My Cross-Cultural Experience: Day 1

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

If you read my previous post, you already know that I am in Los Angeles for a class. Well, the class began tonight, and I thought I would try blogging every night, in an effort to share what promises to be a very interesting experience. First, some context.

One of the required classes for a Masters in Divinity degree from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) is this class, also called, “Ministry in the City.” Although students may propose and complete an alternative experience to satisfy this requirement, the experience that PLTS provides for its students is in LA. It is designed to embed students in a community that is different from their own home community, and hopefully different from any community in which they have previously participated, so that they can learn and experience not only a culture that is different, but also how ministry within that culture is changed. Since most students at PLTS are white, the cross-cultural experience that PLTS provides begins within an African-American community in one of the LA neighborhoods that many people believe is “unsafe,” Inglewood. To illustrate what I mean, within only the past few days, when I told a few friends that I would be living in Inglewood for the weekend, my friends expressed concern for my safety, and spoke of the city as the slums of LA.

This morning, since I had some time, I drove down to Inglewood, and specifically the neighborhood where I would be living, even though I was not due to be here until 5pm. I drove down from downtown LA, and noticed how the nice malls turned to strip malls, and the cute restaurants became fast food joints. I did see more trash in the streets, and the skin color of the people walking around became darker. When I turned into the neighborhood, though, the trash disappeared. The houses were modest, but well kept with nice yards. As I looked around, I wondered… why do people call these the slums?

Actually, I didn’t wonder that. I know why. Because it is a black neighborhood. This is not to say that anyone who calls Inglewood is racist. For example, my friends who think of it as “unsafe” have probably never even driven through here. They think this area is a slum because that is what they have heard from others. It is an image, a caricature that has been passed down from the mid-1900’s, that is racially based. As I learned this evening, in the mid-1900’s, the nicer neighborhoods in LA were “white only” neighborhoods. Many of them had “sundown laws,” that allowed blacks to be in town while the sun was up, but required them to be long gone when the sun went down. And so, these neighborhoods were born. Neighborhoods made up of blacks, most of whom did not have much (if any) financial opportunity. Because they were, and are, mostly black, they were considered to be slums that are not safe places for any respectable person to be. Curious, I even looked up the crime statistics of Inglewood, and compared them to a city that is considered to be one of the safer ones in California, Sacramento. The crime rates in Sacramento are actually worse than Inglewood. But I have never heard Sacramento called “unsafe” or a “slum.” It is true that when I compare the crime rates between LA overall and Inglewood, there is a one point (out of 10) difference in the violence statistics with Inglewood slightly more violent. However, a one point difference does not seem to me to warrant the “slum” reputation.

This class is coordinated through a local Lutheran (ELCA) church, Holy Trinity Church, and that is where the class began. As we found the room in the church, we were greeted with offers of bottled water, granola bars, and coffee/tea, while we introduced ourselves to the other students and instructor. We chatted for awhile, and then were given some information and background about the area. The church invites its congregants to host us, and we were given a schedule of events, along with a list of students and each host family’s names, addresses, and phone numbers. Ideally, every student has a different family with which we live during our long weekend here. After the orientation and getting-to-know-you was done, we moved into the Parish, where dinner (lasagna) was served. Some of the host families joined us for dinner, and we spent some more time getting to know each other while we broke bread. The church’s choir rehearses on Thursday nights, and we were invited to join them. All of the students opted to join the choir, and we enjoyed a couple hours of rehearsing gospel music together.

The rehearsal was difficult for some of us, as those of us who are in choirs in our own home churches (or elsewhere), are used to being given sheet music and following the tune by reading the music. In this choir, though, most participants do not read music, and so instead, we are given sheets with words only on them, and expected to follow along in our respective parts! Although this did not seem to be any problem whatsoever for those who are members of the choir, it was very difficult for me!! I found myself wanting to make up my own harmonic tune to go with what was being played on the piano, but I discovered that we WERE expected to sing a specific line of music. Just because the sheet music was not written in front of us did NOT mean we were not expected to discern the appropriate melody or harmony and sing! Thankfully, my fellow Sopranos were happy to sing loudly in my ear so that I could pick it up and join in with them. This is just one example of how being embedded in a different culture will make some differences more visible and even envious. I am very envious of their ability to pick out the appropriate part in the music by ear!

My host family was not able to join us for the dinner, but the matriarch did join for part of the choir rehearsal. I met her after choir, and she waited for me to finish up some of the logistical necessities, and then led me to her home. I met her husband, and she showed me around her very nice home. Similar to the houses that I saw when I did my “drive-through” earlier in the day, her home is modest from the outside, but quite roomy and well kept with beautiful wood floors, a bit of crown molding, and a nice, large kitchen. I have my own bedroom, and she graciously offered me coffee and tea, and told me to help myself in the morning to any of the breakfast items she pointed out as she gave me the tour. She explained that she will not be here in the morning when I leave at 8:30am for my class day tomorrow, because she works at UCLA. I asked her what she does, and found out that she is a micro-biologist! (So impressive!) She and her husband were very tired, and need to get up early, so after making sure I had everything I needed (including the wireless code, which is enabling me to write this), they headed to bed.

