Bishop Robert Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ in Chevy Chase, MD, isn’t exactly sure how to handle the casserole question. You see, the Mormon church is run by volunteers, and every member has a job: teaching Sunday school, managing church finances, organizing community food drives, or serving in the tutoring program. So when I asked Bishop Nelson who in his congregation would bring a casserole to Ann Romney if she were to get the flu while her husband was President of the United States, he paused and chuckled. “I can imagine wanting to bring the casserole, but then you have to go through security, and at some point you go, the casserole just isn’t worth it. Call for carry out.”
The casserole question is one of many puzzlers Mitt Romney’s presidential run poses for Nelson’s congregation on the northern border of the District of Columbia. Mormons attend church based on their addresses—and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is assigned to Nelson’s parish, or ward. “When we get new members in from any walk of life and I sit down and talk with them: where are you at, what are your needs, how can this church help you, how can you help the church,” explains Nelson. “It is that same discussion—it’s just with somebody who is the President of the free world, so I am sure there are nuances that will be unique.”
New faces are by no means rare to the Third Ward–the church averages 25 new converts a year, making it the Mormon church’ s highest baptizing ward in the area. Some 250 people attend gatherings every Sunday, and a total of 650 people from nearly two dozen countries are on the membership roll. Services are warm and people are friendly. When I visited on a recent Sunday, a suited young elder performed a rendition of “I Have been Changed for Good” from the hit musical Wicked to honor the service of departing missionaries. Congregants piled hundreds of cans of food in the foyer for an upcoming citywide food drive they spearheaded with other downtown churches. Everyone sang “Humility our Savior,” a Mormon hymn with the same melody as the “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” a Methodist standby. And the rotating preaching responsibilities fell to an elderly African-American woman, a retired couple, and a young Kenyan woman, who all spoke on the subject “We are our brother’s keeper”–which happens to be a hot topic in the presidential campaign.
The Third Ward’s facilities are moving close to the White House in October. After seven years of lobbying for permits to renovate a former Catholic convent on 16th street, the Mormon church will open its first meetinghouse in downtown D.C. built since the 1930s. Senator Harry Reid is slated to attend the new building’s dedication on Oct. 28, and Elder Quentin Cook, a senior Mormon leader from Salt Lake City, will preside over the service. The chapel will open its doors for the first time with a citywide food drive and community open house. “We wanted to be able to have people notice that we were in the neighborhood and that we were good neighbors that wanted to partner with other churches doing good in the area,” says Debbie Harrison, whose husband is the D.C. stake president (the leader of all D.C.-area Mormon churches) and whose grandfather, J. Willard Marriott, was Willard Mitt Romney’s namesake.
Nelson, who works in the Administrative Office of the Courts’ information technology division, says he has never met the Romneys and he doesn’t know what it would be like to be the President’s pastor. He will cross that bridge after the polls close on November 6. “I’ll just stay out of his way, and I’ll insert myself however he wants me to,” says Nelson, “and just make sure that I treat him as a member of the congregation, and that I treat him equally with all the rest of our members.”