“Where Brotherhood Is the Specialty,” Ensign, July 1978, 13
Where Brotherhood Is the Specialty
Wards where cultural differences produce warmth, not sparks, report their successes.
Jean and Roy D. Reynolds have two Lamanite foster sons, one seventeen who has been with them for eight years, and one eleven-year-old who has been with them for three. They also have a hyperactive teenage son. And Sister Reynolds has undergone very serious surgery—an ileostomy.
Every aspect of the Reynolds’s situation involves differences from others—differences that could be painful. In Redwood Third Ward in the Salt Lake Valley, however, the acceptance is complete. Only once did someone seem to deliberately try to hurt William, the seventeen-year-old Lamanite; only once has someone made Mark, the hyperactive son, feel unaccepted; and both times it was an inactive teenager. But within the ward, “so small it’s almost like a branch,” there has been “complete brotherly love.”
It’s hard to identify what these people do to make those who have differences feel accepted and included; it’s always easier to identify the cutting remark, the turned back. But in Redwood Third, love is a way of life. Sister Reynolds says, “The boys in that ward had a good basketball team, and they could have won many games. But they made sure that Scott played.” Scott’s legs are twisted at the knee and he cannot run swiftly or turn quickly. Obviously, other things were more important to the players than winning.
Or look at the Manhattan New York Ward. It’s also small. The members come from nearly every background, culture, language, and life-style. “The ward is our family. For some of us, it’s the only family we have here,” says Jean Allen, a script writer. “We sense how much we need each other to survive spiritually.”
One of the home evening groups for singles includes a Utah Anglo, an American Indian, an American Greek, a Puerto Rican, and an Iranian. A young single woman, an artist, had been inactive for several years when she came to Manhattan. “I was convinced there was no place for me in the Church,” she said. “I used to try to figure out some way to be a Mormon and not go to Church, but a great home teacher here helped me see what I’d been doing. He made me realize that I could go anywhere in the Church and be myself—an artist—and a Mormon at the same time. Now I have my spiritual self-confidence back.”
She continued, “The most moving thing that happened to me the first time I went to church was seeing a painter I had known in Utah; he had been a nonmember then, whose life-style was very different from ours. He was sitting with the deacons. I realized that there was no such thing as a typical Mormon.”
Another difference that could be a barrier—but isn’t—is language and culture. “Sometimes,” one Hispanic member offered, “people think that if you speak Spanish they know all about you. But the cultures of Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, and other Spanish-speaking countries are at least as different as the cultures of Australia, South Africa, England, and the United States.”
Sometimes these differences are seen as values—good or bad. But the spirit of the gospel is the spirit of brotherhood, as two different members testify. One Anglo brother, annoyed at the behavior of some Spanish members, went to one of the two Spanish wards’ sacrament meeting so that he could talk to someone about it. “The meeting, though, was all in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word,” he reported ruefully. “I was so touched by their spirit that my attitude was completely turned around.”
And a sister from Puerto Rico told this story: “I was teaching Junior Sunday School, and one mother took her daughter out and put her in the next class, even though she was not old enough. Also, this woman was very cold to me, which hurt me a great deal. A little while later, the presidency decided that all children should be with their age group, so the little girl was returned to my class. I told her that I had missed her and she said, ‘I missed you too, but my mommy didn’t want you to teach me because you are Puerto Rican.’ Although this hurt me, I tried not to let it affect the way I treated either the little girl or her mother.
“Sometime after that I had problems, made some mistakes, and became inactive in the Church. When I returned, I was afraid of what people would think and how they would treat me—especially this woman. I assumed she would think I was the lowest of the low because of what I had done, but she came up to me, put her arms around me, and told me she was glad I was back. She was very understanding and supportive, and told me, ‘Whenever you need to talk, just pick up the phone and call, no matter what time it is.’
“I don’t know what could have made her change except the gospel.”
The gospel is enough. One New York convert describes himself as “a street kid” and defines it: “I played basketball with a bushel basket nailed up to a telephone pole, kick-the-can using the four corners of an intersection for bases, and baseball using a broomstick and a soft ball that wouldn’t break windows. We’d measure how far we hit the ball by how many sewer lids there were between the batter and the ball. I barely got through high school and left home in my teens. Then I heard about the Book of Mormon.
