‘Meet the Mormons Next Door’

‘Meet the Mormons Next Door’

Mitt Romney may have been defeated in his bid for the presidency, but that isn’t stopping some local Mormons from supporting him and seeking to educate the public about their shared faith.

In an attempt to shed more light on what some say is a secretive and close-knit group, Mormons of a local Beaumont congregation held a “Meet the Mormons Next Door” seminar Sunday, Oct. 28. The short presentation was led by Bishop Jeff Bingham, whose church on Weaver Drive in Beaumont boasts a community of at least 600. Citywide, the number is more like 6,000, Bingham said.

At least 50 people came to see the presentation, which lasted about 30 minutes.

Bingham, a local surgeon, and State President Bill Little, a Beaumont attorney, helped draft the presentation which, they said, would help dispel some of the myths surrounding the Mormon faith, including the prevailing stereotype that all Mormons are wealthy or are polygamists.

“Our congregations include people who have been materially successful in life,” the presentation reads. “They also include the poor and needy, people who have addictions and even people who have been imprisoned.”

As the narrator followed a slide show, she read aloud facts and figures from prominent, peer-reviewed studies comparing Mormon families to other families from different religious backgrounds. They said Mormons have a life expectancy five years above the average for women and 10 years above the national average for men. Their studies showed Mormons give charitably in higher numbers than the general population and most Christian religions.

“To some, our teachings are heretical,” the narrator said. “To others, our doctrine is intriguing.”

If history is any indication, she’s right.

The Mormon faith began in the early 1800s when Joseph Smith, a 14-year-old farm boy in upstate New York, rattled the prevailing Christian establishment of the colonial frontier when he claimed to have seen a vision of God and his son, Jesus Christ.

Smith, with the help of his converted followers, dictated the Book of Mormon based on his visions and said he was a living prophet of Jesus Christ.

A number of bloody confrontations with Christian settlers caused the Mormons to skip from Ohio to Missouri and then to modern day Illinois before finally settling in Utah, the modern day headquarters of the Mormon religion.

The crux of the faith might have caused the early upheaval in the still fledgling Mormon faith.

“We believe that after the death of Jesus and his apostles, unauthorized changes eventually took hold upon His church,” the narrator said. “The Christianity adopted by the formerly pagan Roman Empire as its new state religion near the end of the fourth century AD was very different from the faith taught by Jesus of Nazareth centuries earlier.”

Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy and the failure of a church-sponsored bank in 1838 were especially divisive, and eventually a mob murdered Smith and his brother Hyrum on June 27, 1844, in Carthage, Ill.

By 1890 following the death of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, the church had officially ended church-mandated polygamy and soon began disavowing fundamentalist sects of the Mormon faith, some of which practice “plural marriage” to this day.

Today’s modern Mormon faith is different in one key way: The financial woes of the early church are ancient history.

Although the Mormons, like other churches in the U.S., have not released financial records since at least the 1960s, a recent investigation by Reuters estimated the total net worth of Mormon holdings at some $40 billion and annual tithing income at $8 billion. The same investigation revealed at least $6 billion in stocks and bonds.

With so much money in the hands of the church and with the reported vast personal wealth of Gov. Mitt Romney, Bill Little said the average American might have an unrealistic view of Mormons.

“Perhaps if the average person out in the public doesn’t know other members of the church and they associate Mitt Romney with the church, that might be the conclusion that they draw,” he said. “But if you know kinda the run of the mill, your average guy who’s in our church, you know that we have all types of demographics and income levels and education levels.”

Little pointed to the church’s missionary program, a worldwide venture subsidized by the Mormon church that seeks to spread its message from door to door, neighborhood by neighborhood. Each young Mormon does a two-year mission, some traveling to far corners of the globe.

The church gives each missionary $400 per month, “whether you’re in very pricy Europe or you’re down in South America, which costs a lot less,” Little said.

After spending his two-year mission in Monterrey, Mexico, Bingham said his outlook on life changed dramatically.

“It gives you more of an appreciation for life and what you’ve been blessed with,” Bingham said. “Mexico is obviously a little bit different standard of living (than) we have here in the United States.”

Little said the financial prowess of the Mormon church is matched only by its generosity.

“The church may have a lot of wealth, but they use it in positive ways to help all its members all across the world,” he said.

The presentation also boasted of a church welfare program designed to help members in times of need. They said the program is an effective safety net for church members who need it.

“Typically, families depend on the food assistance for an average of three to six months before they are back to being self-reliant,” the presentation said.

As the presentation came to a close, a short question and answer session was held to address any questions the audience might have. Little answered a few questions, but touched little on church doctrine, instead inviting those curious about his faith to come see for themselves.

The presentation sought to be respectful of all beliefs and attitudes.

“While we seek truth, we certainly do not claim to have a monopoly on truth,” the presentation said, “and we are grateful for countless people of character, integrity and vision who have contributed to human understanding and advancement.”