Symposium Examines International Understanding

“Symposium Examines International Understanding,” Ensign, Feb. 1979, 78–79

Symposium Examines International Understanding

The three days of sessions and workshops could have been a direct response to President Kimball’s address to Regional Representatives in September, urging that the gospel be taken to the “uttermost parts” of the world.

But BYU’s Language and Intercultural Research Center had been planning its winter “Bridges of Understanding” symposium for months. Representatives from education, government, journalism, law, linguistics, and other disciplines less easy to classify came to share their insights, gained by living and working with different cultures.

Even in the most academic sessions, the spirit brought by President Kimball was there, testifying, as he had, “We feel that the spirit of the Lord is brooding over the nations to prepare the way for the preaching of the gospel.”

F. Lamond Tullis of BYU’s Department of Government, and editor of the recently published Mormonism: A Faith for All Cultures (BYU Press, 1978), said President Kimball had “now made it mandatory to cross cultural frontiers.”

He discussed in greater detail some of the things that might be done to meet President Kimball’s challenge: “I can see no good reason why the Lord would open doors that we are not prepared to enter.”

“We work pretty hard at being aware of what’s ‘out there,’” said Brother Tullis. “We learn languages, we keep up on current affairs. But I think we may be less aware of our own strengths and weaknesses as messengers, less aware of our own political and cultural jingoism.” He cited hypernationalism, racial intolerance, and economic inequality as areas where we need to develop more sensitivity.

Sharing this vision was Spencer J. Palmer of BYU’s Religious Studies Center, former mission president in Korea, and author of a recently published book, The Expanding Church (Deseret Book, 1978). He added his own testimony about President Kimball and described “the exhilaration of having a prophet with such sympathy and concern for people who, in many cases, have been excluded from the mainstream of Mormon life.”

He recalled a Chinese student several years ago who came to him in tears, having been told that the Chinese would not be candidates for the celestial kingdom because they were not descendents of Shem. “I couldn’t help remembering that incident when I heard President Kimball’s heartfelt praise of the Chinese people and their worthiness for the gospel,” said Brother Palmer quietly.

“Someone needs to study how quickly this miracle of transition toward cultural sensitivity has taken place,” he emphasized. As a former mission president in Korea, he recalled his concern at seeing only the American flag fly over the mission compound—“and don’t misunderstand. I love that flag. I helped defend it as an American chaplain during the Korean War. But the Korean Saints needed to see their own flag over their Church headquarters.” He still remembers the exhilaration he felt seeing President Hugh B. Brown, the first member of a First Presidency ever to visit Asia, raise the Korean flag for the first time over the property of the Korean Mission.

“President Brown had accepted our invitation in a very gracious letter,” quipped Brother Palmer, “in which he mentioned something about being a Canadian.”

Brother Palmer also quoted David Kennedy, the Church’s ambassador-at-large, about the problem of “old attitudes” that have hampered missionary work in many non-Christian lands. Brother Kennedy urges that Latter-day Saints evaluate the worthiness of others in terms of their “righteousness,” more than by their cultural or governmental systems.

Eric Shumway, chairman of BYU—Hawaii’s Division of Communications and Language Arts and president of the campus stake, also spoke about the problem of intercultural understanding. “Every person in the Church must feel the implicit meaning of the apostle Peter’s vision of the descending vessel [see Acts 10],” he said, and shared his own moment of understanding as an inexperienced missionary in Tonga, seeing the Tongan Saints dance for Elder John Longdon, assistant to the Twelve. The lakalaka concluded with a solo dance by the district president from Vava’u. Suddenly Elder Longdon sprang to his feet and joined in the dance, imitating Malakai Unga’s whirls, nods, and bows. “I nearly swallowed my tongue with surprise,” remembers Brother Shumway, and when the dance ended with an embrace “which transcends color, race, and culture,” Brother Shumway testified that “for me it was as if the barriers of race, ignorance, and prejudice had fallen and I stood bathed in the insight of Peter’s vision, ‘Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.’”

As students come to BYU—Hawaii from many cultures, they bring different standards, he said. “By emphasizing the similarities among us, especially by acknowledging the gospel as the common ground for the understanding of all men, we have reduced the students’ temptation to ‘appeal to their culture as a sanctuary from things they fear or personally dislike.’” When the traditional hostility between two peoples flared into an altercation on campus, one student tried to excuse himself by saying that history was repeating itself. President Shumway firmly informed him: “History cannot be a convenient excuse by which you can strike down a brother. Before all else, you are a Latter-day Saint.”

A similar approach is taken when questions involving chastity, work priorities, and high academic standards are involved. “We make no bones about the importance of the gospel of Christ in the lives of our students, that it supersedes all cultural considerations. We stress that we are followers of Christ first and foremost, Latter-day Saints, a fraternity of priesthood which is more infinitely precious and meaningful than any cultural institution or national identity.” He reminded his audience that “the average American probably has to make just as many drastic changes in his cultural orientation as the native Samoan or Thai when he converts to true gospel living.”

In another presentation, H. Ned Seelye, who dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen to go live in Mexico and who later married a Guatemalan wife, talked about coping with culture shock ahead of time by orienting students and missionaries to what they will see and hear in the first twenty-four hours. “Your problem is that you’re trying to manage the basics of living,” he said.

Within a month, people living abroad have to deal with telecommunication, banking, traffic schedules, introductions, and handling telephone directories. Within two or three months, they need to understand what the newspapers are saying; and by the fifth or sixth month, they need to be involved in the civic clubs, cultural events, and social life of the country.

Mario Aranda, now director of bilingual curriculum for the Illinois Department of Education, grew up in Colonia Juarez as “a Mexican of Chinese extraction in an American colony and a Mormon in a Catholic country.”

He spoke of the difference between “colonizing,” which he defined as a power struggle, and “proselyting and educating,” which delights in “individuality.”

“We give children a double message,“ he pointed out. ”If they speak Spanish as grade-schoolers, we communicate to them that this is a terrible handicap that must be overcome. But by the time they’re in college, we tell them how wonderful it is to speak another language.”

Joseph C. Rust, a legal counsel for the Church, gave some suggestions for those traveling or living abroad; and L. Robert Kohls of the government’s International Communication Agency, summarized the course that cultural attaches take to develop intercultural sensitivity.

Other presentations included parallels and differences between Russian religion and Mormonism; how to deal with journalists in other countries; the advantages of Esperanto as an international language; the Church graphics department’s attempts to internationalize the visual appearance of Church publications; and how film, puppets, and BYU’s folk dancers have helped intercultural understanding. Other faculty members who have lived in Middle Eastern and African nations shared specific lessons in cultural awareness they learned.