'Spanish spoken here': Hispanic LDS are active gospel participants in three stakes in the Los Angeles area

At the close of a recent training meeting in the San Fernando California Spanish Stake, a priesthood leader approached his stake president and said, "This is the first time in many years I have understood every word."

His comment reflects the blessings - and tremendous growth - Hispanic members of the Church in and near Los Angeles, Calif., have been realizing since the creation of three Spanish-speaking stakes in the area - one in 1984 and two last year.The Huntington Park California West Spanish Stake was created in June 1984; the Santa Ana California South Spanish Stake, January 1992; and the San Fernando California Spanish Stake, December 1992. Elder John H. Groberg of the Seventy and president of the North America West Area summed up the purpose for creating the stakes: "To meet the needs of members so they can be more active participants in the gospel."

Before the organization of these stakes, Spanish-speaking members attended mainly English-speaking stakes. Elder Groberg said creation of the Spanish-speaking stakes produced immediate benefits: better attendance, more convert retention and better activation efforts. He gave an example: "In the Santa Ana South stake, the retention rate has gone from 20 percent to more than 80 percent."

These benefits, he explained, result from a greater level of involvement. "There's a greater understanding of the gospel, particularly as the priesthood leaders are able to interview people in their own language. One of the big things that several leaders have told me is the great increase in the number of people who accept and have jobs in the Church, particularly among the women. Because of a language barrier, they were hindered in serving before the new stakes were created. They have callings now where they didn't before, and they're being challenged."

Having three Spanish-speaking stakes here should not be surprising considering the statistics Elder Groberg related to the Church News. The Santa Ana South stake comprises most of Orange County, which is about 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The population here is about 72 percent Hispanic. Los Angeles County, which is included in the Huntington Park West stake, is about 40 percent Hispanic, while Huntington Park itself is 85 percent Hispanic. The San Fernando Valley, which basically comprises the San Fernando stake, is about 40 percent Hispanic. This stake includes the north and northeastern portions of Los Angeles.

These stakes, which together consist of about 9,500 members in 23 wards and five branches, contain non-contiguous units, which means the units are adjacent to English-speaking wards in other stakes.

Some projections show, Elder Groberg noted, that by the year 2000, the population in Southern California will be more than 50 percent Hispanic, and by 2010, more than 50 percent of the state population will be Hispanic.

Immigration contributes much to this expansion, which also means that a majority of the Spanish-speaking members of the Church here speak little English. For example, roughly 50-60 percent of the members of the Santa Ana South stake don't speak any English, and approximately 80-90 percent of the adults in the San Fernando stake were born outside the United States - many in Mexico and Central America. These statistics generally reflect all three Spanish-speaking stakes.

"Everybody is entitled to hear the gospel in his or her language," said Elder Tad Callister, regional representative of the San Fernando California Region. "I think this helps all people preserve their language and retain cultural ties. They do a better job in encouraging their own people to go on missions and go to college than someone who has not been through the same circumstances they have."

Elder Joseph I. Bentley, regional representative of the Santa Ana California Region, in speaking of the benefits of the creation of the Santa Ana South stake, said: "Members who spoke little or no English were previously limited in what they were called to do and felt they could do. Now members with limited English-speaking ability are serving as bishops, priesthood leaders and heads of auxiliary organizations, serving at every level."

However, this has posed a challenge since many of these leaders have not served in leadership positions before - especially at a stake level. "We are constantly training," said Pres. Ramon O. Giuliani of the Huntington Park West stake, who extolled the benefits of having leadership training meetings in Spanish. "Some time ago, I asked one of the stake presidents of an English-speaking ward about how many people from their Hispanic unit attend leadership meetings. He said one or two. That's one of the problems we solved in having a Spanish-speaking stake."

Pres. Jose Lombardo of the San Fernando stake related, "We have a training meeting every month for Melchizedek Priesthood leaders and for the bishoprics, respectively."

Auxiliaries in the stakes have also been focusing on training. Elsa Pappas, Relief Society president of the Santa Ana South stake said, "We go on a one-on-one basis. We train individuals."

