Luis Cruz grew up in the Catholic tradition that his parents taught him in Chiapas, Mexico. But when he came to Phoenix more than three years ago, he developed a spiritual void that the Catholic Church was unable to fill.
“During the course of a whole year, I could not find a single church here,” the 33-year-old landscaper said in Spanish. “I didn’t know where there were masses. I couldn’t find a Spanish church that was nearby.”
That changed when a woman he knew in Mesa invited him to come and meet with two missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The meeting was the catalyst for his eventual move to Mesa and his conversion from lifelong Catholicism to Mormonism.
“What really impressed me about (the missionaries) was that they didn’t speak badly about other churches,” he said. “They speak to you about Jesus ... They speak to you about the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. It’s the same thing they do in the Catholic Church. The only difference is that in the Catholic religion, there are saints.”
Mesa, which was incorporated by Mormon pioneers in the late 1870s, is often thought of as a conservative, white LDS-dominated community. But as the Hispanic population continues to grow, some newly arrived Mexican immigrants are abandoning their traditional Catholic roots for the Mormon faith.
At the beginning of 2002, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints only had five congregations within 10 miles of downtown Mesa that offered services in Spanish, said Elder Wilford Andersen, a church official who oversees LDS affairs in the Southwest.
Today, that number has more than doubled to 13 Spanish-speaking congregations throughout Mesa.
“I think that the church is growing among all populations, but the Hispanic population has grown fairly dramatically in Mesa and in Arizona and throughout the Southwest,” said Andersen, a Mesa resident. “It reflects the general Hispanic growth in our area.”
The growth in Spanish-speaking membership is also reflected globally. According to a church spokeswoman in Utah, the largest growth in membership from 1995 to 2006 occurred in South America. Membership there has soared to more than 3 million, making the continent’s membership the second highest in the world after the United States. The number of Spanish-speaking congregations in the U.S. has also seen the biggest increase compared with any other foreign language. Between 2000 and 2006, the number of Spanish-speaking congregations grew from 389 to 639.
The church, like most others, does not ask about immigration status when it invites people to join its ranks. But those in Spanish-speaking congregations say it’s likely there are many illegal immigrant members. Pablo Félix, bishop of the Liahona Second Ward in Mesa, said he cannot be sure about his congregation, but he suspects between 60 percent to 70 percent of the members could be here illegally.
Cruz admits he is one of them, and the friends he’s made at his church are in the same situation.
“There are many (in the church) that don’t have their papers,” Cruz said in Spanish. “Sometimes someone will ask me, ‘Hey, do you have your papers?’ And I’ll say ‘no. I’m like you — an immigrant.’”
STRENGTH IN FAMILIES
The shifting demographics in Mesa are clearly having an impact on the increased Hispanic membership.
Félix has witnessed this growth firsthand. His family converted to Mormonism when he was 17, and one of the things that drew his mother to the faith was that the religion has a family focus not dissimilar from the family values most Hispanics already uphold. In Hispanic cultures, there is often a strong connection to the extended family and a major emphasis on self-sacrifice for the sake of the family unit, he said.
“As a whole, the Hispanic culture is a culture of us, the family, and not of individuals,” he said. “You do things for the family. Generally speaking, in the United States, it’s a culture about you, me, the individual.”
The Mormon church prides itself on its family-oriented nature. Mormon families are historically large, and the church suggests families participate in a traditional weekly event each Monday called Family Home Evening. That’s when parents are supposed to turn off their phones, come home early and spend time with their children.
The night typically consists of singing hymns, teaching religious lessons and playtime.
LDS members believe that a married couple and their children can remain together as a unit permanently after death. In order to accomplish this, however, the family must participate in a ritual performed in a temple that they believe “seals” together the family for eternity.
The church also urges all its members to do genealogical research on their relatives. Through that research, members can determine which relatives have not been baptized in the church. Living descendants are then baptized as proxies for their deceased kin so their loved ones can find salvation years and even centuries after death.
At the Félix household, framed black-and-white photos tracing the family roots back to Mexico and Colombia line the walls. Altogether, they estimate they’ve baptized by proxy 200 of their family members.
“A lot of the families (that seek to join the church) are struggling with their kids,” said Pilar Félix, Pablo Félix’s wife.
“They want more structure. They want their kids protected from the streets. When they come for the first time, they come as a whole group,” she said.
Unlike some other Christian denominations, the LDS church has a visible presence in Mesa and in many parts of Latin America. There are humanitarian efforts and a constant flow of missionaries.
Young men — and some young women — serve two-year missions in foreign countries or non-English-speaking neighborhoods in the United States. They go door to door wearing their traditional button-down white collar shirts with black name tags and carrying church scriptures.
