“Being Good Neighbors in the Valley of the Sun,” Ensign, July 2001, 79
Noting nearly 125 years of Latter-day Saints as important partners in Arizona’s sprawling Phoenix area, known as the Valley of the Sun, Mesa Arizona Maricopa Stake president Wilford W. Andersen says, “Fortunately, the gospel of Jesus Christ functions here as it does everywhere else. When it really gets into our hearts, it helps us be kind, charitable, and service oriented to others around us.”
President Andersen knows whereof he speaks. Not long ago members of his stake, one of 47 in the Phoenix area, built bridges of friendship with neighboring Shilo Missionary Baptist Church members. Stake members helped the small African-American congregation build their church on evenings and Saturdays. “We took our plumbers, carpenters, and electricians and rolled up our sleeves with them. It was wonderful.”
President John W. Lewis’s nearby Gilbert Arizona Stake had a similar experience. As has occurred in the past two years, hundreds of stake youth combined with hundreds of St. Anne’s Catholic Church youth in service projects. This year more than 300 youth and leaders painted, repaired, and landscaped homes of four elderly persons, prepared an acre at the Gilbert town garden for planting, pulled weeds at a park, and cleaned books at the town’s library. “I cannot tell you how much we look forward to these service projects with St. Anne’s. Our stake congregations and St. Anne’s congregation truly feel bonded in genuine friendship,” says President Lewis.
Little wonder that the Church is seen as an active partner in the United States’ sixth largest city, widely known for its dry, warm climate. The cultural and industrial center of the Southwest, with a metro population of 3.1 million, Phoenix is both “cowboy and cosmopolitan,” a city marked by high-rise office buildings as well as Spanish colonial and Native American pueblo architecture and colors.
“There are numerous high-profile Latter-day Saints in business, politics, community affairs, and sports among our 154,000 metro members,” says Ron Bellus, Phoenix multistake public affairs specialist. “The Church here is also well known for our annual Easter Pageant and Christmas light displays on Mesa temple grounds. The pageant has been called ‘fabulous’ by the media. It’s a first-class production on the life of the Savior. About a quarter-million persons attend yearly, and a million persons see the light display, which was recently called one of the nation’s top 10 Christmas light displays.”
The Church has a rich heritage in metro Phoenix. The Mormon Battalion passed through Phoenix’s Maricopa County in 1846. In 1877 Latter-day Saints settled in the county, and a year later other incoming Mormon pioneers founded Mesa, today a major Phoenix suburb. The Mesa Arizona Temple was dedicated in 1927. A community park monument honors Mesa’s Latter-day Saint founders. Church growth in Phoenix itself is rooted in the 1913 formation of the Phoenix Branch, which became a ward five years later. As Phoenix’s population soared in subsequent decades, so has the Church’s population.
“We are visible enough that sometimes there might be a few detractors,” says President Andersen. “Yet we feel that though some may want to debate what a Christian ought to believe, no one ought to debate how a Christian ought to act. We’re trying to be good followers of the Lord.”—Jay M. Todd, Managing Editor