Is the Church the Same Wherever You Go?

November 17, 2005 | 24 comments
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My husband and I had the good fortune to spend some time in a few small branches in the Middle East about 8 years ago while we were studying Arabic. While we spent most of our time in the Jerusalem Branch, we also visited branches in Cairo, Amman, and Irbid, Jordan.

The Cairo Branch mostly consisted of Americans, but there were a number of Sudanese refugees from the (never-ending) conflict in Sudan. There was an Arabic Sunday School class for them. My husband studied Islamic law in Cairo a few years later and very much enjoyed spending time with those Sudanese members.

The Amman branch was a rather diverse place with Jordanians, Americans, Serbs, Iranians, and more- not a group of people that you’d necessarily expect to get along in a different setting. They used Arabic and English equally in the branch.

But the Irbid Branch was my favorite. Irbid is the second-largest city in Jordan less than an hour north of Amman. I don’t know if there is still a branch there. The branch president was an Iraqi Kurd who had escaped to Jordan. He had served in the Iraqi military during the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. His wife, baby daughter, and sister were also in the branch. An American missionary couple was there, but they didn’t speak much Arabic. A few young Jordanians, several of whom have since served missions, an American woman married to a Jordanian Muslim, and a Japanese man rounded out the branch. The Japanese man knew how to play the piano, so he accompanied the hymns on the little portable organ. It was interesting to chat in Arabic with someone from Japan.

Even though we were only in Irbid for a short time, the members welcomed us like I had never been welcomed before, although I have since. There were a few things that made the experience more worthwhile though. Except for the one American woman who spoke almost no Arabic, there was little contact with any expatriates. Most expats in Jordan live in Amman. We were something completely different. And we spoke Arabic. No one in that branch spoke English (except the missionary couple).

Now we’re living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (yes, I am learning Russian), and are experiencing the same thing- the joy of being with the members. Even though there is no branch here and we can’t even meet together for sacrament meeting, we still have people who cared about us even before we arrived here. The help the members have given us has been invaluable. One man, entirely on his own initiative, spent two weeks looking for an apartment for us, and then paid the deposit so we would have a place to go when our plane arrived at one in the morning. Another young woman takes excellent care of my children while I visit the baby house. There are many more examples. I know there are people who will help us at a moment’s notice, and that’s comforting no matter where you live. We don’t have a bishop, or home teachers, or any of the traditional structure, but we still have each other.

So, no, the Church isn’t the same everywhere I’ve been. It’s been very different. But that hasn’t mattered. We still do all the basics. We can worship quietly in our own home. And we can enjoy the company of some isolated but very faithful friends- because the gospel is the same.

24 Responses to Is the Church the Same Wherever You Go?

  1. Jim F. on November 18, 2005 at 7:18 am

    Erica, thanks for these reminders. I think anyone who has lived in a small branch, especially if in a “faraway” place, recognizes the feeling you describe. And, perhaps even more important, thanks for the reminder of the great diversity we find in the Church today. This is a church that, twenty-five years ago, no one would have imagined existing in our life time. It is only a beginning, to be sure, and a halting one at that, but the change is very real.

  2. Elisabeth on November 18, 2005 at 8:38 am

    Hi, Erica-

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and comments around the blogs, and it still amazes me that you were writing this post thousands of miles away in a place I’ve barely even heard of (and can’t spell for the life of me), but that here you are “talking” with us and participating in the bloggernacle community. I guess the wonders of modern technology are a bit like the foundation we share as Church members. No matter where you are in the world these days, you can probably find an Internet connection to send emails and surf the web. And also, no matter where you go in the world, you’ll usually be able to find wonderful people in the Church who will welcome you into their lives just because you share a common religion with them.

    Thanks again for this post – I look forward to reading more from you!

  3. Ronan on November 18, 2005 at 10:41 am

    Great post, Erica. I too have good memories of the church in the Middle East. For history buffs out there: the history of the Armenian missions are incredibly interesting. Did you know the Church once considered buying land in Palestine for the Armenian Saints?