In Mesa, there are about 14 Spanish-speaking missionaries who venture into often poor areas and make appointments, according to the Tempe and Mesa missions that serve this area.
“Latino people are very open, meaning that if missionaries go out and go door to door, they can get in and teach,” said William “Tracy” Watson, the president of the Arizona Mesa Mission.
“They have a natural respect for people considered religious clergy,” Watson said.
That is often the case even when Hispanics are not looking to switch religions.
One night last October, two Mormon missionaries drove to the Mesa Royal Trailer park where they had a 5:30 p.m. appointment with 53-year-old Alicia Espinoza, visiting some of her relatives. She led them into the small living room.
In Spanish, Elder Mario Sánchez asked her if there was anything specific she wanted to pray about.
“For my husband. My children,” she responded in Spanish and they bowed their heads. The elders opened the Book of Mormon, read aloud several passages in Spanish and discussed their significance.
After the meeting, the elders appeared pleased. Espinoza, they said, had told them she accepted the Book of Mormon.
But they didn’t know she was not prepared to abandon Catholicism, nor did she accept the book as truth. Still, it didn’t stop her from listening.
“I’m always speaking with them, but it’s not because I want to convert to another religion,” she said a week later in Spanish. “I converse with them. We exchanged ideas and all of that, but I am Catholic.”
While the missionaries could not change Espinoza’s mind, Félix notes that many Hispanics are open to discussions because Catholicism lays the groundwork for faith.
The increased number of Hispanic members would seemingly buck the longheld stereotype that the LDS church mostly consists of white, middle-class people, although that perception still resonates in Mesa. It’s a stereotype that some Hispanics have witnessed firsthand.
“We were out in the car and we waved to a lady,” recalled Elder Sánchez. “She was African-American. She stared at us because we’re Hispanic, and she walked up and asked if we were Mexican.”
“Then she said, ‘I thought Mormons didn’t like Mexicans or blacks.’ We chuckled and said, ‘The church is for everyone.’”
CONTROVERSY OVER UNDOCUMENTED
The church does not take a position on immigration and does not affiliate itself with interfaith groups that do take a stand. But that doesn’t mean that some prominent Mormon politicians haven’t, and that’s where things sometimes get sticky.
The most well-known of those politicos is Arizona legislator Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, a staunch opponent of illegal immigration who made controversial statements about a 1950s deportation policy during his re-election campaign last year and has referred to his hometown as a “third world country.”
Last year, immigration activists were angered that the church did not defend its Hispanic membership against Pearce, and Roberto Reveles, former president of the proimmigration activist group Somos América, accused the church of “proselytizing on one hand and persecuting with the other.”
Such controversy comes as no surprise in Mesa — a place where rapid growth of the Hispanic population has posed social challenges as the city grapples with its own cultural identity. For some conservative old-timers, the presence of illegal immigrants is a source of frustration, and some church members point to religious doctrine as justification for those feelings.
Ron Sirrine, the greatgrandson of one of Mesa’s founders, says that as a Mormon he is against illegal immigration.
“Mormon people are so grounded in patriotism and law-abiding that when we see illegal workers not conforming to what we feel are the ground rules, that is where the animosity comes from,” he said. “That’s your basic cancer.”
Like Sirrine, Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, also a Mormon, often references church doctrine when discussing her views on illegal immigration.
In addition to the Articles of Faith, which dictate that members must obey the laws of the land, she points to sermons made by a church apostle which say that people can be brought to God “without leaving their homelands.”
“I think that as an LDS person, we are absolutely taught to be honest in all of our dealings with ... the government,” she said.
Sirrine and Johnson both said they fear illegal immigration is eroding Mesa’s culture, and a certain degree of a similar fear also bubbles up from Hispanics as well.
Recently, Pilar Félix said, some Hispanics were upset when leadership in her church decided to merge the English and Spanish-speaking juvenile education programs.
Pilar Félix said the merger made sense because the English-speaking ward had more teachers than children, and the Spanish-speaking ward had the reverse. But it was not the English-speaking parents who protested — it was the Hispanics. But they are learning to accept the change.
“They didn’t like that,” she recalled. “They started saying (the English-speakers) would take our culture away.”
As a bishop, Félix cannot discuss politics. He admits it can be difficult to walk the line between the political neutrality of the church and his personal views. He is the son of immigrants.
“I think some folks have a way of thinking and doing things,” he said, speaking only for himself and not for the church. “It makes me sad in a sense because we are dealing with human beings.”
But he said he doesn’t let politics get in the way of his mission — to serve the people in his community.
“My job,” he said, “is just to help them become acquainted with Christ.”
The topic of immigration rarely comes up in conversation inside the church walls.
And when it does, Félix says he reminds the members of his congregation that all people — including Russell Pearce — are free to do and say what they please.