An anonymous reader writes:
If fear of the unknown, prejudice, or shunning the “other” are so unconscious, what should we be doing to catch ourselves and be more proactive in this interesting mandate to “learn to love”? I certainly do not have a circle of eclectic friends. I think I’m an example of one who needs to grow in this area.
Being part of a ward in Vienna, Austria, where as many as 24 countries were represented at one time, I took pride in having very good friends from diverse walks of international life. For ten years Africans, Filipinos, Poles, Rumanians, Czeks, Chinese, Japanese, and many others, filled the Church pews and my living room. We danced one another’s dances and sampled one another’s food. We celebrated various national holidays together. We laughed ourselves silly trying to explain the game of “baseball” to our multi-colored assemblage. The Africans snickered in return as we “whites” tried to sing their wonderful songs. When the iron curtain began to crumble in 1989, the ward was inundated with refugees and immigrants. The unspoken rule was “If they smell of tobacco, if they are visibly ‘hung over,’ if they are not dressed appropriately, then sit by them and introduce yourself. Invite them into the circle.”
Not all, but many responded positively to this treatment. The results were amazing. No one had to point out obvious discrepencies in dress or behavior. No one took it upon him or herself to criticize or school another. We just watched and tried to love. The Spirit did the rest. Hemlines descended, sweat pants disappeared, hair was washed, and eyes became clearer.
It was a time of love, respect, and most of all, inclusion. There were few “divisions among us.” As such, nearly all members were edified. It resembled the ideal of Zion more than anything I had experienced on this earth. And boy, I was really getting the hang of this diversity thing. What is that old biblical adage: Pride goeth before a fall? Here comes the banana peel.
In response to a situation with addiction in the extended family, my husband and I decided to attend Al-Anon. We were mistakenly directed to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. We happened to be the only people present not dealing with issues of sobriety.
Feeling conspicuous and a little scared, I looked around to see the obvious signs of this disease etched into nearly every face. Some were hardened and wore clothing which earmarked their poverty. Others were withdrawn and shy; their eyes diverted from my own. They were decidedly different from those with whom I normally associated and it made me uncomfortable. Much like the ancient Zoramites, I found myself ascending that Rameumptom and thanking the Lord that I was not in their situation.
The meeting began and one by one, the people I had so wrongly prejudged began to strip my pride with their words of humility. Each of them not only acknowledged, but also gave total credit to their “Higher Power” for helping them tame their addiction. One man spoke with tenderness about a buddy who helped him through a particularly rough spot. That “buddy” was Jesus Christ.
Another young woman spoke of honesty. Everyone in the room responded with a nod-of-the-head and a smile as she related the events of her life. Several years prior to sobriety, her existence had been a web of deceit. Lying to relatives and friends alike, she had found it a terrible chore to remember which tales she had told to whom. After 18 months of sobriety and truth, she slipped once again in the area of honesty. She had not only lied to a person she cared about, but had done so while looking straight into his eyes.
As he turned to leave, she courageously called him back and said: “Do you know that I just lied to you? I looked in your eyes and lied to you. This is not who I am or who I want to be. Please forgive me.”
I would never have the courage to do something like that. After the meeting, several men came up to us. Their tenderness and understanding for our situation was so moving. Inwardly so very compassionate, they brought both my husband and me to tears as they embraced us and made us promise to call if we had more questions. By this time, I was feeling lower than bog slime. It had become easy for me to love and accept those from diverse backgrounds when they were on my turf ?in my Church. I totally missed the mark with my friends at the AA meeting. I was out of my comfort zone and preoccupied with their outward appearance. How many other choice opportunities had I missed as a result of this kind of hasty judgment?
One of the overriding themes of last month’s General Conference was the message of inclusion. If Zion is to be established, we have got to just “get over it.” Clothing, color, country, language, marital status, religious affiliation, education ?all of it. We don’t have to embrace the incorrect things our brothers and sisters do, but we are commanded to embrace them.
Even those within the boundaries of our ward or within the walls of our own home can be suffering from feelings of exclusion. With the help of the Spirit, we can train our eyes to see “not as a man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance,” but more like the Lord “who looketh on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 When this happens, diversity can be understood and even appreciated, rather than a source of separation.
This is a huge question! I am thinking of all the people who might not find a spot at that family (or “familiar”) picnic table. Instead of a “no smoking” table, is there a “no college degree” table? A “tone deaf” table? A “handicapped” space? How about a “no English” (or its corollary, a “no Spanish”) table? It seems there is always a “no spouse” table.
