When Cultures Collide

Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago was a happenin’ place to be in the 1980’s not long after the 1978 revelation on the Priesthood in the predominantly black part of the city. (Here’s an article I wrote way back in 1986 about life in that ward.)  There was cultural progress; there were cultural gaffes. That’s what happens when cultures collide.

My daughter fondly remembers sitting on the knee of the black Santa Claus at our ward Christmas parties. One young Primary age convert refused to cross his arms while walking through the halls (Mormon body language for “reverent.”) When challenged about it, he said that it was a gang sign, and he wouldn’t do it. Who knew? We tried to do something to recognize Black History Month every February – with music, with “soul food,” with special talks and firesides.

The issue is not just black and white.

Becoming one anywhere in the Church these days continues to be a daunting task. Is it a clash between sin and righteousness, between the “right” way and the “wrong” way? Are the only solutions the extremes of bland homogeneity or maverick idocyncracies?

When our family visited in Hana, Maui, Hawaii one New Year’s week, we attended the tiny branch in that remote town. I noted to my husband that the Islander men were all wearing white shirts at the sacrament table. Having been in Hawaii only a few days, I knew that bright and bold was the fashion watchwords of the region. I was a little sad to see them all “caving” to a tradition that wasn’t their own. My husband nudged me back when they stood up to prepare the sacrament. All the men at the table were wearing skirts. Perfect!

My Chinese friend tells me that translating the scriptures is more complicated than selecting the right words. In his culture, sheep and lambs are considered unappealing, dirty animals. Presenting Christ as “The Lamb of God” doesn’t have the same impact there that it might to a Judeo-Christian culture. It would be more like calling Christ “The Pig of God.”

When we moved to Boston I kept hearing about “the Linaytian branch” somewhere nearby. What could that be? Was it a town name? Finally, I learned that it referred to “the Lynn Asian Branch” – a congregation formed in the Massachusetts town of Lynn where Asians, regardless of country of origin, were encouraged to attend and flourish. I also heard that this unit wasn’t flourishing so well. I guess mixing Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese (whose countries and cultures have had clashed for centuries) was not the happy melting pot experience the (Anglo) church leaders had hoped for.

Just because people look alike, doesn’t mean their cultures don’t clash.

For example, in a “typical” US LDS ward, how warmly embraced are the incognito Democrats? How about those who self-identify as “feminist” as well as Mormon? What feels like a “political” issue to some Saints feels like a “moral” one to others. When is “diversity” a strength and when, if ever, is it corrosive? It’s a high pitched tension calling for our mightiest prayers, thoughts and actions.

Please share your stories of cultural clashes and cultural bridges; your thoughts on flagrant or subtle challenges to our understanding and loving each other in a Godly way; your experiences of healing and progress at these points of tension. I can’t wait to read them!

About Linda

(Prose Board) splits her time between the mountains of Utah and the prairies of Illinois, generally confounding the postal service. She compiles inspiring collections of LDS women talking about topics dear to (or prickly in) LDS women's hearts (visiting teaching, Relief Society, motherhood, etc.) through Cedar Fort Publishing. Her latest is "Muffins & Miracles: Church Service in the Real World." She also writes for children ("Come with Me on Halloween"), illustrates, writes poetry, plays with fabric and can be bribed with dark chocolate.

14 thoughts on “When Cultures Collide

  1. I have attended an Asian branch (Thai, Lao, Hmong and Vietnamese), played the piano for a Spanish speaking branch and I lived in the Hyde Park ward for two summers in the late nineties. And yet, some of my most divisive church experiences have been in wards where everyone seems nominally homogeneous but someone starts a clique.

    When I was in high school in the late eighties, the divisive point among the women of my mother’s Relief Society was President Benson’s “To the Mothers in Zion” talk. I watched some strident women tell others that if they would refuse to work their husbands would just get better paying jobs. I watched other women boldly teach in Relief Society that failing to fulfill callings and visiting teaching stewardships was okay because everyone was working to pay for junior’s private sports coaching and little sister’s ballet and horseback riding lessons. There were women in the Primary at that time who told my parents (dad was bishop) that if ever they were released and “forced” to go to RS, they would go inactive.

    Ironically what seemed to bridge the difficulties in the RS at this time was having the stake “attach” the spanish branch to our ward (too small to staff auxiliaries, they would have their own spanish language sacrament meeting and share the other two hours with us with translators for the adults). The strident women saw faithful Latina sisters who worked 2 and 3 jobs alongside their husbands (or because there were no husbands) and could no longer point fingers. Women working for non-economic reasons contemplated their options when they saw how hard their brothers and sisters worked and how they longed to spend time with their children.

