By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
On a recent spring evening, after a day of knocking on doors, Ben Stevens and Clinton Dowse settle in for a Haitian dinner at the North Miami Beach apartment of 49-year-old Flora Rulles. The two young, fresh-faced Anglos, at first glance, seem to share few traits with their host. Yet they are united in faith as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The sweet, pungent smell of plantains cooking in a frying pan fills Rulles's cramped apartment. Dowse and Stevens banter with Flora's thirteen-year-old daughter Florida and ten-year-old son Roger. Stevens, a Hobbit-size young man with a Caesar-style haircut and probing blue eyes, tells how he came to love Haitian food. "A lot of the members feed us," Stevens says. "That's what I enjoy about working with Haitians. They love Jesus and make great food. I think they are the coolest people. They are willing to give you the last cookie in their jar."
Before coming to the Miami stake's Haitian branch, Stevens was teaching the Mormon way in and around the Bahamas. "They have these Haitian villages there where the people live inside these little plywood houses," he says. "There was no running water. Makes you appreciate how humble Haitians are."
Dowse, a tall blond with strong Aryan features, asks Florida if she knows the "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" song, the rump-shaking single by the Miami-based Buckwheat Boys. He and Stevens, missionaries also known as elders, have never actually heard the song because they are not allowed to listen to hip-hop. Yet they know about it from their interaction with Haitian teenagers familiar with the popular ghetto tune.
"Yeah. Why?" Florida shoots back.
"Well how does it go?" Dowse replies.
"It's peanut butter jelly time! It's peanut butter jelly time!" Florida raps. "Where he at? Where he at? I don't know! I don't know! There he go! There he go!"
Florida balks when Dowse asks her to demonstrate the dance. Meanwhile, Stevens waxes on how Haitians are generally receptive to his and Dowse's Mormon teachings, even if they have no intention of converting to the LDS church. "I don't know if they want to hear our message or just want to hear a white guy speaking Kreyol," Stevens says.
After dinner, Dowse and Stevens chat briefly with Rulles about setting up a family night during which she, her husband, and their children can spend time reading the Book of Mormon. The LDS church demands family unity among its members. So one night a week, Mormon families gather to play songs and games and, of course, read from the Book of Mormon and discuss its teachings.
Rulles, a round-faced woman with eyeglasses, nods affirmatively to Stevens's instructions. They close the session with a prayer. Stevens takes out a small appointment planner from his shirt pocket and jots down the date of his next meeting with Rulles.
Later the same night, the elders pull up to a single-story house in the same neighborhood. They knock on the door. Stephen and Stephon Thomas, two oversize twelve-year-old twins, answer the elders' call. The twins were baptized into the LDS church less than a year ago. Their mother has been a Latter-Day Saint for more than twelve years, baptized in Haiti. Dowse and Stevens ask for their older brother Tito, who is not home. The twins inform the missionaries that Tito and their mother got into a huge argument. "He was cussing at our mom," Stephon says. "He took his clothes. I'm not sure he is coming back."
Dowse and Stevens decide to call it a night and head back to the Mormon building on 85th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. "That's too bad about Tito," Stevens laments. "We'll pray to the Lord to make sure he's all right."
"Dang it," Dowse says. "Where'd he go?"
Clinton Dowse, a nineteen-year-old from Kanab, Utah, is behind the wheel of a white Chevy Malibu, weaving in and out of traffic on NE Sixth Avenue in North Miami. He has been in Miami-Dade County for only six months, but Dowse has already made a keen observation about his new locale. "There are a lot of bad drivers in Miami," he says. "I'm trying hard not to become one myself."
Riding with Dowse is 21-year-old Ben Stevens from Portland, Oregon. The two college-age men are in South Florida for a single purpose: Introduce Miami-Dade's Haitian community to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as despite the preference of the official church Mormons, a faith of more than 12 million believers around the globe, including 123,209 members in Florida.
Mormons spread their Gospel through a vigorous voluntary missionary network of more than 56,000 college-age men and a few women spread across the globe, teaching their religion in 50 different languages. Dowse and Stevens are among 180 Mormon missionaries, called elders within the LDS congregation, who form the Salt Lake City-based church's Florida Fort Lauderdale mission, covering West Palm Beach to Key West. The South Florida elders proselytize in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Kreyol, and American Sign Language to existing church members and just about anyone who is willing to hear their lessons.
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."
