Guest Author - Terrie Lynn Bittner
Many westerners in the United States face tremendous culture shock when they find themselves in the east for a few years. The stereotype of the LDS Church as all white does not hold in most eastern wards, where often there are people of many races and nationalities.
When a westerner looks around the chapel and sees members in blue jeans and less modest clothing, tattooed men and women, and long hair, they sometimes wonder if they’ve wandered into the wrong church by mistake. There is sometimes a feeling that leadership needs to get to work and “fix” the problems using western solutions. The doctrines are the same, but the culture is different.
Choosing to fit in and help without judgment makes the experience much more pleasant than going through meetings feeling critical and upset. It then becomes an opportunity for growth, expansion, and learning, instead of a time to be endured until you can get back “home.”
1. Realize you must learn the culture before you can contribute. It’s a little like moving to a new country. If you moved to Japan, you would most likely spend time sampling and enjoying the new culture, rather than rushing in to Americanize the nation. Until you really understand the people you’re going to church with, their challenges, and their needs, you can’t make meaningful change.
2. You can’t make a difference without love. If you’re working from a spirit of judgment instead of love, your work will be unsuccessful.
3. The less LDS your life is before you join the church, the harder the changes are. Most people don’t join the church with a complete testimony. Change takes time and when a person tries to make too many changes at once, he becomes frustrated and discouraged, and may leave. Allowing the newer members to slowly alter their lifestyle allows them time to have the LDS culture sink in, and gives them a continual feeling of success. Remember, a new member can’t go through the temple for a year because God understands the need for time.
4. Find out what it means to be materially poor. Abandon your noble visions based on growing up with Little Women and find out what life is really like when you have no money and no hope, yet, of escaping poverty. While in the past, the church attracted large numbers of upper-middle class members, today, especially in the east, it is attracting those with very little materially. If you can’t imagine what their lives are like, go into their neighborhoods and homes. Make friends who will tell you.
5. Abandon the theory that poverty is caused by sin, laziness, or choice. Few people choose poverty.
6. Be realistic, which may mean taking smaller steps than you’re comfortable with. When teaching teens to dress modestly, for example, accept that this may be hard for them. If they believe those clothes are a ticket to popularity, it will take a powerful testimony for them to believe otherwise. You may have to compromise and show them how to layer their immodest clothing to make it more modest, rather than telling them to throw the clothes away—yet. If they have no money, they can’t throw them out. If they aren’t sure how modesty will affect their popularity, they may not be ready for a full commitment. Baby steps are important in helping our newest members adapt, even if this isn’t what you were taught is the right way to do it. You have to start where they are, not where you’ve decided they should be.
7. Don’t tell people what they’re doing wrong. First, it’s probably not your job. Secondly, it may chase them away. Third, you may not understand. People come to church in part because they feel safe and loved. The more loved they are, the harder they will work to build their testimonies and grow. Be part of the loving circle, not the critic’s circle.
8. Don’t try to change organizations you’re not responsible for. Practice saying, “It’s not my calling.” When you are responsible, make the changes gradually and lovingly, if they’re needed. Show respect for the choices others made before you.
9. Be prepared to serve. There is often a need for leaders in such wards, while the new members build their testimonies and skills.
10. Learn shadow leadership. When given leadership opportunities, consider calling as your counselors and leaders those who don’t have leadership experience but have the potential. If your ward is diverse, try to make your presidencies diverse as well. Don’t lead them forcefully. Instead, study the materials written for youth leaders on how to provide shadow leadership. Let them own their callings, with only gentle guidance from you.
11. Don't count the days until you can return home. Be at home right there.