With 'I'm a Mormon' campaign, church counters lily-white image
Ruth Williams passes out bulletins at the Third Ward in Washington, D.C., a diverse Mormon church.
November 2nd, 2011
11:32 AM ET

With 'I'm a Mormon' campaign, church counters lily-white image

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN) - The scene at a Mormon congregation here on a recent Sunday would surprise Americans who think of Mormons as young white missionaries in stiff white shirts, black ties and name tags.

Yes, there are white missionaries handing out bulletins at Washington’s Third Ward - what Mormons call their congregations - but there's also Ruth Williams, an elderly African-American woman, decked out in her Sunday best, doing the same.

White, black, Asian and Hispanic Mormons mingle before the service begins. As it gets under way, an African-American tween plays a video game on his smartphone in one pew as a 30-something white woman across the aisle taps away on her iPad.

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On this Sunday, the Sacrament - what Mormons call the remembrance of the Last Supper and what other Christians call Communion - is said in French, a nod to the area's burgeoning West African population.

It is not a special multicultural celebration Sunday. For this growing Mormon congregation in northeast Washington, it's just another weekend.

“It’s 30% Caucasian, 30% African-American, and the rest is a combination of first-generation immigrants from around the world,” says Bishop Robert Nelson, the lay leader of this congregation.

A diverse group of congregants from the Third Ward listens to a sermon.

Washington's Third Ward is a near mirror image of the diverse neighborhood it serves, jarring with the Mormon Church's image as a faith-based club for upper-class whites.

Explain it to me: What's Mormonism?

And the Mormon Church, officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says the ward represents the diverse face of modern Mormonism, a message it has been trying to spread as part of a yearlong nationwide push to counter its lily-white image.

Since January, the LDS Church has spent millions on an "I'm a Mormon" advertising campaign that features television commercials, billboards and bus signs with Mormons from African-American, Asian, Latino and other ethnic backgrounds. Just last month, the campaign entered 11 new major media markets in Texas, Indiana, Nebraska, Washington, Georgia and Arizona, hitting cities like Atlanta, Denver and Phoenix.

(You won't be seeing the ads in Iowa, South Carolina or Florida. With Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormon, competing in the Republican presidential primaries, the church says it wants to steer clear of politics.)

The Mormon Church even used the ad campaign to launch a shot across the bow of the hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," buying a digital "I'm a Mormon" billboard just down the street from the theater where the show is playing.

The musical satire, co-produced by the creators of the television show "South Park," shows earnest white American Mormon missionaries and their misadventures in proselytization in Africa.

But the billboard shows a very different face of Mormons. There is an African-American couple playing Frisbee on the beach, a Latino grandfather and granddaughter, a goateed motorcycle sculptor.

Opinion: Who says Mormons aren't Christian?

An official church website, Mormon.org, lets those interested in the church search for Mormons from diverse ethnic backgrounds and features videos from the likes of black soul singer Gladys Knight and Brandon Flowers, frontman for the rock band The Killers.

"It's to say, 'We're like you,' " said Kathleen Flake, a religious scholar from Vanderbilt Divinity School. "It's an attempt to combat stereotypes so that absolutely people are more open to see the normalcy of Mormonism."

The LDS Church says its attempt at an image makeover is as much a reflection of demographic reality as it is a PR effort. While young white missionaries may still be Mormonism's public face in the United States, they are no longer fully representative of the Salt Lake City-based church.

“Our doctrine is we’re all sons and daughters of God," says Stephen Allen, managing director of the LDS Church's missionary department. "Skin color or anything else is not a significant issue to us.”

Video: Defining Mormonism

As head of global missions, Allen supervises the 52,000 19- to 25-year-old missionaries knocking on doors around the world.

He's also executive director of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, which began in nine markets this year.

“In terms of targeting, we’re not specifically targeting or avoiding any particular group," Allen says. "We send our missionaries all over the world to anywhere people will listen.”

As the church’s efforts to win converts has expanded internationally, “following the American flag around the world,” as Flake puts it, the LDS Church has grown more diverse.

“We’re in most of the free world right now,” Allen says. "We have a presence in Russia and Ukraine and the Baltic countries. We have a growing presence in Africa ... Nigeria, Kenya … then we have, Japan, Korea, Taiwan. There are small congregations in India, and the church is growing in those places.”