Today Stevens converses effortlessly with any Haitian on the street. The same goes for Dowse, who has been speaking Kreyol since his arrival this past November. The two elders, along with six other missionaries, work out of a Mormon building on 85th Street and Biscayne Boulevard shared by the Miami stake's Haitian branch and Miami Shores ward.
"As you can imagine, to be thrust into another culture and defend your religious beliefs is a pretty big shift for a high school student," says Fort Lauderdale mission president Noel B. Reynolds. "But the church does a good job of preparing them."
Every day they get up at six in the morning to study Scripture. On Mondays the elders have until 4:00 p.m. to do their laundry, go grocery shopping, play sports, and e-mail or write family members. "Being a missionary is a seven-day job," Reynolds says. "They train each other. They have planning sessions every night and a two-hour weekly planning session on Thursday mornings."
The rest of the time, they are out preaching the Mormon Gospel, visiting church members and people "investigating the church," those curious, God-fearing souls who are interested in learning more about the Mormon way. On Tuesday evenings Dowse and Stevens teach English to Haitian immigrants. On Sundays the elders attend the sacrament meeting and Gospel classes with members of their branch or ward.
Stevens and Dowse, like other elders, schedule appointments with members or interested parties and teach specific chapters from the Book of Mormon on a daily basis. Some lessons prepare potential converts for baptism. Others are meant to help existing members ascend to one of the three levels of Heaven in which Mormons believe.
"People invite us or we do the door-to-door thing," Stevens says. "We don't keep score of who we convert. For us, teaching the Gospel is a matter of service."
The sight of a pair of missionaries low-tech and stark in their white shirts, dark pants, and book bags, on bikes or on foot prompts curiosity and fascination from observers. The Mormon faith is the subject of speculation and intrigue, as well as an inexplicably strong presence in the current state of pop culture.
The HBO series Big Love, which recently concluded its season with its main characters being exposed as polygamists, has drawn millions of viewers. The family in question has endured a fair share of hassling from the mainstream Mormons who regard polygamy with revulsion and shame.
Jared and Jerusha Hess, who wrote and directed the instant geek classic Napoleon Dynamite, are graduates of Brigham Young University. The peculiar comedy, about a strange young man and his eccentric family and classmates, isn't explicitly a Mormon movie, but the Idaho setting and clean-living characters are obviously LDS. And Cremaster creator and artist Matthew Barney is a baptized though nonpracticing Mormon, as is film and theater director Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbors, In the Company of Men).
But not everyone buys into the superficially simple and practical doctrine. Take Tricia Erickson, a right-wing conservative media pundit and chief executive of Crisis Management Inc., a public relations firm specializing in corporate damage control. During a recent interview, Erickson, a North Carolina-born Mormon, says she began to question the church's beliefs at an early age. "I never had that heartfelt conversation," she says. "It always seemed strange to me. The messages did not line up with the true Word of God, the Bible."
Nevertheless she followed LDS teachings well into adulthood. She attended Ricks College, an LDS-affiliated school in Rexford, Idaho. She married a "Jack" Mormon, a name the church gives members who don't really practice the religion. "My parents taught me that my life would be wonderful if I married a Mormon," she says. "He turned out to be an abuser, so I left him."
Following her divorce, Erickson says, she spent fifteen years sorting out fact from fiction about the church. She claims Joseph Smith is a false prophet who plagiarized The Spaulding Manuscript, a fictional story about a group of Romans who, while sailing to England in the Fourth Century A.D., were blown off course and landed in eastern North America. The tale's author, Solomon Spaulding, wrote it some ten years before Smith's celestial epiphany. "The Book of Mormon is a counterfeit," she lashes.
Erickson cites Mormons' interpretation of Jesus as proof the religion is not Christian. Latter-Day Saints believe Jesus was a mortal born of sin who ascended into godliness through his sacrifice on Earth. Smith taught that humans come to Earth to get a body and to be tested. After death, everyone is placed into one of three kingdoms, depending on his level of righteousness. Those in the highest degree will dwell with God, their families will be eternal, and they'll even become gods themselves as God did. "That is blasphemy," Erickson accuses. "People who feed at the trough of this false religion have to learn how to run, not walk, out of that church."
Furthermore, Erickson continues, the Mormon church takes advantage of the young men and women who serve missions. "It's the best marketing program in the world," she says. "When you can convince people that they are being called by God, they will feel the need and the urge to preach the revelations of the church. And at such a young age, how can you know that your parents are in a well-masked cult when that is the only thing you know growing up?"
