On Sunday at the Mormon stake near Alma School Road and University Drive in Mesa, five Hispanic boys dressed like missionaries in white shirts and ties fan out through the pews, bearing silver trays of bread chunks and water cups.
In the front of the chapel for this service of the Liahona Second Ward, a row of six church leaders are seated: The three to the left are Hispanic, the three on the right are white.
The white men are leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Maricopa Stake, which includes the Liahona ward, but they are a silent presence, leaving it to Bishop Pablo Felix to recite the sacrament in Spanish.
In this sacrament, the bread and water carry the same symbolism for the 151 people in the congregation as the wafers and wine of a Catholic Communion, and most are immigrants from heavily Catholic Latin American countries.
But they are part of the changing face of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mesa.
The city’s been heavily identified with white Mormons since it was founded almost 130 years ago by those pioneers.
Now, 11 of the city’s 67 Mormon wards and branches are for Spanish speakers, most of them formed in the last decade as the city’s overall Latino population has exploded.
Mesa’s 78-year-old Mormon Temple is now surrounded by heavily Latino neighborhoods, and this year three of the 10 Easter Pageant performances on its front lawn were done in Spanish.
Larry Winward, chairman of the pageant’s public affairs committee, says two Spanish performances have been added since he got involved with the pageant six years ago, and several hundred headsets are available every night to translate into the "other" language.
"On English nights, they’re usually all used," he says.
Hispanics see lives and morals reflected in teachings of church
Later in the Liahona Second Ward service, Nora Castañeda, who has been asked to speak this week with her husband and two children on the subject of perseverance, delivers a message of self-reliance and goal-setting to an audience mostly made of recent immigrants.
"You may say, I cannot graduate from university because I don’t know English. Well, you’d better start taking English classes. The first step we take links us to what we need to do," she says.
Translation to English is being done by her brother-in-law Juan Carlos Zazueta, who handles most of the ward’s translation needs.
In some cases Castañeda, who teaches English learners in Phoenix’s Creighton Elementary School District, is preaching to the choir here. Many people in the room already have college degrees, from Mexican or American schools.
Luis Pazos came to Arizona eight years ago from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas with his wife, Flor, and their two children.
He has bachelors’ and masters’ degrees in business and finance, but he’s now a custodian at Redbird Elementary School in Mesa.
"Sometimes it is very difficult to validate what you study in Mexico," he says.
Still, lack of opportunity forced them from their own country.
They converted to Mormonism four years ago, after they were visited by a missionary and impressed by the church’s moral stances against drugs and alcohol and being for family togetherness.
"This is not religion. This is reality," says Pazos, who with his wife have two young daughters born after they moved to the United States.
Don Evans, a spokesman for the Mormon church in Arizona, says the church is having more success right now winning Hispanic immigrants over as converts than it is gaining whites.
Usually when someone takes the plunge into a new religious mindset, "it’s a result of other changes going on in their lives," he says. "It could be if they’re changing a country or changing a neighborhood, they’re more open to change, period."
Since proselytizing efforts in Latin America have also gained traction over time, some Latinos immigrate to the United States after converting to Mormonism.
Castañeda’s family converted while she was growing up in Hermosillo, Sonora, and she says she and her husband, Rene, are among numerous "Mexican Mormons" drawn to Mesa by its reputation.
"I think a lot of the Spanishspeaking Mormon families want to come to Mesa because we know it’s a Mormon city, it has a lot of Mormon people. We want to be in a safe place," she says.
Once they arrive, many families find the Spanish-speaking wards to be the "safe place," and if they do switch to the English wards, they often come back, either because their children are losing their fluency in Spanish or they simply miss their friends.
Castañeda and her husband actually did make the switch for a few years, but mostly so they could learn more about American culture, organization and focus, to bring what they learned back to the Liahona ward.
Latinos "don’t talk to the point. We go around and around the point, and when we get to the end of the class we’re only in the middle," she says.
"We wanted to see how you can teach a whole lesson in 40 minutes."
Castañeda says one event designed to bring the groups together succeeds — to a point.
"We have a Hispanic Fiesta every year, and all the other wards come and they eat carne asada and tacos, and they come, they eat and they go," she says. "They don’t stay around for the dancing, or just to socialize."
Some Mormon leaders’ stance against illegal immigrants upsets Latinos
The political fight over illegal immigration and what to do about it hits close to home for Castañeda and other Hispanic Mormons. Some outspoken leaders of the immigration control movement are from within their own church, including Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, and other Mormon state legislators. Castañeda admits resentment toward Pearce and the other Mormon lawmakers who want to withhold benefits, including education, from immigrants.
The church and most of the members of the Liahona ward aren’t concerned with their legal status, she says, but she knows there are people affected by these policies, including youths who have the intelligence to go to college but can’t.
"We have kids who are going to graduate from high school or they’ve already graduated from high school, and these kids could go to ASU, they have the grades and the GPAs, and they’re working at McDonald’s now," she says.
Her own 20-year-old daughter is a biomedical engineering student at Arizona State University.
Pearce responds that the Mormon religion emphasizes respect for the law, and anyone who breaks the law or doesn’t do anything about those who violate the law are going against church doctrine.
"If you’re here illegally, what you have to do is go back where you came from and come here legally," he says.
Not all white Mormon leaders share his views. Jerry Lewis, the president of the Maricopa stake, which includes the Liahona ward, says, "I want them to feel comfortable in my home country, I don’t care if they’re legal or illegal."
Some immigrant Hispanic Mormons choose to attend Englishspeaking wards despite not being totally familiar with the language.
Feliciano Lagunas, a street maintenance worker for Gilbert, came to the United States 33 years ago, but he says, "I don’t speak very well" in English. It is actually his third language, as Nahuatl, an Aztec language, was his first and Spanish his second.
He lives in south-central Mesa with his wife, five of their seven children, his 81-year-old father, and five orphaned nephews.
"I go to the English service because the language is one my children grew up in, and they can get the word in English," he says, adding, "Usually, because the Mormon church is like a family coming together."