This week in Mormon Land: Hanging on in Russia, Tongan growth in Utah, and apostle Bednar’s perfect hair

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Apostle David A. Bednar.

The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

This week’s podcast: ‘The Next Mormons’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Riess has a new book and research about Mormon millennials.

For months, Latter-day Saint leaders, scholars and rank-and-file members — not to mention a fair share of outside observers — have looked forward to the release of Jana Riess’ book about her groundbreaking Next Mormons Survey, a sweeping study of 1,156 members and 540 former members, young and old, male and female, across the U.S.

Well, that day is near. Her book, “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” comes out next week.

Riess, a Religion News Service senior columnist, discusses her findings — covering everything from changing orthodoxy, shifting politics, softening LGBTQ views and a surprise or two (think coffee) — on this week’s “Mormon Land” podcast.

Listen here.

A Tribune story also explores the “momentous” nature of Riess’ book.

“It is filled with rich insights, confirming some long-held assumptions about Latter-day Saints’ beliefs and behaviors but also illustrating where previous assumptions have gone awry,” David Campbell, a Notre Dame professor of political science, told the paper. “ … It is as though she created a Mormon MRI: able to see below the surface to understand what LDS folks really think.”

Read the story here.

Bad hair day? Never

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Apostle David A. Bednar.

To many Latter-day Saints, apostle David A. Bednar’s hair looks so flawless — always — it seems almost supernatural.

Granted, it’s not exactly a life-or-death issue, but it has become the subject of many a kitchen table or Sunday foyer debate among church members.

So, in a one-on-one interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday, senior religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack asked the 66-year-old Bednar what hair gel he used, since his coif is impeccable with nary a hair out of place.

“None,” Bednar replied. “You want to touch it?”

Then, with a good-natured grin, the Latter-day Saint leader tipped his head so Stack could see for herself that his tightly cropped hair was product-free.

End of debate. No gel.

Hey, inquiring minds wanted to know.

Tongan strength

Utah now has four Tongan-speaking stakes, ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com reports, after leaders formed the new Salt Lake Utah West Stake on Feb. 10.

A Provo area Tongan stake, meanwhile, boasts eight Samoan-speaking congregations, the independent website noted. So the first Samoan-speaking stake outside the Samoan islands may be coming soon as well.

Russian challenges

(AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin) People walk in Red Square decorated for Christmas and New Year celebrations, with the St. Basil's Cathedral, center, and the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower, right, in the background, in Moscow, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.

It can be lonely on the Russian front for Latter-day Saints.

Family, friends and neighbors sometimes shun them. Their government is suspicious of them (and their U.S.-based faith). And they number barely 22,000 in a vast nation of 145 million.

“One reason why I’m still in the church is I don’t have any other group to stick with,” a 31-year-old convert told The Moscow Times. “I was abandoned by my friends when I joined the church. I stopped drinking and partying with them; I changed my behavior. If I would leave [the church] right now, I would have nothing to do at all.”

But some members are leaving. Sterling Eric Ottesen, president of the Rostov Mission, attributes the departures to the increasing political pressures from Moscow.

“There was really a pop in the ’90s. By 2003 or 2004, it was tapering,” Ottesen told the newspaper. “Politically, things began to change.”

But the mission president believes the government’s ban on proselytizing — missionaries are called “volunteers” — has been, in some ways, a blessing: allowing them to focus on existing members rather than courting new converts.

President Russell M. Nelson announced plans last year to build a temple in a “major city” in Russia. At this point, though, that push may be more aspirational than operational. Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf visited Moscow later and tamped down expectations that a House of the Lord would be rising anytime soon in Russia.

The quest for a ‘safe space’

Under the new two-hour meeting schedule, the Gospel Essentials class is no longer seen as, well, essential.

But Cinco Paul misses it anyway.

“I loved that class, both being in it and teaching it,” he wrote in a guest column for Religion News Service. “Primarily because over the past year or so it had somehow evolved into something a little different.”

Paul said his Sunday school class — also dubbed Gospel Principles and generally aimed at new and potential converts — had become a haven for members struggling with their faith.

“We talked about the basics of the gospel, but on a more personal level,” the Hollywood screenwriter explained. “We also dealt with some of the thornier issues of church history, reading and discussing the recent church essays on gospel topics like “Race and the Priesthood” and “Mother in Heaven.”

If only, he pleaded, more classes offered such a “safe space.”

Remembering a Southern ‘Ellis Island’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint apostle David A. Bednar fist-bumps Michael Boulware Moore, president of the International African American Museum after announcing the church's $2 million donation to the IAAM museum at the RootsTech convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

Church outreach to the black community continued this week as the Utah-based faith donated $2 million to help establish a Center for Family History at the planned International African American Museum in South Carolina.

Latter-day Saint leaders are making “a concerted effort,” apostle David A. Bednar said, “to build a bridge back to Africa.”

The museum is to be built along the same Charleston waterfront where nearly half of all enslaved Africans arrived centuries ago before being sold as property.

The site is “ground zero” for so many slaves, Michael Boulware Moore, president and CEO of the museum, said. “We didn’t come through Ellis Island. Here’s a chance for African-Americans to have their own Ellis Island.”

The church also has teamed up with the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, on a schooling and jobs push on the East Coast.

This Cougar is out

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU fans and school mascot Cosmo look on as Utah holds a 35-0 lead over BYU in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, NCAA football at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015.

After years of celebrating 3-pointers, touchdowns and victories, BYU’s former mascot now is celebrating something far more personal: his identity.

Not just his name — Charlie Bird — but a secret he carried for much of his time as Cosmo the Cougar: He’s gay.

In a poignant coming-out piece for the Deseret News, Bird explained why he hid his sexual orientation during his 2015-18 stint as Cosmo.

“I was hyper-aware of what some of my peers said about the gay community, how they viewed same-sex attraction and the often unkind and insensitive words they used to describe LGBTQ people — people like me,” he wrote. “The same community that made me feel like a superstar [as Cosmo] often simultaneously made me feel broken, unloved and defective.”

Bird hopes his essay helps other LGBTQ members.

“I have somehow been blessed with an amazing platform where I can make my voice heard,” he told The Tribune. “I wanted to make sure I used that platform to give a voice to people who don’t have that same opportunity, and share a very real story of what many people are going through.”

Quote of the week

“You have a sense of identity; you have a sense of purpose when you know who you are and where you came from. And that has not been possible for many of African descent. So, to begin to fill that gap, it’s a marvelous thing.”

Apostle David A. Bednar

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.