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Switzerland

Mormons In Switzerland: When A Minority Religion Blends In To The Scenery

In a country that has banned the building of Muslim minarets, Mormons have set up a new community center with its own, unmarked tower. The locals don’t seem to mind.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plaque in German
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plaque in German
Helene Arnet

At first glance, the slender tower near the Bonstetten-Wettswil railway station looks like a minaret that is missing its crescent. Indeed, the tower shows no symbol at all. In the future, a modest plaque will explain which religious community has found a home here: the Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is building a new community center with a chapel in Bonstetten, a small town in the Swiss canton of Zurich. Starting this winter, about 120 people will come here for Sunday services.

At first, the Zurich Mormons were a little skeptical about the new construction, says Christian Gräub, spokesman for the religious community. The tower in particular caused some commotion – because it resembled a cell phone antenna.

"When we assured people that the tower will have no bells and loud speakers, the concerns died down," says Gräub.

The city's administration is just as calm. Municipal clerk Primus Kaiser says: "We examined whether the proposal fulfills the legal requirements and asked a few more questions."

The project did not make strong waves in the city, and few seemed afraid that Bonstetten could turn into a center for Mormons to come to live. Christian Gräub does not believe that many Mormons will move to the area because of the new community center. He said: "Bonstetten's easy accessibility played an important role in choosing this location."

An American religion in foreign settings

The new community center replaces the center in Zurich-Altstetten that was built for 60 people and has long exceeded its capacity. In the Zurich area, Mormons are not suffering from the widespread decrease in membership other denominations are facing. Many international companies attract American Mormon employees.

"This means that we are a fairly international community," says Gräub.

In the canton of Zurich, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has community centers in Schwamendingen, Diesldorf, Wetzikon, Winterthur and Richterswil. Overall, there are about 8000 Mormons in Switzerland; the congregation in Zürich has roughly 600 members.

Christian Gräub leads us through the skeletal structure of the new community center and explains what happens during the three-hour service. First, congregants meet in the modest chapel for the communion service. Mormons don't have priests as in other Christian denominations. The community leader, or bishop, and his two advisors lead the service. The chapel has room for about 200 people. In the future, "worldly" events such as dances and theater performances can take place there, too. And those will be open to the public, since the community center is not a temple just for deeply religious Mormons. After the service, attendees go to different classrooms for Sunday school where they read, study and discuss the Holy Scripture with a teacher, using approaches adapted for each age-group. After that, men and women meet separately in groups to talk about their roles in the community.

Gräub points to a small pool. A spa in the community center? No, although activities there should be soothing. We are looking at the future baptismal font. In the tradition of John the Baptist, Mormons baptize by dipping the whole person in the bath from the age of eight upwards.

"They should be able to make independent decisions and distinguish good from evil," Gräub explains. The baptism of adults is very common.

Christian Gräub is a sober-minded man, who responds calmly to even the most critical questions. His family is a fifth-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His great, great grandmother joined the faith in 1897 and was one of only a few Swiss Mormons who did not leave the country for the US. He works in the management of a small construction contracting company and has been living in Wettswill for 10 years.. His four children attend the local elementary school or kindergarten.

In everyday life, Mormons are not recognizable by their religious affiliation, even though their faith demands a lot of them. Gräub, for example, spent two years as a missionary, as expected by his church. One year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was sent to East Germany and remembers how difficult he found it at first to start talking to strangers. "But I got used to it quickly. It led to many interesting conversations," he says.

Today, he serves his community as a teacher, choir leader and organist, and frequently gives speeches during services. Once a month, he and his wife visit the Mormon temple in Zollikhofen.

Asked about the secret ceremonies that are only available to devout Mormons in the temple, he says: "There is a cloistral atmosphere that helps with silent contemplation."

When he visited the Mormon state of Utah in the US for the first time, he was surprised by how small a role religion played in the daily lives of many people. In Utah, people are Mormons in the same way they are Catholic or Protestant in Switzerland.

"Mormons here, on the other hand, have to be very religious and be engaged in the life of our community," he says.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Rainer Ebert

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