The Mormon church has selected its first-ever Latin American and Asian-American apostles, diversifying a leadership group overwhelmingly made up of white men from the United States.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the addition of Ulisses Soares, a Brazilian Mormon, and Gerrit W. Gong, a Chinese-American, to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on Saturday. The quorum is the second-highest governing body within the church. Its members, called apostles, help set policies for the global religion.
Before Saturday, the quorum was made up of Americans and one German, Dieter Uchtdorf. Soares and Gong are filling vacancies left by the recent deaths of former President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Robert D. Hales.
Mormons believe that their leaders are chosen by divine revelation. But succession in the church also follows a set of predictable guidelines. Within the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the longest-serving member is traditionally appointed as the president of the entire denomination.
This means that either Soares or Gong could someday become the church’s president. Women are not allowed to join the Mormon priesthood.
Both men previously served on a lower-ranking church body, the Presidency of the Seventy. Soares, 59, was born in Sao Paulo. He was an accountant and auditor for multinational corporations before being selected for a church leadership position, according to a biography on the LDS church’s website.
Brazil has one of the largest populations of Mormons outside of the United States. Church figures indicate that the country is home to more than 1.3 million members.
Gong, 64, was born in California and attended the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University. He worked for the U.S. State Department and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies before becoming a church leader.
Although the Mormon church was founded in the United States, it has experienced dramatic growth outside the country, driven partly by the work of Mormon missionaries. Today, more than half of the LDS church’s 16 million members reside outside of the U.S., according to The Associated Press.
The new additions to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reflect the “rising focus of church leadership on the world outside the United States, where the church is growing most rapidly,” Mormon scholar Matthew Bowman, of Henderson State University, told the AP.
The announcement about Gong and Soares came during a twice-yearly general conference in Salt Lake City, where the Mormon church is headquartered.
At the two-day conference, which was broadcast in more than 90 languages to viewers around the world, the church confirmed its new president, the 93-year-old Russell M. Nelson, and two top counselors.
Nelson announced proposals to build seven new temples, which would bring the total number of planned temples to 189 worldwide. Nelson said one of the new temples will be constructed in a “yet to be determined” major city in Russia. Mormon missionaries are banned from publicly proselytizing in that country, the AP reports.
Speakers at the conference did not directly address controversies about sexual harassment and abuse that have captured some Mormons’ attention in recent days.
One day before the conference began, hundreds of Mormons and former members of the church marched to the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City to demand an end to the practice of allowing local church leaders to hold one-on-one interviews with youth. The organizers claim the leaders are able to ask the youth deeply personal questions about sex during these interviews.
The church recently changed its policy on the interviews by giving kids the option of bringing a parent or adult with them. But protesters say that the new guidelines don’t go far enough ― and that the church should require adults in the room during the personal interviews.
A heckler reportedly interrupted the conference three times by shouting, “Stop protecting sexual predators!”
The church is also facing allegations that a former missionary training center leader sexually assaulted two women in the 1980s. The ex-leader denies the accusations.
On March 26, the church updated its guidelines for preventing and responding to sexual abuse allegations.