Altruismo: Overcoming Language Barriers in Zion
That’s what the boy says. He is about nine-years-old, Hispanic, with impossibly-long eyelashes. The missionaries are running sharing time.
“Pretend you are the missionary and we are the investigators. We ask you, ‘What is your church all about?’ What’s your response?” This is the very first response.
When missionary pauses briefly, mouth upturned with curiosity, and the boy jumps in to clarify.
“We believe in helping people.”
Earlier that morning, I arrive a few minutes late to sacrament meeting. Just ahead of me in the foyer is a Spanish-speaking family untangling five of the headsets that adorn the table next to the chapel doors. We sneak in together, and behind me I soon hear the muffled tones of the Senora who sits on the edge of the stand each week, translating into a microphone.
The youth speaker is a young woman whose family emigrated from Latin America. She delivers her talk in impeccable English; she then bears a long testimony in, what I must assume is, impeccable Spanish. The echo of the headset is silent for these few minutes. The next speaker has recently moved here from Mexico. The second counselor in the bishopric stands next to her, translating her talk into English, phrase by phrase. I watch him perform this same service in testimony meeting each month.
To my right sits the Relief Society president. When she was called two years ago, she immediately enrolled in an intensive conversational Spanish class. Once a month, the Relief Society class splits in two, and Spanish-speaking sisters hear a lesson in their native language. The president attends this class, and I hear her ability to contribute is improving. (During the other three weeks, we’ve grown accustomed to the hum in the room as those sisters who are more fluent in English translate for others in whispers.)
While singing the rest hymn, my mind drifts back to ward conference two weeks ago. The Stake Presidency counselor who presided brought his own translator for the English speakers in the audience, and used that same translator to teach us Sunday School. A friend mentioned, later, that this set-up made it harder for her to focus. She’s right; it is. And it gives me some measure of empathy for those who worship in translation each week.
After the final talk, a counselor in the Relief Society presidency stands to offer a closing prayer: “En el nombre de Jesucristo, Amen.”
She is the mother of the young man who will later answer: “Altruism.”
My ward house sits in one of the wealthiest zip codes in America. It’s a predominately white ward – 90%? — but most of the missionary work these last few years has come from the Hispanic neighborhoods in an adjoining city. There isn’t a Spanish-speaking branch around here (just here, or has the church disbanded language wards? I’ve heard various rumors through the years). Instead, it’s our challenge to look at and look past the language barrier, to make this section of Zion exactly that – a place of one-ness. We could do more, certainly. But we could also do less, easily. I’m not sure I do anything, but I do watch with gratitude those who live the fourteenth article of faith: “We believe in helping people.”
How does your ward handle language barriers among its members?