North Coast Journal


Mormons set a stake


by George Ringwald

YOU DON'T USUALLY THINK of church buildings -- those temples to the gods of mortals -- as the fuel of controversy. But the spectacular new edifice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rising on a 3.8-acre site in the heart of downtown McKinleyville seems to have fairly well split this community of 13,500.

"Some people love it; some hate it," observed Bruce Buel, manager of the McKinleyville Community Services District, which is as close to a city hall as you get in this unincorporated town. Many seem especially put off by the church's sheer massiveness. Buel says, "The people who've commented to me say, 'Wow! It's humongous!'"

So it is -- 25,832 square feet, according to the Humboldt County building permit issued Aug. 14, 1995.

(Edward Cannon in front of the new church building in McKinleyville, is a professor of recreation administration at Humboldt State University and president of the Eureka Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Photo by Brandi Easter)

"Seventy thousand bricks, if you're counting," notes Edward Cannon, president of the Eureka Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons.

"Stakes of Zion" were what Mormons called their early settlements. Ten wards, or congregations, make up the Eureka Stake, which stretches from Miranda on the south to Crescent City on the north, going to Willow Creek on the east. And those "Saints" of the title are all the members of the Church of Jesus Christ living in these latter days.

The church, nearing the finish stage in August, includes a full-size basketball court and seating capacity for a third of the stake's 3,500 members. It will have parking for about 300 cars. It will also have a genealogy room open to nonmembers. (The Mormons are probably the foremost authorities on family history.)

"Whoa, baby! That's a palace!" exclaims one Eureka businesswoman. "Where do they get all that money?" The short answer: from the members' tithing and the church's real estate investments.

The stake's cost is estimated at $4 million, which Cannon confirms is "probably about right," including "the land and everything."

That cost alone is cause for some criticism. The minister of another church in McKinleyville said he has heard people comment: "'Gee, wouldn't it be nice if instead of spending all that money on that church it went to helping some of the McKinleyville people?'" The pastor adds, "McKinleyville is an economically depressed area, you know."

(There is reportedly some dissension even within the church itself, with some members questioning the need for a building that big and that expensive.)

But then as McKinleyville real estate developer Mark Rynearson notes, "The whole Northern California is depressed at the moment."

Rynearson goes on to comment on the church itself: "It's a nice building, and it's going to bring a lot of people into McKinleyville to use it. I think it's going to be a benefit for the community."

That would seem to be the consensus of the town's business people, who see the church plain and simple as a moneymaker.

"They're gonna go to church; they're gonna see our cars," Greg Hendricks said matter of factly. He is the son of Opie Hendricks, whose Opie's Fine Cars Inc., a longtime McKinleyville fixture, is directly across Central Avenue from the church.

Of course, Mormon churchgoers are also going to see the new home of Mickey's Quality Cars across Heartwood Drive on the north side of the church. That would be Mickey Jones, who once worked at Opie's and who may just have a leg up on his former employer. Jones is a Mormon, and if there is one thing I have come to learn about the Mormons, it is that there is an interlinking of church members that goes well beyond your casual Sunday go-to-meeting churchiness.

Every church family, for instance, has a home teacher assigned to it, and that family in turn will send teachers to other Mormon families. One visiting teacher whom I met after a Sunday service in the Eureka Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Susan Bingham, tells me she has four or five teenaged girls under her wing as students. "We don't have a paid clergy," Bingham noted, "so we all have different jobs. That's what makes our church go."

(Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints neighbor, Mark Stewart, shows off the new view from his backyard.
Photo by Brandi Easter)

"We think the church is going to be a wonderful asset. We think it's good for the neighborhood, for the resale value of the house," I was told by Mark Stewart, whom I interrupted in mowing the lawn at his home behind the church.

Then, with a quick and sardonic wit, he added, "We all agree it looks like a nice Ethan Allen showroom," suggesting, in other words, a model of production-line mediocrity.

He took me into his backyard, to show the view of the church over his fence, and asked rhetorically: "Would you want that in your backyard?" He added, with the flair of a one-liner comic: "It's really ostentatious -- but at least with a certain gilded style.

"We're all looking at it from an economic angle," he added.

So, I asked with obvious naivete, it's not because you're taken with its architectural beauty?

"Of course not! This is AT&T. It's Big Brother. When they first came in with the bulldozers, I saw them pulling down the trees, and I'd say, 'Oh no, not that one.'"

A couple doors away, on another day, I found a young mother outside with her children. When I told her I wanted to know how residents feel about their new neighbor, she broke into a broad grin and said, "We call it the Temple of Doom. My friends and I are planning a party on opening day -- with Grateful Dead music."

