Mormon congregations in Hong Kong unlike any others: They’re virtually all women, and they don’t just hold services on Sundays

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) LDS Stake Center and church Offices in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong • On the sixth floor of a modest 12-story high-rise dwarfed by gleaming skyscrapers, a dark-suited man stands at a familiar wooden podium, preaching the importance of tithing.

Members in his tiny Mormon congregation — including the branch presidency’s executive secretary, the branch mission leader, the Sunday school president, and all the teachers and clerks — listen with rapt attention.

Here’s the difference, though: Every person in the pews is an adult woman, and it’s Wednesday.

Welcome to one of the “everyday branches” in Hong Kong’s LDS International District, an example of the Utah-based faith’s pragmatism in action.

Unlike the typical Mormon ward, made up of men, women and children of varying ages and nationalities and which, with rare exception, meets on Sunday, these Hong Kong congregations cater to the needs of 1,000 or more LDS “foreign domestic workers” — a veritable army of women from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and other nations who tend the city’s children, clean houses and cook meals for six days a week.

Their Sabbaths are not the same because their days off are not the same. So The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established branches that provide the three-hour block of services on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays as well as Sundays. The branch president, a lay minister who must be a man, is the husband in a senior missionary couple, usually from the United States. Missionaries in the all-male priesthood bless and distribute the sacrament, or communion.

Once every three months, the Hong Kong LDS Temple (serving the city’s nearly 25,000 members) opens on a Sunday — unlike other Mormon temples — for workers who can attend only on that day.

This accommodation means that women take on roles normally filled by men in the all-volunteer staff.

They assist the branch president, keep track of money and direct proselytizing efforts. The Relief Society president, who supervises the faith’s female organization, essentially oversees the congregation.

Clearly, the domestic worker branches, says Stacilee Ford, an American and former regional Relief Society president, constitutes “the most gender-imbalanced entity of its type in the church.”

That makes the embrace of traditional Mormon teachings on gender, well, complicated.

Unlike most nannies in the U.S., many of these workers have husbands and children of their own back home. They nurture other people’s young ones, while being the breadwinners for their extended clans.

These women must find ways to “creatively but faithfully synchronize the complexities of their lives with church teachings,” Ford says, and “continue to find a range of ways to negotiate the gendered messages they hear over the pulpit.”

They live between “homes, nations and cultures,” she says, “constantly adapting and accommodating.”

They believe in the family, too, and some pine for the middle-class Mormon ideal, Ford says, but appreciate not being judged for coloring outside the LDS lines.

Tough choices

For decades, domestic workers have found financial benefits in Hong Kong, which by all estimates boasts the highest number of such laborers per capita.

They may be fleeing “high unemployment, corruption, poverty and familial stress in their own countries,” Ford, who teaches history and American studies at Hong Kong University, writes in a forthcoming anthology on global Mormonism.

These highly skilled and multilingual women earn many times more in China than in the Philippines, for example, and send home much of their income to improve the fiscal futures of their children. Many assume their stints will be short-term, yet find themselves caught in an impossible cycle. Unable to climb the economic ladder, barred from becoming residents and weighed down by employment loans, a relatively high percentage of these women spend years trapped in Hong Kong.

“It is fair to say that by any standard ... they are an exploited population, who earn far less than the Hong Kong minimum wage [about $500 U.S. a month],” Ford writes in her piece, and “work long hours, performing a range of tasks including child and elder care… dog-walking and shopping.”

They live with their employers, often in tiny apartments (sometimes the size of a Sandy living room), and sleep with children or in closets or bathtubs.

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Filipino LDS member Jhona Mbula and husband pictured on cellphone.

Filipina Jhona Mbula was a domestic worker for 14 years in Hong Kong, where she joined the LDS Church. She went there to escape her drug-using husband, who she worried might kill her.

“I couldn’t just separate from him,” she explains, “he would just chase me.”

Mbula believed finding work abroad (leaving her 8-year-old son in the care of her sister) was her only option.

Most of her Hong Kong employers were decent and fair, Mbula says, but one was brutally cruel.

She slept in a box in the kitchen, with all her belongings. She received meager portions for breakfast and lunch and had only the first taste of each dinner item because her boss feared she might be poisoning the family.

Through it all, Mbula, and many domestic workers, discovered a haven in the Mormon sisterhood.

Another foreign worker, Meldrid Lusterio, thought her job would be a steppingstone to office or company work, but learned only residents could gain such positions.

“Rather than finding professional success or an abundance of worldly treasures, I, like many of my sisters in the church, have found heavenly treasures that all of the money in the world can’t buy,” Ford quotes her as saying. “I found the restored gospel of the savior instead.”

In their LDS faith, many find similar solace.

A nanny sisterhood

While the bulk of the 300,000-plus domestic workers in Hong Kong (population 7.3 million) spend their days off in city parks and public spaces, their Mormon counterparts head over to the swanky, traffic-clogged Wan Chai area, where they become part of the sights and sounds of an American-looking set of LDS chapels on ascending floors.

Same fluorescent lights. Same pews and platform. Some Jesus art and a sacrament table. Hardly an Asian detail in sight.

