CARY – When people ask Carlos Calderon his religion, the last answer they expect is Mormon.
“They can’t make the connection,” said Calderon, 41, a native of the Dominican Republic and president of the Spanish-speaking Mormon congregation in Cary, near Raleigh. “In some people’s minds, this is a Utah-based white people’s church.”
Once a predominantly U.S.-centered religious institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become international. Of its 12 million members worldwide, more than half, 6.4 million, live outside the United States, the majority in Spanish-speaking countries.
Calderon, who was baptized into the faith as a teenager, is one of an estimated 144,000 Spanish-speaking U.S. Mormons. At the first service of the new Cary congregation in May, members wept in joy over speaking their native tongue in church.
Over the past six months, eight Spanish-speaking Mormon congregations, also called branches, have organized in North Carolina. These groups, typically between 25 and 150 people, are made up of people introduced to the faith in Mexico, or Central or South America, and others who were baptized into the church after migrating to the United States. Also attending are U.S. native Mormons who enjoy speaking Spanish.
Across the country, there are 482 Spanish-speaking Mormon congregations of various sizes. California leads with 138 Spanish-speaking congregations, followed by Texas and Utah with 48 congregations each. In addition, the church has 2,800 missionaries serving Spanish-speaking people in the United States.
These congregations give Spanish speakers the chance to assume leadership roles they may have been reluctant to take, said Harry J. Maxwell, president of the Apex stake, or church geographical region. Throughout the world, Hispanics have taken on leadership roles in the Mormon church.
“You have a number of experienced men and women,” Maxwell said. “The language inhibited them from being a full part of the church.”
Many Hispanics are attracted to the Mormon church because of its emphasis on family. The family lies at the core of Mormon doctrine, which teaches that marriage is ordained by God and that families live on in eternity. Spirituality is another draw.
“They have a deep and abiding belief in Jesus Christ,” said Dan Mabey, mission president for the Mormon church in Eastern North Carolina.
Mormon Scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, teach that Jesus visited North America soon after his resurrection and preached his plan of salvation to inhabitants of the Americas.
That connection to native people appealed to Calderon, 16, who read the Book of Mormon in his native Santo Domingo. His family converted in 1979.
For these and other reasons, the Mormon church has experienced phenomenal growth.
In 2002, for the first time, the Mormon church passed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as fifth-largest denomination in the country with 5.2 million members, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. (Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists and Church of God in Christ represent the top four.)
North Carolina is no stranger to that growth. Membership in the church nearly doubled over the past 20 years, from 29,512 in 1980, to 56,000 today.
But the opening of Cary’s Spanish branch, the smallest unit in the Mormon church, was exciting for families who had sat through English-language services listening to Spanish translations on headphones.
For Fiorella Guerra of Cary, the new Spanish congregation will allow her children — Maxwell,10, and Arisha, 6 — to talk to other Spanish-speaking Mormons. “Our children will now have the opportunity to speak their language, have role models and socialize among Latinos,” she said.
Even U.S.-born Mormons were thrilled. Cindy Arriagada, 26, who was born in Los Angeles to Salvadoran parents but speaks English like a native, said she wanted to be part of a Spanish-speaking congregation.
“I grew up going to church in Spanish,” said Arriagada. “When I pray now, I … pray in Spanish.”