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COVER STORY : Mormons Reach Out and Grow

May 19, 1994|GREG MILLER and MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tony Henderson and Mikael Black, 20-year-old Mormons from Utah, remember trembling with excitement as they held their sealed letters from Salt Lake City summoning them to serve missions.

Both had taken three years of German in high school and thought the odds were pretty good they'd get to use it.

Then they opened the letters. Destination: Long Beach. Language: Khmer (the predominant language of Cambodia).

"I was kind of shocked because I didn't know there were Cambodians in the United States," Henderson said.

Now in the middle of their two-year missions for the church, they spend six days a week combing Long Beach apartment neighborhoods is search of Cambodians willing to learn about the Mormon faith.

Wearing white short-sleeve shirts with plain-print ties, Henderson and Black look for tell-tale signs of Cambodian households: rice embedded in lawns, tassels hanging from rear-view mirrors of cars, sandals stacked outside doorways.

Their objective, Henderson said, "is to help bring souls to Christ."

Once a homogeneous church best known outside its ranks for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Brigham Young University and the Osmond family, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is expanding and diversifying at a rapid pace in Southern California and around the globe.

Mormon church membership grew by 22% in the United States between 1982 and 1991, while some mainstream Protestant denominations reported declines of up to 40%, according to the National Council of Churches. Mormon church membership worldwide has climbed from 5 million in 1982 to 9 million currently, according to church figures. And for the first time in the church's 164-year history, half of the world's Mormons now live outside the United States, officials say.

In Southern California, the trends have been mixed. The church has seen some of its white membership age and retire to other regions of the country. But in Long Beach and other local areas, the church has reached out to replace its departing white members with Latinos, Samoans, Tongans, Cambodians and others.

Within the 4,000-member Long Beach East Stake, a Cambodian branch that didn't exist 13 years ago has nearly 800 baptized members and picks up 50 converts a year, Mormon leaders say. (Stakes are regional units of the church comprising congregations called wards, which typically have 400 to 600 members, and branches, which range in size from a dozen members to several hundred.)

A neighboring unit that covers the western section of the city, the 3,600-member Long Beach Stake, includes two Samoan wards, one Tongan ward, a Spanish-speaking ward and a Spanish-speaking branch. Only four of the stake's nine congregations are English-speaking. Robert Ward, president of the stake, said its membership was 95% white 40 years ago when he was a Polytechnic High teen-ager entering the church's priesthood. "We really are multicultural, and it's great," Ward said.

To keep up with the growth, the church has poured millions of dollars into its Southern California facilities.

Four years ago, the church opened a $4-million, 50,000-square-foot worship center at 228th and Main streets in Carson. The Huntington Park West Stake center is expected to open this summer, and the church is planning to spend $4 million renovating the Hollywood Ward and the Wilshire Ward in Koreatown.

The church also is purchasing an eight-acre parcel at 3000 E. South St. in Lakewood. Church officials say plans for the site may include a building that could house as many as eight congregations.

The recently renovated stake center at 3701 Elm Ave. in Long Beach is equipped to translate services and meetings into several languages. While leaders speak from the pulpit in the main chapel, Samoans, Tongans and Latinos in the audience wear headphones and listen to translators who sit in nearby rooms and watch the proceedings on television monitors.

The demographic changes are in striking contrast to a common perception that the Mormon church is a predominantly white church that has sought to stay that way. After all, the church denied its priesthood to blacks for more than a century until a "divine revelation" in 1978 ended such discrimination and opened the door to "every faithful, worthy man in the church."

But researchers say the common perception of the Mormon church is increasingly outdated.

Almost from its inception, the church began sending missionaries to Europe and to Mexico. Since then, the church has ventured into 149 countries, "every country that allows it to come in," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Santa Barbara-based Institute for the Study of American Religion. "Today, Mormons would be among the five most ethnically and culturally diverse churches going."

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