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International Series: American Mormon Abroad

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Bridget.  Bridget has a BA in Linguistics from BYU and an MA in TESOL from the American University of Sharjah. She has lived in Japan, Russia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and (currently) the UAE, ending up with a husband and three children somewhere along the way.  

Bridget

 

I grew up Mormon in Portland, Oregon. My husband and I have three young children. For most of our marriage and most of our children’s lives, we’ve lived outside the United States. I’ve been an American Mormon overseas for seven years now. I’ve been Primary Pianist in Kyoto, Young Women’s President in Moscow, Primary President in Sharjah, and co-leader of a two-woman Relief Society in Damascus.

They say the church is the same no matter where you go, but they are wrong. The church is very, very different. It’s the essence of the gospel that remains the same. In the overseas wards and branches I have been a member of (and the “stick,” as we called our six-person group in Damascus), I have seen the church stripped of its cultural baggage – or at least of its Intermountain West cultural baggage. And I’ll be honest – it’s a beautiful thing.

Beautiful, but sometimes jarring. Our ward here in Sharjah, UAE, where we currently live, is made up almost completely of members from the Philippines. The rest of us are what I like to refer to as “miscellaneous” – American, Canadian, British, Australian, Ugandan, Ecuadorian, Swiss, Kazakh. Regardless, we’re in the minority. This means that sitting in Sunday School (well, Friday School, since we have church on the Islamic Sabbath), you get to listen to exchanges like this:

TEACHER: This verse of scripture reminds me of that amazing story we all know about what happened at the Manila Temple back during the [such-and-such] rebellion.

CLASS (everyone except the Americans/Brits/Aussies/miscellaneous): *murmurs of recognition and agreement.*

TEACHER: I know! It’s amazing, isn’t it? [Further extended comment in Tagalog.] Now, moving on…

I tell you these differences not because it makes my ward or branch overseas better, but because it proves the point I made earlier – that the cultural trappings of church overseas are different from those in the mainstream Intermountain West, but the gospel is gloriously the same. A faith-promoting anecdote about the Manila Temple is still faith-promoting, even if you have to re-orient your worldview to take it in (and, in the end, don’t understand the punchline).

Being free of Intermountain West Mormon Cultural Baggage (IWMCB) means that if your aunt from Boise comes to visit you in the UAE and introduces herself in Relief Society, she has to say she’s from Boise (blank looks from all)…Idaho (blank looks from all)…UNITED STATES (oh, why didn’t you say so?).

It means teaching music time in Primary in July and deciding to sing the pioneer songs in the Children’s Songbook…and then realizing that all the children want to do is gaze at the book’s illustrations of the pioneers because they have never seen such a thing before.

Speaking of Pioneer Day, being free of IWMCB means observing Pioneer Day in Damascus, Syria – but in celebration of December 16th, 1921, when 50 persecuted Armenian Mormons made the dangerous trek from Turkey to Syria and arrived safely on that day.

Without IWMCB, you don’t care so much about bare shoulders because almost all the girls in Young Women in your branch in Moscow come from homes with alcoholic/absentee fathers, and the one girl with an intact family is living in the country semi-legally as a semi-refugee from a country so impoverished that Russia was a considerable step up.

When you don’t have to worry about IWMCB, you’re more accepting of non-traditional family situations. It means recognizing that those children on your Primary records who never show up? They’re not inactive. They’re just back in the Philippines being raised by grandparents, aunts, or nannies so that mom and dad can live and work in the UAE. All of a sudden, the construct of “dad works; mom stays at home with the kids” is not only NOT some form of cultural ideal, but is just plain…irrelevant.

Without IWMCB, you’re free to recognize that you have more in common with the Muslims of your host country, rather than the Christians.

My ward overseas is a place where you can be a woman and wear pants to church, and the Bishop tells you how nice you look.

For me, being an American Mormon overseas means that I go to church with people who don’t look like me, who were raised differently than me, in different countries with different political problems and histories. When we first moved to the UAE and I was embarrassed to admit that I was overwhelmed by all the friendly Filipinos and couldn’t always tell them apart, they laughed and said that we Westerners all looked alike to them, too.

Church here is not a place of cultural homogeneity; it’s a place of differences. But culture aside, we’re all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meeting together to worship and grow in our testimonies. As an American overseas, I’m glad to call myself Mormon.

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28 Responses

  1. jks says:

    I grew up as an American overseas (with a stint in Utah in the middle of it, and a little time in Maryland at the end). I love that I got to see what was the same and what was different at church. What was the same was the gospel and it is true.

  2. Em says:

    I love the reminder that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the same everywhere you go — the church institution maybe not so much. If it has eternal importance (repentance, kindness, love, service etc.) then you find it anywhere and everywhere. If it is missing, then maybe it is a “here and now” and not a “forever and always” thing.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Simply outstanding. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Amira says:

    Bridget, I like this too, and I’ve experienced the same thing in several international wards. Except once.

