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After a 'culture of continuity'
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WEST VALLEY CITY - The children sing "I Am a Child of God," quietly and reverently. Then they take up the more militant "Scripture Power" and really belt it out, especially the repetitive chorus.

That's one way you know you are in an LDS Spanish-speaking branch - the intensity of the music. The other way is, well, they are singing in Spanish.

Yes, the children of the Lighthouse Branch have all the same squirms and squeals as their Anglo counterparts in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They bring their Bibles to church and follow along as women leaders discuss passages of scripture. They look up to a bulletin board of photos of church President Gordon B. Hinckley and the Salt Lake Temple.

But their cultural background is vastly different. That's important to note given that these children are the church's future.

Latinos make up the fastest-growing group of Mormon converts. At least 25 percent of the LDS Church's 13 million members speak Spanish, the second most common language after English. Another 8 percent speak Portuguese, the bulk of whom are in Brazil. According to researcher Armando Solórzano, "Latinos will represent more than 50 percent in the LDS Church by the year 2020."

Church officials are clearly aware of these statistics and predictions. They know their Latino members are central to the church's growth. They also know that they need to do a better job of meeting the diverse needs of these members, because keeping them in the church has not always been easy.

That's why LDS leaders launched its "Hispanic Initiative" four years ago.

The program has five components: to find potential members through language training; teach and baptize Latinos; organize more LDS branches and wards; promote Latino self-sufficiency through the church's Welfare Program; and aid Utah Latinos - not just Mormons - with legal problems they may face due to language barriers or discrimination.

"Many come here and get victimized," says Elder John Pingree, an LDS Area Authority Seventy who oversees the Hispanic Initiative. "We try to help them receive fairness."

The church established a health-care clinic for Latinos in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley and assigned about 400 Mormons to be "language missionaries" working in LDS Spanish-speaking branches.

Its English classes, known as the Daily Dose, emphasize simple tasks such as going to the doctor, buying a car, talking to your child's teacher and taking the bus. After that, students learn specifically Mormon phrases such as "Sacrament meeting starts at . . . ."

LDS officials also created an annual Latino cultural event at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City. This year's celebration, "Treasure of the Americas," is slated for Oct. 21. It will commemorate the 120th anniversary of the Book of Mormon being translated into Spanish and the 125th anniversary of the church sending missionaries into Mexico.

The evening will feature the teachings, legends, dance, music and traditions of the "white god," known as Quetzcoatl, says The belief parallels the LDS story, told in the Book of Mormon, that Jesus Christ visited the Americas.

"Almost all pre-Columbians believed in a white god," Pingree says. "He was good and he came to teach them how to love each other."

In their own language: The LDS Church organized its first Mexican branch in 1919, when several families who had been active church members in Mexico moved to Salt Lake City. The group met in a store, then held Spanish-speaking services in several wardhouses. In 1959, the branch was large enough to become the Lucero Ward with its own building at 232 W. 800 South in Salt Lake City.

Today, there are 606 Spanish-speaking wards or branches in the U.S., with 62 in Salt Lake County, 25 to 30 in Davis County and 35 to 40 in Utah County.

That's a dramatic increase from years past, Pingree says.

Last year, many of the Spanish wards (congregations) were divided into two or more "branches" so that people wouldn't get so lost, they could be better involved in the all-volunteer staffing of each congregation, and they could feel a stronger connection to their tiny community.

"By going to smaller units, we have seen increased activity and involvement," Pingree says. "It's been very successful."

Ignacio Garcia, a lifelong Mormon and history professor at Brigham Young University, is not so optimistic. He sees the number of Latino baptisms falling off and the retention of Latino converts a challenge. By some estimates, fewer than 25 percent of Latinos remain permanently active in the church. Some miss the culture and color of their Catholic background. Others yearn for the intensity of worship that seems missing among Mormons. And still others simply find the church demands too much of their time.

But the biggest problem Garcia sees for the church is its failure to develop Latino leaders.

"I have spent 50 years of my life in Spanish-speaking [LDS Church] units," he says. "Over the last three years, there has been less elbow room to develop and evolve. Anglo leaders have been more micro-managers. A lot of decisions are being made above the local level. They are not asking Latinos what they want, which is wrong, because a shepherd has to know his flock."

The church's system of using volunteer bishops and branch presidents and rotating them every five years has not produced a core of Latino leaders, Garcia says. "We have yet to develop a culture of continuity."

The immigration issue: Garcia is a faithful Latter-day Saint, but is troubled by the church's failure to speak out in defense of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are Mormons who come to Utah for religious reasons.

"If we are not conscious that our people are talking about immigration, drivers' licenses, racism and Minutemen, we are oblivious," he says. "If the church wants to have more success, they have to take a stand on the issues that matter."

Garcia wonders why LDS leaders are willing to speak out on same-sex marriage, but refuse to comment on immigration reform, which affects more people and is also a moral issue.

"People from outside see that so many of the anti-immigrant leaders come from the church," he says. "The church has been rather supportive of Latinos but has tried not to engage on this politically."

There has been pressure from some conservative Mormons to bar undocumented immigrants from the temple or being baptized, but the church has refused.

"Nobody talks about whether or not someone is undocumented," says Patricia Mask, the Lighthouse's Primary president who works with the children from 3 to 12 years old. "It doesn't matter."

Mask was born into the LDS Church in Mexico City, but moved to Utah about 17 years ago. She looks out on the children in her care and sees faces from El Salvador, Peru, Costa Rica and Mexico. Some are immigrants, others are U.S.-born. She feels a connection to them all.

The Spanish branch is where she wants to be.

"I started going to an English ward, but I couldn't give as much as I wanted," says Mask, who is fluent in English. "In our language, we can work and give everything."

pstack@sltrib.com

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