LAIE, Hawaii – The royal palms start near the sea, sweeping up the boulevard like a river, past bountiful yellow hibiscus, to the blazing white temple that shines from the misty mountains like a beacon.
Several changes are under way here in Laie, a little town on Oahu’s north shore that serves as the Hawaii center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But none are more striking than those that created this view, at a cost of $5.5 million.
Since late last year, a church-affiliated property management company, Hawaii Reserves Inc., has been renovating the wide avenue that leads to the Mormons’ showcase Hawaii temple. Termite-infested Norfolk pines have been replaced by more than 70 royal palms. Stout lamps have been added, carrying the eye up the terraced reflecting pools. Then there are the new roundabouts, which when fully planted by the end of the year will burst with color.
“The idea was to take the aura of the temple grounds and extend it,” R. Eric Beaver, president and chief executive of Hawaii Reserves, said of the beautification of Hale Laa Boulevard. “That was one of the objectives, to have the eye focus up to the temple.”
This renewal and the several other church projects undertaken here were all conceived separately but are coming together at the same time. The visitor center at the temple’s entry gate has been gutted to add interactive kiosks and updated displays. It is scheduled to reopen in January with what church officials hope will be an all-encompassing spiritual and educational experience.
Brigham Young University-Hawaii, the 2,500-student campus here, is preparing for its 50th anniversary next year with extensive new landscaping. And construction is expected to begin in 2006 on a $30 million, 228-room hotel that will replace the decrepit 49-unit motel next to the Polynesian Cultural Center, a church-owned theme park that is one of the state’s biggest visitor draws.
The renovations were needed in any event to freshen aging and in some cases unattractive facilities, but church officials are also hoping they will bring more of Hawaii’s six million visitors a year through Laie (pronounced lah-EE-ay) and possibly into the Mormon fold.
“We’re hoping people will come out and see the beauty of the temple and maybe wish to go into the visitor center, because it’s more open now, it’s more welcoming,” said Jack Hoag, a church spokesman. “It’s a campaign to educate the non-Mormon world about who we are and what we stand for. Maybe it’s planting a seed that 10 years from now takes root.”
Explaining their beliefs is central to the mission of the Mormons, members of a proselytizing church. The church does not have growth targets, said Dale Bills, a spokesman in Salt Lake City, but its 55,000 missionaries around the world have won no fewer than 250,000 new members a year for the last decade. The denomination, according to the 2004 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, is now the nation’s fifth-largest, with 5.4 million members, nearly 62,000 of whom live in Hawaii, where they are almost 5 percent of the population.
The visitor center in Laie is one of 22 that the Mormons maintain around the world to educate people and dispel misconceptions about the church – for example, Mr. Hoag said, that Mormons are not Christians or that they practice polygamy, which the church disavowed in 1890.
Members lament the fear and sense of mystery that the church sometimes instills in others.
“I would love to hear what the bus drivers say: ‘Don’t go in there! They’ll try to trap you!’ ” said Ralph L. Cottrell Jr., director of the visitor center. “Some of them just go by slow, or they stop, but they don’t open the door.”
Mr. Cottrell said he hoped that the center’s overhaul would double its total of 100,000 or so visitors a year.
Tours of the temple grounds are also offered, though non-Mormons are not permitted inside the temple itself. Those on the tours can request more information, or a visit from a missionary, back home.
Some who did not have time the other day for the tour of the temple grounds said they knew little about the Mormons but would like to know more.
“They make the news a lot,” said Don Benedyk, a cruise ship passenger visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center. “They’ve got a lot of polygamy issues. And their football team is real popular. They have a good passing game.”
The Mormons have a strong presence in the Pacific – the highest per capita membership of any country can be found in Tonga – and Hawaii has played an important role in their history. In 1865, the church bought 6,000 acres in Laie as a gathering place, and the temple, dedicated in 1919, was its first outside the United States. (Hawaii did not become a state until 40 years later.) The first Chinese and Japanese converts, according to church literature, were most likely found among Hawaii immigrants who took the faith back to their countries.
Laie itself might be considered a little Provo in the Pacific. The home of B.Y.U.-Hawaii has some of the trappings of a typical college town: Domino’s Pizza, a launderette, a bank. But no alcohol is sold, and stores are closed on Sunday. And instead of Blockbuster, students rent movies from Clean Flicks, which edits them first for profanity and impure content. Dating couples can grab an ice cream sundae after visiting the local cinema, where a sign in the window says, “Quality family entertainment is always our first priority.”
The town’s main tourist draw, the Polynesian Cultural Center, was opened in 1963 to provide jobs to students and is now host to roughly 900,000 visitors a year. Many of them see something special here, church officials say.
“It’s just the experience of being in Laie,” said Mr. Beaver, of the property management company. “At the cultural center there’s no overt proselytizing, but people look into the eyes of these kids and there’s a wholesomeness. People feel a specific spirit here. If that sparks an interest in them to learn more about who we are and what we believe, that’s O.K., too.”