A sign in the parking lot of Vashon’s Mormon church reads “Visitors are welcome,” and sure enough, the Islanders standing in the foyer of the church on a recent Sunday morning offered firm handshakes, big smiles and hearty greetings to everyone who entered.
Five steps beyond the door, a visitor new to the church received a friendly offer from a member to sit beside her in the chapel — a large room filled with wooden pews but missing the usual adornments of most places of worship. There was no stained glass, no statuary or paintings, not even a cross.
Islander Gabriele Burgess played the organ, filling the chapel with music while around 100 church members gathered in their Sunday best — clothes that harkened back to a more buttoned-down era. Men wore suits, while boys sported white shirts and dark pants. All the women had donned dresses or skirts. Little girls were dolled up in lacy dresses, and toddler boys looked like miniature businessmen in vests and clip-on ties.
There were plenty of babies there, too, notable not so much for the clothes they wore but for the noise they made; their chatter and whimpers continued throughout the service. No one seemed to mind.
Members of the Mormon church — officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS — take pride in being family-friendly, and it’s certainly the case at Vashon’s branch, an unimposing but large brick chapel nestled in the woods near the center of the Island.
Large families fill entire pews. Game nights take place nearly every Friday. A Boy Scouts troop gathers on Wednesdays.
Mormonism has come under the spotlight in recent years, in large part because of a few high-profile people who profess the faith — from Gov. Mitt Romney to the new University of Washington president, Michael Young — as well as a multi-million-dollar ad campaign by the church playing out in Seattle and dozens of other metropolitan centers.
It’s also a growing religion. A recent study released by the Religious Congregations and Membership Survey showed that LDS is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States. The church — with its heavy emphasis on missionary outreach — boasts more members outside the United States than within.
Yet at the same time, it’s an obscure and relatively small faith — Mormons make up less than 2 percent of the American population — and James Copitzky, the branch president on Vashon, says misconceptions about Mormonism persist, perhaps most evidenced by the fact that the faith is not recognized by any other church as being part of the Christian tradition.
Copitzky takes issue with that stand. “Our entire focus is on Jesus Christ,” he said. “He is the God of this world. He is it.”
Vashon’s branch has grown steadily over the past several decades. According to Lynn Buxton, a longtime member, Vashon Mormons had to travel to Tacoma to attend church until the late 1960s, when a tiny branch was established on the Island.
“When we first started, there were meetings with 20 people here, just a few families,” she said, recalling how the church moved from one borrowed meeting hall to another. Venues included the Oddfellows Hall (now the Blue Heron Arts Center), the Masonic Temple in Burton and the Grange Hall.
The church’s present home was built in the early 1980s, with land and building construction paid for by the LDS church authority based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Today, according to Copitzky, the church has approximately 250 members, making it one of the largest congregations on Vashon — smaller than St. John Vianney Catholic Church, but larger than Bethel, a Protestant evangelical church.
Copitzky, a tall and youthful-looking 68-year-old business executive who eagerly shared the story of his conversion to Mormonism at the age of 30, is a volunteer at the church, appointed by the larger Seattle LDS church hierarchy, to render his services to the church on Vashon. As president, Copitzky is the presiding authority of the church, offering spiritual counsel to members and speaking regularly at Sunday services.
Mormons do not pay ministers, instead offering all men of the church the opportunity for what Mormons call priesthood, which gives them the authority to perform sacred rites, such as baptisms, weddings and blessing the sacrament — special bread and water that is passed out at every Mormon service in a ceremony reminiscent of Catholic and Protestant communion.
During an interview, Copitzky also touched on other practices and beliefs that are unique to the Mormon Church, including a belief in a pre-mortal life to which all people return after death.
In addition to the Bible, the LDS Church counts three other texts as scriptures. The Book of Mormon, the most well known of these, teaches that Christ appeared, after his resurrection, to an ancient American people, descended from Israelites, and formed his church among them.
To Mormons, these scriptures and other doctrines form the backbone of what they believe is Christ’s true church, restored after a long period of confusion that followed his death and resurrection.
