When Mitt Romney ran for the highest office in the United States, many around the world first heard the word “Mormon” and how one can be both a leading member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) as well as an official candidate of the Republican party.
From their religious base in Salt Lake City, the Mormon church operates in 167 countries around the world with 14 million members, more than half of whom reside outside the U.S. During the last four decades, the organization has been extending its membership drive in Latin America. In fact, one of the earliest temples of the LDS was built in the middle of Mexico’s northern desert and known as the “Iglesia Primogenito de la Plenitud de los Tiempos.”
The first Mormons who arrived in Colombia during the 1960s were mostly North Americans who met through congregations in Cali and Bogotá. By May 1966, the first missionaries began to arrive and five years later, there were 27 congregations operating in 10 cities across Colombia.
Much of the Mormon expansion was driven by a need to educate youngsters and by 1976, some 900 students were enrolled in educational programs to prepare them for future leadership roles in Colombia. The first chapel for Sunday worship was built in Cali in 1975, and when a powerful earthquake hit the southern city of Popayan on Good Friday years later, many members of this congregation played an important role in the relief efforts of a destroyed city.
Membership has risen consistently with numbers doubling year upon year. Today, the congregation is 19 times larger than it was just two decades years ago. At the turn of this century, the Mormons set out with an ambitious plan to inaugurate their 57th temple. Gordon B. Hinckley, then President of the Mormons said at the dedication of the Bogotá Temple: “What a beautiful building it is. The workmanship is superb. I have never seen any finer (stonework) anywhere. It is a beautiful and fitting monument to the good people of Colombia.”
The construction process of the Bogotá landmark was strained as one electrical worker was badly burned. “I thought we would never see the man again,” remarked project manager Brother Aluesita. “On the Monday morning after the incident, he was there at the job site and I asked him: ‘Why are you here?’ He responded,’because we have not finished our work in the temple.’ A couple of months later, his bandages were off and he barely had any scars. He worked to the last minute. I think he felt the spirit of the temple.”
The finished temple can be described as an enduring landmark in the north of Bogotá. Located on Calle 127 near the Autopista Norte, the Mormon Temple has long stained-glass windows, a gray Brazilian granite exterior and marble reminiscent of Inca design. When asked about the similarities between the Incas and the church’s facade, Julian Palacio Posada of the LDS in Bogotá claims that the “Inca temples are a testament to the fact that Jesus Christ was in the Americas.”
The temple grounds are landscaped with plants and flowers native to Colombia. The interior of the temple includes four ordinance rooms and three sealing rooms. The interior and exterior create a sense of harmony, peace and splendor. The temple was built with the highest standards of engineering and architecture. One of the objectives of the building is that it must survive the millennium.
The Church of Mormon is known for its missionary work with volunteer representatives. Sent to the four corners of the globe to provide humanitarian aid, community service and help spread their religious message, the LDS Church is one of the most active religious organizations in the world when it comes to recruitment. In 2011, the Church of Mormon sent 55,000 full time volunteers out into the field.
In 2012, after an announcement which lowered the age of service to 18 for LDS men and 19 for LDS women, the Mormon Church saw unprecedented numbers of young men and women fill out full-time applications. New missionary applications have surged to some 4,000 applicants a week; more than half of which are young women.
Along with the temple, there is a Mormon Missionary Capacitation Center in Bogotá designed to prepare missionaries for 18 to 24 month assignments. The missionaries are given their orders from the Church’s headquarters and are sent only to countries where governments allow the Church to operate. Missionaries do not request their area of assignment and do not know beforehand whether they will be required to learn the local language.
The Church of Mormon has always played an important role when disaster strikes. When a 7.0 magnitude quake struck Haiti in 2010, the LDS loaded a jet from Denver with 80,000 pounds of supplies including 12,000 water-filtration bottles, food, blankets, tarps, tents and powdered milk.
In 2011, after heavy rainfalls triggered landslides in Colombia, the LDS welfare staff met with the Colombian government to discuss how the Church could help out. In addition to distributing drinking water and food, the Mormons worked alongside the state’s Agency for Social Action (Acción Social), the Red Cross and the Catholic organization Minuto de Dios to distribute seven containers of clothing donated from the Utah-based Humanitarian Center.
For Julian Palacio of the LDS, much of the Mormon mission is Colombia is scripture based. Through a community-led initiative and growing volunteer program, “the example we make to others illustrates who we are.”