A few weeks ago I was on vacation and attended church with family members in Hawaii. The topic for Relief Society that week was self-reliance, and the teacher caught our attention by placing a proverb in Hawaiian on the board as an introduction to her lesson. She then went on to teach one of the best lessons I’ve seen in a church class—it expertly wove her personal experiences with the teachings from our prophet in the manual, and powerfully brought the Spirit into the room.
Our teacher described a number of different traditional Hawaiian fishing practices and how they related to different principles of self-reliance. For example, solitary spear fishing requires learning patience and practicing particular skills in order to gain mastery. However, net fishing involves the work of an entire group of people, each of whom must contribute in order to successfully provide themselves with food. Creating fish ponds is an investment of labor that can provide food for an entire village for years. Each of these different types of labor was related to principles of self-reliance, such as individual education and training, community support, and the importance of work. Additionally, examples were shared by our teacher and class members of their own life experiences and how they related to gospel principles of work, education, and service.
Most of us in the class, visitors and residents, didn’t know much about fishing in general, let alone native fishing techniques. Part of the power of the lesson came from the novelty of the analogies, but that wasn’t everything. This teacher had unique knowledge and a powerful testimony, both of which she wasn’t afraid to share with the class. She did not hesitate to step outside our usual lesson conventions and offer up something new. I’ve often heard people talk about how comforting it is that the church is “the same everywhere you go”, but when I get a chance to hear lessons like this, I am grateful that in some ways it is not.
It is true that the structure of the church, the scriptures and lesson manuals we use, and the doctrines we teach are universal and worldwide. However, that does not always we mean we have to change our stories or hide parts of ourselves in order to fit into some kind of church culture box. God could have created the world without geographic variety, so that all areas had the same climate, plants, animals, food, language, people, and culture. Instead, variety is an essential component of life on Earth, and as such there is something important we need to learn from it. I think our Heavenly Parents are saddened when we (unknowingly or not) value one culture over another.
Chieko Okazaki, also from Hawaii, gave a powerful conference talk in 1996 titled “Baskets and Bottles”, in which she compared the preservation of fruit by bottling it with cultivating fruit trees in tropical climates, where families can pick some fruit each day for eating. Sister Okazaki reminds us that “The basket and the bottle are different containers, but the content is the same: fruit for a family. Is the bottle right and the basket wrong? No, they are both right. They are containers appropriate to the culture and the needs of the people. And they are both appropriate for the content they carry, which is the fruit.”
The fruit that we can pick for ourselves and feed to our families and neighbors is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it stays the same no matter how we present it. We must take care not to confuse the container with its contents, or to privilege certain containers that are familiar over those that aren’t. Perhaps the container of my experiences and testimony is not the same shape or color as that of someone else in my ward, but that certainly does not mean that the fruit inside is not good. I hope for a world in which the shelves of our collective church pantry are stocked with a variety of colorful and interesting containers for the sweet fruit of eternal life. And I really hope there are both peaches and mangos in heaven, because both are celestial fruit and I’d hate to have to choose.