Another controversial Mormon belief is baptism for the dead — a practice that LDS members believe helps their dead ancestors gain admittance to higher levels of eternal life.
That practice might explain the church’s strong emphasis on genealogy.
On Vashon, the LDS church maintains a free genealogy center — two rooms filled with four computers equipped with Ancestry.com software, as well as microfilm and microfiche libraries and readers. The center, staffed by volunteers, is open three days a week to all Islanders.
Another asset of the church is Morningside Farms, a 105-acre property on the south end of Vashon that was donated to the church in 1997 by Richard and Margaret Young, a wealthy couple who converted to Mormonism in their 60s. The Youngs lived on the property in a hacienda-style manor and raised Morgan horses there before moving to Utah. The couple died in 2000 in a car accident.
The Youngs had stipulated that the farm should be turned into a camp for Mormon youth and families, Copitzky said, a wish that the church has been trying to fulfill for more than a decade. But after years of paperwork and environmental review, the church is still seeking permits from King County to move forward on the project.
Today, the farm is an expansive and peaceful spread that includes towering firs, beachfront, stunning views of Mount Rainier, a large playground, an indoor swimming pool, barns, horseshoe pits and an indoor arena.
Two Mormon missionaries are housed in an apartment inside the manor house. Islanders — Mormon or not — can also rent the farm for weddings and other events or stay overnight for a nominal $8 per night charge, provided they perform work on the property while there and abide by the rules of the Mormon lifestyle: no coffee, tea, tobacco or alcohol, and no foul language or immodest clothing.
Copitzky described life in the church as “ultra-conservative” and unapologetically confirmed the LDS Church’s strong stance against homosexuality, same-sex marriage and pre-marital sex.
But he also spoke with conviction about the Mormon idea of neighbors helping neighbors. Each household in the church is encouraged to store a year’s supply of food and other necessities in case of emergencies — something that will help not only their own families but other community members as well.
“We have structured programs to assist people with the challenges of life,” he said. “We have an obligation to serve each other.”
In recent years, Copitzky has championed greater outreach to the community and spearheaded LDS cooperation with the Island’s Interfaith Council, a committee made up of church leaders on Vashon. His congregations, he said, helps prepare and serve food at the council’s community dinners and takes part in other council activities as well. From time to time, he said, he’s been directly approached for assistance by needy Islanders who are not members of the church, and he considers their cases thoughtfully. All such assistance — not only for non-members but members as well — must be traded for work, he said.
“We ask people to serve,” he said. “We don’t believe in the dole. We work for what we have.”
Yet even with a standard-bearer for Mormonism now running for the White House, politics didn’t seem to factor into Copitzky’s discussion of Mormon life, and no Romney bumper stickers were spotted in the parking lot of the church on Sunday morning.
When asked about that, he answered matter of factly, “That’s not who we are. We’re not a boisterous people, we’re not confrontational.”
Church members are highly encouraged to vote, he added, though his congregation was not exclusively for Romney. As for Copitzky?
“The fact that he is a righteous LDS priesthood holder — that is a special thing,” he said. “In our faith we believe in revelation. I do believe that some divine providence would be a good thing right now.”
Editor’s note: The Beachcomber, in a series called Finding Faith, plans to profile all of Vashon’s faith communities over the course of the next 12 months.
A brief history of Mormonism
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith, born in 1805 in Vermont. As a teenager, Smith reported that he received revelations and holy visitations that Mormons believe prepared him for the role of prophet in the church.
Over the course of the next decade, Smith organized the church and published the Book of Mormon, an ancient text he said was revealed to him by an angel named Moroni and translated from golden plates Smith found buried in a hill. Smith was murdered in 1844, but his followers, led by Brigham Young, eventually migrated to the territory of Utah.
Early Mormons practiced polygamy, but the Church renounced this practice in 1890, and Utah soon thereafter achieved statehood.
The church is still headquartered in Salt Lake City.