City of Angels

In which stake of the Church are more than nineteen languages spoken? What American city has the tenth largest Spanish-speaking population in the world? In which stake are single members of the Church a majority? Where do some of the Church’s wealthiest members serve beside some of the poorest?

The answer—Los Angeles, California. Yet these questions frame only part of the complex picture of this rapidly changing urban area, where Church leaders try hard to maintain traditional values against great odds. This rich diversity is most clearly found in the Los Angeles California Stake, but it also spices many of the Church’s thirty-nine surrounding stakes in the Los Angeles area.

The Angels—as the city’s name translates—is less a single city than a network of cities. Los Angeles is truly a megalopolis—many metropolitan areas sprawling snugly and at times densely together. They press along the Pacific shoreline for nearly eighty miles and up onto the San Gabriel Mountains thirty miles inland. Below the mountains, more than eight million people live within an area so immense that it could accommodate Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, and New York City.

Not unlike the jigsaw puzzle that makes up municipal Los Angeles, with interlocking and gerrymandered pieces, the wards and stakes of L.A. make a maze of a map. A snarled string of overlapping lines divide up the 3 missions, 6 regions, 40 stakes, and 326 wards and branches that serve the most urban section of greater Los Angeles.

For two million L.A. residents—almost one-fourth—Spanish is the native language. From the early days, pockets of Spanish-speaking communities have been scattered throughout the area. In addition, during the past two decades, a growing number of Asian, Polynesian, Middle Eastern, and other ethnic enclaves have developed, carrying names like Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Tehran, Little Samoa, and dozens of others.

Each of the three missions has one or more of these large ethnic communities within its boundaries. For example, the California Anaheim Mission, which serves the three million people of Orange County, claims to have the largest concentration of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam. Called Little Saigon, the area is now home to more than 70,000 expatriates, an increase of 300 percent since 1980. A growing branch has been formed there with 130 members. Within the boundaries of the Anaheim mission, there are one Tongan ward, two Samoan wards, and a Korean branch scattered among the fifteen stakes. By far the largest ethnic group in Orange County, however, lives in Santa Ana, which is approximately 70 percent Latino, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico or from Latin American countries.

To better serve this community, a Spanish-speaking stake was formed in January 1992. Renan Disner was called to preside over the new Santa Ana California South Stake and meet the needs of members who speak little or no English in six adjoining stakes. A native of southern Mexico, President Disner remembers his arrival in a small branch of the Santa Ana stake seven years ago. That small branch has now been divided to form four wards. Those four wards of Spanish-speaking members have become the nucleus of the new stake. Five other stakes—Garden Grove, Cypress, Fullerton, Laguna Niguel, and Newport Beach stakes—have each contributed a Spanish-speaking unit to the stake.

The first Spanish-speaking stake in California, the Huntington Park West stake, is in the California Los Angeles Mission, spanning four stakes—Los Angeles, Downey, Inglewood, and Santa Monica. The California Los Angeles Mission also includes Watts, one of the nation’s largest black communities, where a majority of the area’s one-half million blacks live.

Two other large ethnic enclaves reside in the third mission, California Arcadia: 40,000 Armenians, reportedly the largest community in the world outside of Armenia; and the highest concentration of Mandarin Chinese outside the Orient.

As the L.A. area grows and changes, so has the Church in all of southern California. Although urban problems of crime and poverty have introduced increasing challenges to its members and leaders, the Church remains committed to serving the members in urban Los Angeles.

“We’ve planted the standard of Zion here,” says Elder John H. Groberg, of the Seventy, who currently serves as area president. “The greatest challenge for members here is the same as it is anywhere—keeping the commandments. People may think of drugs, unwed pregnancy, child abuse, and homosexuality as social problems in urban areas. But they are spiritual problems.”

Having spent much of his adult life in non-English-speaking cultures, Elder Groberg speaks with considerable understanding about ethnic and cultural differences. “Our prime role in southern California, or anywhere else, is not to teach people English or how to become American. Gospel standards and the message of the Atonement and the Restoration don’t vary from language to language. We declare Christ, not English; our mission is not limited to culture. The language we’re really teaching is the language of God, his commandments and covenants.

“As a Church, we believe there is value in teaching the gospel in the languages of the earth, because your mother tongue is the language of your heart. Once the gospel is in your heart, it helps you become a better person, a better citizen, able to express your own culture at a higher level.

“The role of the Church,” Elder Groberg says, “is to assist the people of the earth to live the gospel, which will inevitably enhance the best parts of any culture. As any culture or ethnic group lives the gospel, that culture becomes more rather than less distinct.

“Any culture living the gospel will be more closely tied to others who live the gospel and will also be more separated from the world.

“The recent riots point out more than ever the need for the gospel. People who understand and live its principles would not be involved in beating others but in helping them. They would not be involved in stealing and destroying but in giving and building. The real need is gospel living. It is the solution to these and all problems.

“We sometimes see areas of problems and want to look the other way or flee from them, but actually some of those areas are where the gospel is needed most. The Lord said he came not to those who are well but to those that are sick. [See Matt. 9:12–13.] We must do likewise.”

If the changing complexion of the Church can be seen in the ethnic diversity in Los Angeles, other changes are equally observable in the individuals and families that make up its wards and branches. For example, among the more than 3,000 members of the Los Angeles California Stake, the average family size is 1.8 people; 67 percent of women over age eighteen are single; 60 percent of all members are single; and only 10 percent of the members of the stake live in traditional families, with father and mother in the home. In the entire stake, there are only 192 Primary-age children, 80 Aaronic Priesthood-age young men, and 70 members of Young Women.

Many young professionals have streamed from throughout the U.S. to jobs in Los Angeles. “Some just want to come down here to get lost,” one bishop said. More often than not, though, single members, both men and women, have made tremendous contributions—serving in ways they might not be asked to serve in other areas of the Church. For example, Los Angeles stake president Howard B. Anderson says that when callings in the stake are made, he is blind as to marital status, and he is blind to gender as well whenever possible.

Singles wards provide vital support to many members, some of them beyond the customary age, because they have a need to be there. Elder Groberg explains: “The Church must feel the people’s needs before it can fill those needs. This is true for single members of various ages, who often have need of worship with others facing the same challenges they do, where they can find encouragement, enjoyment, and solace. Yet consider how similar this need is to the need of those who desire to have the gospel taught in their own language. Leaders in the Los Angeles area are very aware of and devoted to meeting the many widely varied needs.”

[photos] Photography by Craig Dimond

[photos] Bishop Jose A. Ramirez and his wife, Martha, with their children, Jessica, Melissa, and Joshua, of the Southgate Second Ward, Huntington Park West stake. The background scene is a busy street in West Los Angeles.

[photo] President John H. Groberg of the Seventy presides over the North America West Area of the Church, made up of 176 stakes, 39 regions, and 13 missions in California and Hawaii.