MIAMI, Fla. Miami is one of the few American cities where you can close your eyes, open them and convince the senses you're in another land.
Just walk its streets.
You can probably smell hearty bunuelos frying inside Colombian bakeries. Cuban mambo tunes always seem within earshot. Brazilian "mom and pop" curio shops can be spotted on corners, while many locals live in districts dubbed "Little Haiti" and "Little Havana."
Meanwhile, downtown Miami's Brickell Avenue is synonymous with international business, lined on both sides with towering banks from several countries flying their native flags. Biscayne Bay's ports are heavy with cruise and freighter ships from around the globe.
Miami even feels exotic with its spicy gumbo of Latino, Haitian and down-home Southern culture. For many lifelong residents, English is a second language.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Miami area reflects this vibrant community an ever-growing, fecund rainbow of people, languages and histories.
"But we are all one in our faith in Jesus Christ," said Domingo Gomez, a beloved Cuban-born stake patriarch who has witnessed inspiring changes since joining the Church several decades ago.
The Church first arrived in Miami almost a century ago via rail. J.C. Neubeck, a member from Palatka, Fla., was sent to Miami to work for the Florida East Coast Railroad. A few years later he was called to be the presiding elder over the few members living in the area.
The first Miami branch was organized in 1920. Brother Neubeck was its first president.
Since then, the Church has enjoyed steady growth. President David O. McKay dedicated the chapel of the Miami 1st Branch and, in 1960, Elder Delbert L. Stapley of the Quorum of the Twelve organized the original Miami Stake. In 1994, the first Miami Spanish-speaking stake was organized.
Remarkable diversity has marked Miami's Church membership in recent decades. Called "the northern-most point of Latin America" by some, Miami's predominant Hispanic population is evident in visiting almost any area LDS congregation.
"We have seen dramatic growth," particularly among Latinos, said Homestead Florida Stake Pres. M. Anthony Burns, adding many of the Spanish-speaking members embody a powerful, spiritual essence.
"This is a Latin city," agrees George Holden, president of the Fort Lauderdale Florida Stake.
Indeed, Patriarch Gomez and Presidents Burns and Holden like a good chunk of the Miami saints and their non-LDS neighbors are from somewhere else. Since the 1959 Cuban revolution, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have made their homes in the Miami area. Thousands of other Latinos from Chile to Mexico and the Dominican Republic have settled in Miami-Dade County, seeking economic opportunities and political freedoms. Europeans, Jamaicans and Asians round-out Miami's international roster and LDS membership rolls.
Of course, U.S.-born folks from around the country have turned South Florida and its sunny skies into a retirement haven. But Church leaders warn members considering Miami for some spiritual R&R should look elsewhere. Hard work is vital for the Church to succeed, said Roland Stedham of the Palm Springs Ward, Fort Lauderdale Florida Stake.
Brother Stedham, a meteorologist for the local NBC affiliate in Miami, admitted "a little culture shock" when he moved to South Florida from Southern California several years ago. He quickly discovered that leadership and sweat were needed in equal doses in the Miami area.
"I went from home teaching one family to eight families," he said. "The Church is young in Miami, there are so many converts . . . but you have a great opportunity to serve here, feeding His sheep at ground level."
Recently baptized members in Miami are given almost immediate opportunities to serve. Carlos Cruz, a Cuban-born member of the Fountainebleau Ward of the Miami Florida Spanish Stake, was baptized in 1972. Within a year, he was called to be a branch president.
"We are doing the right thing challenging people. People swim or drown," Brother Cruz said.
Yes, some have accepted the gospel and later fallen from the faith, "but those who have stayed have been strong," Brother Cruz said.
Miami Church leaders are striving to develop leaders among a membership rich with fresh converts.
They start first by cultivating missionaries.
"We've really gone all out to target our young men for missions," said Pres. Holden.