A matronly lady with snow-white hair, dressed in a white blouse and full-length burgundy skirt, answers the front door of a lusciously landscaped two-story brick house in Plantation. A sticker affixed to the door reads, Warning: Protected by a Mormon.
The gentle door greeter introduces herself and a fellow wearing a white short-sleeve dress shirt, tie, and navy blue slacks. "I'm Sister Sydney Reynolds," she says. "This is my husband, President Reynolds."
The Reynoldses, from Provo, Utah, arrived in Plantation in July 2005 after accepting a three-year assignment to watch over the missionaries operating in South Florida. The LDS church does not employ official clergy; instead it uses a rigid corporate-style hierarchy that begins with the church headquarters in Salt Lake City and trickles down to every branch and ward in the congregation. The hierarchy is headed by the prophet and church president, Gordon B. Hinckley; and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Mormons believe God ordains the Prophets and Apostles to issue spiritual messages and directives to the congregation.
Sometime in December 2004, Noel Reynolds remembers, he and his wife received a call from Hinckley to serve as Fort Lauderdale mission caretakers. "It's not a career goal," he says. "But we are very glad to do it. We receive no salary, but the church provides the home we live in."
The 64-year-old Noel is on leave as a political and legal philosophy professor at Brigham Young University, where he also teaches Mormon Scripture classes. On the mantle over the living-room fireplace rests a coffee-table book depicting artwork of Joseph Smith. Above the book hangs a family portrait of the Reynoldses and their eleven children. "Ten of them have served missions," Noel states emphatically. "They have been to Russia, South America, Korea, Germany, and Spain." Once their assignment is up, the couple will return to Utah.
Noel, a third-generation LDS from Los Angeles, traveled to Uruguay and Argentina for his mission more than 44 years ago. "I was given a week's training in rudimentary Spanish, handed a grammar book, and they wished me luck," he says with a hearty chuckle.
According to the LDS official Website, the first missionary to touch Florida soil was Phineas Young, who spread the Mormon word during a two-month stint in 1845. From 1869 to 1929, Mormons were essentially banned from the Sunshine State; law enforcement officers would meet each train arriving in Tallahassee to prevent elders from disembarking. In 1898 one Mormon congregational leader was murdered, the Website claims. The first official LDS church was established in Jefferson County in 1897.
On November 1, 1960, the Mormons established their first Florida mission beachhead. It included parts of southern Alabama, Georgia, and the Caribbean, Noel says. In 1974 the Fort Lauderdale mission, which covers West Palm Beach to Key West and parts of the Caribbean, was founded.
The missionaries work in pairs, usually traveling by bicycle or car. On average, an elder will spend $400 a month on expenses such as rent, food, and gas all of which is paid by the missionary himself and his family, although it is common for an elder's hometown branch or ward to contribute money for the two-year-long mission.
On a wall near an unstocked liquor bar Mormons don't drink alcohol or smoke tobacco hangs a large corkboard bearing the photos and corresponding names of all the elders serving the Fort Lauderdale mission. The pictures are affixed to various colored sheets of construction paper. Each color represents a different language. White delineates English, while pink is for Portuguese, green is for sign language, blue is for Spanish, and red is for Kreyol.
The missionaries hail from states such as Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, and countries such as Mexico, Canada, and Peru. Upon arrival, the elders sign their names on a banner hanging from a grandfather clock in the living room. The top of the banner is decorated with the Florida mission's coat of arms, which depicts the angel Moroni, three conch shells representing the Florida Keys, an Everglades sunset, and arrows representing unity and strength. "It is just for fun," Noel explains. "It is not an official church thing."
The house is used to hold meetings with the missionaries or tend to them when they are sick or injured. "Our children can come and visit us," Noel says. "But we're usually here alone."
Noel's number one priority is the health and welfare of the elders. "I'm responsible for training and organizing them into effective missionaries," he says. The training sessions are called zone conferences, held over a three-week period in which the missionaries meet for group training in the Plantation house. Noel meets individually with each missionary for a half-hour. He also coordinates arrivals and departures, as well as the transfer of elders from one ward to another.
"We get one week to catch a break and then get ready for the next zone conference," he says.
While on their mission, the elders are not allowed to watch television or read anything but the Book of Mormon and other LDS teaching materials. Certain neighborhoods, such as South Beach, are off-limits unless the elders are meeting with someone to discuss the church. "They don't date," Noel says. "They don't have any romantic dinners or a personal social life. For young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, that is hard to give up."