Tomorrow, I have a long, busy day. My schedule begins with meeting up with other students at Holy Trinity so we can carpool over to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. From St. Mark’s, we will be led through a “community walk,” where we will experience and observe another community in Inglewood, including lunch at a local restaurant. At 2pm, we will meet with representatives from UNIDAD (United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement), and then meet someone at a local Family Center. We have dinner at 6pm with the local pastor of that church, and then will attend a Hip Hop Worship at Ascension Church, which is led by the youth of that church. I have to admit… I think the Hip Hop Worship is going to be the highlight of a very full and interesting day!

And so, I am going to head to bed. As I sit here, I take in the silence from outside. No road noises (unlike my own house at home), no sirens (also unlike my house), no disruptions. It sounds and feels pretty safe to me.

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On the road again

My old apartment in Pasadena

My old apartment in Pasadena

 

My first semester at PLTS ended in mid-December, and I’ve been soaking up as much “home time” as possible. Today, though, my soaking time ended as I stepped onto a plane to head to Los Angeles. No, Los Angeles is not the location of PLTS, but it is the location of the class I am taking during our January-term (J-term). It is also where I lived back in the late 90’s, and so I planned to arrive 2 days before class starts so that I can visit with friends. I have been here now for an entire 5 hours, and I am experiencing quite a mixture of feelings.

First was the joy of seeing the sun. Yes, most of you non-Pacific Northwest people take the sun for granted, but those of us who live in the top left corner of the US typically struggle during the winter. There has actually been some nice weather since I’ve been home, but the past week especially has included a lot of clouds and rain. (When I say “rain,” I mean “drizzle,” ie “Seattle rain.”) As I stepped out of the airport to the shuttle stop to wait for my rental car shuttle, I found a spot with sun, and just basked in the warmth and light. It really is amazing what a difference the sun makes. However, as I stood there, enjoying the heat, another feeling came over me; a familiar feeling from when I lived in LA.

When I lived in LA, I was a computer consultant who traveled every week to go to my client sites. I would get on the plane at LAX on Sunday evenings, and return to LAX on Friday evenings, spending most weekends at my home in Pasadena or Marina del Rey. Those places, though, despite being where my apartment and things were located, never did feel like home. I remember flying into LA, and always having this odd feeling that I was beginning a short, mini-vacation. It was the weather, the proximity to the beach, and, as I am only realizing now, also the feeling of luxury and comfort, that contributed to this sense of being on vacation instead of coming home. As I stood at that shuttle stop this morning, although I couldn’t name it, I began to discern that old feeling of luxury and comfort.

One would think this would be a good feeling but, to be honest, it was unsettling. I didn’t really understand why, though. I got my rental car and headed to Pasadena, where I would meet up with a good friend later in the afternoon. My plan was to walk around Pasadena, my old stomping grounds, and see how things have changed. First, I headed to my old apartment. I wanted to see if it was still there, and if it had changed. For most of my drive to the old apartment, I really didn’t recognize much of anything. But then, as I passed the old Vons grocery store, I realized I was only a block away. When I pulled up in front of the old apartment, that past feeling of luxury and comfort crept up on me again. Now, my old apartment is not an apartment of luxury. So, why would this feeling come to me at this time?

As I sat there, taking in the setting from my car, I began to discern this feeling; why I was having it, and what it was telling me. My discernment continued throughout the day, and now, as I sit here to write this blog, I feel as though I am only beginning to understand it. When I lived in Pasadena, I was in a very different stage of my life. I remember telling college friends that I was living the “good life.” What I meant by “good life” was a life where I was making plenty of money, doing and buying whatever I wanted, and living in sun and comfort. My goal at the time, if one would even say I had any goals, was to live life to the fullest. In a sense, I was living the Ecclesiastes life, following the advice of Ecclesiastes from the bible who tells us that life is short and should be enjoyed as much as possible. I was focused on buying nice things for my apartment, drinking good wine, and taking fabulous vacations. I can remember, back in those days, telling people I was fiscally conservative and socially liberal (a phrase I often still hear today). I wanted to protect my money (after all, I had worked hard for it), and allow people to live their lives as they see fit. Makes sense, right? So… why would this feeling bother me today?

Today, I am in a very different place. Today, I am much more aware of how the very laws and systems that support and allow me to live such a life of luxury and comfort are the same laws and systems that make it incredibly difficult for people who have been born into poverty to find a way out. Today, I am more aware of my own privileges, gained from my race and “class.” Today, I realize that the reason I have had the opportunity to “work hard” for my money is because I have parents who loved, nurtured, and taught me qualities that many of us take for granted: financial sense, strong initiative, competitive spirit. I have parents who were financially comfortable enough to live in neighborhoods free of violence where I would go to good schools, and have friends with goals of college and academic success. Because of this financial status, I was always told that I would go to college – there was no doubt to that, nor any alternative even considered. Because of my race, I was never questioned by police, I did not have to feel second-class by another person looking at me with fear. I was always given the benefit of the doubt in all my interpersonal relationships, both casual and significant. I never felt as though I had to prove anything to anyone, and I was not worried about how my actions would impact how others viewed my race. Today, although I still enjoy these privileges, I am aware of them, and I feel a responsibility to do something to change the way our world works. I no longer call myself fiscally conservative. I believe that we who have some financial means have a responsibility to those who are struggling to make a life for themselves. I suppose I have moved from Ecclesiastes to Luke.

