Dear Returned Missionary, Please Stop Bragging About Serving in the Hood

A few months ago, while my husband and I were feeding the missionaries from our ward (6 of them), I asked them two questions: What was the most shocking thing they’d experienced thus far on their mission and what is the most powerful thing they’d learned? I understand both of these questions are almost impossible for missionaries. There are a plethora of things that shock you and the things you learn are immeasurable, each golden nugget seeming more powerful than the last. That’s just how the mission is. We enjoyed the missionaries’ testimonies and were moved and uplifted by the many things they had learned.

There was a missionary that had been out for a month and another that was about to go home in less than a month. The difference in 24 months of missionary service also made a world of difference in the things they had learned. Throughout the different testimonies, however, one thing remained constant (with little wording variation), within the topic of “what shocked them the most.” Each missionary, from the first to the sixth, all delivered some form of “I was shocked by how poor the people are here” or “I couldn’t believe people lived in these conditions.”

As the missionaries spoke, memories flooded my mind of innumerable conversations I’d had previously with other missionaries and returned missionaries. Conversations that later lead them to brag about mission conditions they’d once lived in, the dangers they dodged and the crazy things they saw and experienced. It dawned on me that this conversation I was having was the root of the future conversations they will have with others. These very experiences they were sharing, usually lead to missionaries saying inappropriate and offensive things because of the culture shock they had on their missions.

During this discussion, and many others, I have always been aware that there are several things that are shocking to missionaries traveling from their hometowns predominantly in Utah, Idaho and other places out west. Please understand this is the case for almost all missionaries; culture shock is inevitable in the mission, no matter where you serve. Intimate settings with strangers, multiple times a day, will definitely yield some uncomfortable and shocking situations, regardless as to where you’re from; it’s completely understandable. However, while serving in inner cities an overwhelming number of missionaries find themselves, for the first time, and being the only two White people in an entire grocery store, on public transportation or in some cases as minorities in the wards where they serve.

After the missionaries finished sharing their thoughts I couldn’t help but ask them two more questions that I felt would help them understand the status of the people that they were serving. I asked the missionaries if they knew what Jim Crow Laws were, and if they had ever heard of “redlining”? Every missionary there said they had no idea what they were, except for one missionary that shook his head in a “not quite sure” yes to the Jim Crow question. I then explained to the missionaries how the current state of the very neighborhoods they serve are a direct result of centuries of discrimination and unethical practices and policies.

I explained to them the history of our nation and how these communities had been among the biggest, direct recipients of LEGAL segregation and discrimination even after the Civil Rights Movement. This discrimination affected their schools and the quality of their education, jobs, homes and every other aspect of their lives. I didn’t have a ton of time with the missionaries since I didn’t want to take up their whole night, and I don’t know if what I said impacted them or if it actually stuck with them. What I do know is that many of our missionaries need diversity training and a good history lesson in order to change the way they view those whom they serve.

To me, it’s difficult to serve a people you do not understand, or are not actively engaged in intentionally learning to understand. When missionaries go to the MTC they usually only learn about the culture and customs of the people when they are learning another language. It seems assumed that there will be cultural differences when you are serving in a land foreign to your own, or if the people you are serving speak a language foreign to your own. We far too often overlook the cultural/diversity training needed for missionaries that serve in their native land but in areas foreign to anything they have ever experienced. These missionaries are largely uncomfortable and ignorant when they enter the mission field. That ignorance can also lead to very offensive and uncomfortable situations. Therefore, we must do better. We must do better as a church and as a people. We must understand others.

Earlier this year, I was blown away and almost moved to tears by a video taken in New Orleans that went viral on Facebook. In the video, you see several missionaries, including the Mission President, marching in the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade. I was so grateful for the solidarity: the signs, the love, the representation of our church and the joy on their faces. Yet at the same time instantly I was internally confronted with questions of concern, “How many of these same missionaries feel comfortable teaching Black people? How many of them feel comfortable teaching and confronting church history concerning the priesthood ban?” Although I was appreciative of the Mission President and his efforts, there lacks true solidarity when we still feel uncomfortable amongst the very people we are marching for. Some of those same missionaries will likely go home and say offensive things, knowingly and unknowingly, about the people they served all while invoking the right to do so because they once marched in an MLK parade. Again, we must do better.

