Church deflects world's attention

Mormons: Though it's dominant in Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will keep a low profile during the Winter Games.

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 08, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

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.

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