The Many Faces of Miami’s Saints

“The Many Faces of Miami’s Saints,” Ensign, Dec. 1987, 18

The Many Faces of Miami’s Saints

In this city of cultural diversity, faithful Latter-day Saints find unity and brotherhood.

The morning sun dancing off the whitecaps of Biscayne Bay finds its way inland to the unassuming building at the corner of Northwest First Street and Fifty-third Avenue. Inside, the strains of “Welcome, Welcome, Sabbath Morning” call members of the Miami Second Ward to worship.

As the service concludes, members of the Second Ward move to their other meetings, pausing briefly to shake hands and exchange greetings with arriving members of the Fourth Ward. Their delight in seeing old friends is evident.

Among those exchanging greetings is Dorothy Williams Davis, a member of the Second Ward, who has watched the Church grow in Miami through the past forty-five years.

The gospel teaches members “to be kind and friendly to others,” Sister Davis says. But for Miami Saints it is not a matter merely of obedience; their love seems to flow naturally, she explains. “You get to feeling so close to each other that when somebody is not there, you want to find out what happened.”

That feeling of closeness has been present since she first came to Florida from Mississippi as a young wife in 1942. Latter-day Saints met then in the city’s first LDS Church-owned building, at Northwest Twenty-ninth Street and Sixth Avenue. But members of the Church had already been in Miami for many years.

In 1907, J. C. Neubeck and his family became the first Latter-day Saints known to live in Miami when the Florida East Coast Railroad sent him there to work in its machine shop. In 1915, he was called to be the presiding elder over members here, and in 1920, when a branch was organized, he was called to be its first president.

Many of southern Florida’s early Latter-day Saints lived in Homestead, an old farming community in the extreme southern part of the Miami area and the gateway to the Florida Keys. When the rail lines ran all the way to Key West, Homestead was the construction base for the railroad. Edna Slay, a daughter of Miami pioneer Henry L. Russell, recalls that in the years around 1920 it took a couple of hours by automobile to travel up U. S. 1, the lone connecting link with Miami, to attend Church meetings.

It wasn’t long until there were too many members to meet in the homes of Saints, so they used rented buildings for a time, until that first chapel, on Twenty-ninth Street, was completed in 1930.

In 1950, the Second Branch, now the Second Ward, was formed and the first phase of the current building they use was built. Then, in 1957, President David O. McKay dedicated the home of the Miami First Branch, on Ninety-fifth Street. It was a landmark to Latter-day Saints for many years.

Through the years, the boundaries of the original Miami Stake, created in 1960, shrank as other stakes were created in surrounding communities. LDS congregations in those areas moved into their own new buildings, but there was little Church building in the Miami Stake. Recently, however, a new stake center was completed in Homestead, and a new chapel is scheduled to be constructed soon in South Miami.

In 1982, the Miami First Ward (the old First Branch) was dissolved and the Ninety-fifth Street building sold. Bishop Blair D. Conner, formerly bishop of the First Ward, became bishop of the Hollywood Ward when the change was made. The sale of the Ninety-fifth Street building was “a traumatic experience” for members who had grown up in the Church attending meetings there, Bishop Conner says. But it was necessary because so many Church members had moved from the area and missionary work there had become nonproductive.

Miami, once a small resort town, is now the center of a large urban area, a blend of many cultures. There are more than 3,700 Latter-day Saints in the city, with thousands more in cities and towns throughout southern Florida. Miami members mirror the changes in the city’s population. Their diverse ethnic heritages range from the flowing “y’all” of the old-time southerner to the staccato “si, si” of Cuban and other Latin American immigrants. But they share the bond of a religious heritage—the gospel of Jesus Christ—whether they are longtime members or recent converts.

Lola Dowling has seen the city grow through a lifetime, since she arrived here with her parents at age four in 1923. But it was only in the mid-1970s that she found the Church—or rather, it found her, when missionaries tracted out her South Miami neighborhood.

She had lived all her life as a member of another faith, but she was quickly convinced that “what they [the missionaries] told me was the truth.” That feeling was reinforced when she went to church and met other Latter-day Saints. The effects of living the gospel, she said, “just showed on their faces.” She was impressed with “the way they do for their own” and with the quiet, loving manner in which service was given without outward show.

Now a member of the Miami Fourth Ward, Sister Dowling testifies that the gospel “really works. If you tithe, you know it comes back to you. Your good deeds come back, too.”