Although there are a plethora of offensive statements made by return missionaries, I do not wish to address each of them. What I do wish to address are ways we can better prepare our missionaries for cultural differences.

  1. Understand the history of the people. We cannot teach a people that we do not understand. With understanding comes empathy. We are more likely to love others and treat them as sons and daughters of God and not burdens when we understand their history.
  2. Acknowledge that serving in underprivileged areas does not give you bragging rights or “street cred.” I have heard more times than I would like to admit, a missionary say something along the lines of, “What, you don’t (insert something they associate with being black)?! I’m blacker than you!” Understand this, no amount of memorized Jay-Z lyrics, love for fried chicken or Kool-Aid, or any other stereotypical thing you associate with “Blackness”, will EVER, EVER, EVER give you the “Black experience” in America. No matter how much you would like to think it does. It won’t. So please don’t brag about it. It’s not funny,  it’s insensitive and rude. So please, just don’t.
  3. Do not call where you served “the ghetto” or “the hood.” This goes back to #1. When you understand the history or these people you will understand how offensive and derogatory these words are when coming from outsiders. Contrary to popular belief, the people you serve are in the situation they’re in due to the tradition of other’s fathers more than their own. That’s important to note.
  4. Be ready to explain that there was NO REVELATION or reason why the priesthood ban was ever in place. This may shock some people. According to the Race and the Priesthood Essay found on LDS.org there is no documented revelation for the institution of the policy that barred Blacks from full membership in the church. The Church states, “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.” Find a Spirit-guided way to express to others that our prophets are fallible and imperfect human beings just like any other prophet in the scriptures.
  5. Do not disregard responses of anger, distrust, and apprehension to the priesthood ban. If we are the true Church and yet implemented a racial policy that negatively affected the lives and eternal lives of children of God, we need to own up to that. We will never be unified as members of this church if we continue to tell people to, “get over” something that continues to affect them today. The priesthood ban is a real issue. Please don’t downplay it in any way. Be empathetic; imagine if this were your family.

At the end of the day it all boils down to respect. Many of these missionaries serve for an anticipated 18-24 months, while more often than not, the conditions in which they live temporarily, are permanent for others. As stated by Stephen R. Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, may we all “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

 

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Where are We?

Eight years ago, as a new member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I sat in a chapel in Dallas, Texas, and watched my first General Conference. The first person to speak was our dear beloved prophet, President Thomas S. Monson. He began immediately by speaking of temples, those that had been dedicated and those to be rededicated. And then he said, “This morning I am pleased to announce five new temples for which sites have been acquired and which, in coming months and years, will be built in the following locations: Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Córdoba, Argentina; the greater Kansas City area; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Rome, Italy.” At the time I had no connection to any of those temples. I had no idea that four years later, after that first general conference, I would meet and marry an incredible man, and four years after that our little family of three would move to Philadelphia—just in time for the Philadelphia Temple open house and dedication to happen in the following months.

The excitement of being here, at this time, is indescribable. After three months of waiting the day finally arrived, it was our night to the tour the temple. We were the last tour of the night. We had many of our family members and friends come with us, including the elder who taught and baptized my husband nine years prior, and his wife. It was a special day. As we began the tour, the guide shared with us what a temple was. He told us that this is the House of the Lord and this is where individuals and families come to feel peace and make promises with God. He told us to pay attention to every detail as we walked through. I looked at everything, from the floorboards to the lamps, to the carpet, to the tables and chairs. Every single detail I could take in, I did. It was beautiful. As I soaked in all the details I began to look at all the visitors that were there as well. It was beautiful. They were beautiful. One of the most incredible things about Philly is the overwhelming diversity and cultural richness that it holds. As a lover of cultures I noticed immediately that there were Asians, Hispanics, Whites, Blacks, all races of people and cultures on our tour. However, as I continued to look around the room and at the details, I began to notice none of the pictures reflected any of the diversity I was seeing in the room. On one floor there was an incredible panoramic painting of Christ visiting the Americas. In the painting I expected to see caramel skinned Natives, with beautiful, long black hair. Instead I was greeted by a painting of people with light skin and some with brown hair; their skin wasn’t even tanned. There were paintings of Christ teaching and preaching those in the Middle East, they were fair skinned with European features. As we moved room to room, I hoped to see more representation of what I was seeing in my tour group, but to my dismay, every picture depicted in the temple was of white/fair skinned people, sitting with Jesus, listening to Jesus, in heaven with Jesus. I looked around the room at my family and then at my daughter I realized there were no pictures in the temple that looked like me or my beautiful daughter. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where do we fit? Where are we?”