“Until then, I’d been a people sifter, finding maybe one or two a year, if I was lucky, who became permanent friends. But when I walked into the old wardhouse on 83rd Street, for the first time in my life I met 150 people who made my ‘friend list’ immediately. I didn’t know why I felt so close to all of them. Now I know it was the gospel.
“One of my first assignments as a home teacher was to a successful corporate lawyer from southern California who was inactive. I was nervous. We didn’t dress alike, talk alike, or live alike; today he’s active and we’re the dearest of friends. Again, it’s the gospel. What else could we possibly have had in common?”
Having the gospel in common is plenty. Look at Laie, Hawaii, a “city of refuge” in old Hawaii and home of the BYU—Hawaii Campus and the Polynesian Cultural Center. Most of the residents are Latter-day Saints—almost 95 percent—and most of them agree that without the gospel, the differences of culture and language could become insurmountable.
Eric B. Shumway, who is president of the BYU—Hawaii Stake and presides over students from twenty-five countries, is alert to potential problems. “Prejudice is based on ignorance, naivete, and fear. It flourishes in situations where we feel insecure, with people we don’t understand, with social signals we can’t read. Once we are afraid, it’s natural for us to fall back on stereotypes, and we quickly start feeling hostile.”
When Brother Shumway was first called to be a bishop, he and his family spent a lot of time visiting inactive members, many of whom were native Hawaiian and had little contact with mainlanders, or haoles. He discovered that the stereotypes can work both ways.
President Shumway has learned some tips for combating prejudice: (1) learn people’s first names; (2) graciously accept any offer of help—“in this case, it’s better to receive than to give”; (3) create opportunities for people to work, play, and pray together.
For students arriving from their homelands, breaking through the barriers of cultural prejudice toward others is one of the exhilarating things about their college experience. Peni, from Tonga, says that it was at Laie where he came to understand the prophecies that the Lamanites will blossom as a rose and that they will work together to build up Zion. Ayako from Japan remembers learning from a Taiwanese classmate the special dance taught to all eight-year-old Chinese girls. “Through her dance, I felt a little bit of her culture. This is a spiritual understanding and it is a sacred feeling to me. Another sacred time is when we kneel together in the dormitory for evening prayer. Most girls pray in their own language, and even though I cannot understand the words of their prayers, I understand the spirit.”
Bishop Ishmael Stagner presides over the Laie Fourth Ward. Hawaiian-Caucasian, he has the responsibility for 114 families—60 percent Samoan, 20 percent Hawaiian, and the remainder divided between Tongan, Maori, Fijian, Japanese, Chinese, Caucasian, and Tahitian members.
“It would be an explosive situation if it weren’t for the gospel,” he says, and cites cultural differences and drastic overcrowding as causes—sometimes two or three families share a single house. The Fourth Ward elders quorum is beginning a long-term project of providing homes for families who cannot afford to have homes built. Since many of the elders are skilled construction workers, it’s a logical solution.
For Jack Uale, learning brotherhood began in his boyhood. He has lived in Laie since childhood—long enough to remember when all the Saints belonged to one ward that met in a dilapidated hall next to Sam Choy’s grocery store. He also remembers seeing prisoners of war being taken through Laie. “We would pick up stones and throw them at the men because we thought they were our enemies. One day a military policeman called us over and explained that these men were out of the war now and trying to make something new of their lives. I felt bad, and we stopped throwing stones. A few Sundays later, I heard one of these prisoners bear his testimony in sacrament meeting. He was an Italian Latter-day Saint.”
This is not to say that Laie has no problems. Sister Parmenter, who moved into Laie Fourth Ward from Montana, remembers the difficulty they had in adjusting to the multitude of languages and different customs. They felt different—and they felt excluded.
“In desperation, I began to fast, praying for anything that would show us we were among friends. Suddenly a great peace settled over me, and these words came with great power to my mind: ‘Before there was a Tonga, a Samoa, or a Montana, you were.’”
She adds, “After that manifestation, circumstances didn’t change dramatically, but our ability to do what we could to effect changes increased. We learned, for instance, that many of our brothers and sisters seemed reserved because they had previously been rejected by haoles. But when we can understand each others’ testimonies—that we are children of the same Father—we can understand each other.”
The tensions caused by different cultures is a problem that Birch Larsen, president of the McAllen Texas Stake, deals with daily. His stake is mixed Anglo and Mexican-Americans, usually called Latins in that area, most of whom are converts and many of whom cannot speak English well.
