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Just before stepping out into a pleasant November midmorning last Friday, Mormon missionaries Daniel Gavin Smith and Allan Garcia, both 19, kneeled down in their modest Nogales, Sonora apartment to pray.
In the Spanish he has nearly perfected over the last year while working throughout Sonora, Smith, a native of Centerville, Ohio, asked for help with the day’s work ahead of them.
“I had some background, a little vocabulary, and I more or less understood the vocabulary,” he said of the Spanish skills he picked up in high school before his mission. “But I couldn’t speak at all.”
Now, along with Garcia, a third-generation Mormon from the Maya Quiche community of Totonicapan, Guatemala, Smith has wandered the streets of Nogales, Sonora for several months trying to win converts and keep the faithful in the Mormon flock, all in his second language.
For both missionaries, Nogales, Sonora is a long ways from home, and neither knew much about it when they learned that they would be spending two years of their lives there.
“Cool,” Smith recalled of his reaction to the news. “Where is that?”
The pair is a part of an approximately 180-strong contingent of Sonora-based Mormon missionaries working out of the Hermosillo Mission, one of 34 in the country. There are about 20 missionaries in Nogales, Sonora itself, Smith and Garcia said.
Worldwide, there are more than 85,000 Mormon missionaries in the field at any one time. In Mexico, their work has won the church steady growth in membership, as shown both by church data and the Mexican Geography and Statistics Institute (INEGI).
The church claims 1.4 million current members in Mexico. Meanwhile, INEGI numbers show membership grew from around 205,000 in 2000 to nearly 315,000 a decade later. In Sonora, membership grew from 7,290 to 11,252 over the same period. Nogales, Sonora has two Mormon churches that serve around 2,100 members and Nogales, Ariz. has one, which serves more than 600, church officials said.
Though 83 percent of Mexico’s population still identifies as Catholic, the church has been steadily losing ground to a number of non-Catholic Christian religions, including Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), in recent decades. A similar trend is also seen in Garcia’s home country of Guatemala.
Unlike other Christian religions, LDS members include the Book of Mormon along with the Bible in their canon of holy texts. The book chronicles the colonization of the Western Hemisphere by Jewish settlers from Jerusalem beginning thousands of years before the birth of Christ. This, among other distinctions, leads some members of other Christian churches to characterize Mormons as non-Christian, which is contested by the LDS church.
Going on two-year missions around the world is a task undertaken by many young male LDS members and an increasing number of young women. Indeed, more than 40 percent of the missionaries he oversees in Northern Sonora are now women, said Hermosillo Mission President Terence Robinson. That shift was facilitated by a recent church decision to lower the minimum age of service for women from 21 to 19, he added.
Challenges and advantages
On Garcia and Smith’s agenda Friday was a visit to a local Mormon family that had stopped regularly attending church.
Such visits are common, both said, as are meetings with local residents suggested as possible converts by other church members. The pair also spends time knocking on doors cold in the section of Nogales assigned to them, which includes the center of town to several miles south, to share their beliefs with strangers.
However, successful conversion of new members, one of their main goals, can be a challenge. Smith said finding residents interested in meeting again to learn more about the church “is truthfully difficult,” though he added that he and Garcia are almost always listened to respectfully.
As the number of Mormon missionaries around the world has risen, conversions by each missionary per year have fallen to just over three, according to church data.
One of the challenges faced by missionaries in Mexico is what Robinson described as the common phenomenon of Mexicans living together without being married, a violation of core LDS church teachings. He said this is often due to the high costs of marriage ceremonies.
Otherwise, Robinson considers Nogales to be a fruitful place for missionary work, in part because of the number of residents who moved to the city from other parts of the country and who are without close family and friendship ties. Mexico’s deep history of Catholicism, which he conceded presents some obstacles, can also be an advantage given that Catholics already believe in many of the church’s teachings.
“(Catholicism is) an issue, but it’s also a blessing in my mind,” he said. “People that have a religious feeling, in some ways it’s almost better, because people believe in God.”
Mormonism is not at all new to Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona. In the mid- to late-1800s, many Mormons established new communities across the American West, as well as in Sonora, Chihuahua and Canada, in response to U.S. prohibitions on polygamy, which is no longer accepted by the church, and general hostility toward the religion.
Colonies took root along the Rio Bavispe in Sonora, but most were abandoned as violence from the Mexican Revolution ravaged much of Northwest Mexico between 1910 and 1920. Robinson himself was born in a Mormon community in Chihuahua, which was resettled after its founders fled in the 1910s.
The church has also taken root in Nogales, Ariz., and a handful of members, like City Manager Shane Dille, have prominent public positions.
Nogales Police Chief Derek Arnson, a Phoenix native who did his mission in Argentina in the mid-1980s, said his two years abroad helped him “to grow up and become independent.” It also improved his already decent Spanish, which he said has been a critical skill for his work in Nogales.
Pointing to both the challenges, like sustained separation from family, and joys, like traveling to a new country, Arnson said that it wasn’t necessarily the best two years of his life, but certainly the best two years for his life.
“That saying makes a lot of sense,” Garcia said, agreeing with Arnson’s point. “You learn how to live with a lot of people with different customs, how to relate to other people better.”