    I was sitting in an expat ward the other week (not my regular ward, I’ve just visited it 6 times this year). Nearly all the people in the ward are Americans living overseas temporarily- usually the type who leave the country for the summer to go “home.” Even though I love to visit the ward because my teenagers have good friends there, it seems a lot of the members there haven’t lost their IWMCB. I was surprised at how often Utah was referenced (even when we were discussing access to temples- why does it matter if Utah has lots of temples if the nearest temple to those members is 6 hours away?) and they had a vigorous smackdown of OW in RS. I got more than one look because of my pants (traveling with pants is so much easier!). At the RS activity I went to I got recipes that used ingredients I either have to order from the US or buy at pricey grocery stores in this country. All of the refreshments could have been served in Utah and we did a gift exchange of things the women had ordered or brought back from the US. The local ceramics I brought felt out of place. It was the weirdest feeling to be in the middle of a huge, fascinating, international, non-US city only to go to church and feel like it was a little America.

    • That is a little weird! I’ve noticed over the years (and I’m sure you have noticed over YOUR years) that church is some people’s home away from home. Those US-based recipes and gifts are simply part of the trappings. Living in a foreign country can be difficult, and I try to recognize that some people find it less of an adventure (or more of a terrifying one) than I do. For them, church might be their one beacon of familiarity. I tend to want to let them have it, too, except that I feel for people in that ward/at that activity who are NOT from the US. How awkward would that be?

      I just love experiencing the gospel in its non-US form. Yesterday at church, I was sitting by a woman who was baptized a few months ago. She was flipping through a church publication on her phone and when she saw a picture of the Salt Lake Temple, she asked me where and what that beautiful building was! I know the Salt Lake Temple actually does have symbolic and emotional significance to many members around the world, but in this day and age, you are right that the nearby temples are much more relevant. (Though “nearby” is a relative term when you’re in the UAE and your temple district is Kyiv.)

      I had to laugh at your recipe comment. We did a Stake-wide recipe collection activity here a few years ago, and they specifically asked us to only submit recipes with accessible ingredients. AMEN.

      • Amira says:

        I completely agree that church should be a beacon of familiarity for those who need that. It’s just not my thing to have replication rather than familiarity. I think there’s a chance to create something both familiar and unique while you’re away from “home” for a couple of years. But there are all different types of expats and I don’t get to make the rules.

        I’m hoping I can still get a copy of your stake cookbook in a couple of years. 🙂

  5. Jen says:

    One of the reasons I love that you used the phrase “cultural trappings” is because it really helps put into perspective that we should be constantly monitoring those things about our worship that TRAP us into being less than we should be.

  6. Lani says:

    As a Samoan LDS woman born and raised in Samoa who has then lived in America and New Zealand – I loved this article. That is so very true, the church is NOT the same everywhere in the world and for that I am grateful! However, i have found that there are those who reeeally want it to be the same and usually that same means – white American church culture. In my experience, thats when the challenges come.

  7. Shelley says:

    For the most part I have enjoyed reading this cultural series. Many of the points that have been made by sisters living abroad have been insightful and thought-provoking; and Spunky’s point about missionaries being unaware of the financial aspects of their missions will inspire a discussion with my son before he leaves next year to serve.

    I am reading to broaden my understanding of the breadth of cultural issues in the church; but I find it off-putting (and a little hurtful, to be honest) when my own culture is called ‘baggage’. When people who sacrifice to serve, and naturally make errors in judgement and language, are mocked. Every culture comes with some blindness and biases; but every culture also comes with good things that are uplifting and edifying. I think sometimes the tone of the authors imparts an attitude of condescension for those of us who lack the means or the opportunity to travel widely and learn from cultural differences through our own experience.

    • Thanks for being honest, Shelley, and I apologize for any hurt my word choice has caused you! I don’t mean baggage in a pejorative sense. Perhaps “trappings” would have been a better and more consistent term for me to use. When I was writing this post, one of my goals was to give those who haven’t traveled a peek at the learning from cultural experience that I’ve had, specifically at church. As I said in my post, I don’t mean that one way is better than the other, just that the gospel is the same even when its accoutrements are sometimes very different.

      • Shelley says:

        Thank you, Bridget, and I do appreciate the time you have taken to share your experiences. I find myself thinking about these blog posts many times throughout the day, so thank you to those who are sharing, I think it is a great way to build appreciation for all of God’s children. I was happy to read in the news that some of the upcoming Conference addresses may be given in languages other than English, I think that will be amazing!

