Page 2 of 4   <       >

The New Face of Global Mormonism

Amid the seemingly endless shacks and open sewers on haphazard Llesanmi Street, one lovely place stood out: a gated, cream-colored compound with a steepled church. Inside the spotless chapel, about 170 people sat in neat rows under whirring ceiling fans as an organist played quiet hymns. Almost every worshiper was black, and every male worshiper wore a white shirt and tie.

One after another, adults and children walked to the microphone and professed their devotion to the Mormon faith. Their reasons for joining it were diverse, but nearly all had once belonged to a larger Christian church they found lacking. Perhaps most of all, they said, they were initially attracted to the Mormon belief that devout families stay together eternally, not just until death.

Joshua Matthews Ebiloma, 40, a sales manager for a power generator company, said the Mormons offered him "peace of mind" he had not found anywhere else.

Nigeria is half Muslim and almost half Christian, and proselytizing foreigners, from the United States to Saudi Arabia, are pouring millions of dollars into the African nation of 135 million to expand their faiths.

Ebiloma has sampled a range of them. He was born into a pagan family and still bears the scars of tribal markings carved into his cheeks when he was young. After attending Muslim schools as a child, he tried various Christian churches before finding what he described as "happiness and peace" in Mormonism.

Now, Ebiloma nodded and smiled as fellow Mormons told their stories. One woman described the joy of having her family "sealed," a ritual that Mormons believe ensures that families stay together beyond death. Another said she believed that tithing -- the Mormon practice of members giving one-tenth of their income to the church -- "would bring great blessings."

A third woman praised Gordon B. Hinckley, the 97-year-old church president in Salt Lake City, who followers believe receives divine revelations. "I know President Hinckley is the living prophet," she said, just as amplified clapping and stomping in a nearby Pentecostal church began drowning out more testimonies.

"It is quiet and more organized in here," Ebiloma said later. "In other churches, people are shouting at the top of their lungs, sweating so much they need a hanky. One thing I know for sure: God is not deaf."

Ebiloma said those quiet services, along with the fact that all the men wear white shirts, have led many to think that his church is strange: "My friends ask, 'What are you doing in there? Did they make you wear a uniform?' "

Many scholars say the Mormons' decision not to adopt more local customs -- such as incorporating African drumming or dancing into Sunday services -- is one reason the church has not experienced the same remarkable growth as other denominations. Pentecostals, a lively evangelical Christian movement, can draw half a million worshipers to their all-night services here.

The Mormon Church has often had strained relations with other Christian churches, not least because it was founded in the 19th century on the tenet that mainstream Christianity had strayed from the original message of Jesus.

Nigerian Catholic and Pentecostal leaders interviewed about the Mormons said the group was growing, becoming more visible especially because of its fine buildings, but was still small. Others have taken issue with the Mormons' membership statistics, saying that by counting as members those who have been baptized, they include those who have fallen away from the church.

<       2           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company