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Altruismo: Overcoming Language Barriers in Zion

“We’re altruistic.”

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?


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. Caroline says:

    Wow, what an effort your ward is making to include non-English speakers. That’s fantastic.

    Our ward has several people who don’t speak English well, but since they come from different countries, it’s difficult to have a systematic way of helping them. We do have one deaf woman for whom members of our ward sign every hour. It’s really neat that people do that for her.

  2. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    The church hasn’t abandond language wards. My ward shares the building with a Chinese branch and there are many Spanish-speaking wards even in the smaller cities.

  3. Deborah says:

    Thanks PDOE. We had language branches in Boston — and I know they’re still around. But is the trend to move toward integrated language wards where possible? I can see both sides to that coin. If wards/stakes aren’t consciously working for true integration, I could imagine members who are not native English speakers could feel marginalized or left out of leadership positions and social gatherings (I’ve seen that on occasion).

    But I think we are a much much richer ward as a whole because of our integrated program. For one, many of the youth experience more ethnic and economic diversity at church than they do at their town high school . . .

  4. maria says:

    In addition to the concerns you’ve expressed, Deborah, back when the first language wards were created there was definitely a concern about forced segration, segregation that often (but not always) fell along racial lines. Think about it for a second–only white people go to one ward, only brown people go to another ward. What kind of a message does this send about being One in Christ?

    Fortunately, however, I don’t think that initial concern has played much of a role over the years–due especially to the fact that individuals are free to choose whichever ward they want to.

  5. maria says:

    Also, one of my favorite stories to tell about my mission happened in a ward where there was nearly a 50-50 English-Spanish split. At one particular baptism, about 90% of the members in attendance were Spanish speakers. Usually the ward services were conducted in English, and the Spanish speakers wore the translation headsets. But we eventually ran out of headsets, and it became obvious that it was impractical to conduct the meeting in English. The Bishop (an English speaker) stood up and announced that the service would be in Spanish and that the English members should grab headsets so they could hear the translation. I still remembered the shocked and indignant looks on the faces of some of those members as they put on their headsets in a huff. After the service was over I was trying to do damage control and the bishop pulled me aside and said something to the effect of “Don’t apologize. It’s about time they felt what it was like.”

  6. Heather O. says:

    We faced a similar situation in Arkansas, Deborah. We, too, got used to the hum of translation in RS, but sadly, it was usually the missionaries who had to come in and translate for the sisters, as nobody in the ward was bilingual enough to do it. (That got kind of interesting during one discussion about what you are supposed to bring to the temple the first time you go. One poor elder had to translate “bring a white bra” to some elderly Spanish sisters. Ah, good times.)
    Finally, a fantastic family from Mexico moved in, and they were incredibly bilingual. What happened? You guessed it–the father was called to be a counselor in the Bishopric, and the mother was called as a RS counselor, and did what your ward does–once a month, she took the Spanish sisters to a different room to deliver her presidency message in Spanish. We had Spanish speakers give opening and closing prayers all the time, both in Sacrament meeting and the other classes.

    We also had a deaf couple in the ward, which added to the challenge. We had a few sisters take some signlanguage courses, and even had a signing missionary couple assigned to our ward, presumably for that reason. When I gave a talk, I was told before hand that I needed to have it all written out, to give a copy to the deaf couple, so they could follow along with the signers. This particular couple did not stay for the auxillary meetings, so we didn’t have signing in RS.

  7. Lucy says:

    My stake has a Samoan branch and a Spanish branch. We just had a stake cultural event, and I was inspired by the beautiful songs and dancing from the different cultures.
    It seems that my stake has made a concerted effort to include members of these branches in leadership positions, but I do think integration would help foster a better understanding between all the cultures.

  8. Deborah says:

    Maria: Occasionally at the Boston temple, a scheduled English session would switch to Spanish if the numbers added up that way (given the limited number of headsets) — it was sometimes a bit of a jolt to patrons. Ah, forced empathy-training . . .

    Heather: You know, all this makes me wish I had taken my Spanish classes more seriously. It feels almost selfish to be only conversationally literate in a single tongue.