For the new Latin members in his area, he says there are usually five problems: (1) language barriers, (2) lack of transportation, (3) not enough education about priesthood and ward responsibilities, (4) not enough fellowshipping by the members, and (5) not enough follow-through by priesthood leaders. For the Anglo priesthood leader, he says there are usually four corresponding problems: (1) language barriers, (2) irregular attendance by Latin members at the meetings where they should be trained, (3) a tendency by both groups at meetings and socials to sit next to the people who speak their language, (4) different cultural customs that mean some new members are often tardy and fail to follow through on assignments.
What solutions are they pressing?
1. Language training for everyone, with classes taught by experts in both Spanish and English. “We really encourage our Latin members to learn English, though,” says President Larsen, “since it will help them improve their economic status, and it will give them better access to Church materials. About 50 percent of the leadership is bilingual and it’s increasing all the time.”
2. All wards and branches are integrated, and the stake presidency encourages the division of songs, prayers, and talks between English and Spanish, with translation, even though “getting a good translation is very difficult.”
3. Latin members are represented on every level of leadership. President Larsen’s first counselor, “one of the finest in the Church,” is Latin. Most bishoprics and quorum presidencies have a mixture of both.
4. A special stake-appointed Lamanite Committee serves in collecting information, providing supplies from the Translation Center in Mexico City, coordinating activities, and keeping abreast of problems.
“We still have plenty of challenges, but we’re not discouraged,” says President Larsen. “It’s a long-term program with no quick results. But results are coming.”
In the Chicago area, when the Wilmette Stake Relief Society hosted a conference for its sisters, they planned for five hundred; six hundred came. There was translation for the Spanish sisters and another translator for deaf sisters. Recently sensitized to cultural barriers, officers went to extraordinary lengths to provide translations of all stake meetings for Spanish members, volunteered their time as English tutors, and thrilled when Spanish-speaking sisters performed on the program for the first time in their lives, their proud husbands and children beaming in the back of the hall. Relief Society President Marian Holbrook reached out to other groups. The Relief Society sponsored and taught two English-as-a-second-language classes, each attended by approximately fifteen men and women.
Two Chicago Logan Square wards handle most of the inner-city population, and most of it is minority groups with low incomes. One branch president, an engineer from Spain, is running a forklift in a warehouse because his English isn’t good enough to let him practice his own profession. The deacons are Puerto Rican, Peruvian, Spanish, Mexican, and Brazilian. Some Spanish-speaking members from Minneapolis drive down once every few weeks to attend. The Relief Society president is a fair-skinned woman with red hair. Even some Korean members, who live closer to Logan Square than other wards, attend the Spanish meeting, absorbing the spirit.
Out in the suburbs, the problems are different. One petite Latina who joined the Church several years ago soberly shares what she has learned: “When I first joined the Church, the only times I felt left out were when people from Utah, feeling homesick, would talk about how great the Church was in Utah and their pioneer heritage. I would feel that I could never be a good Mormon as the people from Utah. Now I understand that I am the pioneer. In my ward, my family is the only one that speaks both Spanish and English. We are the bridge to the Church for all the Spanish investigators in our area. This responsibility frightens me, but I know that we must accept it. If we do not, the Lord will have to build another bridge and many people can fall away while that is happening. What we are doing is as important in many ways as anything the pioneers did.”
In Elgin Ward, a deaf couple signs, their hands flashing; translation comes from a woman who took a class in signing as soon as they moved into the ward. And she is one of four or five who learned a new language for two people who could not speak theirs. “Even people who cannot sign are always friendly; they write notes or shake hands. And they always smile,” says this couple.
A newly arrived couple from Korea thumb through their dictionary and look frequently to their home teacher, now skilled in reading meaning into fractured English. Laughing, they explain that the ward members are almost too friendly. “In our country, very—” they gesture away. “Formal?” supplies their home teacher. They feel overwhelmed by the attention.
The sensitivity of the home teacher comes in part from his own pain. Able to have only one child, he and his wife have been hurt by the thoughtless questions and comments of members who wonder why they stopped with one.
One young couple, converted in Idaho, hesitantly expressed their own hurt feelings. “It seems as if someone comes here from BYU and immediately is called to an executive position. They are certainly well-trained and they always do good jobs; but sometimes we feel that no one gives us a chance to meet the same kinds of responsibilities because we are converts.”