She went on: "It shows a clear lack of planning on the part of the Mormon Church and of the community. They came in bulldozing and knocking down all but a few of the trees. It bothers me a lot -- enough that I'm considering moving."

I also talked with a young man renting in this middle-class neighborhood, who said of the church, "It's awfully large. Sunday mornings it's going to be jammed with cars going in and out. I don't understand why they didn't build it farther out instead of right downtown."

The church's red brick walls suggest to some a kind of colonial architecture, but then the pyramidal cornices of synthetic plaster topping the brick might suggest an ancient Greek temple, without the colonnade. In truth, it's hard to peg.

When I called Eureka architect Jack Freeman to ask what kind of architecture he'd call it, he burst into laughter. "I'd call that Mormon architecture."

The plans do come directly from the Salt Lake City headquarters of the church. (As do so many other things: the quarterly budgets, for example, and even the lessons for the Sunday schools, which are for adults as well as children.)

The building designs out of Utah come in two sizes, big and small. The McKinleyville church is obviously the big size. It's a meeting house capable of holding four congregations of the usual Mormon ward size.

Eugene Nichols of the Redding architectural firm Nichols, Melburg and Rossetto, which has worked with Salt Lake on church architecture, said the McKinleyville church is "designed to be as maintenance-free as possible, and it's built for long-term use." (The contractor on the job, also from Redding, is Mack Kevin MBA Construction Inc.)

Local architects, said Nichols, "take the standard plan and adapt to the site." McKinleyville, he said, has "somewhat of a Victorian era" flavor, and it would have been "hard to adapt to that." So his firm "took their traditional look and tried to make it a little more monumental."

The church, Nichols notes, is "looking for some kind of uniformity over the United States" in its buildings. Salt Lake is turning out new churches at a prodigious rate, completing at least one new chapel every day of the year somewhere in the world.

"When they're building these at the rate they are," they obviously have to look at costs and keep the design "very simple and straightforward."

In answer to the question of building this monumental church in the downtown business district, Nichols makes a good point in saying, "If we put this one in a residential area, it might be overwhelming."

Another answer, from Mark Rynearson, goes to the more practical point that "there wasn't another site big enough or zoned properly for it."

Some might say that it's overwhelming even in the commercial district, and nothing makes that more obvious than comparing the McKinleyville church with the one serving the two wards in Eureka.

Located on Eureka's Dolbeer Street, next to St. Joseph Hospital, the church is a big building of frame construction, with pitched roof and a spire that rises from a stone pilaster. What is so striking about it is that it melds perfectly with the forest behind as well as with nearby residences. It dates back more than 30 years, and it is hard to believe that the design for it came out of Salt Lake.

"The Eureka building is atypical, because it's wood," said President Edward Cannon. "Most of the church buildings have been brick."

At 47, Cannon is as lean and trim as a sprinter, and in fact he was literally on the run the day we met, rushing from one appointment to the next. He looks awfully young to head up a 3,500-member organization that stretches from Southern Humboldt to near the Oregon border.

Cannon came to Humboldt County with his family in 1982 after he completed his doctorate at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He is now professor of recreation administration at Humboldt State University.

Cannon, a soft-voiced man, seems at times somewhat shy or hesitant, as when he is responding to criticisms of the McKinleyville church building.

"Well, we hope it will look nice," he said. "I think that once it's landscaped, it'll look nice." He likes to emphasize that the church will be putting in about 900 varieties of plants, and he also pointed out that the church did keep the trees along Central Avenue in front of the church.

"We're trying to keep it nice looking. We're hoping it will be a real show spot for the community."

If complaints about its buildings were all that the Latter-day Saints had to worry about during the tumultuous 166 years of their history, they might consider themselves truly blessed.

The church's founder, Joseph Smith --Ýwho claimed that golden tablets containing the Book of Mormon were revealed to him (Catholics have "visions," Mormons have "revelations") -- was killed with his brother Hyrum by an angry mob in Carthage, Ill., in 1844. They had earlier faced intolerant neighbors from New York to Missouri.

Brigham Young took the remaining Mormons, after dissension within the ranks, to the valley of Great Salt Lake, where they got into trouble with the feds and local settlers because of their practice of polygamy.

It was only after the church renounced that practice -- after a revelation -- that Utah was admitted to the Union.

Religious prejudice against the Mormons endures to this day, and it has followed them to Humboldt County.

