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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”