Mormon ranks in Florida growing — and diversifying

By James D. Davis

Sun Sentinel (MCT)

Published: Sunday, July 8 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Milsaint Valcin and his wife, Rose Nora, stand in front of their Mormon Church in Boynton Beach, Florida, Sunday, June 17, 2012. The predominantly white Mormon Church is attracting Hispanics, Brazilians and Haitians to its membership ranks. (Scott Fisher/Sun Sentinel/MCT)

Scott Fisher, Mct

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It's an old question, but Fred Bethel says he still gets asked: How can an African-American like himself be part of the Mormon church, a religious group that waited until 1978 to allow blacks to become leaders?

His response comes easily — because of what the church is today.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing dramatically, and it is increasingly diversifying in South Florida, with a mix of Hispanic and Caribbean members.

"I don't dwell on what the church has done," says Bethel, a member of the Fort Lauderdale Ward, or congregation. "I look at what the church is now, and what it can become. The church is saying, we're having a party and everyone's invited."

From 2000 to 2010, Mormons increased by 45.5 percent — from 4.2 million to 6.1 million, according to the latest U.S. Religion Census, compiled by statisticians every decade. In southeast Florida's three stakes, or local districts, officials count about 12,150 members in 27 wards.

The Miami Lakes Stake, covering south Broward and Miami-Dade counties, is about 60 percent Hispanic, according to stake president Albert Benzion. The village of El Portal has a Spanish-speaking ward mostly from Central America: Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

More than 35 percent of new members in the Pompano Beach Stake, from north Broward County to West Palm Beach, are Latino, according to its president, William Current. Coconut Creek to West Palm Beach has concentrations of Creole-speaking Haitians.

"The further we go in South Florida, the more diverse the congregations become," says Donald Anderson, president of the LDS Fort Lauderdale Florida Mission, which takes in the five stakes from Sebastian to the Keys. "They've made the church a wonderful melting pot."

Translation is one of the few adaptations the Mormons will make. If people need to hear Creole or Spanish, there are wards for them. If needed, the church will even find a translator in American Sign Language for the deaf.

"We will teach the gospel in any language they understand," Benzion says.

Enrique Terron serves that purpose in the Cypress Creek Branch, translating for mission teams. He also helps with a Mormon summer camp for teens near Orlando.

Terron was baptized in Mexico City, then joined Mormon circles in the United States. He now attends the Cypress Creek Branch with wife Alma, two daughters and a son.

"When we came to Florida, the first thing we did was look for a church," he says. "It's the best way to avoid problems like drugs and gangs.

"The (LDS) Church has different people, but wherever you go, they raise their children the same."

One of the newest Mormon chapels is a small white building in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Formed in December, the chapel houses the Cypress Creek Branch, a subdivision of the culturally diverse Coconut Creek Ward, which includes Jamaican, Haitian, Brazilian, Mexican, Filipino, Polynesian, African-American — even Canadian members.

Other signs of growth: A Mormon temple, for special rituals and teachings, was dedicated in 1994 near Orlando — and South Florida leaders broke ground for one in Davie in June 2011.

The Fort Lauderdale Mission reported 6,100 baptisms from 2000 to 2010. It now claims nearly 18,000 members.

What's more, the rate is speeding up, Donald Anderson says: 440 baptisms so far this year vs. 250 in the first half of 2011.

As the presidential candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney has ramped up, so has public interest in his religion.

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