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Mormons want a chance to tell their story

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A "Mormon moment" -- that's what some are calling this U.S. presidential season.

The reason? Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, is a lifetime member of the Mormon Church, known officially as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Romney's run for president has put a spotlight on his church. Many people want to know: What do Mormon's believe? Are they really Christians?

And how will Romney's faith affect his decision-making if he is elected president?

Already, a lot has been written and reported about the church because of Romney's faith.

Many reports are positive, noting how it encourages members to work hard, be charitable, civic-minded, devoted to family and involved in the community -- to be "anxiously engaged in a good cause," in the words of the Book of Mormon.

Some reports raise questions about the church's unique beliefs -- such as their belief Jesus visited America after his resurrection, the Book of Mormon contains the history and God's dealings with the people who lived in the Americas between 600 BC and 400 AD, and these scriptures were revealed to the church's founder, Joseph Smith, in 1827.

Some express concern about the church's opposition to gay rights, noting it supported the 2008 California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage -- they wonder how that might colour Romney's approach to this issue should he win the election.

Others ask whether Mormons are really Christians, while a few of the nastier ones call the church a cult.

Good or bad, positive or negative, Winnipegger Allan Robison welcomes the attention.

"This is an opportunity for us to tell our story," says Robison, president of the 13 congregations and 3,200 members who make up the Manitoba Stake (an equivalent to a conference of diocese).

"We have a great message and we're happy to share it with anyone who wants to listen."

The media coverage is also a chance to dispel some myths about the church, he says -- such as that Mormons don't believe in the Bible, they practise polygamy, or they don't believe in Jesus.

In fact, the church's headquarters, in Salt Lake City, Utah, is encouraging members across North America to use this moment to engage non-Mormons in conversations about their faith.

"Our primary interest is to simply educate people about the church and to help them understand who we are," says Michael Purdy, media relations director for the church.

That's a message local Mormons are taking to heart; every month, church members volunteer at Siloam Mission, and in July they will organize their second-annual food drive for Winnipeg Harvest. Members will disperse throughout the city, leaving door hangers at 60,000 Winnipeg homes inviting residents to donate food for Harvest.

Last year's event was a success; church members collected 10,886 kilograms for the food bank -- an amount that, when matched by Peak of the Market and Safeway, produced 36,287 kilograms of food.

Another way they'll reach out is through missionaries, who go door to door sharing their faith.

Although many denominations promote volunteerism, the Mormon Church is unique in encouraging its youth to do missionary service of between 18 months to two years, usually far from home.

Many do; since the church was founded in 1830, it's estimated about one million missionaries have served around the world. About 57,000 missionaries are serving today, including about 25 in Winnipeg.

As a youth, Romney did missionary service in France. Of his time there, he stated "on a mission, your faith in Jesus Christ either evaporates or it becomes much deeper. For me, it became much deeper."

Robison, who served as a missionary in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, echoes Romney's remark.

"Not only did it deepen my faith, it prepared me for life, career and work," he says.

Whatever the church is doing, something seems to be working. From six people meeting in a cabin in New York State in 1830, it has grown to 14.4 million members around the world today -- the church says about another million members are added every three years.

Of that total, about 6.1 million are in the U.S.; there are 185,000 members in Canada.

Looking ahead, Robison says local Mormons are happy to talk to anyone who wants to know more about their faith.

"Many people in Winnipeg don't know enough about us," he says. "We hope they will be open to learning more."

All church members ask, he adds, is for a chance to "let us tell you our story."

With a little help from the "Mormon moment," they may have many opportunities to do just that.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J13

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