Nearly two years ago, John Glade arrived in Sacramento with a determination to save souls.
So on a recent Sunday afternoon, Glade focused on the man in front of him and asked if he cared about his ancestors.
Efrain Morales replied yes, as the missionary hoped he would. Glade then handed Morales a genealogy card and told him that if he completed it, the church would research his ancestry.
The offer of free family-tree research is a standard part of the missionary work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In addition to the talk about heritage, Glade and his partner Sevak Tsaturyan visited with the Morales family for nearly 45 minutes in the couple’s Fair Oaks apartment. They promised to return soon.
The pleasant persistence of Glade and Tsaturyan – and others like them – could be one reason the Mormons are one of the fastest-growing faith groups in the country. The church has been particularly successful in Sacramento – the region is now No. 1 in LDS conversions in the country, according to church officials.
Now it’s time to build a home.
After years of planning and wrangling with local officials, church members finally will break ground Sunday on a 17,500-square-foot temple, the first of its kind in the area.
“Sacramento has become a model mission,” says Val Christensen, a member of the Seventy, a high-ranking church group based in Salt Lake City. He added that the genealogy cards have been very popular here. “People in Sacramento have been very open to our message.”
The temple will be built on 42 scenic acres near Highway 50 off Folsom Boulevard in Rancho Cordova. Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will speak at Sunday’s groundbreaking. Hinckley, who is 94, rarely appears at groundbreakings.
The 90-minute ceremony is by invitation only. Most of the 80,000 church members who are expected to use the temple will watch via closed-circuit broadcast at 192 congregations, or local worship centers, from Red Bluff to Stockton.
“We’ve waited so long,” says Gloria Beus, 45, of West Sacramento. “Our prayers have been answered.”
Not everyone is pleased with the new temple. Frank Cirill, founder of the Lake Natoma Community Task Force, opposed the new building and is unhappy with the final plans, especially the 131-foot-high steeple. “Our primary concern is the steeple, which we feel is too high,” he said. “And the traffic. Highway 50 is already bad.”
The growth of the church in the area is changing more than the physical landscape of the community. LDS members are influencing everything from the hours at an Elk Grove food bank (the food bank was going to close Saturdays until LDS members volunteered to staff an extra day) to the battle over how the theory of evolution is taught in Roseville’s high schools.
“Which portion of my faith shouldn’t influence my decision?” asked Dean Forman, board president of the Roseville Joint Union High School District. “Shouldn’t one be influenced by one’s values, ideals and so forth?”
Forman, a member of the LDS church, supported the teaching of arguments against evolution in the public schools. The proposal did not pass.
The push for a social agenda troubles other board members. Jim Joiner believes that the district should stay away from social or moral issues.
“We spent 17 meetings dealing with social issues instead of things like overcrowding or test scores,” said Joiner, vice president of the board. He adds, however, that he believes individuals – not the church – are pushing a social agenda.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the closing prayer had just ended when hundreds of young singles – all dressed in their best – filed through the church doors. Some gathered in small groups to chat. Others paired off. And still others headed to choir practice.
The Folsom ward is one of nine in the Sacramento area that serves young singles only – many of them with marriage on their mind.
“It’s the best way for young singles to meet other young singles,” said Dennis Holland, a church spokesman. He then added jokingly, “So they can get married and have children who also go to church.”
This is an example of both how well the church is organized and how it stays focused on growth. According to the National Council of Churches, Mormons, with 5.2 million members in America, are the nation’s fifth-largest Christian denomination.
Every month, about 150 people join the church in the Sacramento area, according to Christensen.
Some dispute that number.
“If true, that would be amazing. But the Mormon church is not known for its truthfulness when it comes to reporting their growth,” says Richard Packham, president of the Ex Mormon Foundation, a nonprofit group made up Mormons who have left the church. “And how many of those converts are still with the church a year later?”
The church in the Sacramento region, like the Mormon church everywhere, is run on the local level by lay members. No one is paid a salary – not the bishops who oversee the churches or the staff. Most of the volunteers are retired, but some work full-time jobs and still devote several hours a week to their church.
“Why do we do it? Because we love it … and also that way, the money we tithe can go to the church and not to pay salaries,” says Elvira Anguiano. Her husband, bishop of the 10th Ward, works almost every night of the week. She puts in almost as many hours.
The LDS church also has a strong emphasis on public service. Many LDS members hold public office. U.S. Rep. John Doolittle, R-Roseville, is a member of the church, as are the mayors of Elk Grove, Roseville and Rocklin.
“There’s never been any kind of grand announcement that this is what we should do,” says Sophia Scherman, the mayor of Elk Grove. “We just know that we should be active in the community, and holding office is an extension of that.”
Scherman’s ward, or church, is one of many throughout the area that are growing, particularly in areas such as El Dorado Hills, Rocklin and Loomis. But some of the biggest growth is seen in the ethnic wards. There are now LDS meetings for Latino, Tongan and Hmong immigrants.
At the 10th Ward, off Franklin Boulevard in south Sacramento, hundreds of Spanish-speaking immigrants attend the weekly services. “We’ve grown about a third in the past year,” Anguiano says.
Experts who study the church say this follows patterns seen elsewhere.
“The church has always done well with people in transition, especially immigrants,” said Dr. Richard Bushman, professor emeritus at Columbia University and author of “Building the Kingdom: A History of Mormons in America.” “They like the church’s focus on family and its tight-knit community. It makes them feel part of a larger family.”
Many of the new converts – as well as longtime members – are looking forward to using the temple. Mormons will continue to go to their local chapels for Sunday worship. The temple will be used for the most sacred ceremonies of the church – among them sacred ordinances for those who have died and eternal marriage “sealings” that connect families beyond the grave. Currently, members from the Sacramento area travel to the Oakland temple.
Only church members in good standing can use the temple. (The Sacramento regional temple will be open to the general public for about a month after it opens in 18 to 20 months.)
That Gordon Hinckley would appear as at the temple’s groundbreaking is a reflection of how important the Sacramento area is becoming to the LDS church, say church officials.
Mormons believe that Hinckley, as Prophet of the Church, receives revelations from God and acts under His direction. “He’s as important to us as the pope is to Catholics,” says Holland.
Because of community concerns, church members scaled back the size of the temple. But their goal of saving souls for the church remains.
John Glade, 21, left his family in Salt Lake City for two years so he could serve as a missionary.
He worked part-time jobs so he could save $10,000 (missionaries must pay their own way) to work 12-hour days without a salary.
Missionaries are not allowed to call home except on Christmas and Mother’s Day but are required to write to relatives once a week. They do not watch TV, read the newspaper or go to movies. Glade lives in an apartment with Tsaturyan and three other missionaries. Every day is planned out from the time they wake up at 6:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. when they go to bed.
“At this point, we’re servants,” Glade says. “We’ve given ourselves totally to him.”