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Mormon Church Prepares for Olympics

Part of the story of this year's 19th Winter Olympic Games due to begin on February 8, is the host city itself. Salt Lake City, Utah was founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, and is the world headquarters of the church. Along with the Olympic athletes and Salt Lake City, the Church is in the limelight these days, as everyone prepares for the Games.

Their slogan is "Friends To All Nations", and friendly they are. In downtown Salt Lake City, the hub of the world's fastest growing religion, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, LDS Church, congregate in one of their historic buildings to happily greet the steady stream of journalists beginning to arrive from all over the world for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

In the lobby, visitors are enthusiastically welcomed by multi-lingual church members ready to offer help. The Mormons have set-up a media center lined with computers and piles of press material. Dozens of church volunteers stand ready to take Olympic visitors on free tours of church sites, or drive journalists around town. They want to do whatever they can to make visitors' stay a positive one.

With a big smile, Luanna Shumway greets visitors at the Center entrance. "Our volunteers are good quality," she says. "We have top quality, they've been presidents of their companies, presidents of missions…"

Founded 170 years ago, the Mormon Church has around 11 million members. More than half live outside of the United States. Only 14 percent are in Utah. They hope the Olympic Games will provide an opportunity to educate more people about their Church, although members will not actively try to convert the estimated one million visitors expected in Salt Lake City in February.

"Missionaries have been told to keep away from the Olympic venues. They will do their normal work in the suburbs, like they usually do. And they'll do their usual member work. But they won't be approaching people who are here for the Games," says Mike Otterson, the Director of Public Affairs for the Church. Mr. Otterson hopes the Games will provide a legacy of good will and promote a better understanding of the Church. To help inform and education visitors, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley has asked members to strengthen their church vows in preparation for the Games.

Church member and volunteer Rebecca Van SkyHawk is a stay at home mom, but she's volunteered at the media center to get out and have fun while also helping her church. "I've been personally trying to read my book of Mormon so that I can share my testimony of my faith, and just be honest with people," she says. "I don't think we want to preach religion to anyone."

In support of the community effort, the Church has loaned several blocks of its downtown real estate for the medals plaza where the Olympic awards ceremony will be conducted. The LDS Tabernacle's world famous choir [Mormon Tabernacle Choir] will perform several concerts during the Games.

What is likely to make an immediate impression on foreign visitors is the Mormons' ability to talk with them in their own languages. The Church's Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City sounds like a bustling international city as Church members broadcast tour information in over 30 different languages. Most young church members go on two-year missions to more than 300 different areas around the world and so many members speak another language.

Church public relations director Mike Otterson thinks this will make this Olympics different from any other Winter Games. He says multi-lingual Church members will be wearing "I Speak" pins. "They've got them in 40 different languages," he says. "But we hope that a lot of people will be walking down the street with them: "I speak French [pin]" on, or I speak German. That will send a very powerful message about what this community is…"

Thousands of Mormons offered to volunteer during the Games. Mrs. Van SkyHawk said she was very nervous about her assignment in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City after the terrorist attacks on September 11. She says she had to have faith in God and the government. "We were reassured that this is the most secure event that has ever happened in America. I'm banking on somebody's expertise," she says.

Mormons travel the world teaching their religion. This time, they say, the world is coming to them. In less than two weeks, the Mormons of Salt Lake City will show-off their hospitality. But they say they'll share their faith and beliefs only if asked.