That feeling I was and am discerning was a feeling that made clear how I have changed since those days; how my goals and priorities have changed. Yet, it also made clear that I am still not doing enough. Yes, I have quit my lucrative job at Microsoft to dedicate myself to a career of service. Yes, I am politically active in efforts to spread the privilege I enjoy to those of other races and income levels. Yes, I now enjoy a deep spiritual foundation from which I draw to keep me motivated and working for others. But I still live in a beautiful house. I still enjoy buying nice clothes. I still eat out at nice restaurants. Maybe I don’t do these things quite as much as I used to, but I still do them.

So what do I do? Do I feel called to do as the bible tells us, and sell (donate) all of my possessions in order to follow Jesus? Should I completely let go of my life, which still has many pieces of luxury and comfort, in order to truly devote myself to others?

I don’t know if this is what I am supposed to do, but I am pretty sure I’m not going to do it. I fall short of much better people than me such as Mother Theresa and other unnamed people who have totally dedicated themselves to the betterment of people different from themselves. This is a weakness I see in myself. Perhaps this is why the feeling that I am and have been discerning was and is bothering me so much. It shows me that yes, I have changed, but I am still the selfish person I used to be. I still hold onto things for myself, while knowing that others are suffering. And I wonder… is this any better than I was back then? Back then, I could argue ignorance. Now, I know… but I still don’t let go.

It makes me think of Matthew 19:24, and I become more aware of my failings and weaknesses… and even more grateful for what Jesus gave up for me, and for those I mean to serve. And it gives me motivation to keep trying. Keep discerning. Keep loving. Maybe… just maybe… one day, I’ll look back on today, and realize how much I continued to change…

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24

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Mormon Diversity?

In thinking back over my posts regarding Mormonism, I do not believe I have accurately portrayed the kind of diversity that I have witnessed within the Mormon community as I have been learning these past few months. To that end, I thought perhaps the easiest and best way to share this diversity with all of you would be to share a paper that I recently wrote for my class. We were assigned the task of finding Mormon blogs, identifying the issues that Mormons are discussing, and write about what we find. Here is what I wrote…

It did not take long in my research for this paper to come across a multitude of issues being discussed on Mormon blog sites. After reading only three different blog sites, I have found seven+ (depending on how you count them) issues in deep discussion within the Mormon community (as well as between interfaith communities), including personal relationships, women/sexuality, religion and science, homosexuality, liturgical year (or lack thereof), frugality (as portrayed by Mitt Romney), and the general public reputation of Mormonism. Due to the brevity of this paper, I will only discuss the first three in detail. I will walk through each briefly and examine how the comments that I read are similar or different from the comments I would see within my own community.

Personal Relationships. There are two blog posts that I consider to be commentaries on personal relationships. The first is a beautiful, personal eulogy of sorts for a man, Richard Cracroft, a leader within the Mormon community in many ways, including as a professor at Brigham Young University.[1] The blog’s author knew this man as a professor and eventually a friend, but also as the man who would determine the results of her “temple recommend” after her divorce, the approval or disapproval of her entry into the temple. In this article, I was struck not only by Mr. Cracroft’s gentle nature (described by the author as his gentling), but also by how this gentling portrayed itself in an official act of the Mormon church. At the end of the temple recommend interview, Mr. Cracroft asks a question that I understand is always asked, “Do you consider yourself worthy in every way to enter the temple?” My understanding is that the answer to this question needs to be, “Yes,” and yet, the author answered with a tear-filled, “No.” Any church who sees things as black and white would have seen this as a checkbox that must be left unchecked, resulting in a recommendation of no entry. Yet, Mr. Cracroft saw through the black and white nature of a church institution’s policies, and responded, “Margaret, you need the blessings of the temple.” He saw that sometimes, it is precisely the people who do not feel worthy who most need the inclusion, the temple, and the love of the community and God.

The second blog article that helps me understand personal relationships among Mormons is about a man who was recently reconciled with two other men he had previously, “treated… as enemies.”[2] To be honest, I was a bit taken aback that a Mormon was speaking about feeling this kind of enmity at all! All of my interactions with Mormons in the past have always been filled with an incredible sense of community and harmony. I suppose I knew that Mormons would, of course, disagree at times, but I thought they either worked it out, or repressed the more angry feelings in their attempt to be more… well, Mormon.  As I think back on this now, I realize how ridiculous this is, not to mention how unhealthy it would be, but it took reading this blog entry for me to gain a better understanding. Of course, Mormons, just like the rest of us, experience anger, bitterness, and yes, even enmity. And, just like I try to do within my own life, Mormons make efforts towards reconciliation. This blog entry is about a successful attempt towards reconciliation, but I imagine they are not always successful. The point, though, is in the author’s last sentence when Brad explains that, through this experience of reconciliation, he has seen, “the best of what Mormonism, and religion generally, is capable of.”

Women/Sexuality. I greatly enjoyed reading an article by a woman, Rebecca J, who was a young girl in the Mormon Church, now a mother, who is obviously struggling with the way women are viewed, taught, and included in the Mormon Church.[3] I found her post to be an interesting portrayal of herself. She calls herself “a mild-mannered Mormon housewife who actually shares the positively Neanderthal view that men really are much more susceptible to visual stimulation than are women,” and yet she is expressing frustrations that many would probably consider to be feminist. I consider part of the identity of being Lutheran to often hold tensions of seemingly opposing forces or concepts together within one understanding. This is difficult for many people, and definitely different from the more black and white view that many prefer to grasp. Yet, I sense this tension-holding in Rebecca J as she struggles with her identification in the more traditional housewife role, while also feeling frustrated with how women are perceived and treated. I greatly appreciate this ability for people within the Mormon church to hold these tensions.

