Walking into the Cerritos LDS Institute of Religion in Cerritos, California, is like walking into a warm, nurturing cocoon. Soft laughter is the first sound, smiles on every side the first sight, and hands extended in introduction the first touch.
About one hundred LDS students regularly frequent the institute building at the edge of the Cerritos Community College campus. Here, a newcomer is easy to spot because everyone knows everyone else. Students come for classes, and they come to socialize, play Ping-Pong, study between classes, share lunch with a friend, and counsel with institute director Ralph M. McAffee—“Brother Mack,” as he is affectionately known.
“It’s like a refuge,” says student Teresa Thomas. “You might be having hard times everywhere else, but when you step in these doors, you know it will change.”
The Cerritos institute building is one of about 1,500 worldwide. The institute program can be found in 90 countries—from Argentina to Zimbabwe—with a total enrollment for the 1988–89 school year of 125,534. That figure includes 47,862 nonstudents and 2,052 non-LDS college students. The first institute was established in 1926 adjacent to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. Two of the newest institutes (dozens are opened each year) are in Nigeria at Cape Coast University and in Ghana at Nsukka University.
Some institutes have their own building, while many do not. Where many students attend institute, multiple classes are offered; with only a handful of students, one or two classes might be available. Depending on the nature of the college or university to which the institute is adjacent, some programs may enroll mostly graduate students. Others have students predominantly in the undergraduate age group.
At very rigorous colleges and universities, students usually have less time to spend in social activities at the institute and may come to the building for only one class a week. At others, like Cerritos, the institute becomes a regular gathering-place for young Latter-day Saints.
For Clay Blackmer, a business administration student and president of the Cerritos Latter-day Saint Student Association, the institute is an important complement to his college education.
“At this point in my life, all the education I’ve had—both in school and in church—is really starting to come together. I have important classes in college and important classes in the institute at the same time, and I’ve found that helpful. You really need that balance.”
Balance, in fact, is the reason the institute program was begun more than sixty years ago. President Ezra Taft Benson recently stressed that attending institute classes helps students to maintain a proper perspective.
“Young adults enrolled in universities and colleges or other postsecondary training should avail themselves of the opportunity to take institute of religion courses or, if attending a church school, should take at least one religion course every term. Joining our spiritual education to our secular learning will help us keep focused on the things that matter most in this life.” (Ensign, Nov. 1986, pp. 46–47.)
Institute not only provides a balance between secular and spiritual education, but it also provides a forum for discussion. Brother McAffee says his students frequently have questions about issues being debated in their classes. “They’re discussing all kinds of things in their courses or in conversations with other students—euthanasia, abortion, the lottery. These things come up, and we talk about them.”
The Cerritos Institute offers twelve courses throughout the day, Monday through Thursday, at times ranging from 6:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night. Subjects include the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, LDS history, celestial marriage, leadership, and genealogy. Whenever possible, instructors accommodate students who can’t make any of the scheduled classes.
“We have one young woman who can only come on Mondays for a Monday-Wednesday class, so I tape the Wednesday lecture for her,” says Brother McAffee.
A highlight of every week is the Thursday devotional/lecture series, followed by lunch. About thirty-five students regularly attend. Tithing funds support the institute program, so students are not charged for taking a class, though usually a small activity fee is assessed. Activities are usually kept to daytime hours and are not extensive, explains Brother McAffee, in order to avoid conflicts with studies or ward activities.
For Myrna Freireich, a business student, the institute played a pivotal role in her conversion to the church. A neighbor who introduced her to the gospel encouraged her to attend the institute.
“When I first came here, everybody was so vibrant, so alive,” Myrna observes. “They were really just so kind to me. Guys in the fraternity took me to the [Los Angeles] temple visitors’ center, and everyone made me feel so comfortable.”
Since her baptism, Myrna has continued to attend institute classes and has spent considerable time there outside of classes with what she calls her “giant family.” She is the only Church member in her family. The institute “and my neighbor are my support system,” she says.
Melinda DeLeon is also the only member of the Church in her family, and she, too, depends heavily on the institute and her ward for support. She has been attending the Cerritos Institute for three years since returning from a mission in South Dakota.
“For a lot of students,” she says, “the institute is like a family. It’s like that for me.”
For Bill Odell, the institute became a place where he could continue contact with the Church while struggling with a period of inactivity.
“If this institute hadn’t existed, I would have lost all contact with the Church,” he says. “Here, it’s informal. People attend different wards, so they don’t know your activity level; you don’t get the ‘What are you doing here—we haven’t seen you for so long’ remarks.”
Added to the classes and supportive relationships is a third ingredient—a healthy dose of fun. Before a recent devotional, about thirty students had gathered and were waiting for the meeting to begin. While they waited, they enjoyed one another’s company thoroughly—teasing, laughing, catching up on each other’s lives. After the devotional, most stayed for a spaghetti lunch.
