Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Mormon Culture

My friend Bridget recently wrote a post for The Exponent about her experience as a Mormon expat, which I rather enjoyed. Susanne asked me for a follow up and I'm more than happy to do that!

In 2007 then-President Gordon B. Hinckley said, "the Church has become one large family scattered across the earth. There are now more than 13 million of us [more than 15 million now] in 176 nations and territories [184 in 2011]. A marvelous and wonderful thing is coming to pass. The Lord is fulfilling His promise that His gospel shall be as the stone cut out of the mountain without hands which would roll forth and fill the whole earth, as Daniel saw in vision (see Daniel 2:31–45; D&C 65:2)."

Truthfully, that scripture from Daniel popped into my head all on its own (thank goodness for scripture mastery) and I used it to find that quote by President Hinckley—but I just love the idea that we are one large family scattered across the earth. I think that sums up my experience as a member.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers itself a global church, "teaching principles and doctrines that have power to benefit and uplift people of every nation, race, and culture" (here). While I think that is a true statement—that the principles and doctrines of our church can benefit and uplift any person anywhere—we tend to mix up those principles and doctrines with what Bridget refers to as Intermountain West cultural baggage* or IWCB for short.

Considering that for the past 17 years (since 1997) there have been more church members outside of the United States than within, it seems logical that we try to lose as much IWCB as is possible—and we're working on it! Just today the church made the exciting announcement that "speakers at the general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose primary language is not English now have the choice to deliver their talks in their native tongue."

It was a long time coming (like women praying at conference) but it's finally here! Sometimes shedding that IWCB takes longer than one would think, but I think it's so liberating when we peel off that layer of culture, really exposing the true principles and doctrines to everyone.

Asking a woman to pray in general conference really helped women feel more accepted in the church family. I can only imagine how exciting it will be for our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters to finally hear a talk in general conference in their native language—and not through an interpreter.

I love that conference and other church materials are translated into the many languages (189 officially) that they are but I've sat in meetings that have been run through an interpreter and it takes away a bit of the immediacy you feel when you hear things in your own language. The emotion is stripped away because the interpreter isn't as involved as the actual speaker and it's frankly a little distracting to hear a simultaneous translation (at least for me it is, but I've only ever done so in environments where I've been trying to learn a bit of other language so I'm trying to remember what was said in Russian/Arabic as I'm hearing it replayed in English a split second (or a few minutes) later).

When I lived in Russia I was the only expat in my branch, aside from the missionaries (and even some of them were local-ish (we had some Russian missionaries, is what I mean, but also some Americans)). I would get up and go to church by myself every Sunday. The missionaries would sit right behind me to translate sacrament meeting for me. Then I would slog through Sunday School and Relief Society on my own. I stayed for choir practice. And then I would do it all over again, this time with the rest of my little group of American teachers. We'd fumble our way through sacrament meeting, held our own English Sunday School, and then would join the locals for Relief Society.

It made for a long Sunday, but I wouldn't trade a minute of it.

The meeting house had a cloak room (which seemed perfectly normal to me since cloak rooms are not unusual things to have in Canada—probably something to do with having snow nine months of the year (it snowed today in Calgary, just saying)) where members would leave their winter gear, including their snowy/muddy boots.

There was also a pile of topachki (slippers) that people would slip on after they took off their boots, so the entire congregation ended up wandering around the church building wearing slippers rather than dress shoes.

I'll admit that it seemed a bit odd at first—in Canada people usually bring dress shoes with them if they're planning on leaving a pair of boots in the church cloak room—but who am I to say no to slippers? Shoes are the worst. Topachki are amazing.

"When in Russia," I shrugged and slipped on a pair of communal topachki.

The American missionaries actually asked me to not do that.

"We're trying to get them to separate their culture from the gospel," they explained.

"I didn't know wearing slippers was against our religion," I answered back snootily.

"But slippers at church?" they said. "That's not Sunday-best. We're trying to get them to understand that wearing dress shoes is respectful of the Sabbath."

I frankly didn't (and still don't) see a problem with wearing slippers at church. We (usually) don't wear shoes in the temple. And I saw it more as the missionaries trying to infuse some IWCB into the church at Russia, rather than simply trying to weed out Russian culture from the gospel. Truthfully, I think that the principles and doctrines of the church work beautifully in any culture—whether that culture worships in slippers or in high heels—so I don't think that that this issue is separating any given culture from the gospel. I think the issue is forcing one culture onto another, parading it as "right" and "true" when really all the people want are principles and doctrines.

It's absolutely possible to embrace the gospel culture while also respecting local customs. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, "the Church teaches us to give up any personal or family traditions or practices that are contrary to the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ and to [our] gospel culture." I don't think the issue of slippers falls into a tradition or practice that is contrary to the teachings of the church.

Let's be happy that they're striving to live the Word of Wisdom and let them have their slippers.

