Carly Walker is like many teen girls.
She loves indie rock. She’s into cosmetics.
But when people find out she’s a Mormon, they ask her the same infuriating question.
“The first thing they say is, ‘Oh, don’t you have 10 moms?’ or something like that,” the 17-year-old Valparaiso High student said. “It gets really annoying.”
The mainstream Mormon church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hasn’t endorsed polygamy for over 100 years. But many local Mormons believe the public still associates them with the practice, thanks to shows like “Big Love,” about an extreme, polygamy-practicing Mormon family, returning to HBO in June.
“I just cringe when I hear things like ‘Big Love’ coming up,” said Michael C. Beeler, president of the church’s Valparaiso stake, the equivalent of a Catholic bishop.
He says polygamy is one of many misconceptions of the church, which he says some people mistakingly liken to a cult.
Beeler thinks the church’s relatively young age, compared to the ages of the Catholic and Protestant faiths, plays into that perception.
And then there’s the church’s secret practices, conducted in temples closed to non-Mormons.
“It probably causes people to wonder, ‘Gee, what goes on in there,'” Beeler said, adding. “There’s nothing mysterious about the temple.”
Some misconceptions are really far off, he said.
“People think we’re not Christians, or that we don’t believe in God,” he said.
But the church studies the Bible and has Sunday school classes for kids that are very similar to those of other Christian faiths.
Beeler hopes the right word will get out, with huge help from one very public figure — Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential hopeful is garnering a lot of press, much of it centered around his Mormon faith.
At the same time, the church continues to grow in Northwest Indiana. While still small in number — approximately 2,700, according to Beeler — Northwest Indiana’s current Mormon population is far larger than the 40 or 50 people who gathered in the mid-1940s at a Gary YMCA. The members meet at one of seven churches in the area. There are even Spanish-speaking services in Griffith. And unlike temple services, services at Mormon churches are open to the general public.
In a tight Republican primary race, where major figures like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are battling for the nomination, it is Romney who’s thus far raised the most money for his campaign — $21 million to Giuliani’s $16 million. He even has a TV commercial starting to make the rounds.
Romney, the son of former presidential hopeful George Romney, was elected governor in a primarily liberal state and is credited for transforming the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City into a major success. He was recently on the cover of Time Magazine, for a story that explored his faith, including his Mormon missionary work in France.
The LDS church does not officially endorse candidates, and leaders won’t make an exception for Romney, Beeler promises.
But several local Mormons regard him as an icon, and an opportunity.
“I think it would be wonderful to have somebody with such character and qualities in the Oval Office,” said 37-year-old Valparaiso resident David Matthews, an attorney for the Chicago-based fidelity bond group CNA Surety. “The more he’s putting his face out there, the more you see the face of Mormonism.”
Beeler predicts Romney will “bring a lot of exposure to the church, to the extent that it helps us talk about the misconceptions.”
“Sharing with people who we are is a very positive thing,” Beeler added.
Northwest Indiana’s LDS faction isn’t counting on one man to bring more attention to their faith.
In six decades’ time, the local Mormon population has grown, due in large part to persistent word of mouth. That includes door to door preaching, carried out by Mormon missionaries. Currently there are 24 people in Northwest Indiana in such positions.
Local Mormons range from people on welfare to doctors and lawyers, Beeler said.
George Barney was one of the few there from the beginning. His father, Burnes Barney, served as the region’s first Mormon bishop to oversee services in a public space.
Barney said the small flock gathered at the Gary YMCA on 5th Avenue, sitting on fold-up chairs. Today, there are seven churches for area Mormons to choose from, in Griffith, Valparaiso, Michigan City, Hebron, Rensselaer, LaPorte and Chicago Heights, Ill.
“It has really grown over time,” he said. “It’s tremendous.”
Beeler estimates that half of the current population are transplanted lifelong Mormons. The other half are converts, like Dyer’s Rudy Figueroa, a Guadalajara, Mexico, native and former Catholic who found his spiritual calling during a trip to Salt Lake City in the 1970s.
“The spirit of peacefulness in that area, it gets to you,” he said.
Figueroa quit smoking and drinking alcohol, both banned by the church, after his conversion.
“Once I made the change, people said, ‘Gee, Rudy, you used to be a jerk,’ ” he said. “I had too many bad habits and I started concentrating on the good stuff.”
Figueroa started reaching out to the area’s Hispanic community in the early ’80s. It took two decades, but the LDS’ Griffith church has a steady enough Hispanic following — about 55 members — that they started conducting Spanish-speaking services in January.
It’s something Figueroa is very proud of. But in comparison to other faiths and Mormon movements across the country, Beeler admits the growth is still minor in Northwest Indiana. In Valparaiso for instance, Beeler said a lot of people are already very loyal to their churches, limiting conversion possibilities.
Carly Walker, the Valparaiso teenager, says her faith isolates her at times. She avoids parties, where many teens drink and smoke. And sometimes people insist Mormons are polygamous, even when she tries to explain what her faith is all about.
But she acts like most teenagers. At a recent weekly gathering at the Valparaiso church, Walker is one of several girls in torn jeans and flip-flops, who gossips with her girlfriends.
In another room, teenage boys pledge allegiance to the flag during a Boy Scouts meeting. And in another, young children showcase model bugs they made out of wire and felt.
Walker knows some stereotypes and misunderstandings will continue. But she said she’ll try not to let it get to her.
“Some people are ignorant,” she said. “It’s their problem, not mine.”
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