    • Em says:

      I think that is an interesting take, and baggage can definitely be a loaded term. Maybe another way of thinking about it would be that everywhere we go we take our lens with us, the glasses of our country. Because of the way the church works, (centralized in the U.S.) it can sometimes be easy to assume that the U.S. glasses, or the Intermountain West glasses are in fact God’s chosen prescription.

      What I like about your comment is it makes me imagine what it would be like if the church had been restored, organized, and was still centered in a culture profoundly different from my own. If for example, it has been restored in Africa, or Asia, how might my experience here in the U.S. be different? How would I feel when saints from those countries visited me, and were (however inadvertently) critical of my culture, or the way the church works here? What if the prophets and apostles were all of a different race from me and spoke from an unintentional but inescapable bias of that reality? What if their daily lives were so radically different from my own that I could barely relate? I can’t say its a thought experiment I’ve ever really engaged in, but maybe during next conference I will. What if instead of a story about being a middle-class American in suburbia (my lived reality as well), someone told was a story of subsistence farming, or life in a densely populated city, or an impoverished community?

      Anyway, I like you raising these issues, even though they didn’t really bother me.

      • YES. One time in Amman, Jordan, an American member gave a talk that included an extended metaphor about baseball. The poor interpreter (hi, Emil, if you’re reading this!) had to take a few minutes to explain the general concept of baseball in Arabic. Only then could he move on to relate the metaphor. I think comprehensibility was still pretty low.

        I’m not saying we all need to go through our talks and at-church interactions with a fine-toothed comb to remove any and all culture-specific references, but I do think a thought experiment like the one you mention is worth a few minutes now and then, just to check in on how culture and the gospel are and are not related.

      • Jane says:

        Thank you Shelley for expressing so well the thoughts I too was having.

  8. EJM says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading all the the International Series so far, and agree with what has been said.
    A few years ago I returned to my home country – South Africa after being away for 40 years. My uncle wanted me to attend an all black ward in Johannesburg – 95% were black members. We arrived 10 minutes before church started – I’m a very punctual person, so being on time was very important to me.
    Sacrament started at 9, and the hall was near full, but I couldn’t see the bishop anywhere. I turned to my uncle and said, “It’s getting late, why are they not starting”. He said, “just wait.” I waited and waited, and finally looked around to see the bishop making his way to the front. He was on time for sure, only he saw his role differently than what I thought his role should be – on the stand and on time. He shook everyone’s hand in that congregation, even mine. I was humbled and learned an important lesson that day – that people were more important than what time the meetings start. I’ve lived in Perth, Australia and South Africa, and been to many other countries and definitely notice how different members behaved as opposed to members in my ward in Canada. I attend my daughters ward in American Fork, Ut. for two months out of the year and I find the members there very exclusive. And I’m not sure why and nor do I have the answer. All I can do is be friendly to everyone. When we have the gospel and the meaning it has in our lives we all should be overjoyed and willing to share ourselves with everyone no matter what our circumstance or our location.

  9. Heather Parsons says:

    I loved your insight!! Thank you for sharing. I caught a glimpse of this when we lived in Germany for a summer. I often think about my church experience there. Since then, five years ago, I’ve stopped going to church for various reasons. One of them, which is a big part, is the IWMCB you talked about. I’m pretty sure if we lived overseas I would still be going to church because I still believe in the essence of the gospel. I also wonder, if I can get back up and go to church, how can I help make church a better place without all that IWMCB???

  10. EmilyCC says:

    Bridget, thanks so much for your insights and experiences in a variety of countries. I LOVE the “other Pioneer Day” story you linked to. I’m a little uncomfortable with just sharing the exodus to Utah. The escape to Syria is a great example of the variety of pioneer stories there are out there. I hope you’ll write more about your experiences and share them here!

  11. Mauro Favilli says:

    Very interesting…I don’t think that Italian members are so far away from IWMCB….Many more of us doesn’t like halloween or agree with death penalty……but the way of acting or thinking is very close…

  12. Blake says:

    I loved this. When I was living in China, I participated in Skype church with a ward in Shanghai. It was so cool to experience church in such a creative and unorthodox way. The church was still true growing up in Nebraska as it was in China, and as it is here in Provo. I find it incredible how much American culture and even Utah/Idaho culture has influenced the church.

  13. Dolly says:

    This is rad! AUS and the Dubai ward from 2003 to 2007 was my first long term expat awakening and you wrote the story that I meant to write. Well done!

  14. Martin says:

    Wow! Excellent article. I lived in Asia (Philippines and Malaysia) for 5 years and found church without the IWMBC very refreshing; the experience renewed my testimony. I’ve mentioned this to a few people now I’m now again living in Utah. Comments have been met with puzzlement and in a few cases concern.

    I to found a lot in common with Muslims (Malaysia).

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