The branches combined to put on a talent show shortly before we—my little group of English teachers and I—left our Russia days behind and it was a beautiful, beautiful thing. We did our little American talents and the branch members showed us their Russian talents and I loved it. I'm still haunted by a memory of a song/story/chant some women did about fishing... I can't find or remember any of the words, but there were actions to go along with it—pounding the fish, etc—and it was awesome.

Oh, there was also the International Women's Day Celebration where the men of the branch presented the women of the branch with what was possibly the ugliest collage ever to be created in history. And they hung it in the kitchen—where we held English Sunday School—so we got to look at it every week.

Something that I love about attending church in places where there are few members are the buildings. Our building in Russia was part of an apartment building. It was impossible to forget you were in Russia when you were at church. The church buildings I attended in Jordan and Egypt were villas—cute little houses with yards—and they were just...great.

I had the unusual experience of attending the al-Husn branch in Jordan for a couple of weeks. I say 'unusual' because this branch is (or at least was at the time) the only Arabic-speaking branch in the world. No translations. 100% Arabic. It was a beautiful thing, even if I was completely lost the entire time.

Later we moved to Amman, which was an hour closer to campus, and had side-by-side translation. A speaker would address the congregation in their native tongue (usually Arabic or English, though we did have some members from other places) and our friend Emil would translate either way (he was a local member who served a mission in England and was fluent in (at least) Arabic and English). We were with the majority of the BYU group here (some students stayed in al-Husn) so it was a bit unique (and far more full of IWCB than it might have otherwise) in that regard.

One of my favourite memories was when a BYU student was telling a story about a game his family would play called "King of the Hill" but it somehow—and quite understandably—got translated into Arabic as "King of Hell."

The Amman branch seemed pretty Americanized, though. The expats who (for the most part) ran the branch turned it into their own little slice of America. And that's fine. I think there's a place for that.

Our branch in Egypt was also dominated by expats.

When we first moved in, actually, Egyptian members weren't even allowed to meet with us on Fridays (that was a cultural shift the church has made in the Middle East—we attended church on Friday, the main day of worship for Muslims because Sunday is business-as-usual for the rest of the country while Friday was part of the weekend). Andrew was called to be the Arabic Sunday School teacher, to help ensure a lively doctrinal discussion, at a special officially unofficial (or unofficially official) "gathering" at the branch president's house on Friday evenings where we'd just talk about churchy stuff and provide the sacrament. It was all on the down-low.

There was much rejoicing when the Egyptian members were allowed (by the government) to formally participate in our actual church activities and meetings with us. We still held Arabic Sunday School but during church hours (and less secretive than it was before).

Still, we only had a handful of local members. The majority of the members were American, though there were also a few Canadians, Australians, and Sudanese in our midst.

Church in Egypt certainly had an American culture—not necessarily full of IWCB, but certainly an expat culture. One tradition I loved was that we'd sing God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again in Arabic to every family who left (and we had high turn-over due to the transient nature of the branch (most members were in the foreign service) so we got to sing it a lot).

Before I move on to talk about my church experiences in North America, I'd like to give another little plug for Neylan McBaine's Women in the Church. I know it sounds like it's all about women but really I think it's more about the idea letting go of the IWCB. On page 62 she mentions the experience of Melissa Inouye in Hong Kong as an example of how we can take a "pragmatic approach" to "increase our capacity to grow in the Church in the coming decades." We need to let go of cultural restrictions—even our own—to fully realize the gospel culture we claim to want to advance. We should not "let inflexibility stunt the growth of the kingdom" (McBaine 2014, 63). Melissa Inouye says,
Mormon domestic workers whose day off does not fall on Sunday attend the Sabbath services on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. Two senior missionary couples from North America are assigned to superintend these full three-hour-block weekday meetings. They get Sundays off. Most Mormons are shocked to learn that these missionaries have official Church sanction to go to Disneyland on Sunday, but so it must be: Sunday is their Sabbath from the Sabbath.
I thought that was another interesting example of shifting the day of rest and worship to accommodate the local culture. It was strange to go to church on Fridays at first in Egypt and Jordan, but we quickly got used to it.

Now I like to joke that some way or another all my children have been born on the Sabbath. Rachel was born on Friday in the US (but Friday is the Sabbath in the Middle East). Miriam was born on a Sunday in Egypt (which was like our Monday at the time, but the Sabbath for America). And Benjamin was born on a Sunday in the US. Anyway....

Growing up—in British Columbia—I remember playing on Sundays. Our ward felt really spread out (to me) and there weren't any members of the church in my school (besides my siblings (and the Dills, who only came to church rarely)) so Sunday was an optimal time to do a kid-swap. That way our parents only had to drive once to pick us up. We'd just go home with friends after church. It was simple and, I think, absolutely necessary.