    Later, when divisiveness resurfaced for other reasons in the same ward, bridges began to be mended when the Asian branch was disbanded and those members were instructed to attend their geographical wards. Many lived within my parents’ ward boundaries and the Relief Society president soon learned that there was a large group of women who could neither read nor write in any language. She got up in RS and announced that until further notice, the entire RS budget would be spent on literacy materials and that literacy and scholarship would become the focus. Cattiness somehow didn’t seem so important anymore.

    Now, I am in a young ward (6 YW, 12 YM, 145 primary and 3 separate nurseries) with an unfortunate element of cattiness among some of the younger families. Add to that the idea among some of these same families (DH is the bishop) that they need to be served and filled in their church callings and not to work (staffing a primary of 145 is no picnic). But things that are uniting our ward are fasting as a ward for a brother in need of a kidney transplant and kneeling in prayer to close that fast. Fasting and praying for a newborn who had open heart surgery on his birthday and is fighting to come home from the hospital–the whole ward waits anxiously for the father’s daily FB updates.

    Service, love, seeking favors from the Lord and the Spirit to guide our path seem to best create unity. I have yet to figure out how to effectively create any of this, except by the small and simple things–for example, one ward I was in made it a ward goal for everyone to know all the children’s names and greet them by name in the halls of the church. You’d be amazed what a difference a name makes!

  2. Angie -
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful comments. Clearly you have walked the walk. Your examples are wonderful.

  3. In a ward in California, I realized that none of the fine Aaronic priesthood holding boys who were Filipino were attending the combined YM/YW events that had refreshments…so I asked. We usually served pizza–they didn’t eat “cheesey stuff”. So, we added rice and vegetables–easy! So many little things you don’t know unless you ask. The Samoan girls didn’t babysit other people’s kids; they’d never been away from home at night: camp? no way! Yes, a sari is appropriate for Sacrament meeting. I loved learning their norms; they loved learning what was just “American” (or even just Utah-ish)and not “Gospel”– so together we figured out how to focus on the important things.

  4. I am well aware of the many problems and challenges that various wards throughout the world face. The church is spreading throughout many cultures and countries. People are immigrating and emigrating to other countries. New ways of learning,growing,and accepting new ideas challenge the members of the church in all cultures.
    The Islanders wear the white shirts and ties to honor their priesthood and willingness to be supportive of their leaders. The wearing of the native dress is accepted among the church members of other polynesian islands too. I’ve often seen them in the church magazines in this style.
    People do sin at church, at home within our families, and wherever they may be. They forget the the gospel is important to live throughout our lives. I grew up and discovered the adults often disregarded the gospel of kindness, love, tolerance, humility, patience and charity to name a few principles. Few repented. Pride is a major sin of many people these days.
    Sometimes forgiveness and tolerance are difficult for people.
    Bad treatment by others is harmful, affects a desire to return to church. Twice I saw ward members at a store, each of them acting as if they didn’t see me even though I was in their direct line of sight. I saw a third member of the church while sitting in a traffic jam. I honked to get her attention. She rolled down her window, cheerfully greeted me, asked when she would see me at church next, said she missed seeing me. This was heart warming, I felt happy at the invitation. In a moment my heart was warmed to the idea of going to church despite the past bad experiences.
    I needed to try and forgive again for the nth time. My friends warmth was really helpful.

  5. There’s so much I could say here. One of my biggest concerns right now is that so much of our church literature comes from an American cultural background, but even more than that, a Christian one. Most of the LDS I interact with weren’t Christian before they were baptized and because of their specific situation, almost all of their gospel learning comes from reading church literature that has been translated into their language. There is so much that we assume that “everyone” knows because everyone around us does know it. Even the Articles of Faith and _Gospel Principles_ aren’t very basic, much less the Bible and the Book of Mormon. They have to be so many things to so many different people, and I fear they aren’t the right things for the LDS I know.

    Fortunately there’s a reasonable amount of literature in their language, but since nearly all the people who are speak that language have always been Christian, there are some major gaps. It’s easier (technically, although it certainly doesn’t always happen) to incorporate important cultural variations when the language is used be people of the same culture. I hope someday the members I know will be able to read the Book of Mormon in their native, not second languages.

    When we’ve lived in the US, we’ve been in a range of wards from very conservative to rather liberal (for an LDS ward), and from tiny to large, and from all-white to a minority of members being white. In my experience, different languages can be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. It is so hard to create unity when you can’t communicate with each other very well.