Within many institute programs are three organizations: Latter-day Saint Student Association (LDSSA); Lambda Delta Sigma, a sorority; and Sigma Gamma Chi, a fraternity. LDSSA enables LDS students to be represented on college campus committees and plans service projects and other activities. Lambda Delta Sigma and Sigma Gamma Chi differ from their non-Church sorority and fraternity counterparts in that no selection process is required, and they are service-oriented rather than socially oriented.
At Cerritos, an outstanding choir has for many years been the hallmark of the institute. Formerly known as the “Grantland Singers,” the choir practices once a week and performs many times throughout the year—at sacrament meetings, socials, the Los Angeles Temple Visitors’ Center, and seminaries, where their programs encourage high school students to attend institute when they enroll in college.
Brother McAffee sees his role at the Cerritos institute as being much more than a teacher. He is part mentor, part counselor, part father-figure. Added together, the job is much more than full-time.
“I’ve found you do almost as much good outside the classroom as in it,” he says. “I do a lot of counseling—mostly listening, encouraging, directing to bishops.”
For Kim Carr, a freshman studying music, the Institute is her mainstay. “Every day of your life there’s so much temptation all around,” she says. “But you come here, and you don’t have to worry about people tempting you to do something you don’t want to do. It adds something to your day. If you come unhappy, you don’t stay that way.”
In the 1920s, people of all religious faiths became increasingly concerned about the rising influence of scientific theory that appeared incompatible with religious faith. In response, “religious foundations” were established at many colleges and universities to counterbalance this secularization of education.
At the same time, more LDS students were attending colleges and universities than ever before. The largest body of them outside Utah was at the University of Idaho in Moscow. There, a group of concerned LDS professors asked the First Presidency to establish an LDS religious foundation.
In October 1926, Brother J. Wyley Sessions was asked to oversee students at the University of Idaho. During the first year, twenty-five students enrolled in the institute. Two years later, enrollment had more than tripled, and the first institute building was dedicated. The three-story structure also became a dormitory for twenty-two young LDS men, who as a group became well-known for their academic prowess by repeatedly winning the university scholarship cup.
In consultation with others, Brother Sessions devised an institute curriculum that would meet the university’s academic standards. The arrangement was approved by the university’s scholarship committee, the university president, and the state board of education, setting a pattern other institutes would follow. Among the agreement’s provisions were two demanding requirements: first, that all institute instructors have a master’s degree or its equivalent and be capable of the level of scholarship required for the position of full professor at the university; and second, that all courses conform to university standards in library requirements and in method and rigor of their conduct.
The second institute was established in 1928 in Logan, Utah, adjacent to the Utah State Agricultural College campus, now Utah State University. The first institute outside of the intermountain area was founded adjacent to the University of California at Los Angeles and was placed under the direction of John A. Widtsoe.
By 1960, institute enrollment had reached 10,270 students, and it made huge jumps almost every year until 1981. The highest enrollment so far has been in 1984, with 134,590 students enrolled worldwide.
For some students, college disrupts not only a life-style, but also a religious outlook. Encountering new theories, facts, and ideas on a daily basis, students who struggle with concepts that seem, or are, incompatible with the gospel find institute an important place in which to resolve confusion.
“We want students to bring questions to us,” says Brother Gilbert W. Scharffs of the institute adjacent to the University of Utah. “That’s why we’re discussion-oriented in class and during office hours.”
Ray Burns, a student at the institute adjacent to the University of Arizona at Tucson, takes several institute classes a quarter. He finds his instructors’ ability and willingness to handle questions vital to his progress as a new convert who, for most of his life, had not believed in the existence of God.
“I learned to trust institute teachers while I was investigating the Church and took a Pearl of Great Price class. I would take lists of questions to my teacher, and he would patiently discuss them and give me scriptural references for virtually all of them,” he recalls. The class atmosphere also “thoroughly changed” his misperceptions about Church members. “I guess I almost thought of them as play-actors who never really thought about anything. Through that class, I saw how much they really believed, probed, studied, and worked to gain testimonies.”
For Jo-Anne Collier, a student at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, institute classes have helped her to maintain a spiritual balance since returning from a mission.
“I think of all my activities since I’ve been home,” she says, “institute has been the most important.”
Jo-Anne considers institute an important part of determining just what theories that she comes across in her major she’ll accept, and which she’ll reject: “You do encounter rubbish at times. Institute helps you not throw away what’s going to really help you through life once college ends—the gospel.”
Institute classes also help nonstudents maintain the same balance. Janet Brooks Norton had drifted away from Church activity during college, but a few years later, members of the Chicago ward that she and her husband, Phil, belonged to began friendshipping them. Soon, Phil, who was not a member of the Church, started receiving anti-Mormon literature from friends who worried about his interest in the Church. Janet didn’t have the answers; she had questions of her own. When she saw an institute class on Church history being publicized, she enrolled both herself and her husband.
“We took all of our questions to class, and our teacher made every encounter an incredibly faith-promoting experience,” she says of the class.
“I guess I don’t even consider institute a student program,” she says of her experience with the institute in Chicago, which includes members, new converts, and even curious nonmembers in its classes. “It’s for anyone who wants to learn, or who just might need some help believing.”