As good as it is to "play" (I suppose now that I'm a grown up I should use words like "associate" but I'm talking about my childhood, so play it is) with friends who aren't members of the church, it's also nice to know the people you go to church with—the people you share the culture of the gospel with—a little better than you get to know them just by speaking in passing in the hallway. Our three hours of church are busy and full of quiet (non-socializing) time. So I think it's important to socialize outside of church meetings.

When I moved to Alberta our ward was much more compact. Alberta is almost part of the Intermountain West area the IWCB refers to, but it's a little too northern to be included, I think. Still, if you're a Mormon in Canada, chances are you've been to Alberta or have family in Alberta or live in Alberta yourself.

Alberta is to Canadian Mormons what Utah is to American Mormons. It's the Mormon cultural hub of the country. But it's still quite different from the Intermountain West culture. I feel like we had many more opportunities for socializing outside of church time—we'd have firesides and dances and activities just for the sake of getting together. Even if our ward was a little rogue—I remember how shocked my cousin was when she came to a fireside with me and everyone showed up in blue jeans because her ward stayed in their Sunday best for firesides—my Mormon friends really were like an extension of my family, so I certainly felt a little lost when we moved to Utah where that wasn't quite the case.

Adjusting to the Intermountain West culture was difficult for me. I don't think I really ever managed to "fit in" and "make friends" in my ward, though I do have a few great friends from that time of my life (shout out to Annik and Shallee (who is practically famous now—buy her book!)) the majority of the youth in that ward snubbed me.

They frankly did not care that I was there. It wasn't in their culture to wrap a new move-in up in fellowship because...everyone's Mormon. It wasn't how it is here in the south where we're like, "Yahoo! Another girl my age moved into the ward!" (Rachel is the only girl her age and she's been struggling with that, but the boy in her class is the only boy their age, too—they've recently been combined with the class older than them (which is fairly huge) and it's been a good change). Instead it was like I was completely ignored.

I was used to feeling loved, included, and a part of things simply because I was a sister in "one large family scattered across the earth." I was not used to forging friendships in the church. I didn't know how to. They didn't know how to. And so what ended up happening was that I spent a lot of years feeling alone (Annik and Shallee were not in "my year" of classes at church).

I realize that, as Sister Julie B. Beck has said, "we are not in the entertainment business; we are in the salvation business," but at the same time, fellowshipping—getting to know and love the people we go to church with—is a huge part of salvation. Sister Beck says that part of the reason we are organized into wards (and quorums and relief societies) is because "if we were left to ourselves, we might prefer to care only for the popular, charming, and grateful people in our wards. It is much more challenging to care for those who are difficult to love, who have grave and complicated challenges, or who do not seem to appreciate our help."

Part of our job as Saints is to reach outside ourselves to others—others in our ward, others in the world.

I didn't feel like that happened when I moved to Utah, though, to be fair, the teenage years are hard everywhere. But I don't think it was only the youth. I remember my mom telling me that a woman she visit taught told her that she doesn't go to church functions (parties and the like) because the purpose of them is to bring wards closer together and she was already neighbours with everyone in her ward and that was close enough. And I honestly don't recall seeing her at any church gathering aside from the three-hour block of church. She simply was not interested in getting to know the people in her ward better.

She had her "gospel culture support group" elsewhere—at work, in her extended family, wherever else—and didn't feel the need to bond with her fellow ward members.

That seems to me to be a pervading idea in the Intermountain West: "Family time is sacred time." I completely believe that is true—we are firm believers in the Family Home Evening program for that reason—but I also believe that we're organized into ward families for a purpose as well and that purpose is to love and support each other as a global family.

I don't think that every ward in Utah is as insular as the one I grew up in but from personal experience I know that it's not the only one, either.

Part of the problem I have living in the Intermountain West is that I'm "different." I'm part of the "other." I don't have the same political leanings as most. I don't care about the same fashion trends or schooling trends or whatever cultural trend is going on. I'm not a cookie-cuttter Utah Mormon (I'm a democrat, so there's that). And that's frowned upon.

We believe that "the Lord called his people ZION because they were of one heart and one mind," (Moses 7:18) but I think we forget that that's one heart and mind in gospel truth, not necessarily about everything else. I believe that even in Heaven we will disagree on things because we'll still have agency, which means we'll still be entitled to our own opinions.

There's also the idea of landmarks and local stories that Intermountain West expats take for granted and throw around outside of the area as if everyone should know what they're talking about (but Bridget touched on that, I think).

I don't think that everything about the Intermountain West Mormon culture is bad or needs to be done away with, but I do think there are things in the culture that could be considered contrary to the teachings of the church and those should be done away with. On the same token, I think there are rich cultural legacies throughout the world and that those stories/landmarks/ideas/customs should be embraced. Part of the IWCB, I think, is trying to do away with "other" culture while championing their own when what needs to happen, really, is an acceptance of all good in every culture.

