City of Saints

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“City of Saints,” Ensign, Sept. 1992, 38–49

City of Saints

Several months ago, Los Angeles suffered from riots that made sensational news. Both before and after the riots, an unheralded force has been quietly uniting the city’s many races, tongues, and ages.

A golden likeness of the angel Moroni stands atop the Los Angeles Temple 275 feet above the flowing—sometimes slowing—traffic of Santa Monica Boulevard. By daylight or by floodlight, the gleaming fifteen-foot statue is visible from the San Diego Freeway a mile to the west. Standing out from the hillside, the angel in 23-carat gold leaf is a distinctive Latter-day Saint symbol.

The temple and its grounds are a landmark to residents and tourists, even if they don’t know anything else about the Church. The grounds are simply and naturally ornamented with palms, eucalypti, conifers, and massive spreading oaks. The ocean-moistened air is perfumed year round with the fragrance of flowers, shrubs, ferns, and gardens spilling their thick carpets of ground cover.

For resident Latter-day Saints, the temple is the real heart of the city—the spiritual heart. They come to this holy house by car from luxurious homes in Beverly Hills two miles away; they come by transit—some even requiring several transfers—from apartments uptown; they come in the cars of friends from tiny tenements in south-central L.A. They also come as wards and stakes in hired coaches from the inland deserts. Here, Church members of all races and from all walks of life are spiritually fortified.

“Mankind has been diverse since Babel, but the language of the temple is the language of unity,” explains the temple president, Wayne A. Reeves. “We are equal in the Lord’s house. All who qualify to be in the temple—the rich, the poor, those of any culture or any age—have the same privileges.”

The Los Angeles Temple conducts sessions in twenty-three languages, including signing for the hearing impaired; and by 1995, sessions will be heard in ninety-two languages. “If I have a concern,” says President Reeves, “it’s that the increase we’ve seen in temple attendance has not kept up with the membership growth. Temple attendance is a reliable spiritual indicator, so we hope to give more temple recommend holders access to temple ordinances in their own language.”

If members are all equal before the Lord in the temple, can the same be said about church meetings? Can the Church provide an equality of opportunity for spiritual growth to large numbers of members having highly diverse needs?

Leaders and members at all levels, in many parts of Los Angeles, are answering these questions. “Here in Los Angeles,” explains Howard B. Anderson, president of the Los Angeles California Stake, “we have learned over the years that we must be as adaptable and resourceful as Brigham Young was when he established the Church in the isolated desert wilderness.

“The only real difference is that ours is a cosmopolitan wilderness. That same resourceful pioneering spirit, though, has kept the Church strong in L.A. through many periods of growth.”

Ethnic Immigrants

A striking example of the Church’s resourcefulness in L.A. can be seen in the life of Rafael Seminario. In 1969, Rafael arrived from Lima, Peru, to study medicine. He wanted to become a doctor more than anything, but soon discovered that he lacked the necessary funds. So Rafael got a degree in business rather than a degree in medicine, and his conversion to the Church prepared him to nurture people’s souls rather than just their bodies.

He and his wife, Carmen, had met in an English class when they first came to L.A. Now they have a bilingual family with Rafael, age 16; Daniel, age 14; and Christine, age 8. “Learning together has made our marriage and family strong, and the temple is where my wife and I have learned the most.”

In the early 1980s, as the number of Spanish-speaking members continued to grow in the Los Angeles area, it became apparent that many opportunities for service and leadership were not being extended to them because of language limitations. Alert leaders like William Tanner, president of the Los Angeles stake at the time, at first resisted but then advocated the formation of an all-Spanish-speaking stake.

“Although the idea may have seemed segregationist at first, we saw it as a vital interim measure,” recalls Bishop Tanner, now the leader of the Los Angeles First Ward, serving the university students. “But as the Hispanic growth has continued, the need has actually increased.” There are now two Spanish-speaking stakes in the area.

In June 1984, Rafael Seminario became president of California’s first Spanish-speaking stake. “As Spanish people learn English, many choose to attend one of the regular stakes,” says President Seminario, who is now a businessman working toward an MBA at Pepperdine University. “Whether members of the stake want to learn English or not, I speak often about the value of education in our lives.”

Growing Opportunities

President Philip Reber of the Santa Ana stake has long supported the notion of Spanish-speaking organizations and explains that it’s not really a choice of segregating or integrating. “There really aren’t two philosophies,” he points out, and then he draws an analogy. “When you have only a few people in your ward who speak a different language, it’s as though there’s a ceiling above them, limiting how they can participate with you. Yes, you may find a teacher who speaks their language, but still they can usually serve only their own group, because no one else speaks their language.

