AsianWeek, Andrew Chow And Evan Kelley Posted: Mar 27, 2002
Five years ago, three missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocked on Minh Mao’s door and invited him to learn more about their faith. Before that visit, “I had an idea of God,” recalled Mao, a native of San Francisco’s Sunset district whose parents — Vietnamese immigrants of Chinese descent — had reared him in Buddhist traditions.
Mao’s “idea” was strengthened through teachings in the Book of Mormon and the welcoming embrace of church members. Later that year, he joined more than 600,000 others of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage to embrace the teachings of this American-born religion.
“It changes the church’s image, of course,” Mao, 22 and executive secretary of the Latter-day Saints’ Mandarin Chinese-language branch at 1601 22nd Ave., said about the increasing number of API faces in the church. More than half a million people in Asian and Pacific Island nations were baptized as Latter-day Saints each year throughout the mid-1990s, according to church statistics. That figure grew to over 710,000 in 1999 and topped 750,000 in 2000.
No statistics are available to describe the ethnic composition of U.S. Mormon congregations, said Kim Farah of the church’s public-relations office in Salt Lake City. But with worldwide membership surpassing 11 million — more than half of whom live outside the United States — the diversity of languages spoken by church members reflects the impact of its multiethnic outreach.
Seven of the top 10 languages spoken by Latter-day Saints throughout the world are of Asian Pacific origin: Tagalog, Cebuano (spoken in the Philippines), Japanese, Samoan, Ilokano (another Filipino language), Korean and Tongan follow English, Spanish and Portuguese, according to the church.
That diversity is especially apparent in the San Francisco Bay area, where Mormon church branches include congregations that conduct services in Filipino, Samoan and Chinese language dialects.
It’s happening in other American cities as well: In Houston, two branches worship in Chinese and Vietnamese. In Portland, Ore., one branch preaches in Tongan. And in Salt Lake City — world headquarters for the LDS church and host city of last month’s Winter Olympics — five Tongan branches exist alongside those that serve Chinese and Japanese speakers.
But joining the church means more than just attending Sunday services. The Mormon lifestyle includes abstaining from alcohol, hot beverages and premarital sex, along with adhering to gender-specific family roles.
Being Mormon also means fending off criticism by some non-believers who persist in labeling the Latter-day Saints as a “cult” that propagates sexist and racist doctrines.
APA Mormons fervently dismiss those claims. “We wouldn’t have members in 160 countries if we were racist,” Mao said flatly, adding the inclusion of non-white peoples around the world into the Mormon fold “was happening early in the church’s history.”
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