by Marianne Flood
A man who helped found the city’s Mormon Church 60 years ago said his faith has more in common with other religions than people may think.
Robert Smyth, who is now 80, said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (CJCLDS) exists happily alongside other faiths.
“If anyone is interested I will tell them about my religion,” he said.
“But if they are happy with their lives I would say ‘carry on doing what you think is right’.
“It doesn’t matter what they believe.
“We are there to be servants to others, to look out for others.
“When we help and support everyone we are doing the same for Jesus Christ.”
Mr Smyth credits his religion with helping him form a relaxed and forgiving view on life.
“The secret in life is finding the goodness in other people,” he explained.
“People look for the differences, but we look for what we have in common. Life is there to be lived. There are very little things in our lives which we can control.
“You just have to get on with it, because you have no control over it. Be as friendly and open and honest as you can.
“People look at you and say ‘there’s a person making the best they can out of life’. If you have issues with people sort them out and move on. Life is too short."
Although the CJCLDS has been on the Racecourse Road since 1966, very little is known about the work that goes on behind its gates.
Known locally as the Mormon Church, it was established after eight men and women, including Robert and his wife Heather, were baptised in a total immersion ceremony in Belfast on November 2, 1957.
Their numbers grew steadily over the next five years and members saved the money needed to start work on a new building.
But funds were still tight and the members of the congregation had to carry out a lot of the construction work themselves, alongside their full time jobs.
“The church members gathered the money build it with everything paid for up front,” explained Keith Wright, Director of the Church’s Family History Centre.
“They didn’t get in to debt,”
The church was subject to frequent attacks of vandalism during the Troubles, but the members repaired the damage time and time again and paid for it out of their own pockets.
“We never took a penny from the Government, we paid it all ourselves,” said Mr Smyth.
“We took the blows and paid it ourselves. That’s how we handled any bother that we had.”
The CJCLDS also offers addiction and debt management programmes, which are open to people of any or no faith.
“We are here to help in the local community,” said Mr Wright, who looks after the church building.
“A few years ago a guy from the local area wanted to come in and pray for 15 minutes to an hour every day.
“I didn’t say no. He said ‘I’m a Catholic and too many people in my church know me and I just want to sit at peace’.
“I said of course you can use our church.”
Members are not paid for the work they do within the church and fast for one day a month and donate the money they have saved to their humanitarian aid charity,
The CJCLDS has around 150 members in the city at present, 80 of whom regularly attend services.
In 1993 the CJCLDS opened a Family History Centre which is open to the general public and is free to use.
“We run classes and courses from the beginners to the more experienced and we are here to give advice to people looking to research their family background,” explained Mr Wright.
The centre has attracted around 35,000 visitors since it opened and has helped the church build links with the local community.
Former Bishop of the Church, Tom McElhinney, said the work of the genealogy centre helps to break down people’s preconceptions about their religious differences.
“When people look into their family history the Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish distinctions fall away and they see that people can come together.”
Mr Wright said the doors of the church are always open to anyone who is interested in knowing more about them.
But he says that despite the good work carried out by the CJCLDS in the city a lot of people still have misconceptions about them.
“A lot of people that know me don’t know I’m Mormon.
“There are lots of misconceptions about us - like that we don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter. I love Christmas. How could we not celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ?
“People think we always dress in shirts, ties and polished shoes but most of the time I’m in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirts.
“People are shocked when they find out about my religion because they know I’m a DJ, but I say, well, look at The Osmonds and the lead singer of The Killers. They’re Mormons too.”
The current Derry Bishop, Nigel Giddey, lives in Letterkenny and juggles his church work with a full time job with software development company Pramerica.
He admits that he has been extremely busy since he took up the position at the beginning of October.
“You are on call to look after people and their personal needs, spiritual needs, emotional issues and welfare issues,” he explained.
“It’s enjoyable though. I’m always trying to think two steps ahead. I’m the go-to person but I am assisted by two counsellors.
“I’ve just started so it’s kind of like starting a new building. You need to build a foundation.”
After some vandalism last year the local community rallied around to give their support.
“We have a nice relationship with the local councillors and our neighbours and that is very important to us.”
The members of the church were heartened at the outpouring of support they received last September after the church was attacked by vandals twice in one month.
“We got out windows broken last year and SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney spoke out on the radio and to the press to support us and we have had support from Elisha McCallion and Caoimhe McKnight of Sinn Fein too,” said Mr Wright.
“People came forward to us and said ‘that wasn’t done in our name’.
“These are people that will probably never be members of our church but we have nothing but praise for those people.”
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