Brazil Leaves Impression on LDS Church

A few miles from the sultry beaches of Ipanema and down the mountain from the beckoning Christus statue is a boxy brown adobe church. The two-story LDS Botafogo Ward sits amid high-rise apartments, bars and markets, within view of multi-colored shanties cascading down the hillside. Its believers worship quietly, oblivious to the constant whirring of ceiling fans and the amplified sermon of a Pentecostal preacher across the street.
Upstairs, children are swaying and gesturing to lyrics about temples or going on a mission. Their special clothing for the annual Primary program is uniformly white, but their faces are beige, bronze and ebony.
This is Mormonism Brazilian-style -- a blend of pragmatic theology (how to be good parents, how to get your kids to heaven) stories about visions and pioneers, American cultural traditions (such as sitting upright in folding chairs and listening quietly to sermons) and a well-ordered church structure, sprinkled with the intoxicating ebullience of Latin American spirituality.
And then there is color.
Down through the centuries, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Indian, African and Asian bloodlines crossed and co-mingled endlessly in Brazil. It was this genealogical brew, rather than the American civil rights movement, that helped lift the ban on black men being ordained to the faith's priesthood.
That momentous reversal in 1978 catapulted a Rio executive, Helvecio Martins, into the leadership ranks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the first black general authority. His son, Marcus, became its first black missionary.
Today, Mormons in Brazil are as abundant as the fruit-bearing trees and blue-winged butterflies in Rio's lush botanical gardens.
They number more than 800,000, more than in any country besides the United States and Mexico. Brazil has 26 LDS missions, more than Germany, Italy and Great Britain combined. One in 10 missionaries is called to this most populous South American nation.
That means nearly every Mormon in Utah -- from LDS First Presidency member James E. Faust, a missionary there in the 1940s, to the cashier at the old Kenji's Japanese restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City -- has some connection to Brazil.
William Grant Bangerter of Alpine even gave three of his children, born when he was mission president in Brasilia, the middle names Rio, Paulo and, yes, Brasilia.
Some, such as Eric Peterson of Ephraim, return again and again as an ongoing vocation and even dragged his parents there for Christmas. Others, such as Brigham Young University librarian Mark Grover, make it the center of their academic career.
The story of the faith's remarkable growth in Brazil is the unfolding tale of Mormonism itself, with its competing needs to push outward across the globe while holding fast to its center. It speaks of the faith's ability to adapt to new environments and diverse cultures, navigating through ever-changing governmental politics and policies. It points to the future.

It started with Germans: Mormon missionaries didn't arrive in Brazil until the mid-1920s, nearly 100 years after the church was founded in upstate New York, Grover explains in his comprehensive 1986 dissertation, Mormonism in Brazil: Religion and Dependency in Latin America.
For the next decade, LDS evangelism was directed exclusively at German immigrants flooding into Brazil after World War I. It was centered in Joinville, a Germany colony about 125 miles south of Sao Paulo. In 1931, the tiny branch of 48 women, 14 men and 18 children built a modest chapel, the first in Brazil.
Soon, though, Nazism was seen as a growing threat, and in August 1942, when German submarines sank three Brazilian ships, the Brazilian government forbade its citizens to speak German even in private meetings. The church called its missionaries back to Utah to sit out the war. After the war, missionaries turned their attention to Portuguese speakers who joined in droves. The Book of Mormon was translated into Portuguese.
But with those converts came the thorny issue of race.
Church policy forbade giving the priesthood to any man with African ancestry, no matter how distant. They could not officiate in the sacrament, preside at meetings, give their children priesthood blessings or enter the temple.
Missionaries were forced to become gate-keepers, trying to determine racial background through facial features or extensive pedigree charts, Grover writes. "They were encouraged to visit with relatives to examine family pictures."
After LDS Church President David O. McKay visited Brazil on his 1954 world tour, he shifted the emphasis to self-reporting. But that caused problems when people doing their own genealogy discovered African roots after having been ordained.
Apostle Spencer W. Kimball's 1965 assignment to oversee the LDS Church in Brazil may have set in motion an inexorable drive toward ending the ban.
Among the most devoted and visible black members was petroleum executive Helvecio Martins. He became the church's spokesman in Rio, giving countless interviews to explain LDS beliefs and doctrines and becoming the most recognizable Mormon in the nation.
After ground was broken in Sao Paulo for Brazil's first temple, several people saw Martins and his wife holding each other and crying in the unfinished sanctuary, Grover wrote.
And Kimball wrote in his journal about "shedding tears when he saw faithful members who would not be able to use the temple," says his son, Edward Kimball, who is completing a second volume of his father's biography.
On June 9, 1978, just months before the Sao Paulo temple was dedicated, Kimball, by then president of the LDS Church, announced that the priesthood would henceforth be open to "all worthy men," regardless of race.
Mormons believe Kimball had received divine revelation.
Says his son: "It's hard to avoid a conclusion that his experience in Brazil as supervisor and his observation of the faithfulness of black members certainly made a profound impression."

