The ward and the community: A dispatch from the suburbs

My family and I are spending some weeks of holiday in Southern California to visit friends and family and enjoy the weather. We’re attending my parents ward, which was the ward into which I was born, baptized, etc. My ‘hometown’ in the southeast corner of the San Gabriel Valley has always been an ethnically mixed neighborhood; in the last few years the Chinese and Korean residents and businesses have dominated the area in a way some might find threatening, but it has improved property values and (from my point of view) made a bland suburban vacuum something more interesting.

The ward, when I was growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s, was fairly solidly WASM (white anglo-saxon Mormon). The draw of the language wards in the stake (Spanish and Chinese, later Korean and for a while Tongan) decreased diversity to some degree. In addition, a majority of our ward members had strong Utah ties. (I was very aware of this because we did not.) I grew up feeling like the church was separate from the community around it, something like an expatriate club. Very few of my school friends were white anglo-saxons, and my few experiments with bringing them to low-key church activities were uncomfortable and unsuccessful.

Twenty years later, the ward looks very different. There are still more ‘white folk’ than you generally see around town, but there is an ethnic mixture of members more reflective of the neighborhoods which the ward serves. Interestingly, the ward also seems to be more involved in the community than it used to be, looking for service opportunities and cooperating with other community groups. I asked my father if the diversity made the ward more involved in the community or the other way around, and he said it works both ways: the ward is more connected to the community because it resembles the community, and (relatively) more converts come from the community because it looks ‘normal’ to them.

I’m not saying this is a trend, or that this is a perfect ward. I’m just happy to see a ward reflecting the makeup of the community and in turn making solid connections to that community, rather than standing apart from it.


  1. Melanie says:

    Has the diversity increased because the ethnic wards have been dissolved or because there are groups outside of those ethnic groups? I seem to recall Mario DePillis brought up that element in a Sunstone article called “The Persistence of Mormon Community into the 1990s .”

  2. WASM is awesome. You’re good at using those Norbert.

    How do the minority ethnicities serve in the ward? Are they pretty involved or is it still mostly white leadership? I’m always curious about that process. Going from a white ward. To mixed. To having the mix fully participating in the leadership.

  3. Stephanie says:

    The only really multicultural ward I ever attended was in the outskirts of Paris. It was probably half white, and then half everything else. As far as priesthood leadership went, there was only one counselor in the bishopric. I’m guessing that there was no one else who was suitable? That was of course until a family from Utah moved in the ward, because the husband was there as a professor with a BYU study abroad program. They made him the second counselor during the four months they were there. I thought it was funny. Anyway, the bishop and his one counselor were both white. However, the RS president was Japanese and the Primary president was of African descent. It was a very interesting ward to be in, and it definitely reflected the multicultural community (with the exception Arabs… There are tons of people from the Mahgreban countries in France.)

    The community I live in is about 66% WASP, 33% Indian, and maybe 1% other. Most of the Indians are Sikh, so I’m sure you can imagine that we don’t get many of them coming to check us out (although we do lend them half of our parking lot during their big celebrations, because their temple is across the street from our stake centre).

  4. Melanie — I would call them language wards rather than ethnic wards, and they still exist. In fact, the Korean branch shares the building and their kids go to the English ward’s auxilaries. The difference, I think, is second and more generation minortites are more evenly bilingual and want to assimilate, especially the middle class. Some of the Chinese in the ward speak Cantonese while the Chinese ward is Mandarin, or the other way around.

    Amri — The leadership is ethnically mixed: Tongan bishop, anglo RS pres, Korean YW pres., Chinese YM pres., latino EQ pres and HP leader. If I had to make a guess based on a few weeks of observation, socio-economics is a better indicator of leadership than ethnicity. (There are those who live near the freeway and those who live on the hills.) I think almost all of the anglo members are over sixty.

  5. Peter LLC says:

    I grew up feeling like the church was separate from the community around it, something like an expatriate club.

    That sounds like the international ward in Vienna, formed when an American diplomat who wanted to worship in his mother tongue lobbied the stake to start an English-speaking branch. It’s now a ward, so I suppose there was some demand for such a thing, and the leadership is all kinds of ethnically mixed (Nigerians, Filipinos, etc.) and there are four German-speaking wards to fill the locals’ needs, but it is still kind of an odd bird.

  6. Our ward is one of the original units in this area, and the building is the oldest in the stake – by far. Members who were baptized 50 years ago in this town have been through numerous ward and stake reorganizations without ever changing buildings. Up until about 5 years ago, our attendance was almost exclusively WASM, but now our ward’s building is fairly representative of the area – three units, including two “traditional” wards and one Spanish Branch (that draws members from the eastern half of our stake and the leadership is primarily native Spanish speaking).

    In our ward, the YW Pres. is Black, one of the EQ counselors is Micronesian, our most critical Sunday School Teacher (released from the SS Pres. to teach the oldest youth class) is Black, and just about every active minority member has a very visible calling. The overall leadership is not integrated fully yet, but it’s getting there slowly but steadily. Ironically, we probably represent the overall community much better than most of the Protestant churches in the area.

  7. Mark B. says:

    An English language unit in Vienna had earlier beginnings, although it’s unlikely that there is any link to the current ward.

    When my father was in Vienna from September 1945 to June 1946, he and the other LDS servicemen worshipped together with the small branch of saints who had survived the Anschluss and the war and the Russians. Since none of the soldiers spoke much German, they met separately for Sunday School class. As you would imagine with a group of 20-something Americans they discussed some of the weightier matters of the law, such as “Should we pay tithing on our black market earnings?”

    That could have been relevant in the German language Sunday School class as well–the G.I.s got a carton of cigarettes a week as part of their rations, and the LDS soldiers gave theirs to the members. In the ruined economy of Vienna that first winter after the war, tobacco was a more valuable medium of exchange than currency, and it must have seemed a Godsend to the Viennese saints.

  8. Melanie says:

    That’s great that people feel they can go between the geographic ward and language ward. We had a fledgling Cambodian branch in our stake for a long time, and after it dissolved nearly all of the active people there (25 of 100s on the rolls) went inactive. It was apparently not an easy transition.

  9. Norbert,

    In response to comment number four, it is not true that third and fourth generation immigrants want to assimilate more. Studies conducted have shown that usually the first and second generations are the ones that are the assimilationist in their perspective, while third and fourth generation immigrants feel they have been robbed of their heritage, see their assimilation as forced upon them by racist institutions, and try to reject the norms of the dominant culture.

    I think that having language wards is important because it is one institution that (while indirectly)protects the culture of those who are not WAS in heritage, but want to apply the big “M” at the end of whatever PC label is currently being used to describe them.

  10. Norbert says:

    Chris — very interesting about the generations. I’ve definitely seen that as a teacher.

    I would hope that, as a critical mass of non-WAS members find themselves into ‘mainstream’ wards, the promotion of culture can happen in that environment as well.