Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

Race, Ethnicity, And Class
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

White members, mostly from the western United States, may comprise only 10 to 15 percent of all LDS New Yorkers, but with their experience and education, they dominate the high leadership positions, a fact some Latinos resent. The two groups also have different personal styles. To Hispanic members with their openness and food-related socials and a preference for visiting before and after meetings, Anglo Americans seem too business-like, even rude, leaving right after meetings. Joaquin Arcia of Nicaragua calls his branch his family. "We all speak as friends, with love. We try to serve one another when there is the need to serve someone." When Spanish speakers go to English-speaking wards, they complain that Anglos won't speak to them or sit by them. Samuel Victor Miera said he was "ignored." Stella Maria Abraham Vallota of Argentina described members who "were doing all the nonverbal behaviors . . . like raising their voices, opening up their eyes, and acting as if 'are you understanding what I'm saying?'" She complained that whites considered her foreign even though she was a well-informed American citizen.

Should ethnic Mormons attend racially segregated branches or wards? In 1992, there were at least 405 non-English-language wards and branches in the United States, more than half speaking Spanish. By 1997, the number had grown to at least 533, and two thirds were Spanish-speaking. Many bilingual young people attend with their families to retain their ethnic identities. Anoulone Viphonsanarath, a Laotian who joined the Church in northern Virginia, felt that the ethnic branches provided a necessary transition after conversion, but dealing with the cultural diversity of Southeast Asians was difficult. "We have Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese together. . . . Our languages are totally different. . . . It is not a big barrier. I don't think the problem is so big that it would stop people from going to church." A completely Cambodian ward was organized in Long Beach, California, in 2005.

How this ethnic segregation is to be dealt with remains a question. New ethnic congregations are organized as others are dissolved. Language difference is divisive. English and Spanish speakers smile and co-exist, reluctant to attempt conversations. Yet in five to ten years, this ethnic diversity will characterize every LDS area, even the Utah heartland. The 2000 Census found about 9 percent of the Utah population was Latino and posited that this was an undercount. Mormons in Utah have difficulty realizing how Latinized the state has become. Jorge Iber, who studied the Spanish speakers in northern Utah, found that by the 1990s, the missionary effort had led to the migration of thousands of Spanish speakers into the state, mostly from Mexico, many of them not Mormons. The migrating Mormons, however, had the advantage of instantly connecting with the most powerful institution and network in the state.

To acknowledge the change in ethnic composition, the Church staged a completely Spanish-speaking Christmas devotional in Salt Lake City in 2002. This first-ever event was so popular, with 13,000 in attendance, that it was moved from the Tabernacle to the much larger Conference Center. General authorities spoke, and a 500-voice, Hispanic choir sang. Ignacio Garcia, a professor at Brigham Young University, thought the event was "fantastic" and "long due coming." He welcomed the recognition that Hispanic Latter-day Saints are a "significant, growing population that isn't going away." Mike Martinez, a local attorney who wrote for the Deseret News, noted, "It's not about 'tolerance' any more, it's about 'acceptance.'" Chilean Ricardo Carvajal was delighted. "Whenever you see a thousand Hispanics," he said, "you know there are 10,000 more that would love to be there. We could have packed the place. But you know us," he joked. "We tend to arrive a little late to things-so late, sometimes, that we don't arrive at all." The speakers, including high Church officials, told personal stories and spoke Spanish, though some did not know the language. "I felt proud," said Carvajal. "I felt important. And I felt happy for those who will follow me. I can speak English, but I love to speak Spanish. And it was wonderful to hear the apostles speak Spanish. Next time, we might even hear some native Spanish speakers who are becoming our leaders in the church." Additional all-Spanish programs have been held since. "Luz de las Naciones," a celebration of Latino culture, was presented before 16,250 people in the LDS Conference Center in 2004.

Throughout the history of the Church, missionaries have gone out to preach the gospel. Sometimes the lineage identity of new converts has limited their opportunities in contrast to the Church's universalistic aims. But as Armand Mauss explains in his book, All Abraham's Children, as "the racialist framework ceased to be useful and began to encumber rather than facilitate the worldwide growth of Mormonism, it was gradually abandoned." The old teachings have never been officially repudiated; they just fell into disuse. By the end of the twentieth century, "early Mormon universalism once again dominated official discourse."

Since the beginning, the Church has attracted socially and financially disadvantaged converts. Early Latter-day Saint converts were drawn from poor farmers and factory workers. Today converts come predominantly from the lower-middle and working classes. In developing countries, Mormons are typically peasant families displaced to cities. With its promise of stability and transcendence, Mormonism appeals to poor and unsettled people who want to improve their lives. And the Church does help them; families that stay with the Church tend to rise. Habits of thrift, sacrifice, and diligence have helped members to enter the middle class.

The influx of converts means that in many congregations poor people mix with prosperous members. The rich are often very generous, but the tension between rich and poor is still a problem. In the scriptural ideal, the pure in heart live together harmoniously, all contributing their talents and labor for the good of all. In the Book of Mormon, the Church after Christ's visit to America held all things in common. In the city of Enoch, an example to the early Church, "The Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them." This utopian vision has been scripturally and practically presented to Mormons since early times, but attempts to live the "United Order," under which goods were equalized or held in common, have always failed. They may live the United Order someday. For now, they practice generous capitalism.

Some Mormons have condemned capitalism and its attendant materialism as ungodly. Hugh Nibley, a learned LDS scholar of the ancient world who took strong positions against worldliness and war, thought private property stood in the way of a perfect society. "Zion has [always] been pit ted against Babylon, and the name of the game has always been money- 'power and gain.'" The capitalists, he asserted, are not building up the Kingdom of God but only themselves. He noted that the Scriptures accept only one reason for seeking wealth: to help the poor. He saw the law of the marketplace marking an "expansive, acquisitive, brittle, untrustworthy, predatory society."