Look at New Zealand, for instance, a place that is legally integrated but where for many years the Maori citizens have had low-paying jobs, fewer educational opportunities, and lower-cost housing. Even within the Church, some Maori Saints have felt that “their” church (initially the missionaries had great success among the Maoris) is being taken away by the pakehas (Anglos). However, it is the gospel that solves the problem. On Auckland’s affluent North Shore, for example, the bishops of both wards are Polynesian.
Mervyn Dykes, as a new elders quorum president in Auckland several years ago, could not come to a decision about a second counselor. “I was praying about a list of likely candidates and the stake president was urging me to recommend a name, but two weeks passed with no answer. Then, a new Maori brother showed up in priesthood meeting. ‘That’s the one,’ I thought, and the Spirit confirmed my choice.”
A new elder, recently activated, this brother “cared about people more than anyone I’d ever met.”
But even Brother Dykes, knowing this and knowing the confirmation of the Spirit, had to learn this brother’s own cultural way of transmitting that caring. For instance, following his custom, this brother would immediately start preparing a meal whenever Brother Dykes came over; Brother Dykes finally got the message. To create the minimum inconvenience, he began calling right at mealtimes.
Sometimes meetings ran late, and the Maori brother would start arranging beds. Brother Dykes learned that this was not a European hint that they had overstayed their welcome, but natural Maori hospitality.
Once when Brother Dykes was moving, he deliberately didn’t mention it to his counselor since he thought that too many people took advantage of this brother’s helpfulness—one family had borrowed his car for several days just the week before. In the middle of packing came a pounding at the door. Perturbed, the counselor demanded to know why he hadn’t asked for help. Brother Dykes mumbled, abashed, “I didn’t want to put you out.”
“Don’t talk such rot,” retorted his counselor. “Let’s get cracking. I’ve taken out the back seat to make more room.”
A year or so later, the quorum that had trailed the stake was leading it, the ward was being divided, and the new bishop asked for Brother Dykes’s recommendation for an elder to be advanced to the office of high priest. “I need the name tonight,” he added.
Brother Dykes sorted through his card file, prayed, and cut the list from sixty-nine to thirty-four. The bishop phoned for a progress report. Brother Dykes prayed again and cut the list to sixteen. The bishop called again. Brother Dykes prayed again and reduced the list to four names. The bishop called again. Five minutes later, Brother Dykes was ready and, reluctant to lose such a fine counselor, gave the bishop the Maori brother’s name.
“Fine,” said the bishop. “Now what took you so long? I had his name ages ago.”
Bishop James Murray, a Maori leading the 95-percent-pakeha Fifth Ward in the Auckland New Zealand Harbour Stake, is realistic about prejudice. It has cut him deeply many times. Once he was fired as a sales representative even though his figures were the best out of all the representatives. He has also been refused for jobs—pretty clearly because he was Maori.
But he refuses to be bitter. In the real estate business, being a Maori has its advantages. “People are so surprised to find out that I’m Maori that they remember me—a great asset when you’re selling.” Some, not wanting to be prejudiced, deliberately make a point of giving him business. Others, knowing the prejudice his people struggle against, have confidence in his competence. (He was recently called as real estate manager for the Church in Australia and New Zealand.)
Few people, listening to his forceful and dynamic speech, would believe that as a child he stammered so badly that he preferred to remain silent—and felt the discrimination from his handicap. He stopped going to church and suffered through school: the other children mocked him; one teacher caned him for being “insolent.” But at seventeen he read the story of Demosthenes, a Greek who overcame a stammer by practicing with pebbles in his mouth until he was one of Greece’s great orators. He used the same technique and went back to church in an area where he was not known.
“The first time I attended MIA I was asked to give a scripture reading from the Book of Mormon the next week,” he said, “a whole chapter of forty or fifty verses.”
He decided not to back off. He practiced with a marble in his mouth, prayed, and memorized the whole chapter. “I never looked back from that time.” Not long afterwards, he won the stake speech festival—the boy who, a few years before, would not answer questions.
Differences are seldom easy to deal with. But in the gospel, the Spirit can build bridges of love and understanding that make these differences precious.
Note: Special thanks to those who, in addition to those quoted, provided material for this article: Vernice Wineera Pere of Laie, Hawaii; Debra Hadfield, of Provo, Utah; and David Melindez of Salt Lake City, Utah.