SALT LAKE CITY – The Mormon church made history and injected a bit of diversity into a previously all-white top leadership panel on Saturday by selecting the first-ever Latin-American apostle and the first-ever apostle of Asian ancestry.
The selections of Ulisses Soares of Brazil and Gerrit W. Gong, a Chinese-American, were announced during a twice-annual conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The choices triggered excitement among a contingent of Mormons who for years have been hoping for the faith's top leadership to be more representative of a religion that has more than half of the its 16 million members outside the United States.
"It's a sign that the church is for everyone," said Guilherme De Castro, a 37-year-old Mormon from Brazil who was in attendance for the announcement. "It doesn't matter where you are from or the way you look."
The selections come during a two-day conference happening as the faith grapples with heightened scrutiny about its handling of sexual abuse reports and one-on-one interviews between local lay leaders and youth. Mormon leaders hadn't spoken about the topic as of Saturday afternoon, but a person in attendance yelled several times, "Stop protecting sexual predators," as new people were announced to second-tier leadership posts.
The outburst came one day after about 1,000 current and former Mormons marched to the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City, delivering petitions demanding an end to closed door, one-on-one interviews between youth and lay leaders where sexual questions sometimes arise.
The church changed policy this week to now allow children to bring a parent or adult with them to the interviews, but protesters said that doesn't go far enough to keep children safe. The change came as part of more revisions to sexual abuse reporting guidelines following recent revelations that a former prominent missionary leader was accused of sexually assaulting two women in the 1980s. The ex-leader denied the allegations.
It was the first conference presided over by new church President Russell M. Nelson. His choices for the two open leadership spots sparked hope that the 93-year-old former heart surgeon will focus on the globalization of the faith during his tenure. He is set to embark on a trip in April to visit eight cities in Europe, Africa and Asia, including Hong Kong.
The last time there were openings on the quorum, in October 2015, the church chose three Utah men. Past church president Thomas S. Monson, who died in January, was leading the church at the time. The religion believes church presidents choose new Quorum members with the help of divine revelation.
The choices mark the strongest statement in favor of global diversity by senior church leadership since 1978 when the church lifted a ban on black men in the lay clergy, allowing the church to spread to Brazil, Africa and elsewhere, said Mormon scholar Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California. He said most people were hoping for at best one new non-white leader, so the double selection will be welcomed with enthusiasm throughout the religion.
The announcement sparked a wave of tweets and other social media posts, some by Mormons who said they never thought they would see the day.
Soares and Gong join a panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that, before Saturday, was made up entirely of white men from the U.S. with the exception of one German, Dieter Uchtdorf.
The all-male panel sits below President Nelson and his two counselors and helps set church policy and oversees the faith's business interests. The new appointees start as junior members, but they could someday become church president because the group's longest-tenured member ascends to president when the current one dies.
They join a quorum undergoing a substantial turnover following a string of deaths as previous leaders succumbed to the effects of aging. Five of the 12 panel members have been appointed in the past three years. Prior to 2015, it had been six years since a new quorum member was chosen, and more than a decade since the leadership council had two openings.
Like the previous 12 men chosen for the panel, Soares and Gong were serving in a lower-level leadership called Quorum of the Seventy that that has served as a farm system for the governing body.
The 59-year-old Soares was an accountant and auditor for multinational corporations in Brazil before joining church leadership, according to a church biography. He was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The 64-year-old Gong worked for the U.S. State Department, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and Mormon-owned Brigham Young University before being selected for the lower-tier church leadership panel. He was born in Redwood City, California. His grandparents immigrated to the United States from China.
The new selections reflect the "rising focus of church leadership on the world outside the United States, where the church is growing most rapidly," said Mormon scholar Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
With 1.4 million members, Brazil has the second-most Mormon in the world along with Mexico, according to church figures. Both rank behind the United States, which has about 6.6 million members.
Nelson has long had a special interest in China, Bowman said. He speaks Mandarin and spent time there during his professional career. It's possible Nelson is hoping Gong's selection could help establish a stronger foothold in the Asian country that currently doesn't officially recognize the religion and only allows certain activities, Bowman said.
It is estimated that there are at least 10,000 church members in mainland China, most of which are native Chinese members, though there are no official church estimates because the Chinese government does not recognize the religion, said Matt Martinich, an independent Mormon researcher.
Of the 116 highest-ranking church leaders serving in several tiers, 40 percent of them were born outside the U.S, said Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor to President Nelson, on Saturday.
The diversity in leadership should help broaden conversations about race and ethnicity and add new prisms through which the gospel is viewed, said Ignacio Garcia, a professor of Western and Latino history at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University.
Making a sports analogy, Garcia said the religion has many great minority leaders on the "bench"(mid-tier leadership councils) and now for first time, two in the "starting lineup" (Quorum of the Twelve).
It's likely an indication of the religion's future since indigenous members are who will help sustain the church going forward, Garcia said.
"Those are the ones that are growing: black and brown and Asian," he said. "That's the future of the church."