Ventura County churches have 1,400 Spanish-speaking members
Bishop Roberto Quiroz arrived early to the chapel to help push back the folding wall that divides the sacred room from the gymnasium. He and others set out folding chairs to create an overflow room for guests of the first Spanish regional conference held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ventura County.
Minutes before the conference began, the chapel bustled with families. One little girl wore a name tag declaring her to be a “Futura Misionera,” or “Future Missionary” in Spanish.
Quiroz had dreamed of this conference for years, part of his vision of seeing the number of Latino Mormons in the county continue to grow.
Early into the gathering, however, the rows of empty chairs almost outnumbered those filled. The anticipation Quiroz had for greater numbers of people to attend showed his hope for the future, but it was tempered by the reality of a more slow, but steady, growth.
“It’s a dream of mine,” Quiroz said.
Across the nation, Latinos are increasingly being drawn into the Mormon church. In the past 20 years, their membership has quadrupled from 49,000 to 200,000.
Growth has also been seen in Ventura County, most notably in Oxnard where Quiroz presides. Three years ago his congregation expanded into a separate ward, the approximate equivalent of a parish. Church leaders expect to see the county’s first Spanish-language stake, a collection of five or six wards, within the next few years.
About 3,000 people would be needed to form a Latino stake in Ventura County. There are already about 1,400 members. The Los Angeles area has five Spanish-language stakes, roughly 15,000 members.
The values the church places on family, hard work and humility fuels the Latino inclination to join, experts say. Latinos are traditionally Roman Catholic, with almost 80 percent of Latin Americans belonging to the faith. For Latino immigrants who are paving a new future in the United States, however, a new country brings a chance to explore other spiritual routes.
The culture’s focus on family values parallels the principles taught by the Mormon faith, which appeals to Latinos disenchanted with their traditional faiths or seeking fresh spiritual guidance.
As the leader of Ventura County’s largest Spanish-language Mormon congregation, Quiroz embodies the dedication some area Latinos have taken toward the Mormon church. As bishop, Quiroz reserves as many as 60 hours a week for voluntary and unpaid church-related work. The church has no general salaried ministry.
Always on call
At his ward, he is known as Obispo Quiroz, a man who always answers cell phone calls and pays visits at homes of families who haven’t made it to church. His motto around the church is to “work, work, work” — at your career, on your family, within your faith.
“He’s everywhere,” said Gene Figueroa, a second counselor in Camarillo, a leader who presides over a general stake. “He’s the strongest person in this ward.”
Quiroz is in his office by 5 a.m. every Sunday sorting through paperwork and meeting with the church secretary about future planning. Elders and sisters come to report on their missionary work. Families stop by for guidance.
Tacked on one of Quiroz’s office walls is a street map of Oxnard, with yellow and red lines designating the boundaries of both Spanish-language wards.
Oxnard opened its first Spanish-language Mormon ward in 1978. Quiroz became bishop there in 1999. Three years later, the church split off a second Latino ward.
A trademark of the Mormon faith is the missionaries who dedicate themselves to spreading the church’s vision to the community. Missionaries work full-time for about two years with the goal of recruiting members of the community. Some missionaries visit different neighborhoods every day and go door to door.
About 26 missionaries who are fluent in Spanish do outreach in Ventura County’s Latino communities.
Among those working in the Oxnard area are Elder Kennington and Elder Reni, missionaries from Oregon and Utah, respectively, who have spent about one year in the county. During their missions, Kennington and Reni are addressed by their surnames. They declined to give their first names.
They trained in basic Spanish before beginning their missions. Both are in their early 20s and nearly fluent in Spanish after spending hours visiting Latino residents in Oxnard. They go to neighborhoods in Quiroz’s parish like La Colonia with the Book of Mormon translated into Spanish.
¿Es cristiano el mormonismo?
One of the things they share on their visits is the church’s belief that people are reunited with their ancestors after death, a theme that resonates with Latinos.
People join the church through various means. Some marry into it. Others hear about it from friends or missionaries, or find out about public events held by the church, like genealogical workshops.
Jose Ruiz joined the church 23 years ago after reading about Jesus Christ visiting ancient Latin American civilizations in the Book of Mormon. Ruiz has been a secretary in Quiroz’s ward for 20 years.
“It was what I read in the Book of Mormon,” Ruiz said in Spanish. “I didn’t have any idea there was a Book of Mormon.”
However, the strong focus on family may be the most important principle guiding some Latinos to the church.
Cristina Cardona, 28, belongs to the ward where Quiroz presides. She joined the church four years ago when she married Juan Jose Cardona, an 18-year member.
Since joining, she said she has learned to be a good wife and better mother, she said.
“They teach us how to achieve a more harmonious, more loving home,” she said in Spanish.
The next generation
Sitting on Cardona’s lap at a recent Sunday service was her 14-month-old daughter, Susan. The baby girl won’t be baptized into the church until she is 8, but Cardona is raising her daughter and son Joshua with the principles of the religion.
“She’ll get to decide if she wants to join,” she said, “but I think she will.”
Like many others, Quiroz came to the church through a friend. Born and raised in Mexico, he came to Oxnard at 17 and on his own. He worked in the fields, harvesting lemons, avocados, lettuce and celery.
After years in the county, he reunited with a childhood friend who introduced him to the Mormon church. He joined when he was 30. Within a few months he was introduced to his wife through the church. They married a month later. That was 19 years ago.
Noemi Quiroz, like her husband, is active in church activities and takes care of infants after Sunday services. She supervised the kitchen and other details during the Jan. 30 regional event.
Although the start was slow at the Spanish-language conference, more than 600 people eventually arrived. Quiroz had anticipated as many as 800 people.
The conference welcomed members and guests from Thousand Oaks to Santa Barbara. A flier advertising the conference and written in Spanish included “Bring your friends and family.” The conference was a dream Quiroz realized through his motto of “work, work, work.” “And of course he’s already talking about next year,” Figueroa said, “and he said, ‘Next year we’ll have 1,200.’ “