“As the numbers of a given foreign-speaking group increase, you are able to form a branch, where they can serve each other in all the ways necessary for growth. Thus, you lift the ceiling. As the branch becomes a ward, the opportunities for serving increase, and the ceiling rises. As the wards unite in a stake, the ceiling rises higher still, allowing them an equal opportunity for spiritual growth with other members.”

President Reber also points out that just as “Spanish members learn organizational skills from the Anglos, so can English-speaking members learn a great deal from the Spanish. They are very loving and have a richly spiritual nature. I sometimes wonder who learns more.”

Though he speaks no Spanish himself, President Reber saw the Hispanic growth in Orange County and knew “they should be serving on the high council as well as on all auxiliaries in the stake, preparing them for the time when an all-Spanish stake would be formed.” As steps were taken to form a Spanish-speaking stake, he says, “The hand of the Lord was evident everywhere we turned.”

In the area now served by the Los Angeles, Arcadia, and Anaheim missions, approximately one-fourth of the six hundred missionaries teach in Spanish, yet nearly half of the convert baptisms are Spanish speakers.

While ethnic growth like this has been largest in the urban areas, changes are being felt in suburban stakes like San Bernardino, east beyond the mountains. There, President Dan Dedrickson reports that the stake now has a Samoan branch and that Spanish convert baptisms doubled last year, from thirty to sixty-two. “In the past eight years,” he adds, “the stake has doubled in size from six units to twelve.”

The Hispanic trends of the past decade may well be similar to the Asian trends of the coming decade. The number of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other Oriental units continues to expand.

Members like Sister Eng Chang may sit in stake conference and choose to listen to the meeting with a headset through which a translator interprets. Sister Chang, Relief Society president in the Asian branch, speaks English quite well, but like other members of the Asian branch, she prefers to hear the talks in her own tongue.

Eng and her son, Ky Eap, fled Cambodia in 1975 to escape the terror of the Khmer Rouge. Eng and her husband had lived in upper middle-class prosperity in Cambodia until war forced their evacuation. Their perilous escape brought hunger, imprisonment, malnutrition, and, ultimately, Eng’s husband’s death and the death of their two little girls. Only Eng and seven-year-old Ky survived, because, as she recalls, “One day in 1979, in a Red Cross camp, we were told that an American had sponsored our emigration. But I knew no one in America. I wondered, ‘Could someone actually be so kind?’”

The sponsors were a Latter-day Saint family in Seattle, Washington. “We couldn’t communicate well with words,” explains Eng of the year spent with her sponsors. “But I will never forget the kindness of Charlotte Yeakley. She was a mother with six children, three of whom were adopted. What patience and love she showed. I knew she must have learned it somewhere.”

Eng wanted so much to be like her, and she longed for the spirit she felt when she visited the Yeakleys’ ward. But in 1980, before learning enough English to ask about the Church, Eng discovered a cousin in Los Angeles and moved there. One day in the market, she spotted name tags on two missionaries and remembered the sign on Charlotte’s church in Seattle. The missionaries eagerly accepted her invitation to teach her.

Later, after joining the Church, Eng encouraged Ky to become an Eagle Scout. He is now serving a mission in Australia, where he has presided over a growing Chinese branch. Eng is grateful for freedom and for the gospel that assures her that her husband and little daughters are gone only for time and not for eternity. “I know that we have been sealed together in the holy temple, where I feel so close to them,” she says.

In the City, But Not of It

To walk the busy sidewalks downtown or even the suburban malls of L.A. is an international experience. Flavors and aromas of exotic foreign foods, the chatter and babble of different languages, and the flash and blur of unusual colors all pique the senses in these crowded centers. At times this carnival-like atmosphere is so intense it seems unreal, as if you’ve stepped onto a movie set. And in certain parts of the city, it appears everyone must be wealthy, as streets full of expensive cars carry fashionably dressed people to exclusive addresses.

By contrast, the once-exclusive houses around the L.A. stake center have been divided into rental units. Families that lived in them in the 1960s went to safer, more comfortable places—Bel Air, the San Fernando Valley, San Marino, or Cheviot Hills. Members now using the stake center after dark are warned to not linger in the parking lot, from which cars have been stolen and on occasion gunshots have been heard. The Wilshire Ward meets in the stake center building, and the Korean Branch meets in the building’s annex.

