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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Diversity Amid Devotion : Mormon Missionaries Seek Asian Americans as Church Sheds Its All-White Image


Steve Richardson recalls feeling more puzzled than excited when he opened his missions service letter from Salt Lake City.

The 20-year-old Texan had no qualms about his assignment--telling Chinese people in the San Gabriel Valley about the Mormon gospel.

What perplexed him was the language he had to speak: Mandarin.

"I didn't even know what Mandarin was," Richardson said. "I knew what Chinese was but I didn't know the dialects. The whole thing was pretty new (to me)."

Fourteen months into his two-year mission, the boy who grew up learning Spanish in Alvin, Tex., now speaks, reads and studies Mandarin daily in his Alhambra apartment. He and his partner, David Wells, 20, of Utah, know enough of the language to share their beliefs about Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon with much of the Chinese American community.

Dressed in the standard Mormon missionary outfit--white short-sleeve shirt and plain-print tie--the two spend six days each week roaming through Alhambra and Monterey Park, looking for Chinese homes to visit and hoping to win some souls for the church.

"After a while, you just figure out which doors are Chinese or not," Richardson said. "You look for shoes, Chinese signs on the door, characters."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--a once-homogenous entity best known outside its ranks for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Brigham Young University and the Osmond family--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 the San Gabriel Valley and other areas, the church has reached out to replace its departing white members with Latinos, Chinese, Koreans and others.

Such 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."

The San Gabriel Valley has about 26,000 members among its seven Mormon "stakes," which are based in Pasadena, Arcadia, Glendora, La Verne, Covina, Hacienda Heights and Walnut. Stakes are regional units made up of congregations called wards, which typically have 400 to 600 members, and branches, which range from a dozen members to several hundred.


Although whites still make up a majority of Mormon membership in the valley at 78%, the proportion of Spanish-speaking followers has climbed to 20% and speakers of Asian languages to 2%, said Brad Foster, president of the Arcadia Mission, and Reid Gunnell, Foster's assistant.

A more significant figure that Foster and Gunnell turn to is the ratio of converts. Just two years ago, 70% of new converts in the valley were white, 25% Latino and 5% Asian, Foster said.

Now whites make up half of those converted, 35% or 40% are Latino and the rest are Asian, Foster said.

And among Asian Mormons, those of Chinese origin lead the flock.

There were no Chinese-language services in the valley 13 years ago. But in the summer of 1981, church leaders commissioned Chinese American members to form the first branch in Rosemead, where services and programs are held in Mandarin. Two others have since sprung up in Hacienda Heights and Arcadia; Koreans also have a branch in Hacienda Heights. Vietnamese Mormons join the Chinese in Rosemead for Sunday services.


"At that time, they saw a need," recalled Charles Chen, who served as president of the Chinese branch in Rosemead when it first opened. "Regardless of how many members . . . they just told me to go ahead and organize one. After the second meeting, we had 20-some people.

"We have grown quite a lot. Every time we have 100 members, we split out to a different branch."

Gunnell also sees potential growth among the Chinese.

"The Chinese people, a lot of them are interested in our message," Gunnell said. "They come from a very different background, from the standpoint of religion."

To keep up with growth, the church has poured millions of dollars into its Southern California facilities, erecting a new chapel in Duarte and renovating other buildings in the valley.

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