Elana Montenegro Long, a Cuban-American member of the Fourth Ward, was also impressed by the goodness and sincerity of the Saints in Miami. But still, she was thorough in her investigation of the Church. She had been introduced to the gospel by a business acquaintance in upstate Florida and had called the missionaries on her own when she returned to Miami. After hearing the missionary discussions, she spent a year and a half studying the gospel and attending meetings before becoming convinced that “the Church is divinely inspired, and not just a group of good people.”

She was baptized after a period of prayerful introspection in which “I saw myself changing” for the better. The gospel, she explains, has made her more loving to family members and has brought “more peace to me and to those around me.”

There is a distinct hispanic flavor to the Church in Miami. Walk into the First Street chapel just before the Miami Fifth Ward’s sacrament meeting and you’re likely to be greeted with, “Buenos dias. Que tal, como esta?” (“Good morning. How are you?”) Then, particularly among the women, comes the abrazo, the customary Latin-American hug.

In many respects, Miami, which calls itself the “Gateway to Latin America,” has almost become a Latin city. In the suburb of Hialeah, Latin Americans make up about 70 percent of the population. Miami itself is approximately 40 percent Latin. In some parts of the city, it is difficult to find someone who can speak English.

The Miami and Fort Lauderdale stakes both have growing Spanish-speaking units. In the Miami stake there is the Fifth Ward and a Spanish branch in Miami Beach; in the Fort Lauderdale stake, Spanish-speaking Saints go to the Hialeah Second Ward, the Biscayne First Branch, the Miami Gardens Branch, or the Hollywood Hills Branch. About 2,500 members of the Miami stake and about 1,225 members of the Fort Lauderdale stake live within Miami. At least one-third of these Latter-day Saints are members of the two Spanish-speaking wards.

In the years following the revolution led by Fidel Castro in Cuba, refugees from that country made the Latin influence in Miami heavily Cuban; the area just west of downtown Miami became known as Little Havana, and Southwest Eighth Street became known by its Spanish name, Calle Ocho. But in recent years, the Cuban influence has been diluted by an influx of refugees from throughout Latin America, drawn by the search for greater economic opportunities or fleeing from turmoil in their own countries. Many have been baptized in the United States, but some were already Latter-day Saints.

One who came seeking greater opportunity was Joaquin Gonzalez. He had joined the Church in his native Mexico. When he came to Miami in July 1985, he was forced to support his family with a job that required him to work nights and on Sundays. He was able to attend only sacrament meetings, but he did so faithfully. When a vacancy developed in the Miami Fifth Ward bishopric, the bishop felt impressed to ask that Brother Gonzalez be called as his counselor.

“I was surprised,” Brother Gonzalez recalls. “I was young and had not been an active member of the Church that long.” But he determined to serve, despite his work schedule. “When they ask you in the Church to take a job, you don’t have to pray about it, you accept it. You only pray to be able to receive enough strength to comply with the call.”

The new calling came with an immediate blessing. After talking to his ward’s employment specialist, Brother Gonzalez was put in contact with Elder Jack V. Madison and his wife, Adele, a missionary couple from Boise, Idaho. They had been called to develop a job placement service in the Miami area. A job opportunity had opened up just the previous day, and Brother Gonzalez was hired for a position that freed his nights and Sundays and paid 20 percent more!

Eighteen-year-old Paola Ahumada, a member of the Miami Second Ward, comes from Antofagasta, Chile. She and her ten-year-old sister Sara live with their grandmother and their uncle’s family in Miami because their mother feels that her daughters have better educational and economic opportunities here. Their mother remains in Chile, where she is employed and manages family properties.

Paola is grateful for the sense of closeness among Latter-day Saints in Miami and the support she feels, because “there is so much pressure from the outside. The world’s standards and our standards are not the same.” Drugs, drinking, and immorality are commonplace in the community and the schools.

Paola has been one of only two Latter-day Saints in a school with two thousand students and has tried to be an advocate for the gospel of Jesus Christ there. In an English class, a discussion of an essay on witchcraft (belief in its power is common among immigrants from the Caribbean area) led to the topic of religion and an opportunity for Paola to give her teacher a Book of Mormon. A lunchtime conversation with friends presented an opportunity to discuss the Word of Wisdom.

Like her niece Paola, Cheryl Barraza says the gospel helps her and her children cope with the difficult and worldly atmosphere in the schools and on the streets. “We teach the children to live as the Savior would have them do,” she says. One teacher was impressed with her children’s gentleness and consideration of others; that impression led to a discussion of the Church and an opportunity to present the teacher with a Book of Mormon.