  4. b bell on November 18, 2005 at 11:18 am

    Good post. What makes the church the same is the Spirit and the ordinances. Glad to have you aboard. I enjoy uplifting posts.

  5. Erica Merrell on November 18, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    The internet has been very helpful for the members since one does have email access. It is very different from the days when it could take months to hear from anyone from the church- they are able to email the Area Presidency often and it does a lot to reduce the feeling of isolation here. It was also nice to listen to General Conference online; we were able to burn it onto a CD a few weeks later for the members here to listen to instead of them having to wait for months for someone from the US to send the Russian DVDs.

    The Armenian/Turkish missions are fascinating. I’ve read whatever I’ve been able to get my hands on about the church in the Middle East, but it’s hard to find books that go into much detail about it. It will be interesting when people start writing about the history of the Church in Central Asia.

  6. Geoff B on November 18, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    Erica, fascinating post. As I’ve traveled around Latin America, I’ve been in small branches and wards in faraway places, and my experiences are similar to yours in terms of enjoying the community of the Saints, which is the same everywhere.

  7. annegb on November 18, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    Yup, fascinating. Good job.

  8. Tatiana on November 18, 2005 at 1:21 pm

    Oh, that’s awesome that you’re in Kyrgyzstan! I’m hoping to get a one year contract to work there on December 1st! Maybe if I do we will meet! Wonderful post! It’s great to have you at T+S!

  9. Julie M. Smith on November 18, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    OK, if there is a bloggersnacker in Kyrgyrstnkjesrbnjkmshdstan before there is one in Austin, I QUIT!

  10. claire on November 18, 2005 at 1:41 pm

    Facinating. Tell us what the Baby House is, or did I just miss it somewhere here?

  11. Boris Max on November 18, 2005 at 1:59 pm

    Erica-

    I too would like to thank you for your fascinating post and ask forgiveness in advance for a minor threadjack. I think about the question of whether or not the church is the same not because I live in an exotic place like Irbid, but because I live in a very un-exotic part of rural America. My small branch is very, very different from the urban wards in the nearby major metropolitan area that make up the majority of my stake. These wards are also full of expatriates–intermountain west expatriates struggling to keep the faith in “the missionfield.” They don’t, as a group, appreciate the non-exotic and class-based differences between a struggling branch full of converts (though my wife and I are decadent 6th generation Nauvoo Mormons) and a ward full of people who grew up in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. Stake leaders always ask us to do things that are unfeasable because that’s what “normal” units do. But we aren’t normal, and we can’t pretend that we’re the Provo15,546th ward.

    The point of Boris’ rant is this: It’s cool that small-branch expereinces in far-away places like the middle east garner so much respect within church culture. I just wish that the messier close-to-home differences were treated with as much respect.

  12. ebax on November 18, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    —I’ve read whatever I’ve been able to get my hands on about the church in the Middle East, but it’s hard to find books that go into much detail about it—

    Could you share some of the resources that are out there?

  13. CS Eric on November 18, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    Boris (#11),

    I’ll follow your threadjack. I lived in a small branch where the branch president was always having to defend the fact that he was not filling all the callings of a “normal” unit, simply because there were not enough members to fully staff all the programs. Whenever he got one of those complaints (which, according to his account, were frequent), he said he told the leadership that if they didn’t trust his inspiration in leading the branch, then they should release him. They did, but only after he had served for five or six years.

  14. Ben Huff on November 18, 2005 at 10:10 pm

    Erica, thank you! It’s delicious to hear about the polymorphic beauty of the church! When I was a kid, we had church in our living room in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for years, with a crazy mix of characters, all dear friends for us. Glad to hear such good going on in Kyrgyzstan.

  15. Erica Merrell on November 18, 2005 at 11:09 pm

    Tatiana, I hope you can come! It would be fun to have someone else here, although you’ll be a bit stranded for church since no one can meet together.

    Julie, you can always come visit. We have a futon in the living room.

    Claire, the baby house is what they call the orphanages here for babies to three-year-olds.