Douglas Baker, second counselor of the Eureka Stake and a loss control specialist with the State Compensation Insurance Fund, related this tale: "When I first moved here in 1975, oftentimes there was some seeming prejudice in the newspaper locally. In a religious column there would be ministers writing in, taking a format to blast other religious organizations. Sometimes we were the blastee."

It has died down somewhat, Baker believes. "You don't see the big billboards: 'Find out about the Mormon Church; come see our movie this weekend'" -- but it still exists in a lower key.

"There are, for example, organizations that show anti-Mormon videos ä issue anti-Mormon books. I'm familiar with them because someone says, 'Hey, I just saw this movie about your church. Do you really do this?'"

Some of this comes back to him through the church's missionaries, those young men in white shirts and narrow ties, or young women in equally conservative, no-nonsense attire, who go door to door in search of converts. They do this for free.

"They actually pay to be here," Baker said. His own son, Jared, left when he was almost 20 to do his missionary stint in Tacoma, Wash. "He was there for two years, and it cost him about $8,000, from the money he'd saved and that we contributed as well."

At any one time there will be about 20 of these outside missionaries here, coming from as close as Utah or as distant as Tonga.

When I showed my surprise at the numbers, Baker nods and says, "Throughout the world. Amazing, isn't it?"

Indeed. It helps explain why the church that Joseph Smith started with all of six members in 1830 had climbed to nearly 5 million by 1980 and today is edging toward 10 million.

The Eureka Stake is a microcosm of what is happening worldwide. The chapel in Eureka has to accommodate two congregations, one meeting in the morning, the other in the afternoon, as well as a group of young single students.

For lack of their own chapel, congregants in McKinleyville have been going to Arcata. But the Arcata chapel is already jam-packed, Baker noted, despite two expansions, and the site is short on parking. "We're busting at the seams," he said.

The new church in McKinleyville will take in both the Arcata and McKinleyville wards, and the Arcata church will likely be turned over to the young single adults.

Just as growth around the world has occasioned some conflict -- from the Philippines to Ghana, from Japan to Mexico, where Mormon proselytizing has gotten them labeled "spiritual imperialists" -- so it has drawn some barbs in Humboldt County.

The Latter-day Saints are represented on the Eureka Ministerial Association, which has been "extremely open" in the words of Baker. "We were invited, the Jewish faith was invited, most denominations are represented. However, other communities have been more restrictive and have barred particular individuals or sects or congregations."

Ironically enough, one of those "more restrictive" communities has been McKinleyville.

Up until some years back, the churches of McKinleyville joined together to put on an annual Christmas program, always held at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. (The practice has since petered out, as churches became more involved in their own programs.)

When it was proposed one year that they invite the Latter-day Saints to participate, a number of other churches said, in effect: "If they come in, you can count us out." The invitation was never issued.

Ted Calkins, pastor of the Seventy-Day Adventist Church in Eureka, said of that attitude: "I think it shows a lot of prejudice. I can identify with (the Mormons) on that. I've been in places where the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was not too highly regarded."

People are always telling Calkins that the Adventists, who observe the Sabbath on Saturday, "worship on the wrong day." He has a standard response: "I tell them, 'I worship on the same day Jesus did.'"

Calkins has nothing but kind words for the Mormons. He remembers, for example, that they purchased beds for the Eureka Rescue Mission. "They're great people to work with," he said.

Still, the efforts of demonization that plagued the Mormons from the start continue today, on the local scene as well as around the globe.

Dwayn Speers, pastor of the Assembly of God Abundant Life Center in McKinleyville, told me in a telephone interview: "We have a number of families very concerned about what (the Mormons) teach and believeä"

Such as?

"That Satan is a brother to Jesus," he replied. "They don't see any deity in Christ. They believe they're gods themselves, that they can attain godship. I have a very good video here, 'Temple of the Godmakers,' that exposes the paganism of the Mormons."

All of this is old hat to the Mormons. And they have ready and plausible answers.

That Lucifer and Jesus are brothers, for example, is "absolutely true," said Gene Welling, the 62-year-old patriarch of the Eureka Stake who works as a dentist in Eureka when he isn't bestowing blessings on the church's children, much as biblical figures did from Adam, on down to Methuselah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

What it boils down to, if I understood Welling correctly, is that the Mormon belief is little different basically from that of others in the Christian camp -- that Satan, or Lucifer, was in fact an angel, but a fallen one.

Incidentally, you aren't likely to hear leaders refer to their church as the "Mormon" church, although some do shorten it to "Latter-day Saints." Welling explained that "Mormon" is a nickname, "derived from our belief in the Book of Mormon as equal to the Bible." (In fact, the book is called "Another Testament of Jesus Christ" and its presumed author, Mormon.)

