A decade ago, the Mormon Church had no ethnic outreach program and almost no minority members. Today in Southern California, 7% of the church's 423,000 members do not speak English.
Leaders attribute the change to a church mandate to include minorities, to missionary success abroad and to a high conversion rate among minorities.
"It's almost impossible to keep up" with the growing numbers, said Bob Decker, coordinator for minority education in Southern California for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "It's exploding!"
Tongans, Koreans, Latinos, Samoans, Vietnamese, Cambodians and Chinese have their own branches, sometimes even buildings, separate from English-speaking members. So do members with impaired hearing.
In Orange County, for instance, the church bought Tongans an old elementary school in Santa Ana. "They feel more comfortable that way," Decker said. "They're able to maintain their language and customs."
Decker traces the impetus to bring more minorities into the church to a 1981 speech by church President Spencer W. Kimball. He asked leaders to convert more ethnic members, especially Latinos.
After that, Decker said, "everybody got on the ball."
Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the church, Decker said. A Latino ward in Huntington Park had 1,000 conversions last year, the highest number in the country.
In Orange County, Latino membership has tripled to 2,200 since 1980, he said.
The church's strong overseas program has also helped increase the numbers of minority members in the United States, Decker said.
Every year, thousands of young people travel the globe on missions of religious conversion.
Once the new members reach the United States, Decker said, "a lot needs to be done to help people who may still live, in a certain sense, in a Third World country."