Wilshire is a ward so culturally mixed that it has no minority race. Bishop Charles Woodhouse, himself an Anglo, has a black first counselor and Hispanics as both second counselor and ward clerk. First counselor James Moody, a 62-year-old convert of two years, says, “I had always been Christian, but my life has completely changed since I began living the Word of Wisdom and paying tithing. The biggest change of all, of course, was entering the temple, where I discovered who I really am.”

Etta Robinson, a single mother in the ward, still has her youngest three sons at home, and she has a special-needs child also. In her black neighborhood, the “gangs have more control of the streets than you want to believe. And you just hope and pray every day that when you kneel together at night everybody’s there—safe.” Etta learned of the Church when her daughter Estelle attended Church meetings and institute classes with friends at the University of Southern California.

“Through my own and other people’s struggles, the gospel has taught me the purpose of adversity,” she says with a sigh. “We’ve been so blessed to have young men in the Church who have taken an interest in my boys.” She refers specifically to her 25-year-old autistic son, Archie, who was befriended by a very special family. “Rich Tanner would come and get Archie and take him to events at school and include him in Church activities.”

Another ward with a strong ethnic mix—the Hollywood Ward—”spans some twenty-eight cultures,” says former Bishop Rod Smith. He moved out of the area but continued to serve as bishop for two years, until leadership could be trained and prepared to replace him. “Our family has done what many families have done in the past—we’ve moved out. Flight to the suburbs and moving to desirable rural settings have made it ever more difficult to develop stable leadership in the core city wards.” For Bishop Smith, the commitment to the ward after moving meant long commutes. He adds, “Some members work in L.A. and live two and three hours away, totaling four- to six-hour commutes daily.”

Some Church members have deliberately chosen to remain in the city to serve and maintain the Church there, wanting to be close to the temple, to be missionaries to their neighbors, and to contribute to solving urban problems in their community. Others have decided that the needs of their families will be better met in the suburbs or even different cities. Those who stay and those who go are both needed where they serve.

These various dynamics combine to create the Los Angeles picture. Leaders of wards and stakes throughout the area agree that as social changes continue, and as the Church moves into more and more cultures of the world, Los Angeles may well serve as a model. It is a microcosm of those cultures, and its stakes demonstrate how the gospel broadens people’s understanding.

Opportunities for sharing one another’s burdens abound in Los Angeles, a city with a gregarious personality. The extremes of wealth and poverty, the ethnic mix, the diversity of languages, the large proportion of single members, and an increase in second marriages and later marriages—each becomes a means of deepening the Saints’ understanding as members in one circumstance serve and lift those in another.

Important progress is also being made as leaders encourage those living unconventional life-styles, including homosexuality, to prepare to receive the teachings and the blessings of full participation in the Church. “The hope that the gospel brings is for everyone,” says Elder John H. Groberg, North America West Area president. “Hope in Christ brings peace and eternal life to all who are willing to live up to his gospel standards.”

Young Men and Women

Commensurate with the Los Angeles stake’s abundance of diversity is its dearth of young people. The entire stake has fewer than two hundred Primary-age children, and children in the Korean Branch literally double the size of the Wilshire Ward Primary, where they attend.

When stake Young Women leaders organize a camp, they combine four stakes together and twice that many for conferences. Addie Sinclair Dugger, stake Young Women president, says, “I really believe in the strength of numbers, so when we do our summer girls’ camps, we invite other stakes and get a total of two hundred girls up at Camp Big Bear.”

At stake firesides, leaders expect fifteen or twenty girls and maybe that many boys. “That’s an average ward in Salt Lake City,” she says with a grin. Last summer at Big Bear, the stake Young Women leaders wanted a powerful experience for the young women, so they invited the whole region—bringing together six hundred girls.

“It was wonderful,” Sister Dugger says. “We mixed up the different stakes and different cultures, breaking down some of the barriers, and had each of the ethnic groups teach the rest of us something about their heritage—a dance or song or bit of history. So much love was shown that six of the eight nonmembers who attended went home after camp and were baptized.”

Another highlight came as the leaders learned that several of the girls coming were hearing impaired, which created an unexpected challenge. Fortunately, one of the camp counselors was prepared. Kai Sutton, a Laurel, had studied sign language and took the girls into her tent group and had, in Sister Dugger’s words, “one spiritual moment after another. It was fantastic!”

L.A. youth must decide at a young age that they are going to keep gospel standards, and because they do, the number of active youth who serve full-time missions is above the Church average.

