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Mormons lure Korean converts with English lessons

Missionaries offer language lessons — if students also learn about the Book of Mormon.

Mormon missionaries travel the world, reaching out to new members. Here, Elder Velez, left, talks to Raul, right, and Myriam Rosales, second from the right, during a visit to their home, in San Fernando on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Feb. 17, 2009. (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)

SEOUL, South Korea — After a long day of seeking out new students on the drab and grimy, windswept streets of Geumcheon, one of Seoul’s poorest areas, English teachers Jared Turley and Spencer Gunnel sit inside an empty classroom, waiting for a shy 12-year-old student nicknamed Superstar.

A thin boy with glasses, he finally arrives and sits down in a single chair opposite the two teachers. Despite Superstar’s tardiness, the instructors appear thrilled to see him and inflect their voices generously when speaking to him. In a mix of English and Korean (a language Gunnel and Turley have spent countless hours studying) the lesson begins.

Superstar is a stellar student with a passion for English. But that’s not how he earned his name.

He never misses class and usually brings along friends, some of whom are interested in sticking around for the second part of the private lesson — learning the Mormon gospel. Superstar converted to the faith in late 2009.

Turley and Gunnel are on a mission that’s part rote learning and part religion. For the pair of strait-laced missionaries known as elders, who are on a two-year assignment in South Korea, the English classes are a way to attract new sheep to their flock.

South Korea is home to 80,000 Mormons and 500 missionaries, according to church literature, representing one of the Mormon’s Asian strongholds. It ranks third in overall population, behind Japan and the Philippines.

Unlike in those countries, proselytizers here have a special tool to lure converts — offering classes to a citizenry that views English proficiency as a prerequisite to success.

On many days, these pious peddlers stand on crowded Seoul street-corners hawking a sure-fire come on. In a city where language schools are expensive and private lesson rates run as high as $65 an hour, their classes are free.

But there’s a catch. Most lessons require students to remain for a second session discussing the Book of Mormon.

“A lot of people think we’re English teachers,” said Gunnel, a slim blond college freshman who, like all Mormon missionaries, is required to wear a conservative dark suit, white shirt and nametag.

Added missionary Brian Booth: “Probably most people drop out [of the bible lessons] because they’re in it for the English.”

The missionaries say they don’t consider the ploy to be any false advertising. They’ll do whatever it takes to promote their religious cause.

But not all Koreans see it that way.