In this article were also the women’s issues themselves, which I found very interesting. As much as I respect the tension-holding in Rebecca, I also wanted her to stop apologizing for her feminist side. I agree with her that the Box Social, an event where women cook the dinner, men bring dessert and then bid on which dinner (and woman) they would (innocently) enjoy for the event is demeaning and unfair to women. Yet, Rebecca acquiesces after speaking with her husband that it is probably “sweet and harmless.” Perhaps the intention is sweet and harmless, but the activity is portraying certain gender-specific roles to everyone involved, not to mention giving all the power to the men. Rebecca also described a fireside on “practical and spiritual strategies against pornography” that she attended with her daughter. She again recognizes the gender roles that this activity reinforces in the “Warriors of Virtue” for girls involved and the “Warriors for Christ” for the boys, but also again calls the activity “harmless.” Rebecca and her daughter attend, despite her misgivings, and she tries to keep an open mind. It is her daughter who, partway through the event, turned to her mother and asked to leave. The fact that her daughter was confident enough to 1) want to go, and 2) ask to leave, was impressive to me. This shows that Rebecca and her daughter have conversations about women in the Mormon Church, which was also evidenced by other conversations that Rebecca mentions in the end of her blog. The women are not simply accepting the habits and traditions of the Mormon Church, but they are challenging them, even if the challenge is currently a more internal, private one. I expect there are some more public challenges, as well.[4]

Religion & Science. One issue that has caught my attention during the assigned readings for this class has been the Mormon stance on Creationism vs. Evolutionism. I was very interested, therefore, to read a blog post by a British blogger (RJH) who was contacted by a fellow Mormon who was concerned by a BBC program’s depiction of evolution as part of human (pre)history. The friend responded with a letter, and posted the letter as his blog. I greatly enjoyed the letter, probably mostly because I very much agree with it. However, the most interesting part of the blog is the comments. In the very first comment, the author posts a link to the “counter-view” whose author concludes with, “it is very difficult for me to reconcile the doctrine of man’s premortal spirit (as taught by the Church today) with current theories of human evolution.”[5] Following that link to the counter-view, a conversation ensues in the comments where some people weigh in with their own opinions. It is clear from these interactions that, again, Mormons are not simply accepting what may be the official Mormon Church position. People are having the conversation, and many people disagree with the Church while still calling themselves Mormon. I especially respect how the author put forth his own view, while also inviting his readers to consider the counter-argument, as well, enabling each person to decide for him/herself.

The “Science vs. Religion” debate is also referenced in a blog about petitionary prayer.[6] I particularly appreciate how this blog entry ends. There is no real resolution, but rather an acknowledgment that the debate exists, and that we all probably hold some of that debate within us. As much as we all may know cerebrally that intercessory prayer will not actually change the science of an illness, we all often, deep down, have those prayers inside of us anyway.[7] At the end, the author calls for the “caricatures of science” to stop “scowling at the caricatures of religion.” I feel this advice could go both ways. This debate is ongoing within many arenas of Christianity, and I often feel that if we could all stop debating and accept the tension (there’s my Lutheranism again) of the two, perhaps we could focus our energies on more productive solutions that bring healing. This is exactly how the author concludes.

A pattern has been developing as each blog was read and absorbed; a pattern that continued with the blog posts that I have not discussed of homosexuality,[8] liturgical year (or lack thereof), [9] frugality (as portrayed by Mitt Romney), [10] and the general public reputation of Mormonism.[11] Every blog has expressed opinions that are not necessarily aligned with the official teachings of the Mormon Church. Every blog has discussed some potentially divisive issue, and showed that there are many sides to be discussed. And every blog has touched on an issue that is also being discussed within my own church. These are not Mormon issues, they are not Lutheran issues, they are not even Christian issues; they are human issues. Unfortunately, in life, we humans tend to categorize and put people and faith into buckets. In reality, we are all just people who are using our own personal experiences and deep, personal beliefs to make the best of the world we see and feel. Some align more closely with one religion, and some align more closely with another. Some do not align with any. All, though, are much more complex and rich to be bucketized and stereotyped. Every religion and faith deserves more than that.


[1] Margaret Blair Young, “By Common Consent, A Mormon Blog: Richard Cracoft, Go Gentle,” By Common Consent, http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/09/25/richard-cracroft-go-gentle/ (accessed October 3, 2012).

[2] Brad, “A Mormon Blog: Enmity, Estrangement, and Reconciliation,“ By Common Consent, http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/09/26/enmity-estrangement-and-reconciliation/#more-38863 (accessed 10/3/2012).

[3] Rebecca J, “A Mormon Blog: The Radical Notion that Women are People: part three of a million parts,” By Common Consent, http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/09/28/the-radical-notion-that-women-are-people-part-three-of-a-million-parts/#more-38902 (accessed 10/3/2012).

