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The New Face of Global Mormonism

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VIDEO | All-American Faith Goes Global
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 19, 2007

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Outside Zion Osandu Ndukwe's one-room apartment, a naked toddler ran up and down a filthy hallway lit by a single candle. The power in the overcrowded slum was off yet again. The stench of urine from the communal bathroom overpowered the fragrance of spices in the bubbling soup that a neighbor stirred in the dark passage.

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But this night, the misery all around Ndukwe -- the crime, the uncollected trash, the bathtub-size potholes, the dilapidated cars belching black smoke -- stopped at his door. It was a Monday evening, and because Ndukwe, 39, had been baptized into the Mormon Church six months earlier, that meant it was time to be with his family and sing God's praises.

"I am a child of God!" he sang, as he, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter celebrated in loud, joyous voices a faith once known for its all-white, all-American membership.

"I'm a changed man," Ndukwe said, sitting on a bed that took up most of his apartment. "I used to drink. I had girlfriends outside my marriage. I don't do that anymore, and I feel better. The Mormon Church contributed 100 percent to the change."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is formally known, now has more members outside the United States than inside it. The church's rise from its roots in Utah to a steadily growing global faith in 176 countries and territories has been aided by the Internet, including the popular Web site http://www.mormon.org, which seeks to dispel the mystery that still surrounds the religion; by a satellite system linking 6,000 of its churches worldwide with the Salt Lake City headquarters; and by tens of thousands of missionaries knocking on doors from Lagos to Lapland.

As the world's largest faiths -- Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Hinduism -- expand across the developing world, smaller faiths such as Mormonism are also gaining strength. The Mormon Church, which did not permit blacks to become priests until 1978, says it now has more than 250,000 members in Africa, including almost 80,000 in Nigeria.

Mormonism, which teaches that an American named Joseph Smith was a prophet who received visions from God about how to restore the true and original Christian church, had 1.7 million members in 1960. Today, according to church statistics, it has about 13 million, more than 7 million of them outside the United States.

The church's landmark six-spire temple in Maryland, along the Capital Beltway in the Washington suburb of Kensington, was its first east of the Rocky Mountains when it opened in 1974. Now there are Mormon temples in more than 40 countries, from China to Finland to Ghana, and more than 8,400 Mormon churches or meetinghouses abroad, with a new one built nearly every day.

As the church grows in numbers and diversity, it is gaining global recognition.

"A lot of people think nothing but polygamy" when they hear of the Mormons, said Rodney Stark, a religious studies specialist at Baylor University in Texas, even though that practice has been outlawed by the church for more than a century. But as more people acquire Mormon friends and neighbors, Stark said, Mormons "are no longer seen as a peculiar little sect. They are too big."

Jan Shipps, a Methodist scholar who has written extensively about the Mormons, said, "When a cult grows up, it becomes a culture."

'Happiness and Peace'

Early Sunday morning in the dusty Oshodi neighborhood of Lagos, before the tropical sun pressed down like a heavy steam iron, the noisy streets were teeming. Women carried bundles on their heads -- cans of paint or a sewing machine. Creaking yellow buses, missing doors, were overcrowded. Wealthier people drove past in ancient Mercedes sedans discarded by faraway owners.


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