On a breezy Friday afternoon this past April 28, the LDS sanctuary at 6950 Indian Creek Dr., which cost the church three million dollars to build, is desolate except for two twenty-year-old elders emerging from a silver Chevy Malibu idling in the parking lot. Ademir Cacique, a Mexican-American from Vallejo, California; and Matthew Bean, from Richfield, Utah, just wrapped up a meeting with a recent convert and are on their way to meet a Venezuelan woman who is wrestling with the idea of becoming a Latter-Day Saint.
Cacique, who sports a perfectly gelled dome of black hair, has been on his mission for nineteen months. He began in North Miami and has traveled to Sunny Isles, Kendall, Plantation, and Miami Lakes. He worked at an Applebee's to save money for his mission. Members of his hometown ward also helped him raise funds. "Members are always willing to assist young men," he says. "Money is never an issue."
Bean, a tall blond with a long, slender nose and flushed cheeks, bears a slight resemblance to a young Steve Martin. He is wearing an iridescent yellow tie, a white short-sleeve shirt, and brown slacks. "I've been on my mission for sixteen months now," Bean says. "Five months on Miami Beach. This is the longest I have been in an area. It is a great place to be in. The members on the Beach are really fun to work with. They are really excited about helping us out."
Church member Sebastian Sanchez, a 26-year-old Chilean, is going to assist them with teaching Thais Montefusco the merits of Mormonism. The elders arrive at Montefusco's apartment, where Sanchez is already waiting for them in her living room.
Sanchez, his parents, and three siblings converted to Mormonism thirteen years ago in their home country. In 1995 they moved to Miami Beach, where they used to attend Mormon Sunday service in a second-floor space of an office building on Washington Avenue. Sanchez carries around cards stating the seventeen truths about the Latter-Day Saints, which he hands out to people he meets. "We heard missionaries tell the story of Joseph Smith," Sanchez says. "They taught us the doctrine that is not taught by the Catholic Church."
Sanchez, who is dressed like a missionary white short-sleeve dress shirt, tie, and slacks leads the opening prayer. "Dear Celestial Father," he orates in Castilian, "we give you thanks for allowing us to share the truth that has been restored through your true church. We ask that you help Sister Thais continue her lessons."
The elders hold a brief discussion with Montefusco about the importance of the Ten Commandments and how she can fulfill them in her everyday life. The elders, Montefusco, and Sanchez read from several chapters of the Book of Mormon. Afterward, the elders explain the importance of family participation in learning the Gospel. "The family is the center of the evangelism," Bean says in Spanish. "That is why it is important to teach good principles in the home."
The elders have also brought a DVD player in order to show Montefusco a tale about Wilford Woodrow, a nineteenth-century man who converted to Mormonism after meeting two missionaries. But first Cacique inquires if Montefusco has read the Book of Mormon during the past week. A flushed Montefusco replies in the negative. "I haven't had to time to read because I'm supposed to move to another apartment by next week," she says.
As Cacique and Bean connect the player to Montefusco's TV set, she shares that her husband and her eight-year-old stepson Luis are Mormons. She, however, is Roman Catholic.
While Luis is playing Jedi with his toy light saber, Cacique pulls up the menu screen on the DVD. The Mormon disc is set up in six different languages: English, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Chinese. It contains more than fifteen episodes depicting Mormon tales. Cacique scrolls down the list until he finds the Woodrow tale. "This gentleman had a lot of questions concerning which church to join," Cacique says, "until a couple of missionaries showed him to the church restored by Joseph Smith."
As expected, Woodrow is baptized a Mormon by the end of the short film. The elders conclude their meeting with Montefusco. Before leaving, Cacique tells her they will continue to pray for her to find her way into the Mormon faith. He inquires if she would be interested in being baptized May 6. Montefusco hedges, stating she would like to wait for her husband to come home from Caracas so he can attend the ceremony.
She admits she is still struggling with some of the Mormon tenets. For example, Latter-Day Saints do not pray to the Virgin Mary. "How do you stop believing in the Virgin?" she asks. "That is my conflict. That is what I have a hard time dealing with. I was raised Catholic and studied with nuns. My instinct is to always say, 'María Santa Purisma.'"
Cacique responds, "God will help you overcome that. But you have to be ready. We are not going to exhort you."
Bean adds there is no rush. "All testimony begins with a seed," he says. "You have to nurture it for it to grow. You will see."