[4] This is not to say that all women are challenging these issues within the church. In the blog referenced earlier about Mr. Cracroft (“Richard Cracoft, Go Gentle”), the author tells a story where it seems Mr. Cracroft was thanking the author for her sacrifice of marrying a professor who was in need of finding a wife in order to continue teaching at BYU. It struck me as reinforcing a notion that the women are there to make sacrifices for the men. I wondered, “But isn’t she in love with this man who she is marrying?” I acknowledge, though, that I may be misunderstanding what was said and intended.

[5] R Gary, “No Death Before the Fall: Evolution and the premortal spirit of man, conclusion: The body is the clothing of and looks like the spirit,” No Death Before the Fall, http://ndbf.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/looks-like.html (accessed 10/3/2012).

[6] Sam MB, “A Mormon Blog: Religion, Science, and the Problem of Petitionary Prayer,” By Common Consent, http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/09/30/religion-science-and-the-problem-of-petitionary-prayer/ (accessed 10/3/2012).

[7] The author also points out how prayer can be healing in other ways.

[8] Josh Weed, “Club Unicorn: In which I come out of the closet on our ten year anniversary,” The Weed, http://www.joshweed.com/2012/06/club-unicorn-in-which-i-come-out-of.html (accessed 10/3/2012).

[9] RJH, “Liturgical Year,” By Common Consent, http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/10/03/liturgal-year/#more-38925 (accessed 10/3/2012).

[10] Russell Arben Fox, “Mocking Romney’s Mormon Self-Sufficiency, and What That Misses,” By Common Consent, http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/10/02/mocking-romneys-mormon-self-sufficiency-and-what-that-misses/ (accessed 10/3/2012).

[11] Sam MB, “By Common Consent, A Mormon Blog: Religion, Science, and the Problem of Petitionary Prayer,” By Common Consent, http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/09/30/religion-science-and-the-problem-of-petitionary-prayer/ (accessed 10/3/2012).

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It’s my birthday…

Today is my birthday. Many of you know this, as you graciously wished me a very happy birthday on Facebook. Thank you for that. I know that it probably doesn’t seem very personal, and may feel like you are just adding to the crowd, but I enjoy reading all the birthday wishes. It’s great how they are spread out across the day, allowing me to feel the good wishes every hour.

From the outside looking in, today seemed like a great day. Everyone in my dorm remembered my birthday, and greeted me with warm wishes in class, in the hallways, and in the kitchen. People are so warm and welcoming here… it’s as though they are always happy to see me. I suppose that comes naturally when you are a student in seminary, surrounded by other seminary students. Pastoral care abounds.

It was as though even God was in on wishing me a happy birthday. The sun was shining today, allowing me to wear one of my favorite sundresses as I strolled outside, taking in the beautiful scenery and sun rays. A close friend here took me out to get a manicure and pedicure as a little birthday treat. My husband was wonderful, too, sending me a gorgeous arrangement of flowers on Saturday, which are proudly displayed on my bookshelf by the window where they can soak up the sun. I received a couple of e-cards – one from my husband and one from my mother-in-law – as well as phone calls from family. In fact, one family member, my sister, came to celebrate my birthday with me in person. She was here with other students from Humboldt State, and she managed to convince the group to hang out for a few hours while she came to see me and celebrate with me. While she was here, we went to a local brewery for drinks and dinner, and many of my dorm mates joined us. When I got back, the dorm gathered in the basement with a home-baked cake. It’s been a good day.

So why do I feel so down? (“My heart should be wildly rejoicing. Oh, what’s the matter with me?” fills my head accompanied by Richard Rodgers music – anyone know the reference?) The day has been filled with blessings, and yet I struggle to feel the joy that surrounds me. I hate to think of how I would feel if my day had not been so wonderful. I think I’m disappointed that my husband and I were not able to arrange a time for him to come visit, or for me to go home. We did just spend a week together during our mid-term break, but… it’s my birthday. I feel a bit like that spoiled brat who gets everything she wants except one thing, and instead of being grateful for all that she has, she can’t let go of the one thing she doesn’t have. And so I start to beat myself up for feeling down…

My Ministry & Theological Integration class that I took last year at Seattle University taught me something that is useful here, though. They taught me to stop judging my feelings and emotions, and to start welcoming them. Perhaps what I’m feeling is a bit ungrateful, but that doesn’t make the emotions any less real or valid. I need to remember to allow myself to grieve – even when the grieving seems like a “first world problem.” I know that I will be ok, but right now, I need to grieve. (Now Leslie Gore is running through my head.)Maybe that’s the only way for me to get past this.

This may be my first real “personal” post on this blog. I hesitate to post it, especially since I feel pretty lame about it. However, I said at the beginning of the year that this blog was going to be about what it’s like to be away at school… at seminary. Well, this is part of that experience – the good and the bad. And so I share it with all of you. I simply miss my husband, my dogs, my cat… I miss my home.

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Do Mormons Want a Mormon President?

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Two nights ago, my class on Mormonism talked politics. We asked the question, “Would the election of Mitt Romney as President of the United States help or hurt the Mormon church?”

I say “church” and not “faith” purposefully; there is a valid argument that faith is something internal, which hopefully would not be impacted by the results of an election. The church, though, has plenty to be gained or lost: reputation, understanding, and civic influence (influence of the church on the world, and the world on the church).