“With all we do to strengthen our young men and women,” the leaders agree, “nothing is as influential as the experiences with the temple. We point them toward it at every possible moment.” Having the temple in their stake, the youth leaders are able to work into the ordinance schedule more frequently than outlying stakes can. Youth do baptisms for the dead several times a year, since they can attend during the week. Young women hold their annual standards night in the living room of the mission home on the temple grounds, and they hold another Young Women activity each year at the temple’s east fountain.

Single Members

Two-thirds of the adult members of the Los Angeles stake are female, and more than two-thirds of those are single. In the Westwood First Ward, where real estate values are high, the membership is beginning to age. “Young couples usually can’t afford to buy here,” says Jan Warner, who is the Relief Society president and a temple worker. “Between the widows and the older singles, we have our own kind of majority. We don’t see ourselves as either black or white or single or married. We’re just members.”

Lessons are selected from the manual with the needs of the sisters in mind, so most go away fed rather than feeling left out.

“I vividly remember a time in my life I call the ‘Dark Ages,’” Jan says with a smile. “To me, being single in the Church twenty years ago seemed to have a stigma attached. Single members could feel isolated, removed; even if we were completely active, we didn’t always feel included.”

Like other welfare volunteers, Jan has discovered the joy of service at community soup kitchens. She helps fill the ward’s assignment at Deseret Industries, and is generally one of the behind-the-scenes doers of good without whom the Church could not be the powerful force it is. Sister Louie Keeney, the current stake Relief Society president, tells of a quiet network of loving service that goes on among the stake’s 1,283 sisters. It is condensed in a single story: “I was told of a sister having to leave town for a short while, and the interesting thing about her absence was that it required three sisters to accomplish the amount of service she had been doing. These were acts of service that no one had known about, and this sister had been committed to doing them for some time.”

Similarly, in the Los Angeles singles ward, Alison Amacher, an interior designer, has been involved in a community service project she helped begin four years ago, when her bishop asked her what she would like to do in the Church. Since that time, Alison and a large group have gone on a regular basis to serve the homeless, to high school students who need tutoring, and to people who need job training and counseling.

“On certain Saturdays,” she explains, “fifteen or twenty of us serve a meal to some four hundred people with food we prepared earlier.”

The literacy program has about the same number of volunteers, although it doesn’t serve so many at once.

Singles serve in many other ways too, including in the temple. “Worshipping together in the temple is an incredible strength,” says Jo Wright, a graduate student who is a temple worker. “Going to the temple is like going home for me.”

President Martin Slater of the Torrance California North Stake explains a vital attitude among Church leaders: “As individual members, we conform our lives to gospel principles. But the organization conforms to individual needs in different places and times, as circumstances change.” He echoes Elder John H. Groberg’s statement that we in the Church need to feel people’s needs before we can fill those needs.

Among these diverse needs and beautiful cultures, a unity of faith is expanding to create a city of Saints. “We seek nothing less than to establish Zion,” says President Reeves. “The temple is our spiritual anchor.”

Photography by Craig Dimond

Above: Anna Ruth Hernandez and her daughter, Monica Lizeth, of the Huntington Park West stake. Right: Leaders of the Wilshire Ward include Bishop Charles E. Woodhouse (center), first counselor James A. Moody (right), and second counselor Timothy W. Millett.

Beaches provide a lively atmosphere for Young Men and Young Women activities in the L. A. Area, like this stake youth volleyball game.

Korean member Min Sung Shim

So Chun Din and his wife, So Mi Sun, with one of their daughters. The family are members of the Korean Branch.

Young men from the Mar Vista Ward and the Lennox Second Ward shake hands after a softball game on the ball field behind the temple grounds.

Though it sprawls, Los Angeles also brushes the sky. Its area is so immense that it could accommodate the cities of Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, and New York City.

The Fie‘eiki family at home evening, singing in Tongan, their native tongue. Vaea and his wife, Valili, have seven children, and he is bishop of the Lennox Second (Tongan) Ward, in the Inglewood stake.

Insets: Velma Yeates of the Wilshire Ward; Hispanic members at stake conference in the Huntington Park West (Spanish-speaking) stake.

Freeways, lush with foliage, connect parts of Los Angeles like arteries.

Sunlight on the Santa Monica pier. Far left: Members participated in “Hands across L. A.” following the riots. Above: Many hands make light work at the Los Angeles Regional Cannery. Near left: Volunteer welfare efforts include biweekly meals for the homeless, prepared and served by single members.