With his fair skin, all-American looks and prosperous air, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is just what we expect in a Mormon. But, in fact, the church has expanded far beyond its American roots. Increasingly, the religion’s real countenance is found in Mormons like Hughes Pierre Lamy, a Haitian native who preaches the gospel in a parish in Roslindale, a working-class neighborhood in Boston.
Lamy, 56, is the product of the church’s successful missionary work. He became a Mormon at age 26 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He now works as a Boston taxi driver during the week, and then leads the vibrant Haitian-Creole congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints every Sunday. His congregation is one of the fastest growing Mormon parishes in Massachusetts.
A missionary force
The Mormon Church’s worldwide expansion over the past 30 years is slowly changing the stereotypical image of lily-white Mormons. With Romney running for president, the church has sensed an opportunity to change its image. A recent survey by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life showed that U.S. Mormons feel misunderstood by the American people. The church recently spent millions of dollars running an ad campaign, which featured television commercials with members from around the world declaring, “I’m a Mormon.” The church is not just projecting an international image. Of the world’s 14 million Mormons, 8.5 million, or 60 percent, live outside the United States.
The Mormon’s missionary success is partly due to the fact that the church makes it such a priority. Young Mormons must go on two-year missions spreading their faith around the world, heeding the call from Joseph Smith, who founded the church and said that every man should hear the gospel in his own language. More than 52,000 missionaries, easily recognizable with their clean-cut looks, white shirts and dark suits, serve in 160 countries. The program was recently heralded in Business Week for producing millionaire businessmen, like Mitt Romney, who have learned successful business practices like perseverance and salesmanship by proselytizing in foreign lands.
There’s no doubt that the Mormons have a successful missionary model that’s helped the church expand. “The church is no longer an American church,” said Max Perry Mueller, associate editor of Religion & Politics, an online news journal at Washington University of St. Louis. “It’s multiracial and multinational. It’s a ‘United Colors of Benetton’ church.”
New faces, same church
Since the church is inextricably linked to its birthplace, the United States, all converts were once expected to make a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, where the church is based. Many converts immigrate to the U.S., which could be part of its appeal in the third world. The church also projects affluence, and for good reason. Not only are there many successful individual Mormons, it is also the richest church in the United States with estimated assets of $30 billion, more than all but the 30 largest U.S. banks.
If the faces and backgrounds of Mormons may be changing, it’s hard to see the impact on the religion itself. Unlike Catholicism and other religions that have adapted church rituals to accommodate new cultures, Mormon services are rigid and have not substantially changed. For some, this is appealing. “Faces may change, but the church doesn’t,” said Paulo Carvalho, 55, who converted to Mormonism in his native Brazil at age 14 and until recently presided over the 120-member Brazilian-Portuguese ward in Cambridge. “The church is perfect.”
Latinos and the politics of immigration
The fastest growing segment of the Mormon church is from Latin America. And as Latino Mormons immigrate to the U.S., the demographics of the church are changing even in traditional Mormon strongholds like Utah. This led to an interesting debate after a Mormon state legislator, Stephen Sandstrom, introduced a controversial bill that would direct law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, much like the law that passed in Arizona. He cited church doctrine to “follow the rule of law” in his decision.
Not surprisingly, this caused a backlash among Latino Mormons and Church leaders caught in the middle. It eventually endorsed a set of principles known as the “Utah Compact” that stated that “local law enforcement resources should focus on criminal activities, not civil violations of federal code” and opposed “policies that unnecessarily separate families.” But in a separate statement, the church also added that it acknowledges “that every nation has the right to enforce its laws and secure its borders. All persons subject to a nation’s laws are accountable for their acts in relation to them.” It will be interesting to see how this internal debate could influence Romney’s policy goals.
Still white at the top
This debate reflects a tension between the diversity in the church at the local level, and the leadership: white men still dominate the higher echelons of the church. This has caused some Mormons to call for a Latin-American or African to be named to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church’s second highest governing body. More than 4.5 million Mormons live in Latin America. “By 2030, the majority of Mormons are going to be Hispanics,” said Edson Reyes, 43, who converted at age 14 in his native Guatemala and became a bishop in Revere, Massachusetts, in 2005. “There will be a Latin American apostle one day soon.”
The Haitian ward
Meanwhile, the new multicultural Mormon Church is sprouting up from the grassroots. Hughes Pierre Lamy’s Haitian-Creole ward was created in 1996 with only 10 people, Lamy among them. Now they have 250 members. During the years Romney presided over the Boston Stake, which included several congregations and more than 4,000 members, he reportedly met with Haitian Mormons. Romney can speak French, which he learned during his mission to Paris.
On a December Sunday morning, women wearing their “Sunday best” and men donning suits and ties packed the chapel of Bishop Lamy’s congregation. Young girls wearing formal dresses and boys with suits and ties sat next to their parents or ran across the aisles. Like other Latter-day Saints bishops, Lamy is a layperson and doesn’t get paid for his religious work. Lamy took over the congregation a year ago. When he’s behind the pulpit, he feels fulfilled.
“I’m happy to have the opportunity to help my brothers and sisters,” he said. “ I’m happy to be a better brother.”