“We try to have family home evening regularly. We have family prayer before the children go to school, and we encourage individual prayer,” Sister Barraza says. “It is the only way to combat worldly, evil influences constantly closing around the family.”

For all of the problems Miami may pose for the youth, it also offers some unique opportunities. One day last year, for example, young people from the Miami Fourth Ward followed up a late afternoon swim with a bit of shark fishing. The activity was organized by their Young Men president, through a non-LDS friend who is an expert at it.

The expedition afforded a memorable experience for the youth. They caught an eight-foot, 350-pound nurse shark and a four-foot barracuda.

While the Church has had an impact among those of Latin American heritage, it is beginning to make inroads among people of other backgrounds as well.

Until recently, few of Miami’s sizable black community had been attracted to the gospel, but there are signs that this may be changing, at least in the city’s large Haitian community. Services for the Fort Lauderdale stake’s Morningside Branch are held every Sunday in the city’s “Little Haiti” district, in northern Miami.

Joel Timo is branch president. Born in the Bahamas after his parents immigrated there from Haiti, Brother Timo came to Miami in 1978, then met the missionaries as they were teaching his cousin one day in 1979. Brother Timo was soon baptized.

In November 1983, he was called to serve in the California Sacramento Mission. Among the people he met and taught there was Kossiwa Emily Hine, a native of Togo, West Africa. Because of the objections of her brother with whom she was living, she was unable to join the Church in California. But she later moved to Miami, where she was baptized. She and Joel were married shortly afterward, and now have an young son.

One of the problems local Church leaders face in Miami is the mobility of the members. Many stalwart, active Latter-day Saints are brought to the area on temporary assignments by large companies; they stay a few years, then are transferred elsewhere. The Miami stake and its southern Dade County wards are bolstered by faithful families of United States Air Force personnel stationed at Homestead Air Force Base. But they, too, eventually leave for other posts.

President Blaine Johnson of the Miami Florida Stake is a native of Lindon, Utah, who came to Miami in 1977 to work as an executive of a truck and jet airplane rental and leasing company. He says coping with Miami’s transient membership is one of the stake’s biggest problems. Wards and branches are forced to change leaders often when those in leadership positions are transferred out of the area. “There are few traditions. There’s not enough time for traditions to develop,” he laments.

President Johnson has been doing his best to help a spiritual tradition develop in Miami. He has urged members to absorb the basics of the gospel into their lives and to live the standards of the Church, particularly the law of tithing. “I feel strongly that living the basics of the gospel will put us where we want to be,” says President Johnson. This emphasis has borne fruit, he says. Sacrament meeting attendance has increased, “and our attendance at the temple has jumped threefold.”

The Church and its standards have met increasing acceptance in the community in recent years, says Anthony Burns, chairman and chief executive officer of the rental and leasing firm for which President Johnson works. A former counselor in the Miami stake presidency, Brother Burns is now a Primary teacher in the Cutler Ridge Ward. He is also a prominent civic leader.

“Every place I go, people are aware of the Church, and that knowledge has grown,” he says. In a city where standards of morality and integrity often do not agree with the standards of the gospel, no one is put at a disadvantage by living the kind of life expected of a Latter-day Saint, he explains. In fact, associates have told him privately that his standards are an asset in business. The Burns’s two oldest children, the only Latter-day Saints in their high school, were recognized by their peers as standouts.

“Miami is a beautiful and exciting place to be,” Brother Burns says. Life here has its challenges. But for dedicated Latter-day Saints, the Church “is a haven from the tugs and pulls of the workaday world.”

[photos] Photography by Philip S. Shurtleff

[photos] Top: Miami Second and Fourth Ward Young Women play for the stake championship. Center: Miami, a city with a broad cultural mix. (Photo by FPG International.) Left: Lola Dowling, converted in the mid-1970s, was initially impressed by the love and compassion she saw among Latter-day Saints.

[photos] Top: President Blaine Johnson has seen the Miami stake strengthened through efforts to reach higher levels of faithfulness. Center: Anthony Burns, a former counselor in the Miami stake presidency, teaches a Valiant B class in the Cutler Ridge Ward. Bottom: Blair Conner is Dade County surveyor and a former bishop in the Ft. Lauderdale stake.

[photos] Top: Sisters of the Miami Fourth Ward give their attention to a Relief Society lesson. Center: Visiting after meetings gives members a chance to catch up on each other’s lives. Bottom: Joel Timo is president of the Ft. Lauderdale Florida Stake’s Morningside Branch, a unit for Haitian members. With him is his wife, Emily.