDS church, other than from natural births, comes from people of color: Asians, Africans, and Latinos,” said Garcia. “One day, this will be a church for people of color. And once the tipping point arrives, it will be a freefall.”
Not only are Latinos fueling the growth of the Mormon church, they stand poised to play a significant role in shaping its future.
According to the Pew Research Center, seven percent of U.S. Mormons are Latino. However, Latinos are the fastest-growing group in the Church. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Spanish-language wards (congregations) more than doubled, while Latin America has the highest rate of growth of Mormons worldwide. Mormons are active in every Latin American country except Cuba.
“The white population around the world is not converting - so the LDS Church, like other churches, is counting on immigrants to fill the pews," he said. "I don't think there is anyone in the church hierarchy - who can see anything but a church of color in the next 25 years.”
Garcia believes that the customs and leadership of the church will eventually have to reflect this reality. He terms the number of Latino baptisms “staggering.”
Jorge Iber of Texas Tech University, author of Hispanics in the Mormon Zion, frames one aspect of the Latino LDS experience in practical terms. “Where else can an individual newly arrived from Central or South America instantly connect with a powerful institution by embracing their spiritual beliefs?” Because the Mormon Church has no professional clergy, he explains, it offers leadership opportunities to all members, including Latinos.
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Iber stated that Latinos do not give up their culture when they join the LDS Church; he’s seen statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Latino Mormon households. Meanwhile, Iber notices the Church becoming less monolithic.
“As more Latinos have come in, including a certain number who are undocumented, the Church has had to rethink its position on immigration and other issues. Hispanics are not going to join a church that they perceive as supporting anti-immigrant measures,” Iber said.
Ricardo Meza, president of the Brigham Young University Latino Club, has seen misunderstandings between Latinos and LDS Church members. “Some Latinos say to me, what are you doing in that church? People have said that I was trying to become a white person, or that I was completely denying my culture,” he said. On the other hand, he has encountered LDS members who “have stereotypes against Latinos, but that is changing.”
Mormonism gives Meza a strong “sense of belonging.” But that does not always hold true when he interacts with non-LDS family members. Because he and his parents do not drink – Mormons refrain from alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine – some of their relatives call them “the party-poopers in the family.”
Meza has never had a cup of coffee, never sipped a café con leche. “I would probably like it if I tried it, because coffee smells good,” he said. “But I know that when I observe the church recommendations, it feels right. I feel powerful.”
Nelda McAllister of Heber City, Utah, said that one of the biggest misconceptions about Mormons is that they are not Christians. “Of course we believe in the Bible, we just view the Book of Mormon as another testament of Jesus Christ,” she said. “I’ve heard people say that we are like blind sheep; I would say it is a lot of self-discipline. It (Mormonism) is a lifestyle. I feel like it has really helped me become the person I am today.”
McAllister, author of the online essay My story as an LDS Latina, describes the Mormon Church as welcoming. “Many times I tell LDS people that I am Hispanic, and they respond that they went on missions in Latin America, and say that they missed the warmth of Mexico, or Chile, or they want to speak Spanish with me,” she said. “But our church welcomes anyone. It teaches the compassion of Christ, and it is a great nourisher of families.”
Lara Johnson of Provo, Utah, who is of Venezuelan heritage, remembers her family being dismayed when she converted to the LDS Church. “My whole family thought I was weird. There was a lot of conflict over this, and all of my family made fun of me when I visited them,” she said. “People thought I was under a spell, or that the Mormons brainwashed me. That wasn’t the truth at all.”
Johnson explains that the Mormon Church helped her find a sense of meaning in life. “Our father sent us here on earth to become more like him, and that is awesome,” she said. “I remember feeling as a little girl, is that all there is? To get rich, get stuff, enjoy stuff and it’s over? I remember thinking, what is the point of that? But the gospel, the Book of Mormon, is what helps me understand how these relationships go on eternally.”
Johnson references a key teaching of the LDS Church – that family relationships in this life can continue in the afterlife. For example, Mormons who wed in a temple ceremony are “sealed” together for eternity. This notion of “families are forever” holds appeal to many Latino converts.
Latino culture’s emphasis on family fits well with LDS teachings, says Sujey Vega, assistant professor at Arizona State University. “The idea of an involved, extended family, like a comadre (godmother)in Latin America translates well to being a hermana (sister) here, as the church refers to female members. The LDS Church offers an embedded social network. This is good for everyone, but especially for immigrant women, because otherwise they might not have anyone else.”
“The Mormon Church has a history of migration, exclusion, being kicked out of places and not being welcome,” says Latina scholar Sujey Vega, “and that history has some parallel with the Latino experience.”
Vega, who has researched Latino Mormon communities in Arizona, said that there are other aspects of Mormonism that are attractive to Hispanics. “The missionaries go out of their way to learn the language, and to engage people where they are,” she said. “It means a lot to immigrant Latinos to have a white person come to your door and not threaten you, and say that they want you, and that they value you and your perspective.”
“The Mormon Church has a history of migration, exclusion, being kicked out of places and not being welcome,” Vega said, “and that history has some parallel with the Latino experience.”
There is a deeper, theological connection between Mormons and Latinos as well. The Book of Mormon tells the story of an ancient people who once lived in the Americas, including a tribe known as the Lamanites. In Mormon teaching, the Lamanites were the ancestors of indigenous people in the Americas. By extension, Latinos can be viewed as the descendants of the Lamanites.
Professor Ignacio García of BYU said that this gives Latinos a unique place within the broader LDS community. “Latino LDS members can look to the Book of Mormon and, in a sense, say – 'Hey, that’s me!'” The Book of Mormon’s story of the rise and fall of a great people, García says, often strikes a chord with Hispanic converts.
Although the Mormon Church began in upstate New York, García pointed out the “strange reality” that this religion has historically flourished in areas with a Latino presence: first in Utah, then in Arizona and the Southwest, and today in Latin America.
“One of Mormonism's great challenges is that it emphasizes the church’s founding on the American landscape,” said García. “So right now Mormonism from the top looks very white, with a very stable sense of cultural unity. But right below, you see a bubbling energy that will reformat much of Mormon culture – and Latinos will be central to that transformation.”