Just a slab of hamburger? The ward barbecue on a November evening near the upscale Barre de Juca suburb of Rio seems eerily familiar. The brick meeting house has the look of any Wasatch Front Mormon chapel, with its wood pews, classrooms, kitchen and gym.
Close your eyes and you could be in Bountiful, minus hamburger buns, funeral potatoes or Jell-O.
Instead, it feels like stepping into Trolley Square's Rodizio Grill, with its skewers of steak, fish, pork, chicken and sausage. The Relief Society sister offers water and insists on spraying mosquito repellent on bare arms and legs -- a matter of survival on a hot, humid evening.
Oh, and the kids play soccer, not basketball.
These members are largely doctors, lawyers and businessmen and women. They are attracted to Mormonism for its teachings about eternal families, its vision of God and Jesus, its unique scripture, the Book of Mormon and a contemporary leader whom they believe speaks with God.
But, like many new members from poverty-stricken areas, they also mention the church's social appeals -- friends, a close-knit, welcoming community and a boot-strap theology that promises constant spiritual progress in this life and the next. It helps members live a disciplined, family-oriented lifestyle.
"We were very, very poor," says Reinaldo Barreto, LDS mission president in Rio, whose family joined the church when he was 13. Since then, Barreto and his six brothers all graduated from college, served LDS missions and were married in the temple. They are now financially secure and in LDS leadership positions. "The gospel changed our whole lives, not just spiritually."
Some converts like Mormonism's lay clergy, which gives just about everyone a title and something important to do. It makes people responsible for each other as friends and role models.
Walmir Silva, a member for a half-century, has been a branch president six times, a bishop once and a counselor to the mission president in Rio. He now is a stake patriarch.
Others choose the faith's prohibition on smoking, alcohol, tea and coffee, clearly counter-cultural in a coffee-rich region.
"I got sick when I drank coffee. When I gave it up, I felt better," said Marcelo Alvarengu, who served an LDS mission to Japan and learned Spanish and English from his companions.
One final appeal, perhaps, is the church's connection to the United States. By any standard, Brazil is more pro-American than most other Latin American countries.
"Blond, blue-eyed missionaries are attractive to Latin American young people," says Francisco Jara, a Chilean journalist who is writing a dissertation on Mormons in Latin America. "Many young women fall in love with elders."
That doesn't mean, however, that Brazilian Mormons are mirror images of their U.S. counterparts.
Some even belong to the Workers' Party, which just helped elect the new president, Lula de Silva, says Warner Woodworth, a BYU professor who has done economic development in Brazil for decades. "They are not all conservative Republican Mormons."

On the religious margins: Brazil remains the most Roman Catholic country in the world; the faith claims nearly 80 percent of the nation's nearly 200 million residents.
The Catholic Church lives comfortably with other faiths, unthreatened when its members fold other religious practices into their lives.
The Rev. Edward Cleary can understand why some Catholics are drawn to the intimacy of a Mormon ward.
"Many Catholics, especially in the cities, feel the church is far from them because their parishes are so large," says Cleary, director of Latin American studies at Providence College in Rhode Island. "Sometimes there is one priest for 8,000 members. In some places it might be one to 40,000."
But Brazil's Catholic hierarchy is untroubled by the Mormon "sheep stealing," says Cleary, a Dominican priest who has been going to Brazil since 1967. "The bishops have, by and large, adopted a position of simply trying to take care of their own, by enlivening the experience for the core group of believers."
Mormons are "minor players" in a crowded field that includes mainstream Protestants and Evangelicals to Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. Many target the poor in the teeming shantytowns known as favelas.
And unlike Pentecostals, who jumped into electoral politics after 1985, the Mormons "are not offering any political challenges to the Catholic Church," Cleary says.
Pentecostalism is by far the most successful movement, enlisting a commanding 20 million members over the past 20 years with a combination of lively worship and the promise of healing broken bones and broken spirits.
Both are clearly evident in the 2,000-seat Universal Church of the Kingdom of God around the corner and down the street from the Botafogo Ward in downtown Rio.
At the end of a guitar- and drum-filled service, ushers in white shirts, ties and dark pants (looking a lot like Mormon missionaries) pass out contribution cards and sell Christian music CDs.
Dozens of believers line up at the front of the air-conditioned auditorium to speak personally to Pastor Isaias, a youngish man wearing a well-cut navy pinstripe suit, pink shirt and black tie adorned with a gold key on a chain. As they wait for just 15 minutes, they see a baptism, a healing blessing and an exorcism of a distraught young woman kneeling, moaning softly and rolling her head, while Isaias' female assistant calls on the dark spirits to leave her body.
"I don't know much about Mormons," Isaias says through an interpreter. "I preach the son of God, Jesus Christ, who died to take the devil away from people."
Most of his members come from African Spiritism, not American groups like Latter-day Saints, he says. "Our people want divine healing. It's evidence of God."

