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Church deflects world's attention

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As the world tunes in to Salt Lake City for the start of the Winter Olympics, it will be serenaded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir while the spires of the Salt Lake Temple will dominate the backdrop.

But there are a few things it won't see: volunteers distributing copies of the Book of Mormon, missionaries in white shirts and dark ties proselytizing visitors, slickly produced television ads promoting Mormon values.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is doing its best to ensure the spectacle isn't the Mormon Olympics.

Following a directive of president Gordon B. Hinckley, leader of the world's 11 million Latter-day Saints, the church is trying to keep a low profile - as much as that is possible in a state that is dominated by church members and organizations.

"You won't see Mormon missionaries out on the streets or at Olympic venues actively promoting the church," said Dale Bills, a church spokesman. "We won't be on the streets. We won't be pushing leaflets in people's hands. We won't be at the airport.

"This was a directive from President Hinckley, that we would not use the games for proselytizing or aggressive missionary activity," Bills said. "If people come to our sites and insist on knowing more about the church, we'll answer their questions."

Not every religious group is showing such restraint. As they have in previous Olympics, evangelicals view the global gathering as a perfect opportunity to spread the Gospel.

Global Outreach 2002, an outreach ministry of Southern Baptists clad in blue parkas emblazoned with the slogan, "More Than Gold," has an army of more than 1,000 volunteers who will be distributing an "Interactive Pocket Guide" with athletes' faith testimonies, blank pages for autographs and "a clear presentation of the Gospel." They also will pass out that ubiquitous Olympic souvenir, a trading pin, with the ministry's multicolored star logo.

Youth With a Mission, an international evangelical outreach, will have a smaller presence of 128 volunteers who will be handing out souvenir copies of the New Testament and CDs of Christian music.

"It's one of the few events where you get so many international people together in one place at one time," said Eric Boshoff, Olympics outreach coordinator for Youth With a Mission.

The party atmosphere of the Olympics, where strangers stop one another to trade pins and friendships are quickly formed, makes the job of proselytizing, or evangelizing, as many Christians prefer to call it, that much easier.

"A lot of people just drop their guard. They'll talk to anybody. And they'll just about take anything they can get, because there's not much that's free during the Olympic events," Boshoff said. "By giving out high-quality pieces, people don't throw them away. ... People aren't going to throw these CDs away. They'll want to keep these things as a memento of the Olympics."

The Mormons aren't likely to begrudge them. Four years ago, when the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City and announced plans to knock on every door in the city to invite its citizens to become Baptists, there was much anticipation of a spiritual showdown. It never materialized.

"President Hinckley told the Latter-day Saints that when their missionaries go door-to-door, they like for people to be cordial to them," said Jan Shipps, a historian and non-Mormon expert on the church. "So the [Baptist] missionaries went out, knocked on doors and everybody was cordial to them. The story of conflict just evaporated."

The Mormons' low-key approach appears to be at least partly a reaction to early media reports calling the games the Mormon Olympics, or the Mo-lympics. Mormons make up nearly three-quarters of the state's population, although they are less than half the population in Salt Lake City. The church has donated several large tracts of land to the games, including a parking lot that will be used for the medals ceremony that has the majestic Salt Lake Temple as a backdrop.

But church officials point out that anything they've done for the Olympics, they've done at the request of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

"We have pursued a policy of 'upon request,' " said Bills, the church spokesman. "If the organizing committee needed something that the church could provide, they'd come to us."

The Latter-day Saints took no position on bringing the Olympics to Salt Lake City, and some in the church were opposed. "Our people were on both sides of the question," Hinckley told historian Shipps in an interview. His own opinion, he told her, didn't matter. "They are coming, and we are honored."

Shipps said she has detected a couple of reasons why Mormons wouldn't seek the spotlight that the Olympics would naturally bring.

"A part of it is simply that all the attention, putting the spotlight onto Utah, has revealed a lot of tensions that had at least been tamped down, tensions between Latter-day Saints people who aren't Latter-day Saints, especially on the Christian right," she said. "But they were coming pretty far along toward keeping attention on plural marriage played down, and that has gotten a lot of attention since. ... I can understand why there might be some people who might think that might not be the best idea in world."

But the church also recognizes a good public relations opportunity when it sees one. It is offering visiting journalists a list of 100 story ideas, many of them dealing with Mormon life and faith. After all, a church whose members wear sacred undergarments and that has temples that only Mormons can enter, where they perform rituals that seal marriages and families for all eternity and do proxy baptisms for the dead, is bound to raise curiosity.

And with thousands of journalists asking for help with stories about Utah and the Latter-day Saints, church officials are attempting to correct popular misconceptions about their creed, revealed in 1823 to its first prophet, Joseph Smith. They produced a short video, "Myths and Realities," featuring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, one of the most high-profile Mormons, and former Miss America and ESPN broadcaster Sharlene Hawkes. Intended for journalists and other visitors, it was first screened for executives of NBC, which is broadcasting the games, and Olympics producers.

"We're not getting too many off-the-wall questions," Bills said, although some do wonder whether Mormons are Christians. "People will ask, 'Who is Mormon and why do you worship him?' "

The church's nickname comes from "The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ," which is one of three works it accepts as scripture along with the Old and New Testament. In fact, not only does the church consider itself to be Christian, but also as the only authentic Christian church, a restoration of the church established by Jesus that was corrupted soon after his death and resurrection.

"We are neither Protestant nor Catholic nor Orthodox," Bills said. "Ours is a restored Christian faith, which we believe is a restoration of the original church that Christ organized during his ministry."

Church officials like Bills are greeting inquiries with good humor. Still, the nerves are starting to fray. Columnist Robert Kirby wrote earlier this week in the Salt Lake Tribune, the daily newspaper not owned by the church (it owns the competition, the Deseret News), that "by now that I can almost predict the questions. With varying degrees of sensitivity [or complete lack thereof], they all want to know basically the same things:

"1. Is the Mormon church trying to influence the Olympics?

"2. Are Mormons ready for the Olympics?

"3. What sort of effect will the Olympics have on polygamy?

"4. Where can we go to see some Mormons?

"5. Will you show us your special religious underwear?"

To which Kirby replies: "1 - Maybe a little. 2 - Beats me. 3 - None. 4 -You're looking at one. 5 - Go to hell."

Who are the Mormons? The fAstest-growing of America's homegrown religions, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - Mormonism -began as a small sect in New York and is now a global church with 11 million members.

Beginnings

1830: Joseph Smith (1805-44), living in New York, publishes Book of Mormon, a translation of revelations he said he got from the angel Moroni.

1830s: Smith and his followers begin move west to escape persecution for beliefs, especially polygamy (no longer practiced).

1847: Mormon pioneers, led by Brigham Young, settle in Salt Lake valley; Young designs Salt Lake City.

Beliefs

God as three distinct persons:

The Father, an eternal being with a glorified body, who created all people as spirit-children before Earth was made.

His Son, Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary and died on the cross for people's sins.

Holy Ghost, a divine spirit.

Baptism for omission of sins, life after death, physical resurrection of body.

Practice

Lay priesthood: Men share responsibility for congregations, serve as missionaries for two years; church led by a president and counselors.

Temples: Only Mormons can enter; used for baptism, marriage; Sunday services held in chapels, called "wards."

Family: Dominated by men, who confer blessings on family.

Ancestors: Church runs world's largest genealogy library because Mormons believe the dead can be baptized.

Famous choir

Mormon Tabernacle Choir; 320 volunteers; weekly live radio broadcasts since 1929.

Source: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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