Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cultural Stupidity and Mormon Missionaries

Recently there have been several posts and articles about the incident where three LDS missionaries from the Colorado Colorado Springs Mission desecrated a Catholic Church site in Colorado at the Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church in San Luis, Colo. back in 2006. (See Mormon Missionaries; LDS Missionaries Seen Mocking Catholic Church;Missions Do Not Cure Idiocy; Salt Lake Tribune--Mormon missionaries allegedly damage Colorado Catholic shrine; Salt Lake Tribune--Mormon missionaries in photos mocking Catholic shrine are subjects in Colorado vandalism probe;Salt Lake Tribune--Missionaries will stay out of Colorado town for now; Statement issued by one of the missionaries at center of controversy;Colorado incident: A few bad seeds or a need for more missionary training?;Charges possible against LDS missionaries in vandalism of Catholic church.

Jessica Ravitz looked in to the issue of cultural insensitivity: "Though people may chalk the behavior up to immaturity, typical of the age, this explanation doesn't fly for Fotheringham.

"It's not enough for people to say they're just 19 years of age," the mission president said. "They're held to a much higher standard, and that's part of the disappointment."

The events in Colorado raise the question: Are Mormon missionaries properly equipped, through training, to go out into the field and uphold this higher standard?

Mark Tuttle, spokesman for the LDS Church, said in a written statement that Missionary Training Centers teach missionaries "to respect people of all faiths, to be sensitive to doctrines and beliefs that other religions hold sacred, and to obey the law. Once in the mission field, mission presidents provide additional training on local customs and traditions." Ravitz also talked with a former MTC teacher who said it was up to the individual teacher today to teach students to be culturally sensitive.

Ravitz also brought up a similar incident that occurred thirty-six years ago in Thailand:

"Perhaps nowhere have the repercussions of ignoring these guidelines been more salient than they were in Thailand in 1972.

Only four years after the Thailand Mission was established, two LDS Church missionaries touring an ancient and famous Buddhist temple area whipped out cameras and snapped photos that sparked an international incident and landed them in jail for six months.

R. Lanier Britsch, a retired Brigham Young University history professor and author of From the East: The History of the Latter-Day Saints in Asia, 1851-1996, recounted the story of what happened.

He said the young men were walking through the ruins, "a highly venerated place," when they came upon a large Buddha statue that was easily accessible. One elder climbed onto the statue, straddled the Buddha's neck, placed his hands on the Buddha's head (the top of which "represents the Buddha's enlightenment, his expanded capability,. . .thus making the head the most sacred part of his body," Britsch explained) and smiled for the camera.

The Thai store proprietor who was later asked to develop the film was so upset when he saw the images that he submitted them to a newspaper. The two young men "paid a rather severe price for the indiscretion," serving six months in a Thai jail, and the incident "set the church back for many years" in that part of the world, Britsch said. And this, he added, wasn't an event that left anything broken.

What happened in Colorado, he said, "sounds like zealous antagonism," worse than the "momentary cultural insensitivity" that happened in southeast Asia.

"I find it unconscionable and extremely difficult to explain," Britsch said.

As for what punishment seems appropriate for these three missionaries who served in Colorado, the historian speculated that that will take care of itself.

"Their souls are going to be roasted for years over this. I don't think anyone else is going to have to put their feet to the fire.. . . They're going to feel so stupid."

I knew one of the two missionary involved he was in my BYU student ward in 1977. I knew the elder that sat on the Buddha. He told me he regretted ever sitting on the Buddha and that he would have to carry that stigma with him the rest of his life. He told me of the sacrifice of other missionaries to bring him meals each day. If it weren't for them he would have starved in prison. I know he genuinely felt remorse as he told me "how stupid" he was in dishonoring Buddhist customs. He told me had had been taught in the MTC to be respectful but that he just not thinking when he sat on it. He never said anything about his mission president being involved which is just another Urban legend.

I spoke with a sister missionary who served in 1981 in Montreal who told me they used to have a monthly culture lesson at the MTC when she was there. I remember vaguely myself using a pink manual which talked about culture in the mid 1970s and instructing us to respect the cultural practices of where we were serving. The former sister missionary said that they used the Thai incident to caution missionaries about being careful.

I am actually appalled to learn that the Church is no longer including cultural lessons but leaving it up to the individual teachers to teach about culture. I know that the David M. Kennedy Center still produces Culture Grams which have a few cultural suggestions for most major countries of the world. The MTC should make use of this valuable tool. In a global economy we need to be sensitive the the social customs and practices of those areas of the world where we proselyte.

In 1984 Marvin K. Gardner said: "In culture classes, missionaries learn about the country and people they’ve been assigned to. They learn how to adapt to the new surroundings as missionaries, not as tourists, and how to develop tolerance, empathy, and charity. The instructors, natives of the area or returned missionaries who served there, bring the culture to life with films, posters, games, role-plays, maps, and souvenirs."

In years to come this incident will be discussed in the MTC as a cautionary tale. I hope that my acquaintance from Thai experience will be replaced by these three new bozos who haven't had a chance to repent for thirty plus years like him.

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