A man of robust humor, Welling went on to say: "That's not our name, but we don't object to it." With a laugh, he added, "We've been called a lot worse. We've been called by the Russians recently, 'the scum and the mold,' and I was very flattered to think that they would single out the Mormons in all the world to give that title."

At the same time that the Latter-day Saints have to fend off prejudice from outside, they stand accused of some discriminatory practices themselves. Their exclusion of people of color from the church hierarchy -- dating back to Brigham Young's declaration that blacks bore the accursed "mark of Cain" -- was a perennial cause for protests and charges of racism. But in 1978 the church reversed its no-blacks rule -- another Mormon revelation -- and its rapid expansion in recent years in Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well as such racially diverse U.S. areas as Los Angeles, has made the old whites-only tenet simply untenable.

Church membership in Eureka is predominantly white, but, as Baker noted, the population of the area itself is "very caucasian. We do have some blacks ä Hmong and Samoans."

The other challenge comes from women objecting to the all-male rule of the church. A church council of 15 white men heads the church from Salt Lake City: President Gordon Hinkley, two counselors and 12 apostles.

Baker conceded that "there are those who might feel offended" by the absence of women from the church leadership, but added that criticism is "absolutely rare" from women within the church itself.

When I asked Welling if the church also had a matriarch, he responded: "Absolutely. There isn't a stake matriarch, but in every home there's a matriarch, you bet. And, believe me, the one in my home is relied on very heavily."

As for the prejudice Mormons themselves encounter along their way, church leaders here say they see no point in responding in kind.

"I think the only thing you can do is do the best you can and live the type of life that you should, and let the chips fall where they may," said Welling. "I certainly think it's inappropriate to retaliate. It's counter to the things that you're trying to promote: peace and goodwill."

There is, however, an appropriate Mormon response to the criticism that their new $4 million church building is a waste of money. Joe Cusimano Jr., of Trinidad, went public with that charge in letters to the editors of North Coast newspapers.

In a telephone interview, Cusimano said: "The money spent on building this icon could have been spent on something better. I don't believe they ought to spend that kind of money with all the problems we have."

"If you realize what that building stood for," responded Doug Baker, "it's anti-child abuse, anti-spouse abuse. It's for honesty, teaching principles of marriage, of family, of community."

It seems fair to say that no church could be any more family-oriented than the Latter-day Saints. As counselor, Baker presides over programs for the church's youth --ÝBoy Scouts, sports, dances, a young women's summer camp (where he recently spent a week running programs for 116 girls, assisted by 34 other adults). And it obviously bugs Baker that tax dollars are going into social programs that Mormons teach and learn at home and in the church."

"Now we're spending dollars teaching people ethics. A class in ethics! Which to me is absolutely nuts. Ethics should come from within the walls of the home."

It is the teaching of such principles that, in the view of President Cannon, is responsible for the increasing growth of the Latter-day Saints membership in the area.

"We feel that a lot of people are turning back to traditional family values," he told me in an interview in his McKinleyville home. "And our church is based on that. Some of the things that we teach are not only family values and ethics and honesty, but moral values.

"We try to combat teen pregnancies; we teach morality, marital fidelity. We do a lot of service projects with our youth. We teach industry and self-reliance; we try to help people get off the welfare rolls. And we think a lot of people are turning back to those values."

Cannon, a lefty I noted as he inscribed to me a copy of the Book of Mormon -- which he just happened to have on hand -- told me that the book "was written here in the Americas, 600 years before Christ." It covers the period from 600 B.C. to 421 A.D. Cannon also told me that "Christ appeared to people here (in the Americas) after his resurrection."

Okay, so maybe that's off the wall to other Christian believers or theologians.

As a friend blurted out to me recently, regarding the Mormons, "They're weird." My friend is a Seventh-Day Adventist. And even as I'm thinking, well, that's kind of like the pot calling the kettle black, she is quick to add: "Of course, some people think we're weird too, going to church on Saturdays."

But certainly there's nothing weird about believing in family, in honesty, good works, self-reliance and integrity.

Cannon walked me outside to my car and put in a parting word: "Mormonism is more than a way of life. It is life."

He kind of shook his head and said, "There's so much ä" he paused, searching for the right word, "ä gunk going on in the world."

That's as good a word as any for it.


George Ringwald recently returned from Riverside, Calif. where he completed a book on the history of the Press Enterprise. He was a reporter for that newspaper from 1949-69 and Tokyo bureau chief for Business Week magazine until 1984. Ringwald requests that once a year, in lieu of a raise, we mention that he once won a Pulitzer Prize.


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