LDS expatriate communities expand and thrive globally

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Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have been moved to foreign countries on business assignments or as government diplomats have found large congregations of expatriates like themselves to welcome their families with open arms.

Particularly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, communities of LDS families living away from their native countries are becoming more and more robust.

Karen McKinley is the mother of one such family who, having lived in seven countries overseas, has personally witnessed the growth of LDS expatriate communities around the world. Originally from the United States, McKinley, a mother of six, is currently finishing her doctorate while living in Singapore with her family for the second time.

The McKinley family (Left to Right: Rachel, Daniel, Ian, Karen, Scott, Andrew, Joseph and Hannah) pose in front of their apartment building in Kuala Lumpur, Malasia, where they lived before moving to Singapore in 2012. (Photo courtesy Karen McKinley)

The McKinleys moved to Singapore for the first time in 1993. McKinley said there were about a dozen expatriate families then who attended church in a rented colonial home along with the congregation of local Singaporeans.

By the time the McKinleys moved back to the island almost 20 years later, in 2012, they found the Church thriving, with 10 wards, two of which are completely dedicated to expats — mainly Americans, but also Australians, Indians and people from a plethora of different countries.

“These wards resemble wards found in areas with large populations of Church members in the U.S.,” McKinley said of the Singaporean expatriate wards.

“The wards have sacrament attendance of between 100 and 200 members each week. There are around 40 youth per ward and 50 or more Primary children.”

The Middle East has similarly experienced a recent boom in its number of expatriate Mormons.

According to an article by Matt Martinich, a Church growth researcher and writer on the international Church, membership growth in the Middle East can be largely attributed to a migration of people from all over the world to bustling cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

“Membership growth in the Middle East has surpassed other world areas not due to accelerated growth among the indigenous population of these nations but rather from the steady flow of expatriates relocating to the region for business and employment,” Martinich said. “Today LDS membership in the Middle East is overwhelmingly North American, Western European and Filipino.”

There is an entire ward for Tagolog-speaking Filipinos in Doha, Qatar, according to Jeffrey Corbett, an American investment banker living in Doha. He explained the influx of foreigners in Qatar by explaining that, while many developed markets have been suffering financially, Qatar’s energy sector continues to expand.

“The demographics have changed significantly in recent years, fueled by two factors: one, a burgeoning economy in Qatar and two, global turmoil,” he said. “Only the Australians come here for the experience. The others are here to seek their pot of gold.”

Thomas Gubbay lived with his family in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for two years. Currently a student at Bocconi University in Milan, Gubbay explained the strict laws in the U.A.E. against proselytizing. The government only permits Church members to meet, provided that they do not convert Muslims or allow them into Church services. If an Arab comes in and inquires about the Church, members are required to ask him or her to leave.

Gubbay described the Church in Dubai as comprised completely of expatriates. He said that there are two wards of about 60–70 expat members each; roughly 30–40 percent of the members are Filipino, 40–45 percent are American, and the rest are from countries all over the world, including many from Australia and Great Britain. However, according to Gubbay, expatriates only stay for three to four years.

“In that sense it’s great; you always get to meet new people and interact with people from all over the world,” Gubbay said. “Unfortunately, you forge very strong bonds with people you know won’t stay there for long, but you will always find that same affinity with another member that comes in. … The connections you find with members you’ve never met before go well beyond simply having a common belief.”

Whatever the reason LDS families decide to relocate abroad, their moves are facilitated with the help of the expatriate Church community. Miles away from extended family, LDS expatriates rely on each other and often become extremely tight-knit congregations.

Eighteen-year-old Helmut Brenner grew up around the world as his family followed his father’s engineering career from Singapore to Beijing and then to Amsterdam. He found the Church’s expatriate communities and the gospel to be constants in his life that allowed him to withstand the difficulties of moving between foreign countries.

He specifically mentioned the members of the expatriate ward in Singapore.

“(The ward) was full of very active and welcoming members who made it their personal mission to introduce new expatriates to the expat life,” he said. “The LDS community played an enormous role in our acclimation. It provided such a strong framework that allowed our family to return to a semi-normal lifestyle.”

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