SALT LAKE CITY — Mormons don't need much imagination to think about what normalized U.S.-Cuba relations could mean for the LDS Church in the Pearl of the Antilles.
The thoughts of a mission-minded faith turned directly to missionary work in a communist nation with two small but growing congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One church member predicted on Twitter Wednesday the church would have missionaries in Cuba by the end of 2015. Experts say that's too optimistic. An LDS spokeswoman said it's too early to say how events will unfold.
"The church has, since its founding, been actively engaged in fulfilling Jesus Christ’s admonition to take the gospel to all the world," Jessica Moody said. "We are known for sending missionaries to countries where they are officially recognized and welcomed by governments. We work actively to build relationships of trust that we hope will open the door to better understanding and opportunities for missionary work. The message they bring is one of faith in Jesus Christ that strengthens individuals, families and communities.
"We currently have a few congregations in Cuba. It’s unclear what today’s announcements may mean for the future growth of the church in Cuba or how it will relate to missionary work in that nation."
Information about the church in Cuba has been considered sensitive until recently, said Matt Martinich, who studies LDS Church growth.
Elder David A. Bednar of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Cuba and dedicated it for the preaching of the gospel in February 2012, but that action wasn't reported until a single sentence appeared in the Church Almanac at the end of that year.
Five months ago, the Church News expanded on that information, reporting that Elder Bednar "blessed the country and its people and promised that the church would take root in the fertile Cuban soil."
That report was part of a story about Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's visit to Cuba this summer. On June 15, Elder Holland divided the Havana Cuba Branch, creating the second congregation in the nation, called the El Cotorro Cuba Branch.
A branch is a small LDS congregation.
“Although we are small in number, each member is precious to us, and Cuba is precious to us,” Elder Holland said.
Elder Holland visited the site of Elder Bednar's dedication, which overlooks Havana, and said “the promises of the dedicatory blessing are unfolding.”
President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that the United States is seeking to normalize relations with Cuba, including establishing an embassy there, came after secret meetings between U.S. and Cuban officials brokered by Pope Francis.
Reaction was mixed across the country, but Adalberto Diaz Labrada, who escaped Cuba in 2000 and now is a chef and co-owner at the Fillings and Emulsions Bakery in Salt Lake City, cheered the decision.
"I think it's going to change everything when it comes to the economy of the island," he told KSL NewsRadio. "And once you change the economics, the rest just comes one after the other."
Exchanging embassies, easing the economic sanctions of a 52-year-old embargo and allowing more Americans to travel to the Pearl of the Antilles doesn't automatically mean the LDS Church will quickly or easily earn official recognition in Cuba.
Still, Martinich said, "I think this might be the tipping point for the church to make the effort to send missionaries to Cuba and establish an official church presence there."
Though it is not registered, the Cuban department of religious affairs welcomed the church in 2004, when the first branch was established, and it and other faiths have helped the church find locations for worship.
Elder Holland also met with government officials in June.
That doesn't mean missionary work is likely to happen quickly, Martinich added. In recent decades, the church generally has moved meticulously before opening a mission in a country where it hasn't had one before.
"I wouldn't imagine a mission there for a few years," Martinich said. "What's more likely to happen is that, when and if Cuba gives the church official recognition, missionaries would be reassigned from another mission," such as one in the Dominican Republic.
Several websites have reported that a Cuban native from the Havana Branch served an LDS mission to the United States beginning in 2011. An LDS Church spokesman said Thursday that is incorrect.
That missionary, like several others, is Cuban but was no longer living on the island when his mission began.