By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
Language is no barrier for the Mormon message.
The last decade has shown that Spanish speakers are among the majority of the Church's newest members.
Between 2000 and 2006, the number of Spanish-speaking congregations in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew by 64 percent, according to a recent Associated Press report.
The U.S. total was recalculated to 639.
Arizona was the state that experienced the highest increase of Spanish-speaking congregations, citing a total of 44. In 2000, there were only 20.
Texas didn't have that kind of growth, but the number of Spanish-speaking Mormons was high when the race began. Bilingual Houston already had an entire stake devoted to Spanish-speaking Mormons. (See the info box for definition of stake.)
The individual wards reported minimal increases.
For the Mormon church in Temple, that minimal increase meant the addition of a Spanish branch.
'In 2004, there were more Spanish people coming to meetings, about 30 of them,' said Holly Billings, Relief Society president of the Spanish branch. 'But they couldn't participate because of the language.'
That's when the elders of the church voted to establish a Spanish branch. Mrs. Billings and her husband, Jim, were one of three couples called by church leadership to teach the Spanish branch how to lead meetings and teach classes.
'There's no paid clergy within the Mormon Church,' Mrs. Billings said, explaining church organization. 'The leadership comes from the membership.'
Unlike her husband and the other two couples, Mrs. Billings didn't speak Spanish.
'I had to learn the language, so I could lead as I was called,' Mrs. Billings said. 'It was a humbling experience, but I can see the progress. The Spanish branch is almost ready to become its own ward.'
Called to duty
'At first I was just coming along because my husband spoke Spanish,' Mrs. Billings said.
Church leaders had asked Mr. Billings to be the president of the Spanish branch men's organization.
'I thought maybe I could help by leading music,' Mrs. Billings said. That subject was familiar to her via interest and training. 'But mainly I was there to support my husband.'
But the church leaders had a different idea.
'They wanted me to be the president of the women's organization, the Relief Society,' she said.
The Relief Society is a support system of sorts.
'Every woman in the church is assigned to two or three other women in the ward (or branch),' Mrs. Billings said. 'We visit each other, make friendly phone calls, anything to keep contact and make sure everything is OK.'
This role gives Mormon women the name of Visiting Teacher.
'The men are Home Teachers,' Mr. Billings said. 'They're responsible for the well-being of entire families.'
Mr. Billings has five families that he oversees.
'You go with a companion to visit them,' Mr. Billings said. 'It's usually over dinner. You have a Bible lesson, say a prayer and then catch-up on things, see if there's any help that's needed.'
The support system is there to remedy all sorts of needs, from limited funds to broken dishwashers.
'The church wants to take care of itself,' Mrs. Billings said, explaining that the Visiting and Home Teachers serve as liaisons between families in need and those willing to help.
'As sisters, we set things in motion,' Mrs. Billings said. 'If there's laundry that needs to be done or food that needs to be cooked, we it taken care of until whatever help the family needs arrives.'
These duties came as joyous responsibilities to Mr. and Mrs. Billings.
But Mrs. Billings couldn't communicate with anybody from the Spanish branch unless she had an interpreter.
Learning the lingo
So Mrs. Billings went to Temple College - for four years.
'I've taken every Spanish class I can get credit for,' she said.
Her reading and writing skills are strong. Mr. Billings said his wife often reminds him of correct Spanish grammar.
'And she's always correcting me on my Spanish vocabulary,' Mr. Billings said.
But when it comes to conversation, Mrs. Billings said she's still struggling.
'I can sit in a church meeting and know what's being talked about,' she said. 'But I can't understand everything. The words are said so fast.'
If there's proof that Mrs. Billings is having trouble comprehending, it isn't visible, according to the people of Temple ward's Spanish branch.
'Holly gets along real well,' said Araceli Garza. 'We might have to talk a little slower sometimes, but she's great.'
Mrs. Billings is glad she learned Spanish.
'Now I know how they must feel when they can't communicate in English,' she said. 'It's a humbling thing, not being able to understand.'