Holding onto the flock: Though the LDS growth rate in Brazil is impressive by U.S. standards, "revolving door" baptisms continue to be a major problem for the church. According to several Brazilian leaders, the LDS activity rate here is between 25 percent and 35 percent. That means for every three or four converts, only one stays.
Silva, an elderly member of the Botafogo Ward, thinks the problem is simple: proximity to the white-groomed sands made famous by Antonia Carlos Jobim in "The Girl From Ipanema."
They are always seductive, he says. "It's one big temptation."
But that's too easy.
Some new members drop out because they don't have bus fare to get to church. Many can't read, including up to 40 percent of Brazilian returned missionaries, according to one church estimate.
Or they feel the church hasn't met their expectations of a job and a new life. The wards and branches sometimes are like dysfunctional families, with overwhelming social needs and too few capable male volunteers to staff the all-male administration. Men make up less than one quarter of the converts and only a small percentage stay active long enough to fill administrative positions.
And many of those who do serve as bishops, stake presidents and area authorities are unusually young, says Marcus Martins, who interviewed nearly 200 church members for his 1995 dissertation, The Oak Tree Revisited: Brazilian LDS Leaders' Insights on the Growth of the Church in Brazil.
The majority of these leaders are between 20 and 40, with little leadership training, Martins says. And they must work hard to connect with the members, many of whom are in a different social class.
Some may be lost to the sheer challenges of geography in a country that is nearly as big as the continental United States. Chapels are far apart and travel on public transportation is arduous.
It takes three days by boat and three days by bus for many northern Brazilians to travel about 1,500 miles to the temple in Campinas, an hour outside of Sao Paulo. With a few days of temple rituals and six more days to get home, many people are forced to take their entire annual vacation to fulfill that obligation.
"Some walk the whole way," says Sadayosi Ichi, the temple president. "It is a big sacrifice."
And that's why some people hang in there, trying to make Mormon values and practices work.
Take food storage, the LDS teaching that members should have a backup of staples for any emergency. In Utah, the church encourages a two-year supply.
But what about poor favelas, where living conditions are spartan at best?
"Home storage is not about money or space, it's about faith," says Jeannie Mingorance, a Sao Paulo Relief Society president who has been featured on the Brazilian version of "Oprah."
Mingorance has an expansive alphabetical, color-coded storage unit that she's been working on for 30 years. Shelf after neatly organized shelf displays such items as heart of palm, rice, beans, chocolate mix, garlic, zip-lock bags, oil, spices, batteries, vitamins, candles, matches, a radio, china and first aid gear. Many items have to be preserved with garlic and dry ice.
"Every time you have rice or beans, take one spoonful and put it in a can," Mingorance tells the poorest women. "It is a joy when you can do it, spoon by spoon, not kilo by kilo."
This is the kind of trust that transforms Mormon converts into true believers.
Erika Gomes, a teen wearing a white T-shirt that reads, "Scooter Babe," strolls confidently to the podium in her tiny LDS branch in Bangu, about an hour's drive from Rio.
Her topic today is charity, she says to a nearly empty chapel.
"People who don't have food or housing, we need to help them," she says. "We need to have compassion for every son and daughter of God."
The mostly women and children in the congregation, who live in what would be extreme poverty in the United States, nod their heads in agreement.
The next speaker is Gomes' mother, Edna Gomes.
"If the prophet is asking us to go to a different country on a mission, do you have the courage to go?" she asks, gazing out at people who may never have been to downtown Rio, let along another country.