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  • John McKinney

    Tongans, Samoans, Maori and other Pacific Islanders fill the Mormon Church south of Florin Road to sing and pray at the first of two services on Sunday.

  • John McKinney

    Sacramento's Mormon stake President John Cassinat, left, and Bishop Aaron Cocker of the Tongan congregation. Cassinat says, “People are finally asking us who we are, more than ever before.”

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Mormon church a widely diverse entity in Sacramento region

Published: Monday, Oct. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Oct. 22, 2012 - 8:05 am

At 9 o'clock Sunday mornings, as many as 400 Tongans, Samoans, Maori and other Pacific Islanders fill the Mormon Church south of Florin Road to sing and pray in Tongan with a smattering of English.

They're followed at 11 o'clock by about 300 Marshall Islanders and Fijians in Marshallese, Fijian and English.

Two miles away in Oak Park, 200 Hmong Mormons get services and songs in Hmong and English.

After the 11 a.m. Hmong service, about 200 Mormon Latinos arrive for services in Spanish for immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Spain.

At each of the ethnic services held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headsets are provided.

Sacramento has long been considered one of the most integrated cities in America, and Sacramento's Mormon stake, or network of 13 parishes, reflects that, said stake President John Cassinat.

"We could be the most culturally diverse stake in the U.S.," he said.

The 5,000 Mormons in Sacramento also include immigrants from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Thailand, the Philippines, India, Laos, China, Japan and Korea, as well as Europe and the former U.S.S.R., said spokeswoman Sue Ramsden.

On the eve of the presidential election featuring a prominent Mormon – Mitt Romney – "people are finally asking us who we are, more than ever before," said Cassinat, 53. "It's a novelty to a certain extent, and we're trying to make ourselves more available."

The nation's more than 6 million Mormons are following the race with particular interest, Cassinat said.

"But the church takes an absolute stance of neutrality on any candidate or issues," he said.

"We have a responsibility to earnestly seek out and study the candidates, the propositions and the issues, and then vote our conscience," said Ramsden.

Two of the candidates for mayor of Elk Grove are Mormons, though their faith has never been mentioned, Ramsden said. "We feel it's important to be involved in your community."

The church's embrace of diversity dates back to founder Joseph Smith, who ran for U.S. president in 1844.

"Persecution has rolled upon our heads from time to time … like peals of thunder," Smith said, "and no portion of the government as yet has stepped forward for our relief."

Smith said he would abolish slavery by paying every owner a reasonable price "from the sale of public lands, and from the deduction of pay from members of Congress."

Smith was assassinated in June 1844 by a mob in Carthage, Illinois.

He believed the first Mormon prophets sailed from the Holy Land to the Americas in 600 B.C., where they became the forefathers of the indigenous people.

Shortly before his death, Smith told his disciples to travel the world baptizing new converts, Cassinat said.

The LDS church encourages young people to do missionary work for 18 months or two years, Ramsden said. Those missions help explain the broad diversity.

Tongans and Fijians who migrated to the United States belonged to LDS churches back home.

Inosi Naga, president of Sacramento's Fijian branch, said he was baptized as Mormon at age 30 in Fiji.

"I used to drink, smoke, leave Friday and come back Monday when 12 missionaries came to my home, one after the other," Naga said.

When he converted, his wife "became the happiest woman in Fiji," Naga said. "We now have eight children."

They moved to Sacramento to be closer to a daughter who lives in Rancho Cordova and another in San Jose.

Before Fijians became Mormons, "we'd fight over women, land and who's chief," Naga said. Now, he'll vote for his chief, "President Romney. He was a stake president and a bishop, a man of integrity. I feel good about him."

At the Hmong service, two of the region's leading activists, May Ying Ly and Vaming Xiong, said they're leaning toward Obama.

"How we take care of society isn't from the top down," Ly said.

Xiong said he likes Romney's Mormon beliefs, "but from the broader perspective of what's best for the Hmong community, I'll probably go for Obama."

Cassinat, who hails from Wyoming, said he previously didn't have a clue who the Hmong were.

"I'd been embarrassed to say, 'What is Hmong?' It's been a thrill to learn what loving and warm people they are and get to know their culture."

Ly said she and other Hmong Mormons have clashed with other Hmong, who worship ancestor spirits, over marriages and funerals.

"My daughter married in the church, but it wasn't inclusive of the entire family, just Mormons," said Ly, who has a large extended family that isn't Mormon.

By excluding them, some Mormon Hmong can be cut off from their traditional 13 clans, a structure that's been in place for centuries, Ly said. When Hmong become Mormon, they take down their altars where they had prayed to ancestor spirits, and no longer call shamans to heal souls.

The church helps Hmong parishioners learn how to read, write and sing in Hmong, Ly said.

"And Hmong Mormons are writing books about our genealogy dating back to China, which is a treasure."

The church also helps Hmong widows and divorcees who have been rejected by their clans, Ly said.

"When they come to our church they get help. Older Hmong women don't have to worry about who's going to bury them when they die, because the church will bury them."

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