The church's membership has doubled since 1988, to 14.1 million Mormons worldwide.  Six million Mormons live in the United States. Many of the church's members live in the American West and Northwest, in some of the whitest states in the country.

But like many other churches, there has been explosive growth in the LDS Church in Latin America. There are more than a million Mormons in both Mexico and Brazil. There are nearly a million Mormons in Asia and 300,000 in Africa, according to church statistics.

“This attempt to emphasize diversity and to emphasize a wide range of people who are Mormon does reflect, in a lot of ways, what’s been going on in reality for a while,” says Matthew Bowman, an editor at a Mormon studies journal called Dialogue.

Even in the United States, the perception of who Mormons are has changed.

“We’ve done a lot of research to see what people think of us and what their perception is,” Allen says. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, if you said, ‘When you think of the word Mormon, what comes to mind?’ the answer would have been Mormon Tabernacle choir, polygamists, racists, the Osmonds [singers Donny and Marie].”

While that's less the case today, Allen says many people still don't know what a Mormon looks like - or don't know that there are Mormons from minority backgrounds.

A spokesman for the church said it doesn't keep statistics on members' race or ethnicity.

But “it’s no longer just a predominantly white church,” Allen says. “In our early history, you know, it was founded in upstate New York in the United States and was very much a white congregation, but today it’s very diverse.”

The complexion of the average Mormon ward reflects the neighborhood where the building resides. “Mormon wards are not self-selecting,” says Richard Bushman, a visiting professor at the School of Religion of Claremont Graduate University. “In Mormon congregations, they are just geographical boundaries, and wherever you live, you go to church.”

There is no church shopping. Congregants can’t go to another ward if they don’t like the music or the doughnuts at the social hour, as in many other faith traditions.

In Washington's Third Ward, two new converts who had recently been baptized were welcomed into the church on a recent Sunday. Both women were young African-Americans. The men who formed a circle around them and prayed over them were all white.

Unlike the ward, the church's global leadership in Salt Lake City is mostly white.

It was not until 1978 that African-Americans could serve in priesthood positions in the church, a prohibition that extended back to Mormon leader Brigham Young in the 1850s.

"When you see in that ad campaign Mormons, including African-Americans, they are trying to  communicate against that stereotype that Mormons are racist, there's no question about this," says Vanderbilt's Flake. "They are trying to say, 'That's not fair. That is not who we are. Even if we were, we are not now.' "

Allen says the "I'm a Mormon" campaign was designed to assist the small army of young Mormon missionaries out knocking on doors.

"Our feeling was anything we could do to help them was really important," he says. "And helping them means softening people’s hearts.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Jon Huntsman • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics • United States

soundoff (2,530 Responses)
  1. Rachel B.

    Mormonism is, and will continue to be, a polarizing subject. Although I appreciate the efforts made by the current priesthood to show the new inclusive side of the LDS, one marketing campaign cannot effectively "un-ring" this bell. I personally feel that this recent move by the church is disingenuous considering that Brigham Young's doctrines helped to lay the foundation for the current practices of the various LDS sects, and in those pages he describes blacks as "uncouth...wild, and deprived of all the blessings of intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind". He also asserts hat Cain was the first made to be black by God after he murdered his brother, Abel. Now tell me, does that sound minority friendly to you?

    November 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Chris N.

      Rachel, he said that as a person, not as a statement of church doctrine. Quite simply, he was wrong in what he said. Mormons have never believed that any race is superior to another.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • nympha

      Joseph Smith sure was wrong in a lot of areas. Makes one wonder how reliable his word is.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Chris

      Political Correctness and Religion do not mix.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  2. Brad

    Where is the complete confession of the Mormon faith to be found?

    November 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Michael

      Confession? Unsure what you mean, but if you're looking for *information*, I'd suggest http://mormon.org/.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Ben

      http://www.lds.org or email bookmormon2day@gmail.com and I will answer and questions.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Bookworm

      Hi Brad, if you really want to know more. You can go through Mormon.org and see for yourself. You can also visit a ward just to see what they are like. When you get there feel free to tell them why you are there..."Just to get the full Mormon confession on what you are really about, but I don't want to be a member." They will be OK with you saying this and just going to check them out. The mormon.org profiles have a way for you to chat with that person, I think.

