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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Mormon Church Is Actively Seeking Members Among Asians and Other Local Immigrants

August 18, 1994|MARY GUTHRIE and MATHIS CHAZANOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mormon missionaries Yu-Chudn Cheng, an emigre from Taiwan, and Tyler Charlesworth, a burly Utah football player, slip off their shoes in the entryway and pad through Alex Chen's Lomita home.

Within sight of a large image of Buddha, Cheng teaches about the Mormon church, showing Chen a series of charts, and gives him a Book of Mormon and pamphlets--all in Mandarin Chinese. Charlesworth doesn't speak Mandarin, so he studies his own church literature while Cheng teaches.

Cheng, who converted to the church as a teen-ager, believes so fervently in his calling that he traveled to Utah to learn English so he could bring the faith to Mandarin-speaking people in the United States during his mission. But conversion was not without sacrifice. Cheng says that after he became a Mormon, his parents told him he "was no longer their son."

Cheng and Charlesworth leave Chen with a promise to call again.

The missionaries spend six days a week combing neighborhoods in search of people willing to learn about the Mormon religion. About four or five people each month ask for information in Mandarin, a smAll sign of the larger trends that are remaking the church.

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.

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. Church membership worldwide has climbed from 5 million in 1982 to 9 million, according to church figures.

In Southern California, the trends have been mixed. The Mormon Church has seen some of its white membership age and retire to other regions of the country. But in the South Bay, the church has reached out to replace its departing white members with Latinos, Pacific Islanders, AsiaNs And others.

The church is organized into stakes, which 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.

Mormons in the South Bay are served bythe Torrance, Torrance North, Palos Verdes and Inglewood stakes. Church facilities house a variety of wards specifically for ethnic groups. On Sundays, wards use the facilities in shifts to accommodate services, Sunday school and leadership meetings.

South Bay Mormons worship each week in a church, but they must travel to West Los Angeles to the Mormon Temple for marriage and rites intended to seal spouses to each other and to their children in this life and for eternity. In California, the only other temples are in San Diego and in Oakland.

Although the weekly teachings are the same in every ward around the world, the church adapts by offering services in languages in use in local areas.

About 2 1/2 years ago, the Palos Verdes Ward established a Japanese branch that serves the families of Japanese auto manufacturers and others who want services in the language.

"It helps them to give them some reFerence point, to feel more accustomed to the American culture in general," said Mark Tateuka, president of the Japanese branch.

Recognizing the influx of Japanese-speaking people into the area, South Bay church officials asked for help reaching them.

"We have made a request to the mission president that we need the ability to communicate to them in their own language," said Martin Slater, president of the Torrance North Stake.

Another fast-growing segment of the church is Pacific Islanders. Titus K. May, 57, president of the Inglewood Stake, traces his roots to Hawaiian and Napoleonic royalty. Besides its English-speaking wards, Inglewood also has Tongan wards, where some men come to meetings in long robes and straw belts. Church officials say most of the Tongans converted on their home islands, where more than half of the population is Mormon.

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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 fall, and the church is planning to spend $4 million renovating the Hollywood Ward and the Wilshire Ward in Koreatown.

The church is also 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 six wards that worship in the Carson church include two Samoan units, a Spanish unit, a singles unit and two English units.

The Palos Verdes Stake has two English-speaking wards, a singles ward and Chinese, Japanese and Spanish branches.

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