The Inland area offers opportunities and challenges alike.
California had been a state less than one year when several hundred Mormon settlers arrived in the San Bernardino Valley in 1851.
Today more than 72,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, making Mormons one of the largest groups of non-Catholic Christians in the region.
“There has been a lot of growth all across the area, and it has come largely among ethnic members,” said Keith Atkinson, LDS spokesman in Los Angeles.
The church is one of the fastest growing in Riverside County. Membership there grew 18 percent during the 1990s, according to the American Religious Data Archive and church data. As of 2005, the church had a membership of about 38,000, Mormon officials said, a 31 percent increase since 1990. Fifteen new wards, or congregations, were established in Riverside County between 1990 and 2000. The archive, based at Penn State, compiles membership data supplied by congregations every 10 years.
Although four new congregations formed in San Bernardino County during the 1990s, membership declined about 4 percent to 36,936, according to the archive. Church data show county membership at 34,800 this year. The decline is due largely to the closure of Norton Air Force Base and the departure of defense contractors, said Daryl Carlson, president of the Redlands Stake. LDS wards are organized into stakes by geographic area.
Membership has been growing recently, however, Carlson said by phone, particularly with the opening of the Redlands temple in September 2003. Many Mormons want to live near a temple, where marriages are sealed for eternity and baptisms and other ordinances are performed, he said.
For example, the Redlands Stake split in half last year when membership reached 6,000, creating separate Redlands and Yucaipa stakes. Members of the Yucaipa Stake plan to build a stake center within the next few years, he said.
The LDS church is becoming more diverse globally, and that is especially true in Southern California, Atkinson said by phone.
The two counties have 22 wards or branches — congregations that are smaller than wards — composed of Spanish-speakers or members from Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii and local American Indian tribes. There also is a ward for hearing-impaired members and others for young adults.
“It’s a representation of all the world … like our heavenly father’s kingdom,” Atkinson said.
The church encourages mothers to stay home with their young children, Carlson said. But rising Inland home prices are making it more difficult for families with one income to buy a house, a trend that could affect church growth, he said.
“There’s a lot of pressure on younger families with the cost of housing,” he said. “Sometimes it forces young families to areas they can afford. … Everybody is seeing some movement toward Yucaipa, Beaumont and Banning because of housing prices.”
Some LDS churches have found it difficult to build in rapidly growing areas, challenging the ability of churches to serve their members and communities.
Some cities have building requirements or long approval processes, Atkinson said. Others want to please every neighbor, a process that requires design changes and long delays.
Plans for a church in Running Springs were delayed this summer when a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge revoked the building permit, siding with residents and environmentalists concerned about the impact of construction on plants and wildlife. An environmental study is under way and will be completed within a year, church officials said.
In Temecula, some residents appealed the May 2004 city Planning Commission approval of a 24,287-square-foot church, citing concerns about traffic along Pauba Road. After months of meetings and design changes, the City Council approved the project in October.
“This is a growing issue no matter where we build,” Atkinson said. “People don’t want any more traffic. They don’t want you around even though one would hope a religious edifice would raise the quality of dreams and hope in an area. That’s unfortunate.”
The church has its detractors, he said, although opposition from some evangelical Christians to the temple in Redlands has quieted.
“When we go to build a temple, whenever there is any evidence of the church growing, that is among our detractors cause for alarm,” he said.
Amy Strong, 32, a lifelong Mormon in Mentone, said she knows there are some who do not consider Latter-day Saints to be Christians.
The church is focused on Jesus Christ, she said. “It makes us sad when people challenge that.”