      November 2, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  3. dee

    Am in FL and the ADs are definatley on TV here

    November 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  4. tensor

    Mormonism is simply the 1800s version of Scientology. If you're okay with that, then Mitt's your guy. Or Tom Cruise.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Ben

      I'm Mormon and will not vote Romney or Huntsman. I'm voting Ron Paul, please don't label Mormons as Romney supporters, ugh.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  5. sparky91

    So a religion is concerned with it's image.....huh....

    You know Mormon is one m away from Moron

    November 2, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Geeze

      If you try to say something clever try to make sure it is not a stupid joke next time.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  6. Gladys Kravitz

    Hear the Mike Wallace/Gordon Hinckley interview where Mike talks about the "mark of cain". Blacks could not join the priesthood til 1978. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnV1ZHYeajA

    Until 1981, 2 Nephi 30:6 in the Book of Mormon taught that dark-skinned Lamanites (Indians) would eventually change the color of their skin should they embrace the Book of Mormon. This passage of Mormon scripture read:

    "...their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people."

    Racist, racist, racist...

    November 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Michael

      You're looking at this the wrong way. The fact that the wording was changed and that black members of the church now hold priesthood office is an indication of Mormonism's *rejection* of racist principles. I can't speak to the history and motivation behind everything that was once said by every Mormon member or leader in the *past*, but I can tell you that no Mormon leader teaching or writing racist ideas today would keep their post for long.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Andy

      And yet the Book of Mormon has this verse of scripture in 2 Nephi 26:33:
      "For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."
      The assumptions you assert about Mormons are such a small piece of the picture & may reflect cultural American views (that may have persisted among some Mormons for a time, but not exclusively) but not the entire Mormon doctrinal picture of the issue you address. There are other groups, particularly Christian religious groups, in the United States whose racism still actively persists today—so which is worse, being a racist now, or a Church you are accusing of racism that is becoming more & more diverse & accepting of many cultures & backgrounds, as this article demonstrates?

      November 2, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Bookworm

      The LDS church was the only integrated church when it started. I don't want to bash someone else's religion, but most religions at that time would not even allow a black person in the church with them. That is why you have so many congregation of one race. You only need to see the Southern states to know what I mean. Why don't people point this out too?

      The church had to wait until after the Civil Rights movement to allow them to have the priesthood because their congregations are not segregated on basis of color. Yes, you might find some wards for people who speak a certain language, but that is so they can understand what is being said, and not because of the color of their skin. I am Hispanic and have been to many wards. So, I know this is the case.

      November 2, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  7. www.mormonthink.com

    The most unbialsed source of information about Mormonism here: http://www.mormonthink.com

    November 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • cm

      It would be more unbiased if non-Mormons ran the show.

      November 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  8. cm

    I can rejoice that Mormons believe in God but their doctrine is hidden to the masses and newly recruited. I do not like how women are viewed either – still less than. I will them give them credit for their family values and progressive ways of spreading their so-called truth. They may be Mormon, however I will never be.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Ben

      Women less than? Less than what? They hold positions in their organization of the church, the Relief Society. The largest women's organization in the world, the LARGEST. They speak, prayer, and serve in the church. And they feel fulfilled doing it!!

      November 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • cm

      Less than you know MAN – also a woman is nothing in the LDS church unless they are married. And if they are married they must bow to their husbands, etc.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Bookworm

      HAHAHA!! That cracks me up. I am a woman. I am a Mexican. I am a Mormon. I have never had to bow to my husband-EVER! Wow! Who told you this lie? I am not a 2nd class citizen. I know my role and I am equal to my husband. Am I the same? No, but neither is he. I get pregnant and he can't. I don't see men complaining about that one. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of LDS and a convert I have found greater understanding of my role as a woman in this world. Seriously, you need to stop spreading this rumors people have told you. It's not true at all. Christ did not treat us this way and neither does His church.

      November 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • cm

      Bookworm, how quick you are to judge me. My best friend growing up was Mormon. I know more about your faith than you know. I have been recruited at least a half dozen times in my life. Sadly besides my childhood friend the so-called Mormons who wanted to recruit me and be my friend, but when they figured out I was not going to be recruited I was dropped faster than a hot potato – what is up with that kind of behavior? So can a woman as a LDS have a leadership role in the church or life in general? From what I seen NOT and what happens to the woman if she becomes divorce? I don't spread rumors. Besides actual accounts I have read a lot about Mormonism. How fully do you know your faith?

