In the name of Dios: Mormon missionaries bring urban Hispanics, Catholics into the church
Traditional greetings—“buenos dias” and smacking kisses, one on each cheek—sound out over the organ music 22-year-old missionary Charisse Horn plays at a Sunday morning service in Logan Square.
A year ago, she’d never spoken a word of Spanish. Now, as one of about 35 Spanish-speaking missionaries in Chicago, she worships, gives testimony and reads El Libro de Mormon, or the Book of Mormon, all in Spanish.
“I remember what it was like when I first came,” said Charisse, who grew up outside Salt Lake City and moved to Chicago a year ago to serve in heavily Hispanic—and pretty heavily Catholic—neighborhoods on the North Side, like Avondale, Hermosa and Logan Square. “It was overwhelming.”
The number of the Spanish-speaking Mormon congregations in the U.S. has grown by more than 80 percent in the last decade, now up to around 700. A majority of these are in the southwest—home to plenty of Mexican-Americans– but more urban Mormon churches are also holding services in languages other than English.
“It’s indicative of the LDS efforts to reach out and pay more attention to inner-city locations where the population tends to be more diverse,” said Paul Reeve, religious history professor at the University of Utah.
In Chicago, Hispanics, which account for about a third of the population, make up more than half of converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as more missionaries are reaching out to inner-city populations in Spanish. About a quarter of the 32 congregations on the city’s North Side are Spanish-speaking.
“It certainly has grown more than ever,” said Sherman Doll, the president of the church’s North Chicago Mission. “Every place you go there are Spanish-speaking units, and this mission has a particularly high percentage.”
Doll oversees the 100-or-so missionaries who serve on the city’s North Side, including Charisse and her current companion, Roxanna Mendoza, a 21-year-old Peruvian-American whose parents converted from Roman Catholicism to join the church before she was born.
Charisse and Roxanna, pictured right, begin each day like the rest of the church’s 52,000 missionaries and the thousands that served before them, reviewing a little, white “missionary handbook,” going through thematic guide to lessons and reading passages from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which includes the teachings of the church’s later prophets.
They sit across from each other in particle-board desks. Their spartan Logan Square apartment looks like a dorm, with two twin beds in its only bedroom; lumpy, brown couches in the living room; and posters checker-boarding the walls. The posters, though, are of Jesus and Joseph Smith, not modern pop stars, and there are no laptops or TVs. Missionaries may use computers once a week to e-mail members of their immediate family.
A chart drawn out on a dry-erase board lists the families the two visit – Alaverez, Hernandez, Valero, Perez — and how far along they are in their lessons. Next to many of the names are baptism dates, a sign of Charisse and Roxanna’s successes.
“Most are Catholic,” said Roxanna, who left her studies at the University of Utah four months ago when she was called to the Chicago mission. “They believe in God, but they are very traditional and don’t want to change. For some people, it’s a hard thing to let go of.”
Hispanics in America are highly religious: nine in 10 identify with a specific religion, and more than two-thirds are Roman Catholic, according a 2007 report by the Pew Hispanic Center (available for download here). More so than whites, they live in an enchanted world, believe in miracles, pray every day and own religious objects, according to Pew.
But in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gone are the Stations of the Cross, the figures of the saints and the statue of the Virgin Mary. Missionaries say because Hispanics are more religious, they are more likely to take the time to listen to a quick lesson or pray with them, but they also have specific questions about how Mormonism differs from their tradition.
Ivan Aragon, a 25-year-old Mexican-American from Phoenix who served on the Chicago’s South Side, said simply greeting someone in Spanish can make them more open to what the missionaries have to say.
“Half of it is just the language,” said Ivan, a former football player at Arizona State University, who’s about 18 months into his two-year mission in Chicago.
Some fallen Catholics have latched on to the LDS teachings on the church’s modern-day prophet, revealed scripture and the plan of salvation, which includes realms where church members can be reunited with their families after death. These teachings resonate especially with large, close-knit Hispanic families and people who have recently lost a loved one, missionaries say.
“We think about what lesson would be most appropriate for each person, depending on what’s going on in their lives,” said Charisse. “We are not trying to change people, just add on to what faith they have already.”
Ivan worked with one Hispanic man living on the South Side of Chicago to quit smoking (teachings by the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, ban drinking and smoking). Through daily prayer, Ivan said he led the man to be baptized as a member of the church.
“He had grown up Catholic and hadn’t really attended church,” said Ivan, whose parents both converted to the LDS Church in Mexico as teens. “We were teaching him about the origins of our church… telling him there’s a prophet on the earth today, there’s revealed scripture.”
Like most Catholics the missionaries reach out to, the man had questions about how the church views the Bible, the Christian text he know best, and the Book of Mormon, filled with strange-sounding names: Alma, Nephi, Mosiah.
Both are used, the missionaries explain; the Book of Mormon is seen as a continuation of the Bible. Roxanna, in her lessons with people interested in the church, makes an effort to support church teachings with verses from the old and new testaments.
“It’s more familiar to them,” she said. Spanish versions of both texts sit stacked on her desk. On the wall by the door, she’s posted a sign with a verse from the book of Mark in the New Testament of the Bible, directing her and Charise to “Perdé Monos,” or lose yourself, in their work.