Closer to the end of the tour we entered in the bride’s room of the temple. As I walked in I noticed a painting of a black woman kneeling in prayer. “This is where brides get ready and,” as a tour guide told us, “feel like a princess on their wedding day.” I positioned myself directly across from the painting, though it was clear across the room, so I could stare at it. The tour guide made sure she told us that only women (and not all might I add) go in that room. By this time the lack of representation had began to weigh on me, though. I wasn’t ecstatic to see the ONE picture in the entire temple of a person of color that only a few would be able to view. Why weren’t there more? Why didn’t the art in the temple reflect the people that would be visiting it every single day? In a place that was suppose to give me the most comfort I left asking “why?”

At the conclusion of the tour, we were guided to the visitor’s center across the way. Because there were so many with us I didn’t want them to see me defeated or upset. I wanted them to know that I love the temple. I wanted them to know that this was a joyous moment and there was no other place I would rather be than there with them. As we walked into the visitors center, we were greeted by sister missionaries from EVERYWHERE around the world. It was refreshing to be reminded in that moment that the church is a worldwide church. When you step in the visitors center, you are immediately greeting with pictures on the walls of families of ALL races, nationalities etc. This made me think even more. How are we so well represented here but not in the temple? What is the difference? Who decides which pictures go here and which go in the temple? If we acknowledge that the Visitor’s Center needs to be a reflection of the people, why not in the temple? I felt like a visitor visiting my loved ones and then being told that I would be staying in the in-law quarters in the back. But don’t worry it’s just like the main house, just smaller and not attached to the main house. Why was I upset? I would have everything I needed. I couldn’t help but ask “Are we good enough for the in-law quarters but not the main house? Why weren’t these same things taken into consideration for the artwork in the House of the Lord? Why just the visitors quarters AKA the visitor’s center?”

I have often struggled with the feeling of inclusion and understanding in our church. When I mention it, people often say things like, “Why don’t you focus on what you have in common? Why don’t you focus on the fact that we’re all children of God?” I also think it’s important I add that the people that normally tell me these things are usually very well represented in the temple, pictures, paintings. Everything reflects them, even pictures of Jesus. I always have to reply, “I AM focusing on the fact that we are all children of God. God does not have children that only look one type of way. If that were how He wanted it, he would have made us all the same. But He didn’t. He loved us enough to make us all unique, and that uniqueness should be represented in His Home of all places.” Imagine for a moment you go to visit a friend, a friend that has 4 kids. As you walk in you notice immediately all the pictures are only of one child, little Timmy. Pictures of Little Timmy’s first teeball game, kindergarten graduation, riding a bike etc., it would probably make you feel a little uncomfortable. You may even begin to feel the unhealthy affects this could cause on everyone involved, the parents, Little Timmy and his unseen siblings. That’s because we understand  that if a parent puts a picture up on the wall, they usually put a picture of all the children. Not just one. It wouldn’t be fair for a parent to put up a picture of one of their children and say, “Just focus on the fact that Mommy and Daddy love all of you even though we only put up pictures of your sister/brother.” No! It would be weird, not to mention pretty unfair. As the “unseen sibling” in this case I can say that it doesn’t feel good. It’s hurtful and somewhat embarrassing not to be seen in your Fathers House.

So just know this, having cultural/racial representation doesn’t change the truthfulness of the gospel, nor does it change any of the ordinances we perform in the temple. But if the temple is suppose to be symbolic of what Heaven will feel like/look like, then it’s important that there’s an accurate depiction of the people that will be there. All I’m saying is… As members we all envision what our lives will be like/look like in the eternities. Today, I find myself caught up in my thoughts because I feel like I’m being told that not very many people will look like me there.