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.”