Later on, Cacique and Bean drive to Luis and Brenda Salgado's apartment. They have been meeting the Honduran couple for the past two months. She is a Latter-Day Saint, but he is not. The elders and their students gather in the living room. Brenda is a chubby woman with a round, pudgy face and curly black hair. Her spouse is a towering individual with dark tan skin and jet-black hair parted on the right.
Cacique asks Luis how it feels to welcome the LDS church into his home. "It is a marvelous thing," he relays. "I've been feeling these sensations that can only be described as the Holy Spirit." The jubilant elders and the Salgados spend the next half-hour reading and discussing different chapters from the Book of Mormon.
Before leaving, Cacique asks Luis if he feels ready to be baptized May 21. Maria interjects, "Well, my birthday is on May 20." To which Cacique responds, "Well, then the 21st would be the perfect day."
On May 4, Dowse and Stevens are on their way to meet with a potential convert who lives off NW Seventh Avenue and 148th Street. The elders are reading downloaded speeches given by Hinckley and the Twelve Apostles during the LDS church's recent 176th annual general conference, the Mormon church's largest event. "It's held twice a year on a Saturday and Sunday," Stevens explains. "It's when we hear the Prophet and the Twelve Apostles speak. It takes place in Salt Lake City, but it's transmitted in different languages across the world."
According to Dowse, Mormons believe God chooses a Prophet and Twelve Apostles to lead the church's mission to introduce nonbelievers to the LDS "so that it continues to be a living church," Dowse says. "The conferences are way, way strong. Everyone looks forward to hear them speak. If you believe in prophets, it is like listening to the Word of God."
"You know what they are saying is coming straight from God," Stevens adds. "It is God's will."
Dowse fiddles with a postcard bearing an image of a Mormon temple in Utah. The temples are sacred buildings in the Mormon religion. Built with intricate and majestic detail, 122 such temples have been erected around the world, including one in Orlando. The purpose of the temple is for worthy church members to make covenants to serve Jesus Christ and their fellow man. In addition, they participate in ceremonies that reach beyond mortality, such as baptism on behalf of dead relatives. Yes, in the LDS church, even extinct nonbelievers can make it to Heaven.
"People think it's a big secret what goes on inside the temple," Dowse says. "But it's really a matter of worthiness. You just can't let anyone make ordinances with God. But it is probably the best place in the world. In order to go on a mission, you have to be sanctified in a temple."
Dowse pulls out his "temple recommend card" from his wallet. He explains that in order to receive the card, his ward bishop and his stake president interviewed him to determine his worthiness. "You show this at the front door and you are worthy to enter," Dowse says. "It is a pretty serious thing."
The pair's prospective recruit a young, blithe 30-year-old Haitian named Hervé is an hour late for the appointment. "It can be hard working around people's schedules," Stevens says. "But some people are holding two jobs, so sometimes they get held up."
Hervé leads the elders through the living room, past the kitchen, and onto the back stoop. The soft-spoken man calls his teenage cousin Katia to join them.
For about 45 minutes, Dowse and Stevens read and explain chapters from the Book of Mormon. Hervé listens intently, while his bewildered cousin stares at the two white boys preaching in Kreyol.
Hervé informs the missionaries that last week he prayed and asked God if the Book of Mormon was true. "I felt good when I did it," Hervé says. "I really want to feel it. And I do feel something coming that is going to change my life."
Stevens stresses to Hervé that he must continue praying and reading the book. "It is all true," Stevens says. (The elders meet with Hervé three more times in the following two weeks. During the last visit, Hervé tells them he wants to be baptized June 6.)
Before ending the evening, Stevens takes a tour of his ward's meeting hall on NE 85th Street. It's basically like any other Mormon building where members of branches and wards meet. It has a chapel where Mormons celebrate the sacrament of Communion. It is equipped with a gym housing a basketball half-court where members play pick-up games or hold dances for the young single adults. (Mormons are encouraged to date members of their own faith to build strong families and pass on Joseph Smith's legacy.) The building also contains several classrooms where they learn more about their faith and their founding father.
In one of the classrooms, double doors open to reveal the building's baptismal fount, a three-foot-deep pool in which converts are completely immersed. The mirror hanging over the pool casts a peaceful reflection.
Another telltale sign it's a Mormon building: no crucifixes. "We don't focus on Jesus' death," Stevens says. "We celebrate Christ's resurrection and let his testimony be our symbol."
