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Approximately 18,000 Mormons live in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties and attend any one of the 44 local branches and wards for services in several languages.
The branches and wards fall under geographical areas known as stakes. Miami-Dade is divided into the Homestead, Miami, and Miami Gardens stakes, home to approximately 10,000 Latter-Day Saints. Over the past two years, the church has seen a growing number of Haitians, as well as immigrants from Central and South America, join the church in Miami-Dade. The missionary concept is the foundation of the church's growth, and the practice exposes, for better or worse, some impressionable and heretofore sheltered young men to Miami's freewheeling social mores.
Seven days a week, from dawn to twilight, Dowse and Stevens crisscross the northeastern municipalities of Miami-Dade with the highest concentration of Haitian residents. On a recent April evening, the soothing, Celtic-inflected music of Enya emanates from the Malibu's CD player. During their mission, the elders are allowed to hear only uplifting music. They cannot listen to local radio or watch anything on television.
"It's something I've been looking forward to my whole life," Dowse says of his mission. "I wanted to do it voluntarily, not because of my family or tradition, but because I know our message is true."
The message is the Book of Mormon, what believers say is another testament of Jesus Christ. The book was written in 1823 by church founder Joseph Smith, arguably the nation's most influential and controversial native-born religious zealot.
Mormons believe Smith's audacious tale that God and Jesus appeared to him in the woods when he was a fourteen-year-old knave searching for the one true church. Smith told his followers the celestial father and son had ordered him to start his own church because all the other Christian religions got it wrong. For instance, Protestants and Roman Catholics believe God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one. Latter-Day Saints say the big three are separate beings who combine to form one mighty, powerful superbeing, kind of like Voltron.
Three years after his first spiritual awakening, Smith met another glorious apparition, the angel Moroni, an ancient pale-skinned Native American and prophet. Moroni dropped some more heavenly knowledge on Smith: God wanted him to bring forth new Scripture a set of gold plates containing an account of Jesus during a postresurrection visit to America, as well as a history of an ancient, Israelite people who arrived in the New World in the Sixth Century B.C. The plates were supposedly, some might say conveniently, buried in a hill near Smith's house in upstate New York.
Smith claimed he was the only human with the authority to read the new biblical text, which he translated from "reformed Egyptian," an unknown tongue, into English, using two seer stones. On April 6, 1830, Smith officially founded the Mormon church.
But Smith turned out to be a flawed prophet. After the Mormons were expelled from Missouri by non-Mormons, he and his followers fled to Nauvoo, Illinois. There he declared himself commander of the local militia, justice of the peace, and presidential candidate. By the end of his brief life, Smith had accrued some 30 wives, massive debt, and hundreds of enemies. He was only 38 years old when an angry mob killed him and his brother in 1844.
Nearly 162 years after Smith's demise, sacred temple rites, personal revelation, tithing, and a history of polygamy (which the church abolished in 1890) are Mormon characteristics directly attributable to its rabble-rousing founder. So is the LDS church's emphasis on high moral standards, strong family ties, and community service.
The Mormon tenets and characteristics are personified by the elders, who go out into the world to preach the LDS church's teachings. Often it is up to young men like Dowse and Stevens to address misconceptions and confusion about being Mormon, a sect that has been dissected, debunked, and even ridiculed in mainstream culture, most evident in a South Park episode in which show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone skewer the religion. The elders also face day-to-day scrutiny and skepticism from other Christians. Most Christian denominations don't consider Latter-Day Saints to be true Christians.
"A lot of people think we have five wives or that we worship Moroni," Stevens says. "Some Haitians think we're CIA because of the way we dress and because we can speak their language. It's pretty funny.
"There are a lot of rumors and gossip about our church. But we are more than willing to talk about it and explain it."
Each elder must go through an application process that spans all the way to the presidency in Salt Lake City. Through divine revelation, the church's 95-year-old president and prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, will call upon lucky young Mormon men, and a select number of Mormon women, to serve a mission. The elder then enters one of seventeen missionary training centers around the world for three weeks, or nine weeks if the missionary learns a foreign language.
For the past twenty months, Stevens has been stationed at Mormon branches and wards in Boynton Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Pompano Beach. Usually elders move from city to city every four months during their two-year mission. "When I first got here, I didn't have a clue what was coming out of their mouths," Stevens admits about his early encounters with Haitians. "It didn't sound like the Kreyol I learned during my training session."