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An American in an International Church

By Maralise Petersen

What is left of the steam from the potato salad rises slowly, stops just above the dish and descends. Forks are scraping plates with hungry vigor, sausages are being passed from place to place, the vegetables, freshly-bought are crisp with life. Each mouth opens and closes, eyes sometimes follow. A slow, soft sound of pleasure is uttered from someone at the table. And as I look at my Austrian friend who had helped me prepare the meal, a smile works its way onto my face. And onto hers.

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The conversation is light, a rehearsal of our day at church, a funny discussion about the 80+ crowd that monitors our hallways, shushes our babies, and warms us with gifts of chocolate and strudel. My friend answers our questions about our new ward cheerfully, helping us understand the people, her culture, and the saints that live in this area. My husband and I have tried not to be ignorant of the ways that Americans and American saints often offend. But, even with that effort we have felt the distance that comes as a result of colliding politics and cultural separations. And as our enlightening conversations comes to an end, we all nod as the hope is expressed that we can see each other as saints first, and Americans/Austrians last.

But even as the sentence is said, I know it’s impossible. Just as I can’t take those barriers from my own mind, I shouldn’t expect others to be able to drop them either. I have learned to laugh at my country, my religion, and myself even as I have grown to love them all more. I have learned that differences are stumbling blocks but not ones that can’t be crossed. But, I’ve also learned there is no definitive road map to unity, no blinking sign that announces the arrival of zion.

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I slump into the hard seats set up for the baptism. As I see the grown man descend into the font, I feel my own depths of exhaustion. I’m tired of my husband’s work and church meetings, of the smile that I replace for conversation given my inability to speak German yet. My kids are running somewhere in the building, I’m not sure where they are. As I search, I see their blond and brown heads and narrow bodies swagger into the room. I wince as they immediately run to the font, plaster their faces onto the glass, and relish in their amazing view. As my husband escorts them forcefully to their seats, the convert, a stranger to me, sinks into the water, coming out wearing a look a readiness, peace.

He speaks English and we talk after the baptism. Our conversation centers around the particular dialect of Farsi which is his native tongue and his home, Afghanistan. He answers my questions about his family reluctantly, revealing that he lost his two younger siblings and his Father a few years ago from a Russian bomb blast. They all died on the same day. He tells me that his mother is still in Afghanistan, but he can never go back. I nod, say something completely inadequate like “I’m so sorry.” He dismisses my sympathy, wants to talk about the future. And his timing is perfect because the future is just what I want to talk about too. His smile begins as he lifts the plate filled with pastries and cheeses, cookies and salad to his mouth, grateful as am I for the offerings of the saints.

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If you’re interested in another story about culture and inheritance, read Justine Dorton’s ‘Names’ from the Spring issue (Emily Christensen McPhie and Cassandra Christensen Barney are our featured artists, to view their work and read our most recent issue, subscribe here).

About Maralise Petersen

(Emerita)

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