    Lucy: At the Stake Relief Society Broadcast some sisters from a different country provided the food. A friend told me later that it was unexpectedly (but pleasantly) surprising to be eating this — not at a “cultural night” but at a “regular” event. One woman at her table asked (jokingly I think) about the absence of ham and Mormon potatoes.

  9. Veritas says:

    It is great that your ward is doing a lot for the spanish members, but I would like to share a story from DHs mission regarding spanish-language units. He was in a town in the california interior and in the stake there were quite a few spanish speaking members scattered through the wards. Worshipping in a foreign language is hard however, and DH, as the spanish speaking ZL in the area, noticed that activity was very very low among spanish speakers. He also did some research, and noted that about 90% of the baptisms in the stake were hispanic people (being a farming area in socal, most of the people in the town were hispanic), who had been taught in spanish but were unable to worship in their native language. So, he went to the stake pres and asked to start a spanish ward. It was a fight with the local leadership to get permission (they didn’t think the ward would thrive, depsite the fact that as native-english speakers, they were very much the minority in the area). The active hispanic members worked hard with their inactive friends and family. Finally, the first day of the ward came and nearly 400 members were in attendance. They were having multiple baptisms every week. Activity skyrocketed. People who had been ‘inactive’ since baptism became the ward stalwarts. About a year later the ward split, and to my knowledge it has grown to the numbers of an entire stake.

    I know alot of people who are against splitting the wards, as some of you mentioned, having ‘segregation’. But, it really isn’t about race. These wards are people from all over the world in all different colors – who all are native spanish speakers. I think, where logistics permit (ie – theres enough people), it is not only important, but will increase growth in the church, if people can worship in their native language. I think if your ward is having this many baptisms, it might be time to think about forming a spanish branch.

    One of the biggest problems with church growth in India, for example, is that they can only teach those who speak english (or at least, this was the case about 5 years ago, I know BOM translation has been going on for hindi, tamil, etc).

    I had the experience of being one of only a handful of english speakers growing up in a scandinavian branch. You finally just give up on listening translation because its annoying, for you and the poor missionaries who would rather focus on the investigators. And its humiliating having to give a talk or bear testimony with someone translating for you, not to mention…well, annoying. My (long winded) point being, that language barriers tend to prohibit growth and increase inactivity.

  10. Deborah says:

    Thanks for that perspective, Veritas. I think there are some similarities between these policy issues and those of bilingual education.

    In our area, it’s not just a language issue. Separating based on language (in this area) would largely separate the ward along economic lines. Is that bad? Would the benefits outweigh the consequences? Also, the branches in our stake are chronically understaffed and don’t really have functioning YW/YM programs. And while many of the parents speak limited English, their children are fluent — and a strong mutual program is to their advantage. Just more issues to consider. Glad I’m not the decision maker on this one.

    I also feel like it would be a palpable loss for our ward as a whole, and how we interact together — but I can understand the potential benefits, as you point out . . .

  11. Ana says:

    Veritas, I’d love to know where your husband served his mission. I live in the CA Central Valley. Our ward is associated with the town’s Spanish branch. We have combined Primary and youth groups. It works well for the kids, but it’s challenging to communicate with the parents (I work in Young Women). I am continually amazed that we have not one single returned sister missionary who can speak Spanish in our entire very active ward. Over and over I kick myself for rebelling against my mother’s advice to learn Spanish!

  12. ME says:

    I grew up in a dual-language stake in east LA and now live on the boder in South Texas. From what I can tell, all stake leaders are bilingual and the wards are divided Spanish/English speaking.

    Simultaneous translation happens at stake events, like the leadership training I attended recently. The special speaker told all the RS presidencies that it was important for “us” to learn English.

    I’m kicking myself for not raising my hand and pointing out that not being bilingual Spanish was a huge liability in my 8-month job hunt–and that advocating language acquisition is rightfully a two-way street. Expecially in South Texas where native English speakers are a wee little minority.

    Plus I’m sure it would have been refreshing for the hispanohablantes to hear someone say gringas need to learn Spanish.

    Mary Ellen

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