Individuals and wards alike have benefited when South Florida young men or women serve Church missions, he said. The missionaries' testimonies are, of course, strengthened from months of full-time Church service while home wards are blessed with promising leaders upon their return.
Returned missionaries of Latino or Haitian descent have had a special impact in Miami-area Spanish and Haitian-Creole wards and branches, Pres. Holden reported.
The Church's future in South Florida will, indeed, depend on the quality of its leaders, added Pres. Burns, a Mesquite, Nev., native who is also prominent in the Miami business community as president and CEO of Ryder Systems Inc.
"We place great emphasis on [leadership] training and development," Pres. Burns said. "Several hours are spent with new leaders just on training. We train people what to teach and how to teach it better."
Still, leaders agree the Church throughout the Sunshine State rests ultimately on the individual testimonies of its members. Faith-promoting stories in Miami abound.
Juan and Teresa Zenteno, for example, first learned of the Church in their native Bolivia. The couple, however, did not earnestly study the Church's doctrines and organization until the early 1970s after moving to Logan, Utah, where he was doing graduate work in agriculture at Utah State University.
While Sister Zenteno had long been attracted to the Church's beliefs, Brother Zenteno responded to an initial invitation to be baptized by declaring, "You will cut my head off first."
His vow notwithstanding, Brother Zenteno agreed to hear the missionary discussions. His heart softened. The Zentenos and several of their children were soon baptized.
"I remember attending testimony meetings and wondering, 'Why do they all say the same thing and cry?' now I am the one who cries," Brother Zenteno said, brushing signs of emotion from his eyes.
The family moved to Miami in 1979 looking for new opportunities. They were put to work in the Church almost immediately. Now Brother Zenteno said he is blessed to be able to serve as the Lord's instrument, enriching the lives of his fellow saints as a stake patriarch.
"In 20 years, the Church has grown much in Miami," Patriarch Zenteno said, "It is working because it is true."
Many Miami members point to the recent construction and dedication of the Orlando Florida Temple as a pivotal moment in their lives. For years, Miami families would have to travel to Washington, D.C. to be sealed and participate in sacred, testimony-boosting temple ordinances.
Later, the Atlanta Georgia Temple made travel easier, but visiting the House of the Lord was still an annual or biennial event for many.
"Now it's only a four-hour drive to Orlando," said Brother Cruz, who dreams of one day attending a temple in Miami.
Hialeah Gardens Florida Stake (Spanish) Pres. Mario Ayaviri called the Orlando temple "a great blessing" for even some of the newest Miami saints. Recently-baptized members are taken to the temple almost immediately after accepting the gospel to perform baptisms for the dead.
A new family history center in the Hialeah meetinghouse is also introducing many Miami-area members to the blessings of genealogy, acquainting them with their kindred dead and temple work.
"I have seen how happy people are when they see the work we are doing," said Sister Katea Estrada, who volunteers in the Hialeah family history center. "Some people may think genealogy is boring, but it can really be exciting work."
It's easy to spot the diversity among the Miami saints. In the Miami Shores Ward alone, gospel doctrine classes are simultaneously taught in Creole, Spanish, English and American Sign Language. The Fort Lauderdale Ward is presided over by an African-American, Bishop Kenneth B. Freeman, and includes bishopric members from South America and Haiti. A Portuguese Branch meets at the historic Flagler meetinghouse. A Polynesian brother, Bishop Sautia Masunu, directs the Hollywood Ward.
But Church members agree the key to success in the Miami area is celebrating diversity while forging unity.
"I don't see races or nationalities," Pres. Ayaviri said. "I don't remember if the members of my stake are Argentines or Guatemalans, they are all LDS. I feel the same about my Anglo brothers and sisters, they are all LDS."
Pres. Holden said he is optimistic about the Church in Miami. Often he stands at a chapel pulpit and looks out across a variety of faces gathered in singular faith.
"I think to myself, 'This is what the celestial kingdom must be like a rainbow of people.'"