Sister Pappas said she has seen a dramatic change in the Hispanic LDS women here since the organization of the Spanish-speaking stakes. "I've been impressed with the enthusiasm and spirit of the sisters - being young in the gospel - in developing leadership qualities. They never would have that opportunity in an English-speaking stake because of the language barrier."

The stake's March 1992 sesquicentennial celebration, she recalled, was the first indication the sisters were benefiting. The celebration was held in the stake center's chapel and cultural hall. "We didn't have enough seating. Sisters were standing in the hallways. That was a great opportunity for them to have a meeting where they could understand and feel the spirit."

These kinds of spiritual benefits are reflecting in other ways as well, such as in missionary work - and the results are obvious. The Huntington Park West stake has grown from its original seven wards to nine wards. In 1992, 486 people were baptized in the stake.

Elder Jesse E. Stay, regional representative of the Los Angeles California Region, said: "The South Gate 2nd Ward [Huntington Park West stakeT is overflowing. The missionaries complain that when they bring converts or investigators to Church, they can't find enough room to sit. These are the kinds of complaints we like. The Grant Ward is also having a hard time finding places for people to sit."

He added that a new stake center for the Huntington Park West stake is under construction in central Los Angeles - the site of the May 1992 riots. He said the building's dedication is expected in late 1994.

The Santa Ana South stake - in a little more than a year - grew from seven wards and two branches to eight wards and three branches. In 1992, there were 599 baptisms in the stake. A barometer of growth is reflected in the Anaheim 11th Branch, which became a ward just this month. The then-branch was joined to the stake in November with 160 members. It has since grown to 310 members.

"That ward is an example of missionary work and other aspects of the gospel," said Stake Pres. Renan Disner. "I attended a baptismal service a couple of months ago. I couldn't find a single chair to sit on. It was one of the most spiritual, well-organized baptismal services I've ever attended. There was a lot of support from the members."

Pres. Lombardo related: "We are working on improving missionary work and are training the new ward mission leaders. We're going to help the wards increase their number of stake missionaries and help members work with the missionaries. The key to success is we make the members more involved in missionary work.

"Through our stake mission president, we have a meeting every month. A counselor with the stake presidency is there, and we include the counselors from the California Arcadia Mission. We train the ward mission leaders, who then go back and train stake missionaries. At the same time, we're placing emphasis on members helping."

Already the San Fernando stake has experienced success with 65 baptisms since its creation last December. It has six wards and two branches.

Spiritual support of missionary work is not the only priority to members of these stakes - so is financial support of their own missionaries. And this can pose an economic challenge for many who, because of a lack of English-speaking ability, may lack higher education - and thus don't have high-paying jobs. "They are a humble people," related Pres. Giuliani. "Some of them have two jobs to compensate for lack of education. Their hearts are so big. They give everything they have."

Elder Callister said: "They have an increased urging among the people to get an education. They're encouraging their people to learn English, as well as retain their Spanish language. While they don't start with the same opportunities that many of us have who have lived here for a number of years, they are trying to overcome that at an accelerated rate."

Pres. Lombardo related how a Relief Society sister in his stake is helping others learn to read and write English. And the stake is making available to the wards lists of local high schools that provide classes for English as a second language.

Pres. Giuliani explained that young people in his stake are doing well in school. "They see the problems their parents have faced, and they don't want to go through that. We encourage education as a way of getting ahead in life."

Getting ahead does not mean leaving behind heritage, however. "We have lots of stake-level activities that pertain to our culture," said Pres. Disner. "For example, we have a stake event at Christmas called Hispanic night. We have Aztec dance performances and folklore dances, and mariarchi (a group of musicians performing typical Mexican music)."

Maintaining cultural ties and faith is important to the members of these stakes. And the members are spoken of warmly by their priesthood leaders. "They're extremely faithful in going to the temple, and helping on Church welfare projects," Elder Callister related. "They have a tremendous desire to render service whenever an opportunity is given to them. They are an extremely faithful and service-oriented people."

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