No one can remember exactly who in the Mormon-church hierarchy thought it a good idea to send missionaries into the poor, Asian neighborhoods of Lynn, Massachusetts, but by the time the appointed pair, an optimistic older couple called the Boots, got to the house of a Cambodian woman named Kan Sam Sen, they looked pretty good to her. This was 1990, a decade and a half after Sen’s husband had run through a minefield in Khmer Rouge territory, clutching their young daughter, escaping the advancing militias; a decade after he had been horribly beaten in a refugee camp; and about when it was dawning on the family that his brain would never really recover. The refugees had been village people, and in their neighborhoods in Lynn, they were struggling to adapt to urban life. Village affiliations had disintegrated, replaced by gang affiliations. Could they talk to her about Jesus Christ’s testimony and what it has meant to them?, the missionaries asked. At first Sen was reluctant, she had to get to work, but eventually she said sure, yes, they could come in, and then they were there every Thursday evening.
The branch the missionaries directed her to was a rented space in downtown Lynn that had once been an IRS office. The missionaries did not speak perfect Cambodian, but each Sunday they would be there, by the front of the church, translating Scripture crudely for the immigrant audience. It was a church mostly composed of teenage boys, whose mothers had perceived Mormonism in part as an on-ramp to being American and in part as a convenient social prophylaxis, a gang that was the opposite of a gang. From the beginning, Sen had wanted something else, too: permanence, attachments. The Boots gave her a picture-book version of the Book of Mormon, so she could follow along. She was soon a fixture in the congregation. “You will have brothers and sisters in the church,” the missionaries told her, meaning not just the other Cambodians but the white Mormons, and to Sen this promise of community was as important, nearly, as salvation.
Every church re-creates itself in each generation, a kind of call-and-response between its doctrine and its congregants. In Boston during the eighties and nineties, when Mitt Romney was the church official in charge of more than a dozen congregations, Mormonism was engaging modern America—ethnic diversity, feminist claims, identity politics—and trying, however uneasily, to make some accommodation with it. Romney sent a management consultant named Paul Dredge to run the church in Lynn and a podiatrist named Doug John to minister to its young men. Romney sent them to try to train some of the refugee teenagers as leaders, capable of one day running a church steeped in the habits of the American middle class—the endless bureaucratic meetings, the emphasis on voluntarism and leadership, the youth programs based on scouting. “I think part of the interest in the church was, what is this American thing about, anyway?” Dredge remembers.
What Dredge and John encountered, in Lynn, was an almost cosmic mismatch. John realized, right away, that scouting was probably a nonstarter. “The setting they were living in wasn’t exactly Boy Scout stuff,” he tells me. The most charismatic kid turned out to be a gang leader. John took the boys to the Green Mountains, in Vermont, and to dances with other Mormon kids—rich cheery blonde girls from Arlington and Belmont—but “most of the time they stood around and talked to one another. I’m not sure dances were something that was normal for them.” What vexed Dredge was that no matter how many basketball games or Cambodian-food festivals he staged (at one point he helped intervene in an arranged marriage so that his congregants could find a love match), he couldn’t seem to convert the congregants’ social interest in the church into a spiritual commitment.
Romney was not vexed at all. Lynn was at times a thankless post, but he routinely sent the most competent Mormons in the area to help. “If you get only a handful of members,” he told Dredge, “that is still a good result.” Romney himself came to Lynn often, and when he did, it was with a blast of fellowship—greeting the congregants by name, packing teenagers into a van for a basketball game, showing them by his presence that they mattered too. Romney once organized an International Night, structured deliberately so that the Chinese scarf dances would outclass the American square dances, and the Brazilian food would put the American carrot-and-raisin salad to shame. “His idea was, maybe they aren’t going to be as good at public speaking, or at organizing, or give these profound intellectual interpretations,” says one of Romney’s aides in the church, “but here is something where they are actually superior, where they could shine.”