On a rainy Friday night, Washington Bien-Amie is bustin’ moves on the dance floor, one of nearly 100 teenagers disproving the stereotype that Mormons are lily-white, fun-averse squares.
With “clean” rap music thumping, the scene at the dance at a Mormon chapel is as unbridled as any school dance, except that the girls’ modest dresses cover their shoulders and no one is embarrassed to do the chicken dance.
With a backwards red baseball cap adding swagger to Bien-Amie’s white shirt-and-tie church outfit, the Atlantic High School senior laughs at the sight of supposedly strait-laced Mormon kids cutting loose.
“They don’t expect us to do this, to have this much fun,” says 18-year-old Bien-Amie, who lives in Delray Beach and was born in Haiti to a family that was Roman Catholic before converting eight years ago.
There are about 137,000 Mormons in Florida, a small fraction of the church’s U.S. membership of about 6 million but an 81 percent increase since 2000, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS, has more than 18,000 members from Key West to West Palm Beach.
And most Mormons in South Florida don’t look like Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential candidate whose campaign has cast a spotlight on the church.
At least half the 4,000 members of the Miami Lakes stake, or district, are Hispanic, with others coming from the English- and French-speaking Caribbean. The 3,000-member Fort Lauderdale stake has a similar makeup, and about 65 percent of new members in the Pompano Beach stake, which stretches to Riviera Beach, are Hispanic and Haitian.
At the LDS church in North Miami Beach, the congregation often shares food, music and memories to celebrate their diversity. That means chicken, fried plantains, black beans and rice and Kompa music for Wesley Laurent, who converted to the faith in 1982 through a Mormon missionary in Haiti.
On this Sunday, Wesley and his wife, Bernedette, are invited by the bishop to share with the congregation. They talk about their daughter, 13-year-old Joyce-Alexis, who enjoys playing the violin and dreams of being a singer and dancer.
“First, she has to go to college; second, she has to go on a mission; third she has to get married and then she can be a dancer or singer,” Bernedette Laurent tells her fellow members.
At this church, translations are in Creole and American Sign Language. Other South Florida churches offer services in Spanish.
“We love diversity, we embrace it and hope it continues to grow,’’ says Jim Robinson, president of the Miami Lakes Stake. “People may say we’re not diverse. That might’ve been true 100 years ago, but there’s a representation of every background available.”
New immigrants from the Caribbean, Central and South America are attracted to the church’s emphasis on strong families and a supportive church community.
“For me personally, it’s a family unit,’’ Bernedette Laurent says. “I like the way they have activities and different things for the children to do.”
The church is central to their lives, her husband says, but not to the exclusion of the larger community.
“Even though we are members of this church, we’re not disconnected,” Wesley Laurent says. “It’s not like we’re not part of the world.”
Despite the church’s growing diversity, there is one question that Donald Kelly hears over and over: How can he, a black man, belong to a church that didn’t allow full membership for blacks until 1978?
“I don’t look at [the church’s past position on race] as much as I do the way this church helps me become a better person today,” says Kelly, 28, of West Palm Beach.
Born in Jamaica, he converted to Mormonism in the 8th grade, the only one in his family to do so. He was one of the few black students at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where he was student body president.
“It’s so white there, I couldn’t find someone to cut my hair,” he says.
For Kelly, the Mormon tenants of hard work and education align with his goals of getting an MBA, “at Harvard or Wharton,” then starting a business, getting into private equity funding and eventually, politics.
If his desired career path sounds similar to that of a particular Republican presidential candidate, well, perhaps, yet Kelly won’t say who he’s supporting in the election.
“What I love about the church is they never talk politics,” he says. “Although as a church member, I feel closer to the Republican side of things.”
Outwardly, Mormon life doesn’t look much different from anyone else’s, but members’ weeks brim with church activities.
The Mormon week starts with three hours of church on Sunday. Monday Home Evenings are set aside for Gospel study, games and family activities. Youth groups meet once a week, and single adults have their own weekly meetings. Every morning before school, high school students gather at their local churches at 5 or 6 a.m. to learn about God.
Activities like the Mormon teen dance in Boca Raton are designed to reinforce Mormon values while giving kids who can’t wear bikinis to the beach or date until they’re 16 a place to feel normal.
“Mormon kids often feel a little different from their peers,” says Shauna Hostetler, a lifelong LDS member from Wellington. “We try to help them feel proud of being different.”
Barbara Marshall is a staff writer for The Palm Beach Post, a Miami Herald news partner.