Two Mormon students in my class did some research regarding this question, and their initial answer was… neither. They believe that most of the change that the church would experience has already been experienced as a result of Mitt Romney’s campaign. They explained that the campaign has brought a spotlight to Mormonism, and there has been a good amount of positive exposure as a result. Only ten years ago, they remember when Evangelical clergy would accuse Mormons of being of the devil, evil influences who must, at all cost, be avoided. There are still some Evangelical clergy who feel this way, but the sentiment is not nearly as widespread, and most certainly not as vocalized. They feel this is one impact of Mitt Romney’s candidacy.

Having Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for President has put a face to Mormonism. These students explained that, before Romney’s campaign, any man who would “come out” as Mormon would immediately be stereotyped as some crazy guy who had many wives. When people see Mitt Romney and his family, the stereotype begins to fade. But it is more than that. It is easy to visualize a person as the enemy, as a villain who is absolute evil, when there are no personal experiences to pull from, only accusations and misrepresentations. However, when you see a person giving speeches, being interviewed, debating, and especially joking around with others, you begin to realize that this person is… well… a person. He (or she) has qualities you like as well as qualities you don’t. There are strengths and weaknesses to be considered – just like with any of us.

I imagine the impact is greater for those who are in the Republican Party. This person who they now see on television and the Internet every single day represents them: their ideals, their positions, their morals. Yes, of course it is rare to find someone whose positions match on all counts, but the point is that we tend to vote for the person with whom we most identify. For most Republicans, this Mormon is that person. When you identify with someone, you no longer consider them to be “the enemy.” Granted, Mitt Romney is just one Mormon, but it is when we become more familiar with one person that we begin to realize the whole group of people might not be so bad. Just in the past 20 years, I have seen this happen with many communities: African-Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals. It is when we meet someone from that community that the barriers begin to come down and the stereotypes become less powerful.

And so, the students argued that, win or lose, the Mormon church is not likely to feel much of an impact at this point. They were careful, though, to not use absolutes. They believe that some of the impact that is being felt now is likely to continue should Mitt Romney be elected. For example, they have already noticed a difference in the recognition of Mormonism as a Christian faith. Although there are still many who would not consider Mormons to be “Christian,” people generally speaking now understand that Mormons do, indeed, believe in Jesus as divine. This recognition also extends to people who previously did not even know that Mormonism WAS a faith. Many missionaries who travel internationally have been met with quizzical looks when introducing themselves as Mormons. People did not know Mormonism existed. This is more rare now, and the students expect it would become even more rare if Mitt Romney is elected. This is exciting for the Mormon church, since it potentially means more successful missions, which is a huge part of their faith and calling.

Now, with this said, depending on how a Mitt Romney presidency would fare, success for Romney could also hurt the Mormon reputation. I don’t know any presidents who come away from their presidential term unscathed. There are always criticisms, finger-pointings, and mistakes to be long remembered. Any decision, statement, or act that Mitt Romney as President would make would be associated with Mormonism, whether it should be or not. If Mitt Romney loses, Mormonism will no longer be in the spotlight. If he wins, Mormonism will continue to gain our attention, for good and for bad alike.

But this is all about how Mitt Romney’s run for presidency impacts the Mormon church; how about how Romney’s Mormon faith impacts Romney’s run for presidency? I have been surprised to see that it doesn’t seem to be all that impactful. I was not alive for President Kennedy’s campaign, but I understand that his Catholicism was a topic that could not be avoided. It was a huge focus, and many people would not vote for Kennedy because they were fearful that the Pope would run our country. Although there was an initial “shock” regarding Mitt Romney’s run, there really hasn’t been much said since he received the nomination. Perhaps this is because Mitt Romney seems to avoid the topic. He presents himself as a person who is running for President and happens to be Mormon, not as a Mormon running for President (see 3:40 of this video).

To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed. Despite the fact that I did not vote for Romney (mail ballot), I originally felt defensive for him. I do not believe that someone’s faith should determine whether that person is elected, and I was worried this would happen. However, as the campaigns unfolded and Romney’s faith was not a topic of conversation, I realized that I DID want to hear about how Romney’s faith impacts him as a leader. I have many of the same questions that are outlined in this article, but are left unanswered. I am particularly interested in this topic because there are many positions that Mitt Romney takes that are NOT the Mormon church’s positions (immigration and social issues in general). Let me be clear, I am not faulting Romney for sometimes disagreeing with his church. I simply would like to better understand how Mitt Romney’s faith has helped form who he is and how he considers issues of civic responsibility (especially regarding the poor).

In fact, because of these differences, I asked whether the Mormons in the room believed that most Mormons are supportive of Mitt Romney for President, and they said, “Yes.” Even though many Mormons disagree with some (many?) of Romney’s positions, they are, generally speaking, excited by the idea of a Mormon in the White House. The Mormon representatives in the room believe that most Mormons (but not all – there is a more liberal contingent) will vote for Mitt Romney. Of course, this is not the first time we have seen this phenomena (Catholics for Kennedy, Blacks for Obama). And, for the record, I do not blame them. If a woman was running for President who I thought was capable, but maintained some positions where I disagreed, I just might vote for her anyway. Of course… it would depend on the positions.

In the end, the impression I walked away with is that Mormons are excited. Having one of their own running for President in a close race makes the election more personal for them… and makes them seem a bit more personable for the rest of us, too.

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A Mormon Running for Office?!

