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Originally published Monday, November 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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In Nigeria, the new face of global Mormonism

Blacks once could not be Mormon priests. Now they're part of the church's dramatic growth in Africa and worldwide, drawn to the simplicity and family emphasis of a faith that some found on the Internet.

The Washington Post

LAGOS, Nigeria — Outside Zion Osandu Ndukwe's one-room apartment, a naked toddler ran up and down a filthy hallway lit by a single candle. The power in the overcrowded slum was off yet again. The stench of urine from the communal bathroom overpowered the fragrance of spices in the bubbling soup a neighbor was stirring.

But this night, the misery all around Ndukwe — the crime, the uncollected trash, the bathtub-size potholes, the cars belching black smoke — stopped at his door. It was a Monday evening, and because Ndukwe, 39, had been baptized into the Mormon church six months earlier, that meant it was time to be with his family and sing God's praises.

"I am a child of God!" he sang, as he, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter celebrated in loud, joyous voices a faith once known for its all-white, all-American membership.

"I'm a changed man," Ndukwe said, sitting on a bed that took up most of his apartment. "I used to drink. I had girlfriends outside my marriage. I don't do that anymore, and I feel better. The Mormon church contributed 100 percent to the change."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is formally known, now has more members outside the United States than inside it.

The church's rise from its roots in Utah to a steadily growing global faith in 176 countries and territories has been aided by the Internet, including the popular Web site www.mormon.org, which seeks to dispel the mystery that still surrounds the religion; by a satellite system linking 6,000 of its churches worldwide with the Salt Lake City headquarters; and by tens of thousands of missionaries knocking on doors from Lagos to Lapland.

As the world's largest faiths — Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Hinduism — expand across the developing world, smaller faiths such as Mormonism are also gaining strength. The Mormon church, which did not permit blacks to become priests until 1978, says it now has more than 250,000 members in Africa, including almost 80,000 in Nigeria.

Mormonism, which teaches that an American named Joseph Smith was a prophet who received visions from God about how to restore the true and original Christian church, had 1.7 million members in 1960. Today, according to church statistics, it has about 13 million, more than 7 million of them outside the U.S.

The church's landmark six-spire temple in Kensington, Md., was its first east of the Rocky Mountains when it opened in 1974. Now there are Mormon temples in more than 40 countries, from China to Finland to Ghana, and more than 8,400 Mormon churches or meetinghouses abroad, with a new one built nearly every day.

As the church grows in numbers and diversity, it is gaining global recognition.

"A lot of people think nothing but polygamy" when they hear of the Mormons, said Rodney Stark, a religious-studies specialist at Baylor University in Texas, even though that practice has been outlawed by the church for more than a century. But as more people acquire Mormon friends and neighbors, Stark said, Mormons "are no longer seen as a peculiar little sect. They are too big."

Jan Shipps, a Methodist scholar who has written extensively about the Mormons, said, "When a cult grows up, it becomes a culture."

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Finding "peace of mind"

Early Sunday morning in the dusty Oshodi neighborhood of Lagos, before the tropical sun pressed down like a heavy steam iron, the noisy streets were teeming. Women carried bundles on their heads — cans of paint or a sewing machine. Creaking yellow buses were overcrowded. Wealthier people drove past in ancient Mercedes sedans discarded by faraway owners.

Amid the seemingly endless shacks and open sewers on haphazard Llesanmi Street, one lovely place stood out: a gated, cream-colored compound with a steepled church. Inside the spotless chapel, about 170 people sat in neat rows under whirring ceiling fans as an organist played quiet hymns. Almost every worshipper was black, and every male worshipper wore a white shirt and tie.

One after another, adults and children walked to the microphone and professed their devotion to the Mormon faith. Their reasons for joining it were diverse, but nearly all had once belonged to a larger Christian church they found lacking. Perhaps most of all, they said, they were initially attracted to the Mormon belief that devout families stay together eternally, not just until death.

Joshua Matthews Ebiloma, 40, a sales manager for a power-generator company, said the Mormons offered him "peace of mind" he had not found anywhere else.

Nigeria is half Muslim and almost half Christian, and proselytizing foreigners, from the United States to Saudi Arabia, are pouring millions of dollars into the African nation of 135 million to expand their faiths.

Ebiloma has sampled a range of them. He was born into a pagan family and still bears the scars of tribal markings carved into his cheeks when he was young. After attending Muslim schools as a child, he tried various Christian churches before finding what he described as "happiness and peace" in Mormonism.

Now, Ebiloma nodded and smiled as fellow Mormons told their stories. One woman described the joy of having her family "sealed," a ritual that Mormons believe ensures that families stay together beyond death.

Another said she believed that tithing — the Mormon practice of members giving one-tenth of their income to the church — "would bring great blessings."

A third woman praised Gordon Hinckley, the 97-year-old church president in Salt Lake City, who followers believe receives divine revelations. "I know President Hinckley is the living prophet," she said, just as amplified clapping and stamping in a nearby Pentecostal church began drowning out more testimonies.

"It is quiet and more organized in here," Ebiloma said later. "In other churches, people are shouting at the top of their lungs, sweating so much they need a hankie. One thing I know for sure: God is not deaf."

