You may see them walking around your neighborhood wearing sharp-looking suit jackets, spotless white shirts, with backpacks and nice slacks. You may also see them stray away from the sidewalks and up the front steps of your neighbors’ houses to spread the word. Regardless of whether or not you’re listening, know this: many others are. These young men are Mormon missionaries, sent out to spread the spiritual word of God.
The Mormon faith, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), is a young religion started by Joseph Smith Jr. nearly 200 years ago. Since its conception, the Mormon community has done nothing but grow. Upward from 12 million followers worldwide, LDS is now setting its sights on inner cities. With this concentration on inner cities comes a more diverse congregation, which has been predominantly white since its establishment due to geography.
Here in Philadelphia you will find a meeting house at 4720 N. Broad St. Built in 2005, the building houses three wards. The word “ward” refers to the type of local congregation. The Broad Street meeting house contains the Logan Ward, Independence Ward and the Spring Garden Ward. Being set in Logan, a culturally diverse section of the city, the congregation follows suit. “Our congregation consists of African Americans, some Vietnamese, Jamaicans, South Americans and Hispanics,” said Bishop Richard Storm, leader of the Logan Ward. Brother Dalyn Montgomery, the first counselor to the bishop of the Independence Ward, has spent time in numerous cities. He described the Philadelphia congregation as “by far the most diverse following” he’s ever seen.
The diversity goes beyond one’s ethnic or racial background. Economics and education vary from person to person as well. “Philadelphia is unique. There are some people in our congregation who are CEOs and some who never graduated high school. It’s a complete cross section,” said Brother Peter Knickerbocker of the Independence Ward.
After years of racial exclusion, the impact of this inner-city expansion along with the resulting racial makeover is astounding. It is believed that Joseph Smith ordained a black man named Elijah Abel in 1836, but Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, believed that black men were not worthy of the priesthood. It was not until 1978 that church leaders in Utah had a revelation that proclaimed “all worthy men… without regard for race or color” could be ordained.
The church has a number of young followers as well. “We have a number of students who come to our services. Some are medical students and a some are law students,” said Bishop Storm. “Many of the neighborhood youth come by as well and play basketball.”
The congregation did not just grow overnight; it took work. The church sends out missionaries in groups of two to the surrounding areas to spread the word. It is more common to see male missionaries, called “elders,” out and about. They must be between the ages of 19 and 25 and meet the Mormon standards of worthiness such as practicing the law of chastity and regular attendance to church meetings. They serve terms of two years. Female missionaries called “sisters,” need to meet the same standards of worthiness and must be 21. Generally, they serve terms of 18 months. “The way their mission system works is great. There are 125 missionaries in Philadelphia right now,” said Melvyn Hammarberg, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the faith.
Problems with residents are basically non-existent. “When they go door to door, most of the people are nice whether they believe our word or not,” said Bishop Storm. “Some people have invited our missionaries in their houses for food and drink.” The treatment must depend on the area. In Brother Montgomery’s time in Atlanta he faced some harsh opposition. “Down south the Bible belt is still alive and well. There were a lot of Baptists and they did not like us. We received the opposite of Southern hospitality,” Montgomery said with a laugh.
Generally, here in Philadelphia the missionaries have had much success in having people join the faith. Brother Donte Holland, who has been part of the church for six years, said that he has seen a boom in the amount of people who have joined the faith. “One year we had 150 baptisms,” he said.
The first LDS Temple in Pennsylvania is scheduled to be built in Center City at the intersection of Broad and Noble streets. The building will follow similar structures of temples in Hong Kong and New York City, both of which are multi-purpose high rises. Though no recent news has been given on when the ground will be broken, the people of the church are looking forward with great optimism.
The LDS’s expansion into inner city neighborhoods is proving successful as the number of followers is growing, as is the diversity of the congregations. With the new LDS Temple being built, the numbers are likely to continue to grow.