My last post began, “It has been almost a week since I last posted.” That was the longest I had gone. Well, it has now been over a month since my last post. Life got busy. Actually, let’s face it – life is always busy. Life got busier, I guess. And with each day that passed without a post, the burden became bigger…more things to post about, more to share, where would I begin? Well, now it’s been a month, and I don’t remember any of them.

So, I’m going to try again. Ideally, I would post every day. Ok, maybe every other day. I’ll be happy if I can get one post a week. But I’ll try for something short every day. Yeah, we’ll see how it goes. For now, I want to post because I just finished one of my readings for my Mormonism class, and I am inspired.

The reading is about a Mormon presidential candidate’s run for election. Here’s the catch… Mitt Romney is NOT the candidate. Did you know that Romney is not the first Mormon to run for the office of President of the United States? I think, somehow, I did know that…but I had forgotten (and I never knew the specifics). Well, the first Mormon to run for this office was Joseph Smith – yes, the same Joseph Smith who had revelations directly from God that led him to dig up the gold plates, which he translated into the Book of Mormon. The same Joseph Smith who founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Joseph Smith ran for office because of the unfair, unjust, and, I would argue, unconstitutional way that the Mormons were treated in Missouri in 1839. Well, it wasn’t just that particular event; the Mormons were treated unfairly in many events – this religious group was often persecuted for their faith here in the United States – a country that claims to support religious freedom.

I have family who feel strongly that a person should never break the law. If someone has suffered an injustice, the person should use the law to make things just. Well, this is just what Joseph Smith tried to do. He took his grievances to the authorities, and no one responded. Eventually, he even took them to the president, President Martin Van Buren. (Did you know we had a president named Martin Van Buren? He was our 8th President for one term; previously Vice-President, and Secretary of State before that.) After two meetings with the president, President Van Buren is said to have told Joseph Smith, “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.”

With the election coming, Joseph Smith insisted that the Mormons determine which candidate would support them in their efforts to find justice through the courts. To that end, he wrote each candidate a letter, asking them, if they were to be the next President, what would they do to ensure justice for the Mormons? Some didn’t respond, and the ones who did basically said they wouldn’t do anything. You know… it is at this point that I think I would have looked for other ways of bringing attention to the injustices occurring – maybe protests, sit-ins, or something. Of course, this was the 19th century, and those kinds of protests were not yet happening. Perhaps, I would have done something that was <gasp> illegal. Instead, Joseph Smith ran for office as an Independent. (Although… it is true that eventually, the Mormons DID take matters into their own hands, which did NOT end well.)

Smith wrote a pamphlet to circulate regarding his positions, which surprisingly did not speak directly about the issue of justice for the Mormons. Instead, his stated views included slavery (he thought it should be abolished), congressional pay (he wanted to reduce it by 75%!), prison reform, and US westward expansion (he wanted to keep expanding, but only if Native Americans agreed).  Hmmm, based on these positions, he might have had my vote… but his campaign ended when he was killed in June of 1844.

I wonder what the rhetoric was like in that election. Were the candidates throwing moral accusations at each other? I would not be surprised if the non-Mormon candidates made fun of Joseph’s beliefs. I wonder what Joseph said. Did he call anyone a liar? A flip-flopper? A terrorist? Were catchy and derogatory names thrown about like Nobama or Romnesia? Maybe, when I finish my reading, I’ll do a little research and find out. (That will be one more post I never get around to posting.)

I am betting accusations were thrown AT Joseph Smith; I would be surprised to see accusations thrown FROM Joseph Smith. Many people accuse those “wacky” Mormons of having some pretty crazy beliefs, but from what I have read… Joseph Smith and his followers were far more respectful and supportive than what I have seen from either of our current presidential candidates. Perhaps, though, this is more a reflection of us (voters) than it is of them (candidates).

If anyone would like to learn more about Joseph Smith’s run for election, I would start with the official Mormon retelling: http://www.lds.org/ensign/2009/02/joseph-smith-campaign-for-president-of-the-united-states

Here are some other links:

http://adventures-in-mormonism.com/2007/12/19/joseph-smiths-presidential-platform/

http://bycommonconsent.com/2007/12/19/joseph-smiths-views/

The actual pamphlet: http://olivercowdery.com/smithhome/1840s/1844Smit.htm#pg01

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Who are Our Ninevites?

John & Pebbles

It has been almost a week since I last posted. I was very excited to post about my PLTS Chapel experience last Wednesday, but I have been busy preparing for classes, and when I did have time, I lost my motivation. I suspect it has something to do with being eager for this week to be over because I am heading home this weekend!! I am SO excited to see my hubby and pets. John and Pebbles are in the “feature” picture above, and Bamm-Bamm and Carmel are below. My heart literally aches for all of them. I need some serious snuggle time.

Bamm-Bamm & Carmel

I did, though, want to tell you a little about Chapel last week. As I mentioned in a previous post, we Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) students are required to attend Chapel every Wednesday with the seminarian community. I have joined the choir here, and we sing during service. People were very excited about last week because we were expecting a couple guests who are well known by the community here. I kept hearing about how much the choir enjoys singing with Donnie, and how much the community enjoys Pastor Jim’s sermons. I didn’t know anything about them, but I gathered that the music would be gospel. I stereotypically pictured both Donnie and Pastor Jim as African-American. Donnie is. Pastor Jim is not.