    But it’s so wonderful when a ward can include everyone. I see the necessity for language-specific wards, but I wish there was another way. And there is so much need for tolerance and forgiveness and assuming that the people around us really are trying their best, even when we can’t understand each other.

  6. Amira – thanks for sharing your experiences. I think this comment of yours is at the heart of everything: “there is so much need for tolerance and forgiveness and assuming that the people around us really are trying their best, even when we can’t understand each other.”

    Becky – “Sometimes forgiveness and tolerance are difficult for people.” So true! And I love your emphasis on the “gospel of kindness, love, tolerance, humility, patience and charity.” Thanks for your insights.

    JKfrome: You have such a great attitude! I love the distilled wisdom in “So many little things you don’t know unless you ask.”

  7. ‘m warmed to see that no one has mentioned the issue I faced for so many years. Perhaps there’s finally enough conversions in the church that its now a moot point. My challenge was the negative attitude of so many members towards converts. Over the years I ‘ve heard the following opinions expressed in Sunday School: “No convert should ever be given a leadership calling because they have no understanding of how the Church is to be run”

    “Those born in the Church were obviously more faithful in the pre-existence than converts”

    I won’t bore you with more. One of the most enlightening days of my life was when I realized the difference between “Mormon culture”, which spawns many of these false notions – and the Gospel.

  8. Sharon -
    As a convert myself, I know just what you mean. I distinctly remember feeling being perceived as “benighted one in need of our greater insight and light” even though I was a deeply believing Christian long before I became a Mormon. If I had let the foibles of Mormon culture block my access to the core of the Gospel, I don’t know that I’d have joined.

    I chuckle at your comments about folks not “understanding how the Church is run.” That’s exactly what some fresh graduate students would say when they arrived in the Hyde Park ward and saw how things were done there. It was with great satisfaction when a new building was built and dedicated that the visiting apostle told the local bishop, “We watch what you’re doing here so we know better how to help other developing regions.” (or words to that effect.) Whohooo!

  9. I don’t have much experience with living in a culturally diverse ward but I do want to comment on the convert/life long member issue. One of my blessings is that on my father’s side of the family I have LOTS of pioneer ancestors who joined the church then left their countries of origin and crossed the plains to Utah. That has always been a source of interest and pride (the good kind) to me. The other half of this blessing is that my mother is a convert–another source of pride. She is the pioneer and I have been the recipient of her sacrifice. I know there were a few instances in which misguided members of the church assumed that converts were not as good as life-long members–and at least one even had the audacity to tell her so! (Thankfully this was over 30 years ago.) I do not understand how anyone could buy into bunk like that. I think because of my mother it has always been clear to me that converts are not tabula rasa (blank slates), that they have been gathering knowledge and experience all along that they continue to draw from after their baptism (just as I draw from my past experiences). I think the same must be true for people from other cultures.

  10. Ana of the Nine Kids -
    Thanks for your perspective. Sounds like the blending of cultures turned out quite well for you! Your point about drawing from past experience is wise and valuable.

  11. Linda:

    Reading your comment on “incognito Democrats” made me smile and remember a time years ago, when I lived in Salt Lake City. I served in the YW’s organization and received a call from our sweet President one sunny, fall day. She asked if my Mia Maid class – as a class project – would mind handing out political flyers for a local Republican candidate she knew. I internally gulped and stated, “As long as you don’t mind that my girls also hand out flyers for a Democratic candidate who is a friend of mine, I don’t think that will be a problem.”

    “Oh,” she said, obviously surprised. “I hadn’t thought about that before.” And therein, in my mind, lies the issue. We often forget there are many diverse, intelligent, fascinating people in the world who are our brothers and sisters and that we do not all share the same cultural, political or religious backgrounds even though we have all come, by hook or by crook, to the same Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s past time that we open our minds and our hearts and become accepting of all. It time we think about it.

  12. I just wish we had more diversity in general in our ward. 90% of the members are pretty far right-wing white people. I am guessing that over the next decade or so the church will need to be more welcoming to homosexuals. I know for certain our ward would not know how to handle that. I can’t wait! People need to open their eyes (and hearts) every once in a while.

  13. Converts? Growing up in NY, I’d never thought of that one. I’m so sorry people have thought less of those with less formal church experience–and a life full of rich experience. Our current, bishop, both councilors in the stake presidency, our last stake president . . . and so many other local leaders . . . are all converts and bring such compassion and charity to their service.

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