I will leave you with this thought by President Uchtdorf on Seeing Beyond the Leaf:
The late novelist Michael Crichton is reported to have said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”[2] History teaches us not only about the leaves of existence. It also teaches about the twigs, branches, trunks, and roots of life. And these lessons are important.
One of the weaknesses we have as mortals is to assume that our “leaf” is all there is—that our experience encompasses everyone else’s, that our truth is complete and universal. As I considered what I wanted to speak about today, it seemed that the metaphor of the leaf needed to be at the heart. But I also ran across an old Yiddish expression that goes, “To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.” I want to emphasize that the truth embraced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints extends beyond leaves and certainly beyond horseradish. It extends beyond time and space and encompasses all truth—from the mysteries of the tiniest atoms to the vast and incomprehensible secrets that the universe holds so tantalizingly before us.
Culture is a small part of the big picture.

*Please note that nothing negative is meant by the term 'baggage.' One commenter on her post suggested the word lens to replace baggage. Many members think that the Intermountain West Cultural Lens is the only god-given prescription, but it's not. The IWCL is a good prescription but it doesn't work for everybody, just as the prescription for my eyewear probably doesn't suit the needs of your eyes.


  1. 3 hour church...a million kids, we should be in the business of entertainment ;)

    1. Entertaining is a BIG part of what I do in Primary Music. Some people are anti-entertainment and just want the kids to sit still and listen. Hello...they are kids! I am an adult and I don't want to just sit still and listen for three hours. My bottom gets seriously tired of that--in our family we call it TB. My brother, who is a great teacher, said that entertaining IS a part of teaching because if people are entertained, they are engaged, and if they are engaged they WILL learn--they don't even need to be consciously aware that they ARE learning; their brains will just learn because they are engaged. So, I think we DO need to be in the business of entertaining, actually. Otherwise, how do we compete with the entertainment industry? Church needs to be BETTER than Sunday morning cartoons. Different kind of entertainment, obviously, but it had better be BETTER so that people, and for me that means especially kids, WANT to be there. Because it is fun and awesome.

    2. I realize the entertainment issue is tangential to Nancy's point, but wow does this ever exhaust me sometimes. In Primary, I sometimes felt that no matter how entertaining/engaging I made a lesson, I could never compete with some of these kids' attention spans. They are used to flash-bang-gee-whiz devices and if the ST lesson does not come in app form, they are not interested.

      I think Primary music leader is the hardest calling in the church: equal parts babysitting, teaching, musical skill, and entertainment.

      ANYWAY. Interesting post and I really like the word lens instead of baggage. A slightly less loaded term, ha ha.

    3. Primary music is my favorite calling. I love, love, love it. However, that being said, my kids are all grown up now, and it is WAY easier now than it was when I still had small kids at home.

  2. GREAT post, Nancy! Thanks for sharing all that you did.

    Do you find your ward in Durham to be similar to the IWCL because of people from Utah living here, or is it different because there are Mormons from the South who attend...and maybe they are different than Utah or Idaho or even Albertan Mormons? I think you'd mentioned before that Rachel didn't have a lot of girls her age, but I'd forgotten about this fact.

    I really appreciate your thorough response!

    And I agree that slippers sound divine!

    1. I don't think our ward here is as much of a Utah outpost as other places. Many of our members are local (or at least southern). I meant to write about that, actually—I love how we do the Pig Pickin' every year. :)

      There are a lot of families "from" Utah. I suppose we're kind of one of them, though I have always try to make sure people know I'm not "from" Utah originally. A ton of Mormons pass through BYU—instead of having state tuition and out-of-state tuition BYU has member tuition and non-member tuition (because, in theory, members pay tithing and some of our tithing money goes to BYU to keep tuition low in order to help more people get an education, especially those who live out of state/country and couldn't afford to come if the tuition was higher)—so even if Mormons aren't from Utah there's a big chance they've spent at least four years in Utah (or Idaho).

      A ton of members in our ward are students and they really come from all over the place, though, like I mentioned, several families are from Utah.

      I think our ward is much more open to being different than the Intermountain West. And because our ward is so spread out and small (compared to a Utah ward) we really are excited when people move in—we have book club and play group and other get-togethers, which is nice (it helps you make friends much faster than if such activities are discouraged (as was the case in our last ward--we were told not to form a "ward" book club because someone might feel financially burdened if they have to buy a book...which was ridiculous)).

      Anyway, we like it here. There are people here who we immediately felt a camaraderie with and there are people who rub us the wrong way. That's what's nice about being assigned to a congregation (re: the Beck quote in my post)—you have to learn to get along with people you might not ordinarily pick to get to know. Some of my best friendships were built that way. :)

    2. Thank you for this follow-up comment! Really appreciate its thoroughness and interesting content! :)