Pastor Jim and Donnie were here from Los Angeles where they serve at their own church, Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. Everyone was right…I was in for a huge treat. As I entered the chapel around 10am (service was at 11), the choir was just getting started. Donnie is the choir director at Holy Trinity, and was playing piano, helping us run through one of the songs. Now…this was the day after 9/11, and I was feeling a bit morose. I had been surprised that PLTS didn’t do anything special in memory of 9/11, and no one had really spoken about it. I think this is a basic difference between east coast and west coast…west coast folks don’t feel that tragedy the way east coast folks do. Although I was in Seattle on 9/11/o1, I had previously and briefly worked in the World Trade Center when I lived in New Jersey, I knew/know people in NYC, and I felt it deeply. Anyway, suffice it to say that I was feeling down. Looking back, I think I really needed an outlet to mourn.

The music that Donnie was playing was a Medley that Donnie had arranged. It included parts of “O Beautiful,” and was a patriotic tribute to the United States. It was upbeat, though, and… well… evangelical; this was just what I needed. The problem was, the choir’s energy was NOT matching the music or Donnie. You see, one of the things that seems to be pretty common among most Lutherans is our stoic nature. Our services are very traditional and formal. You don’t hear people yelling, “Amen!” in response to the Pastor (or anything, really). When my home church choir sings, we joke about the inability of the choir to move in time with the music. We just don’t “loosen up” the way I’ve seen some Evangelical churches loosen up. I’ve always envied that.

Donnie was singing a solo throughout the song (Donnie’s voice is INCREDIBLE) and had that gorgeous gospel sound. The PLTS choir… didn’t. But we practiced, and I started to get it… a little. I really wanted to open up and just let myself go with the gospel feeling and emotion, but I was very conscious of the people around me… I rarely enjoy bringing attention to myself and besides, what would others think? We finished rehearsing, and then gathered for a group prayer circle. As part of the prayer, everyone is invited to share any specific prayers/intercessions they have. As a few people entered their own personal pleas, I gathered up the courage and added my prayer for all the people affected by the tragedy of 9/11 eleven years ago, and I heard Pastor Jim respond with, “Mmmm-hmmmm.” Hearing him helped me realize I was not the only one there thinking about NYC, DC, and all those lives lost. We ended our rehearsal, and people started entering for service.

The service began with some hymns for the entire community. But here’s where things really got interesting. As we sang the first hymn in typical straightforward, stoic, “Lutheran” fashion, Pastor Jim had us pause. He proposed that we sing that verse again, but slowly, allowing all of us to really feel the music, and sing from the heart. What was nice about slowing it down was that I didn’t need to look at the music. I could glance down to see what was next, and then put the book down. I closed my eyes, and I felt the words, the music, and the emotion flowing through me. The hymn was Sweet, Sweet Spirit, and I finally began to release. Pastor Jim had us sing that first verse over and over. Each time, with each repetition, influenced by Donnie’s gospel lead, the entire group loosened up a bit more. By the end, there were harmonies being sung, ad hoc responses thrown in, and every voice raised with its own emotion ringing through. It was amazing; I was tearing up from all the emotion while singing.

When the beginning hymns were over, Pastor Jim greeted everyone, and then we began a Song of Praise called The Lord is Blessing Me. Now, this was another song that the choir had rehearsed that really needed a little soul, and we had failed miserably. The plan was for the song to begin, Donnie to start, and then the choir to get up from the seats (we were scattered throughout the community), and come up on the chancel (the front of the church that’s elevated by a few steps). As the song began, I got up, and I felt nervous, but also still full of all the emotion from the opening hymn. As I walked up to join the rest of the choir, singing as I walked, I forced myself to move a little… just a little swaying at first. As I began to move, my body continued to loosen up. I closed my eyes and pretty soon, I found myself singing, swaying, clapping, and smiling without any concern or regard for what the people watching me would think. I finally let myself go, and it was such a sweet release!! I noticed Donnie smiling up at us, and the community in the chairs were all beaming, and clapping along. We all just fed off of each other, and pretty soon, that church did NOT feel quite so stoically Lutheran!! Now, to put this in perspective, we were NOTHING like this gospel choir singing the same hymn we sang, but it was marvelous just the same.

And it wasn’t just the music, that sermon ROCKED! Pastor Jim is amazing!!! I wish they had recorded it so I could share it with you. Pastor Jim’s gospel affinity flowed through his words, his intonation, and somehow, we were all saying, “Amen!” in response. He talked about the tragic events of 9/11. He talked about how often we do not follow the path God has laid out for us; and how God always gets us in the end. He talked about the call that Jonah had to preach to the Ninevites; a people who were considered dangerous enemies, and Jonah’s reluctance (to put it lightly…think “whale”). He asked us… who are our Ninevites? Who does God call us to embrace, and yet we resist because they are the enemy, they are the threat. He reminded us that God tells us to love above all else, and that means to love even when it’s hard, even when it hurts and we don’t think our Ninevites deserve our love. After all, if we are worthy of God’s love, then (God knows) our enemies deserve ours. Speaking about this need to love our enemies really hit home in the context of 9/11. It hit home even more when I read the news the next day.

There is no way for me to do justice to this experience. It was emotional, soul-filling, and tension-releasing. There is no doubt in my mind… Jesus was definitely in that place. Amen!

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