Around 9:45, Stevens takes in a quick round of jump-shooting on the half-court. He's a pretty good baller, but his main game is soccer. To help drum up funds for his mission, Stevens ran little-league camps in Portland. "I also did some landscaping," he says. Unfortunately he won't be able to watch the World Cup; Mormon rules prohibit missionaries from watching television. But he doesn't mind. "It's a minor sacrifice," he says. "But missionaries make a lot of sacrifices to get here."
A few minutes later, Stevens catches up to Dowse and the six other elders from the Haitian ward. They turn off the lights, exit the meeting hall, lock the doors, get in their church-provided cars, and head home for the evening.
This past May 10, Cacique and Bean take turns shooting a basketball inside the half-court of the Mormon building on Indian Creek Drive. "One thing I'll never get over is not being able to watch sports," Bean says. "It kills me to have missed March Madness." Bean takes the ball and from about eighteen feet away swishes it through the net.
The elders look at their watches and realize it is time for their next appointment. They turn the gym lights off and head down the stairs of the two-story building. On their way to the car, Bean reflects on his faith. "Everybody gets to a point in their lives and asks if this is really true or just another tradition being passed on to me," he says.
During his last year in high school, Bean says, he really concentrated on studying the Book of Mormon and applying its teachings to his life. He remembers reading the book from beginning to end one night. He did as Moroni instructs on page 639: He prayed to the Lord and asked him if the book was true. "The feeling that came over me was undeniable," Bean says. "It was a powerful feeling of love and peace that what I'm doing is what the Heavenly Father wants me to do."
That is a tremendous leap of faith, which Bean and Cacique acknowledge. "It is so hard to explain how the Holy Spirit works within you," Cacique says. The pair also defended the LDS founder, whose lasting legacy to the church was polygamy. "If you read the Old Testament and biblical Scripture, there were lots of prophets called by God to have more than one wife," Bean rationalizes. "Like Moses."
Either way, Bean says, there is no way he could live in polygamy. "Having many wives is difficult," he opines. "One will be plenty to deal with." Besides, Cacique adds, the church will always have its critics. "We know truth seekers will find our church," he says.
Two weeks later, on May 21, Bean and Cacique are dressed in immaculate white dress shirts, white ties, and white slacks. They are walking barefoot inside the Miami Beach building's first-floor classroom. The room is packed with ward members attending the baptism ceremony of Luis Salgado, Thais Montefusco, and Carlos Ramirez, who are dressed in white cotton jumpsuits.
One of the attendees, Liliana Ramirez, is handing out flyers to the women in the audience. The leaflets explain how to prepare an emergency three-day supply of food in case families must evacuate for an approaching hurricane. A devout Mormon, the Colombian-born Ramirez was baptized in the Sunny Isles ward more than seven years ago. Like her fellow LDS believers, she rigorously gives the church its ten-percent tithing and fasts the first Sunday of every month, among other traditional Mormon practices.
By divine revelation, Ramirez has been selected as the de facto hurricane preparedness coordinator. Her job: Make sure all the women in the Miami Beach ward are stocked and loaded for storm season. One of the sheets Ramirez is distributing is an order form for nonperishable items sold by a wholesale food warehouse in Davie. The company provides the Latter-Day Saints with a discount on foodstuffs such as canned beans, dry wheat, and other staples. Members can buy in bulk or individual items. "We are all called to perform for the church," Ramirez says.
The ceremony begins. The members sing the hymn "Come unto Me," orate an opening prayer, and hear testimony from two members. At 12:51 p.m., the moment of truth arrives. Two doors open to reveal the baptismal fount. Bean and Montefusco are waist-deep in the pool. The elder holds Montefusco's right hand with his left and extends his right hand into the air. He closes his eyes, says the baptismal prayer, and immerses Montefusco in the water. Bean repeats the process with Salgado. Cacique baptizes Ramirez.
While the elders and the newly baptized members change out of their wet clothes, Brother Luis Chavez pops in a DVD featuring the geriatric Hinckley and the Twelve Apostles. The piece is titled "Special Witnesses of Christ."
The ceremony concludes after Bean, Cacique, Montefusco, Ramirez, and Salgado return to the room in clean, dry clothes. Ramirez doesn't stop smiling. Her son Luis, she says, cried tears of joy following her Mormon plunge. "He was so happy for me," she says.
Outside, Salgado, his wife, and their two children are walking to their cars. "Nothing can hold me back now," Salgado says triumphantly.
Within a year, the newly minted Latter-Day Saints if they continue to read the Scripture, spread the Gospel, and live the Mormon way will receive an opportunity to enter the temple in Orlando, and really test their worthiness.