On Tuesday nights, the church at 2500 Rocky River Road buzzes with Boy Scout troop meetings, soccer games and young bilingual missionaries meeting new friends on their assignments far from home. It’s activity night for the Charlotte Branch – informally known as the Spanish Branch – of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Charlotte’s Spanish Branch was officially formed on Feb. 29, 2004, and it points to the pattern of growth in North Carolina for both the Latter-day Saints and the Latin American populations.
When the first stake (similar to a diocese) formed in Charlotte in 1972, North Carolina counted about 16,000 Mormons, according to mormonnewsroom.org. Today, North Carolina has 81,189 church members, with 12,000 in Charlotte’s three stakes alone. Charlotte’s Central Stake leaders estimate the Charlotte Branch is one of six to 10 Spanish branches in stakes throughout North Carolina. Others are in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Apex, Fayetteville and Wilmington.
“Many of the people who are part of the Spanish Branch were members of the church in their native countries, whether it was in Central America or South America,” says Bryant Baker, 60, president of the Central Stake, which contains the Spanish Branch and nine different wards.
The branch began as a Sunday school within what was then the Reedy Creek Ward. As their numbers grew, Spanish-speakers began to hold their own sacrament meeting, and eventually were able to form a separate unit with their own governance.
It now has 199 families and represents members from Puerto Rico and at least 15 countries including Chile, Peru, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The majority of the members are from Mexico.
Many members formed in the Spanish Branch are now taking leadership positions, like friends Enrique Alvarenga, president of the Young Men’s organization for ages 12-17, and Eduardo Eguizabal, first councilor to branch president Victor Cisneros. Alvarenga, from Houston, was baptized into the Reedy Creek Ward at age 10. Eguizabal moved into the ward from New York at 15.
“It’s a big family, the branch,” says Eguizabal.
“We grew up together,” Alvarenga adds. “Just seeing the youth – I see them, and I see a little bit of us sometimes.”
Latter-day Saints in Latin America: Mexico, which is nearly 83 percent Roman Catholic, has had a Mormon presence since 1875. Even so, the Mexican government did not allow the church to own property until 1993. The Latter-day Saints now have about 1.3 million members in Mexico and 5 million in Latin America, compared with around 200,000 in the region in 1980. The church built its first Latin American temple in 1978 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Today, there are 33 Mormon temples throughout Mexico, Central America and South America.
Bilingual missionaries: Young Mormons spend two years (men) or 18 months (women) as missionaries assigned to serve anywhere in the world to teach the Gospel. Many sent from Spanish wards or branches in the United States teach in a bilingual capacity. On his mission, Eguizabal served in Spanish and English congregations in Los Angeles. He returned in 2011. “I loved it. I grew a lot from it spiritually and in every other sense.”
Points of pride: Mormons generally attend the ward or branch closest to where they live. But the Spanish Branch is determined by language, not geographic boundaries. They hold a yearly festival, usually during the last week in September, where members and friends bring food, perform dances and wear outfits from their home countries. Alvarenga’s family is from El Salvador, Eguizabal’s from Guatemala, and they always enjoy the festival, Eguizabal says.
“It’s just a good time to get together.”