In our local malls, it is not uncommon to see hand-lettered signs in the food courts that say “Madison” or “Detroit” or “Cleveland.” Our winter visitors like to stop and chat with people from their hometowns, to see if they have friends in common. Is it possible that our chapel benches or even our auxiliary boards sometimes have similar labels? Can we somehow work toward a cohesive, homogeneous comfort zone that embraces everyone whom Jesus Christ would like to include in His flock?
When I enter a roomful of people, especially if I am trying to manage a soggy paper plate buckling under an overload of grilled chicken and potato salad, I love it when somebody says “Kathy, come and sit with us.” I think the Golden Rule as it applies here might be to make it a daily goal to watch for those new arrivals with their drooping plates, and be the first to wave and say “Hi! Come and sit with us.”
If the “differentness” is a mental or physical handicap or emotional disorder, again, I think we can go out of our way. Don’t be afraid. Get information and embrace a special friend as just that. We can learn to love. It is very possible that this special person has mastered love and will be a once-in-a-lifetime master-teacher on the subject.
Our prophets have reminded us on numerous occasions that we need to participate in community events, and not exclusively in Church activities. This is another challenge that is difficult, schedule-wise, but important in this context.
Community service reminds us we need to be especially careful of deliberate exclusions, such as shunning certain neighbors. An issue I think we need to address is that of family policy on kids associating only with LDS friends. I was so happy to hear M. Russell Ballard mention this in our last General Conference! I know many families who have policies restricting dating practices to members. One family has a rule that their children can only accept three dates with a neighbor who happens not to be a member of the Church and who does not elect to investigate the church after that amount of contact. Of course we would tend to support any and all families’ rights to receive revelation regarding the guidelines they set for their children’s behavior. But it happened that all three of my endowed sons dated fine, accomplished Catholic girls with sky-high moral standards, whom we all loved. In all three cases, the couples decided, by mutual agreement and with no nudging of any kind on our part, that their deep friendships would not become courtships. The girls knew they wanted their children raised in the Catholic faith, and of course our boys knew they would marry in the temple; so marriage to their high school sweethearts was not possible. But I think my sons’ lives were very much enhanced by their relationships with these and many other classmates not of our faith.
My good friend can top that. Nearly all of her children, including returned missionaries, have married a neighbor who later joined the church. She says their only family “policy” has been love. It seems there will always be puzzles and paradoxes regarding significant doctrine, such as the importance of temple marriage, and questions of how to manage relationships with loved ones who are, temporarily at least, noncompliant with doctrinal standards. The gift of the Holy Ghost assumes special luster whenever such a paradox must be reconciled. This reminded me of a comment attributed to Olive Osmond, when she was criticized for permitting her underage children to perform in Las Vegas night clubs. She is said to have replied, “Our job is to entertain our audiences, not to judge them.”
There has never been a time in which John’s record of the Savior’s reminder has been revoked: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” John 13:35 Our prophet reminded us again, in our most recent conference, we are all of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We are a world-wide church. The waitress, scientist, novelist, nanny, homemaker, athlete, amputee, and astronaut are all our sister pilgrims on the pathway to eternal salvation. Maybe they don’t know it yet, but we can welcome them eagerly, watching for ways to love them. We can check our souls often, to make sure that everything we say or feel about our neighbor is a sincere invitation to participate in the atonement with us.
We can sense, from Jeannie’s experience in Austria, and her more recent meeting of neighbors, which she attended by accident, how glorious this must feel when it becomes our life view. The answer may lie in the notion of being just a bit leery of comfort. Of course we enjoy our associations with our professional peers, our hobby buddies, and our own kith, kin, and kind. But our blessings are typically predicated upon obedience and growth; and this is an area where I can improve.
I have always loved the literary convention of “the noble savage;” the outsider who has never tasted the corrupting influences of civilization. He often looks terrifying and has no manners whatsoever. You can see the usefulness of this conventional character to the writer. The savage can be used to teach virtually any moral the author likes. I would like to think of our unique sisters, those who might seem unfamiliar to me in any way, as those who “have a work that no other can do,” from the hymn “Dare to be True.” I pledge to try to remember that it is just as often I who might feel or seem odd, and The Golden Rule goes both ways. Maybe I have a task as well. Thanks for a very provocative question.