Ebiloma said those quiet services, along with the fact that all the men wear white shirts, have led many to think that his church is strange: "My friends ask, 'What are you doing in there? Did they make you wear a uniform?' "

Many scholars say the Mormons' decision not to adopt more local customs — such as incorporating African drumming or dancing into Sunday services — is one reason the church has not experienced the same remarkable growth as other denominations. Pentecostals, a lively evangelical Christian movement, can draw half a million worshippers to their all-night services here.

The Mormon church has often had strained relations with other Christian churches, not least because it was founded in the 19th century on the tenet that mainstream Christianity had strayed from the original message of Jesus.

Nigerian Catholic and Pentecostal leaders interviewed about the Mormons said the group was growing, becoming more visible especially because of its fine buildings, but was still small. Others have taken issue with the Mormons' membership statistics, saying that by counting as members those who have been baptized, they include those who have fallen away from the church.

Among the places the church says it is particularly vibrant are Brazil and Mexico, which have about 1 million Mormons each, and the Philippines, with nearly 600,000. In Africa, there are Mormon congregations in 27 countries.

Ebiloma said he especially liked that Mormons don't preach that people of other faiths were going to hell and that Mormon church leaders are largely unpaid and support themselves with other jobs.

Abstinence from alcohol, another church practice, was a tougher sell. But gradually, with the help of his favorite part of the church — regular home visits from missionaries and other members — he abandoned his Guinness beer.

Now, the affable father of two said, he even tries to obey the church's no-caffeine rule. "I am so happy," he said. "I am at peace."

"If you are bereaved or you have a new baby or you don't have money to pay your hospital bills, church members rally around you," he said, smiling. "You tell me: Is this a church I should leave?"

A racist past

Ebiloma is a now a Mormon priest, a lay position in the church which, three decades ago, he could not have held because of the color of his skin. Influenced by the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, many Mormons in the United States grew increasingly uncomfortable with that policy — including George Romney, the former Michigan governor whose son, Mitt Romney, is now a Republican presidential candidate.

According to Newell Bringhurst, an American scholar who has written two books about the place of black people in the Mormon church, the issue surfaced again in 1976, hurting Morris Udall, a Mormon, in his run against Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination.

It wasn't until 1978 that the Mormon president at the time said he had received a divine revelation and lifted the ban against ordaining black men to the priesthood, which has since been open to all "worthy" male candidates over the age of 12.

Like many members interviewed in Nigeria, Ebiloma said he knew nothing of that history. "But I know this church is not racist," he said. "Here it's strange if there is a white person in church."

Bringhurst said the church has been "more successful among blacks outside the United States than inside," partly because abroad there is less "awareness of this past historic discrimination."

The main pressure for the 1978 policy change, he said, "came from the Mormon church wanting to expand outside the United States. There was a certain element of pragmatism. Potential growth was being impeded in places like Brazil and Africa."

A few miles away, in another Mormon church, Muyiwa Omowaiye closed his eyes and fell back in the arms of a Mormon elder until he was completely under water. "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," the elder said, as the seated congregation watched the 6-foot-1 computer salesman in a white gown being submerged, their eyes on a ceiling mirror hung above the pool-size baptismal font.

The role of the Internet

Omowaiye is one of more than 220,000 people a year baptized abroad into the Mormon church — four times the 54,000 annual baptisms in the United States. And like many people around the world, he first started learning about the church on the Internet.

The Mormons have embraced the Internet, and a new TV ad campaign in the United States directs people to find out more about the faith online. Millions of people first learn of the religion through its vast online depository of genealogical records.

The Salt Lake City headquarters has considerable oversight over the global church and transmits general conferences and leadership training sessions via satellite to churches around the world. About one-third of the church's 53,000 missionaries are not from the United States.

After reading about the church online, Omowaiye clicked his way to a dating Web site for Mormons (though not officially affiliated with the church). There he began chatting electronically with Deborah Hess, a relocation manager from Colorado. After corresponding for a year by e-mail, webcam and phone, Hess recently came to Lagos and married Omowaiye, a quiet, soft-spoken man.

"No matter where you go in the world, the service is the same," Hess said, noting that the buildings, baptismal fonts, services and hymns in Lagos were nearly identical to those back home in the United States.

Ngozi Ndukwe, a teacher and the wife of the recent convert who says the church helped him stop drinking and womanizing, likes this uniformity. She has watched meetings in Salt Lake City on satellite TV here and saw that the teachings in Nigeria are the same as in the United States — including the emphasis on ancestors.

A central Mormon belief is that even the dead deserve the chance of salvation through baptism. In temples — only Mormons "in good standing" can enter — baptisms by proxy are done with a living person standing in for one who has died, with names and dates of birth and death discovered in genealogical research.

"My daddy didn't attend any church before he died," said Zion Ndukwe, who said he and his wife are planning an 11-hour bus ride to Aba, in southeastern Nigeria, where there is a stunning new Mormon temple. There, he said, he will wade into a pool, surrounded by his Mormon family, and be baptized on behalf of his father. He believes the church teaching that his whole family can be together in heaven one day. "It gives me hope," he said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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