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.
Congregants take any questions as an opportunity to spread the faith. Polygamy? Long outlawed. No tobacco, alcohol or caffeine? Don't do anything that harms the body. Romney? Good man, but the church leaders don't endorse candidates.
What is drawing more and more people? Family values, for one. Many cultures are attracted to the Mormon teaching that they can stay together not just now, but for eternity.
Haiti-born Milsaint Valcin and his wife, Rose Nora Saint-Hilaire, recently drove to the Mormon temple near Orlando for a sealing ceremony.
"You can marry at a chapel, but that's just temporal," says Valcin, who attends the Boynton Beach Ward. "When you marry in a temple, it's eternal."
Mormons take care of each other on this side of eternity as well. Valcin was converted in Haiti, then came to the United States in 2002. Church members helped him fill out a resume and looked up job postings in their companies.
"I couldn't ask for more," says Valcin, a substitute math and French teacher for Palm Beach County public schools. "The church members hugged me and helped me."
A strong work ethic is another aspect immigrants like about the Mormon faith, says Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies at Florida International University. "They also stand for abstinence, patriotism, respect for authority and church-centered life. And that has an appeal across ethnic boundaries."
Another secret to Mormon growth: constant missionizing. Nearly 55,000 youths volunteer their time — two years for men, 1 1/2 for women — to spread the message in nations as far flung as Ghana, Russia, India and Mongolia. The Fort Lauderdale Florida Mission has 140 of them.
The majority of converts likely are former Catholics, given the religious makeup of Haiti and Hispanic nations. But local Mormons also come from nearly every other group: Jews, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, mainline Protestants.
Jamaica-born Valda Giambri was attending a Pentecostal church 10 years ago when her sister first showed an interest in a local Mormon church. "I said, 'I'll take you there and go to my church,' " she recalls. "But I stayed and listened, and I never left."
Nowadays, whenever someone asks her about LDS beliefs, she always invites them to church at the Palm Springs Ward, which includes Pembroke Pines and part of north Miami-Dade County. "I tell people, don't take my word for it. Find out. Come. Investigate. Get the truth about it."
Yet all this growth has come with few of the adjustments other churches try, like ethnic foods or music. And members seem to like it that way.
"If I go to Hawaii and drop into a Mormon church, I'll see the same service," says Natalia Camargo, 23, leader of the young single adults group at the Cypress Creek Branch. "That's the beauty of it. All the wards are the same around the world."
In the Fort Lauderdale Ward, the 600 members include Haitians, Brazilians, Jamaicans and others. But their racial stance is spelled out on varicolored bracelets some of them wear: "One Heart, One Mind, Be One."
"It's hard to define what the cultural majority is," remarks Bethel, of the Fort Lauderdale Ward whose wife is from Japan. "We're all the same, just different shades of brown."
Says Terron, of the Cypress Creek Branch: "If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, then sits next to me in a temple, we'll still be equal."