      November 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  9. AndrewCarlton

    Two words: Glenn Beck!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Michael

      As a Mormon, I find Glenn Beck utterly repugnant. He is a political commentator and a [mediocre] entertainer. He does not represent or speak for the Church or its members.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  10. Mr. T. Bag

    Mormons don't have a "lily-white" image - they have a nutty-lunatic image...

    November 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • jsg

      There are indeed hundreds of nutty Mormons out there...but millions of good, salt-of-the-earth Mormons who sincerely work to make the world better, as do the adherents of most religions.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  11. Jason Stucki

    My name is Jason Stucki. I grew up in Idaho. I served a 2 year mission in Michigan. I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I also Believe the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God. We can all argue about race, beliefs, bitter experiences, magic underwear, polygamists of other faiths, etc, as so many people are doing in these comments. It amazes me to read the comments stated here. I sense bitterness, revenge, and also see a lot of unjustified comments that have no source. Many people are saying things they have only heard. I challenge anyone who reads this to research for themselves and find the truth or falsehoods of the many statements being made. Seek a source. Verify the source. Read the Book of Mormon. Compare it to the Bible. Seek similarities between the two Books. Pray to God and ask if these things are true. I know that our Father in Heaven is our Creator. He is our God. We are all his posterity, and we can become more like Him throughout our lives by making good decisions, and striving to be better people.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • catholic engineer

      I wholeheartedly appreciate the situation you are in. So many people call themselves open-minded and free thinkers. Then, when they are confronted with their errors, they close their minds and quit thinking.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Steve-in-MA

      Jason, I tried to read the Book Of Mormon. It's the most turgid piece of sludge that I ever tried to wade through. Here are two excerpts from the writings of Sam Clemens that sum up the Book Of Mormon much better than I ever could –

      “The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so “slow,” so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print.”


      Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. ‘And it came to pass’ was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet. “

      November 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • cekuhnen

      You need to ask god if things are right? Are you in control of yourself or need to be guided like a child?

      November 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Michael Swanson

      Same tired old canard. "Read the Book of Mormon and you'll see that it's true." Blah blah blah. How many holy books have you read and compared to make that assertion? I'm assuming, of course, that you have read all of them. You must have, or you couldn't possibly begin to make such an assertion! Why don't you just try reading enough history and science to see that Mormonism isn't unique in that a madman claimed to be talking to god, and enough people fell for it that now it gets to be called "religion."

      One guy talking to god = lunatic. One lunatic with a hundred followers = cult. One lunatic-authored book with millions of followers = religion.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Bookworm

      I did not grow up in this religion. I joined because I wanted to do. I read The BOM because I wanted to know if it was true. I studied other religions and what they taught in reference to God, salvation and hell, etc... I only found 1 church that answered all my questions regarding life, why am I here, etc... This is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You can believe it or not. It's your choice. IF you don't believe it or you don't believe in God; then why get on here to argue about it. What is your motive? Why do you care? If there is no God; then why try to take away someone's faith in it. Mormons strive to live up to the following commandments-key word is STRIVE (meaning we are trying and are not perfect)-"Love one another"; "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". So, what's so wrong with that? Why continue to blast our faith? Again, what are your motives? Are you of another Faith trying to show us the error of our ways? Are you an atheist trying to show us there is no God? If you are of another faith, know our testimonies lie in the Book of Mormon. Start reading it to find out how to "save us". If you are an atheist, then why do you care? If this is all there is to life, what does it matter if we believe in a God who created us?

      If you really want to know more about our faith, please visit mormon.org.

      November 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  12. Dallas Traeger

    Shouldn't those billboards read "I'm a Moron"?