There, they listen to speakers, discuss doctrine and fulfill all their religious obligations — such as one-on-one conversations known as “visiting teaching,” scripture study, missionary outreach, party planning and meal sharing.

Many arrive for worship “wearing casual clothes and carrying a change of ‘Sunday’ clothes — with grocery bags [evidence of earlier errands] and warm greetings for all they meet,” Ford writes. “They transform into fashionable and sophisticated women who accessorize and apply cosmetics with confidence.”

At church, some will “cook for themselves or a small group of sisters — a simple meal before the three-hour block begins,” the scholar notes, “while others have been deputized to help prepare a larger meal for all of the sisters to share after meetings conclude.”

These all-female branches produce “manifestations of charisma and creativity,” Ford writes, “that are rare or nonexistent in other LDS congregations in Hong Kong (and in North America).”

Women sometimes “sing part of their testimonies,” she points out, and offer candid glimpses “of their challenges with homesickness, culture shock, difficult living conditions and unkind employers.”

They bring a kind of theatrics to their worship.

“Choir numbers, skits, and dance performances weave gospel principles with joyful re-creation in often surprising ways,” she writes. “Decorations, costumes, mementos, and comfort food are important accompaniments that reflect how women express individual beliefs in accordance with their own cultural frameworks and circumstances.”

Re-enactments of early Mormon history (“complete with actual-scale representations of handcarts, jagged cardboard rocks, and imitation snow squirting out of bubble guns”), Ford says, highlight “parallels between past and present, connecting the survival of domestic workers, who are sacrificing for family and faith at great personal cost, to early Latter-day Saints.”

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Filipino LDS Missionary Shairyl Arago leads music as her companion Michelle Joy Rodriquez writes on whiteboard in an Everyday branch in central Hong Kong.

Emeliana E. Cayago has been in Hong Kong for a dozen years and relishes the chance to worship with other workers.

“This branch makes me feel more confident,” she says. “All my friends are here.”

Cayago sees herself as too shy to work in the mostly American and Chinese congregations, but, in the Wednesday branch, she boldly can be a missionary.

“We have found one investigator [potential convert],” she says with quiet pride.

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) LDS domestic worker Elsie Valdez talks about missing her family.

Elsie Valdez has four sons back in the Philippines.

“I never planned to go abroad, but my husband became disabled,” she says. “My husband’s sister takes care of them.”

She had to “close [her] eyes” to leave, she says, but did it for her kids’ education.

Valdez, who mentions that her eldest soon will serve a Mormon mission, is likewise comforted by her faith and common purpose with other workers.

“We draw strength from each other,” says Aurelia Cacayorin, who goes by Ling Ling and once served as a Relief Society president in a worker branch. “It feels like we are a family.”

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Aurelia Cacayorin also known as Ling Ling talks about her experiences as a former Relief Society president of a domestic workers branch.

Costs of the arrangement

Despite such apparent benefits to the women, not everyone favors isolating domestic workers in their own branches.

“We don’t group members by race or socioeconomic status,” says Beau Lefler, a Mormon business professor at Hong Kong University. “It’s horrible. It seems so stunting.”

He believes the women should be integrated into family congregations, where they can interact with older members, youths and children.

Lefler is also critical of what he views as the church’s failure to fight for worker rights.

“So many people in church love these women,” he says. “Members offer good pastoral care, but they have no appetite for political solutions.”

He wishes that the church would use its “political strength to fight the underlying problems.

”Other churches,” Lefler says, “do better.”

A couple of Mormon brothers-in-law decided to help the workers on their own, rather than push for the church to do it.

In 2012, Scott Stiles, with his finance background, and David Bishop, a lawyer-turned-university-lecturer, launched an independent nonprofit called the Fair Employment Agency to counteract corruption in the money-lending system for helpers.

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) David Bishop (left) and Scott Stiles discuss their nonprofit Fair employment agency.

The plan is to “beat exploitative employment agencies at their own game with a new kind of agency,” they explain on their website, “one that is fair to workers and fair to employers.”

The two are determined to lift burdens for these laborers, Bishop says, and not just at church.

“These women are empowering themselves and their families,” Stiles adds. “They should be hailed as heroes.”

Should they leave?

Some LDS authorities have suggested that the domestic worker system is “unnatural” — and that they should go home.

But if all Filipino “helpers and maids” left, Hong Kong “would grind to a halt,” warns Astrid Tuminez, a senior business executive in Singapore and a former Relief Society leader in Hong Kong’s LDS International District.

Besides, what awaits them in their native lands?

“Pennilessness and a life without dignity?” Tuminez asks. “No. I supported these women’s ambitions [during my time in China]. Still, they needed to be educated on financial management and entrepreneurship and self-esteem. Too many were abused. Too many did not ... know or have their voices.”

As Latter-day Saints, Tuminez argues, “we need to empower them, not make them feel more guilty. And we need to train the men back home to be better fathers and caregivers.”

On that score, Jhona Mbula is a pioneer.

She is back in the Philippines, got an annulment (divorce is illegal there), married a Mormon doctor in the temple and has dreams of studying social work.

Mbula took the church’s self-reliance training, which helped her save and be smart with her money.

Her willingness to work in Hong Kong gave her a better future, she says. “It’s all part of God’s plan for me.”