Tucson, Arizona — Spanish-speakers are fueling growth in the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which recently opened new worship space on Tucson’s predominantly Hispanic South Side.
Many local Mormon worshippers, like 47-year-old Juan Arroyo, converted to the faith from Catholicism while living in their native countries. Arroyo, a roofer who has four children, joined the church when he lived in Guadalajara, Mexico. He’s been in the United States for seven years.
“I was missing something, and my life changed greatly after meeting the missionaries,” he said in Spanish.
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Nationally, the number of Spanish-speaking congregations in the Mormon church grew by 64 percent between 2000 and 2006. There are 639 such congregations in the United States.
In Arizona, Spanish-speaking Mormon congregations more than doubled between 2000 and 2006. There are now 44.
Mormons are expected to go to church five hours per week, tithe and adhere to strict church bans against alcohol, tobacco, gambling and caffeine.
Those changes are difficult for some converts, but the faithful say what attracts them is the personalized approach of the church — congregations, known as branches or wards, typically don’t grow to more than 600 members. By comparison, many local Catholic churches have several thousand members led by one priest.
Also, the first point of contact for converts is often with Mormon missionaries who give prospective members individual attention.
“It’s not ritualistic, it’s personal,” said Janneth Ca’rdenas, 33, a local businesswoman and mother of four who was born in Bogota’, Colombia. Her family converted to the Mormon church from Catholicism when she was a baby.
In Tucson, the denomination’s first Spanish-speaking congregation started in 1960 but died out in 1974 and wasn’t resurrected until the 1980s. Now there are four congregations, called branches, with about 1,100 people.
Catholicism, with 67 million members in the United States, remains more than 10 times larger than the Mormon church, which has just under 6 million American members. Also, local Catholic officials are working at offering more personal attention to worshippers, particularly Hispanics.
Still, the National Council of Churches reports that Mormons are the second-fastest-growing faith group in the United States, adding new members at a rate of 1.56 percent per year. The fastest-growing faith group in the country, the council reports, is the Jehovah’s Witnesses denomination, adding new members at a rate of 2.25 percent per year.
The Spanish-speaking Los Reales Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints organized in 2002 when it had 10 active members and met in rented space. The branch opened its new and expanded, 6,892-square-foot worship space in January and now has 150 active members.
The new church is one of 15 worship buildings in the Tucson area that the Salt Lake City-based denomination owns. There is no church temple in the Tucson area; the closest one is in Mesa. There’s also one in Snowflake.
Tucsonan Richard Gomez, who was bishop for Spanish-speaking members of the LDS church during the 1980s, said the number of Spanish-speaking congregations does not give a complete picture of how Hispanics are adding to expansion in the local church, since many Hispanics prefer attending services in English. Also, some begin attending Spanish services as new immigrants and then move to English congregations as they assimilate.
“Lately we’ve had an influx of immigrants, even with the new law,” he said, referring to a new state law that punishes companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers.
Gomez, a retiree, was raised in the Mormon church while growing up in Monterrey, Mexico. His parents converted to the faith from Catholicism.
The church is growing quickly in Mexico.
Church officials say its presence there began in 1875 when Brigham Young, then denomination president, called on six missionaries from Salt Lake City to bring Spanish-language materials about the church to Mexico. In 1885, a group of nearly 400 colonists from Utah arrived at northern Mexico’s Casas Grandes River. Mexico’s first stake was created in Colonia Jua’rez in 1895. By 1912, more than 4,000 members had settled in Chihuahua and Sonora.
More than 1 million members now live in Mexico, a predominantly Catholic country with a population of about 108 million.
In the Tucson area, four of the 21 building permits issued for new chapels and churches between 2000 and 2005 were for the Mormon church — one in Oro Valley, one on the West Side, one on the Southeast Side in Rita Ranch and the one for the Los Reales Branch. The latter building is the most recent construction project the local church has undertaken.
The chapels are paid for by church headquarters in Salt Lake City. There is no fundraising, since members tithe 10 percent of their earnings to the church.
All members must live within branch boundaries. The west-east borders of the Los Reales Branch are Interstate 19 and Tucson Boulevard. To the north, the branch is bordered by Ajo Way; and to the south, by Los Reales Road.
But not all the Spanish-speaking members joined the church in their native countries. Four Mormon missionaries are working on spreading the faith to people who live within the Los Reales Branch boundaries, by preaching the Gospel, following up on member referrals and going door-to-door.
Historically, Spanish-speaking branches of the local church have had a higher conversion rate than their English-speaking counterparts, said Fernando Ahumada, president of the Los Reales Branch.
In the last five years, the local Spanish-speaking branches have baptized 382 converts, church data show.
Ahumada, 46, converted to the faith with his family while growing up in Nogales, Sonora. He said members of his branch come from a variety of countries, including Brazil, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
“Once you get a witness from the spirit that you’ve found the right church, it’s hard to turn your back to it,” Gomez said. “Our church is a very close-knit group. You join a congregation and you kind of become family.
“They know you, and they will find help and assistance in order for you to make a start here.”
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