    November 2, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Colin

      I wouldn't really expect a moron to know how to spell.... so in a weird way, no I guess not.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Charles


      November 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  13. Magic Mormon Underwear Man

    Find out more about Mitt Romney's beliefs and the Mormon religion. Google the following: 🙂

    "Mormon celestial polygamy"
    "the planet kolob"
    "Mormon underwear"
    "posthumous Mormon sealing" (Marrying another man's wife through posthumous marriage.)
    "Mormon blood atonement"
    "posthumous baptism"
    "Mormon Insurrection" (The Mormon's war with the US Government)
    "Mountain Meadows Massacre"
    "Mormon 1978 Black people"
    . 😉

    November 2, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • jsg

      Quick–Google the following terms relating to water:
      Water torture
      Water drowning
      Water overdose
      Water scalding
      Water death

      November 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Michael

      Then google:

      – Mormon humanitarian aid
      – Mormon patriotism
      – Mormon education
      – Mormon charitable giving
      – Mormon kindness

      November 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  14. EIDAN


    November 2, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  15. bluemax77

    Come to think of it, I’ve never had a lap dance from a Morman...

    November 2, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  16. Book of Mormon is19th century religious fiction

    This is the best website I've seen about Mormonism. It presents the facts in an scholastic approach and lets the readers decide. Check out http://www.mormonthink.com.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  17. Rabbit One

    I might read The Book of Mormon as literature one day.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Michael

      You should. My 9 year-old daughter has been reading it for the last year or so. I couldn't get her to turn off the light and go to sleep last night because she was engrossed in a battle story near the middle of the book. Even if you don't believe it as the word of God, it's a great storyline and chock full of examples, good and bad, that can help you to lead a better life.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  18. donny

    all i can say is. put god first in life. then ever thing will fall in to place amen

    November 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Colin

      Everything will fall, for sure.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • CanOnTo

      What is god?

      November 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Colin

      The flying spaghetti monster..... duh!

      November 2, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  19. nepawoods

    Mormonism is fascinating, but it's entirely a hoax – the greatest hoax ever perpetrated, by far. To anyone not familiar with the proof of that, just google "Book of Abraham". Aside from convoluted Mormon denials, you'll find that Joseph Smith translated some ordinary Egyptian burial scrolls, with his "seer stones" (through which the Book of Mormon was also translated from alleged gold plates), to a lost "Book of Abraham". It was only in 1966 that those lost scrolls were found again, and found to be the Egyptian Book of the Dead ... nothing at all like what Smith translated them to.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Tom

      Apparently the church said he was divinely inspired to falsely translate them. Ha ha who believes that??

      November 2, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Charles

      Let's be accurate. FRAGMENTS of the scrolls were found in 1966. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith either translated or attempted to translate the fragments that were subsequently found in 1966. There, now you have all of the facts.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • The all potent one

      All religons are an eloborate hoax to control the weak minded

      November 2, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  20. Snow

    Let me try asking again..
    – they supported white supremacy
    – they were racists..
    – they supported polygamy
    – they supported child marriages..
    – they rejected any kind of contraception and reduce females to being a baby machines..
    – they believe in people going up to another planet after death..

    How can you not dislike such a cult?

    November 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Michael

      Items 1-5, to the extent they're true at all, are past tense. Show me any religion today that doesn't bear a similar list of issues that made sense at the time but are now rejected as the religion and its adherents progress. Item 6 is, to the extent it is true, taken wildly out of context to make it seem much, much stranger than it is.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Tom

      Michael your reply is justifying by saying "they do it too, so its ok if we do it". Just because other religions also have mistakes in their past does not mean that the mormon mistakes are no void.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Snow

      My point exactly.. there is no religion that has changed its basics and rules.. that itself should hint you that they are all man made and not the absloute truth..

      If you consider an absolute truth, it remains the same no matter what the time.. 2+2=4 in 1st or 17th or 21st century.. it does not change with time.. if religion was true when it was created, it should remain true no matter what the time.. otherwise it is just another fiction

      November 2, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • cassie

      Mormans do now support Pologramy, and we do not keep the woman from birth control its her choice as to rather she wants to use, IE FREE AGENCY! Please don't confuse FLDS with LDS its two different views!!

      November 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • TR6

      Christians don’t have such a pretty history either. In their current incarnation I don’t particularly dislike mormons. I think they are nuttier than squirrel poo; but I don’t dislike them

      November 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Michael

      Tom: I don't justify *any* religion's past racist behavior, even my own. They were all wrong to behave/believe as they did, and they're all right insofar as they now reject racist principles.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.