    Boris, I wish there were more respect for the struggling places in the US too. I’ve never lived in a branch in the US, but I did live in Trenton, New Jersey a few years ago. We were part of a ward, but only because Trenton was tacked on to a Pennsylvania ward. I had never been in such a sharply divided ward before, and since we were active and lived on the Trenton side, we were caught in the middle. I was never comfortable with the gulf between the (white, middle class, more active, mostly Utah-native) Pennsylvania members and the (racially diverse, poorer, less active, recent converts) Trenton members. There was a real shortage of understanding.

    It’s not all rosy on the “exotic” side though. For example, as Wilfried pointed out a few weeks ago, many expats don’t get involved with the local ward because they attend an American branch- although I do recognize that in some situations an American ward is a better choice for some families. But it’s never very easy or practical to try to recreate American life in another country, or Utah life in most of the US. (And why would you want to?)

    ebax, I’ve usually just checked out books on the international church and read the sections on the church in the Middle East. I know there are books out there, but they’re usually out of print (and I can’t remember any titles here) and difficult to find, even at the BYU library. Maybe Ronan would be better help.

  16. Wilfried on November 19, 2005 at 12:14 am

    Thanks so much, Erica, for your contribution. Kyrgyzstan holds a special place in my heart, as it is the country Alessia and her mother came from, who settled in my home country Belgium as refugees and became members of the Church. Thanks also for referring to my post about assimilation or separation, in connection with expats forming e.g. an American ward in a foreign country (I took the liberty to add the link). This is indeed not an easy matter and I can fully understand the various and often competing needs that must be answered. We’re looking forward to your next posts!

  17. Erica Merrell on November 19, 2005 at 1:42 am

    Thanks for adding the link, Wilfried. I have wondered if things might have been different for Alessia if the Church had been in Kyrgyzstan a few years ago. We have an Uzbek friend in a somewhat similar situation and I’d hate to see her sent back to Uzbekistan right now as a member of the Church.

  18. Emma Marsh on November 19, 2005 at 6:11 am

    No, the church is not the same everywhere. In Guatemala, the deacons walk through the pews and give each individual the bread. In the ward I went to last Sunday, the deacons stand in the back and take the bread from each others’ trays. In our ward (a ‘normal’ ward) the priests give the bread to the deacons at the end… In my opinion, none of those things really matter, but I know memos get written and emails get sent to bishops about these sorts of things. My husband is over the deacons and he hears complaints all the time…I always try to figure out who in the world is complaining…and why!

    I think it’s things like this that a lot of people waste there time trying to standardize…
    To build on the threadjack…I think it would be interesting to discuss which is closer to the actual gospel and church doctrine:

    a) the man who spent two weeks looking for your apartment and paid your deposit

    or

    b) my visiting teachers who ‘do their duty’ by dropping by a treat each month

    If ‘a’ is obviously closer to being Christlike, why is everyone focusing on ‘b’…
    like Boris said, there too much ‘trying to be normal’ in the church and not enough just living the gospel. Too much emphasis on ‘filling all the callings’ instead of ‘helping each member grow spiritually’. Too much emphasis on ‘visiting teaching stats’ instead of ‘loving your neighbor’. If everyone lived the principle (love your neighbor) we wouldn’t need the programs (visiting teaching)…
    I could go on and on and on…

  19. meems on November 19, 2005 at 10:48 am

    I enjoyed your post, too. I lived in Turkey for 2 years and Saudi Arabia for two years. In both instances I have to say that even though the church was “funky” in many respects, the basics were still there – the structure, the hymns, the sacrament service, and the spirit. In Turkey there were times when the only priesthood was an inactive member who had to be forced to come so that we could have a meeting (now presiding in birkenstocks and a t-shirt…). In Saudi it was weird to rotate members’ living rooms for sacrament, meet on Friday mornings, wear pants to church so as not to attract attention (and slip on a skirt when you got there), or to have relief society in someone’s bedroom (’cause priesthood got the livingroom). Still, it was church, and it was very comforting to be there in the company of other like-minded people.

    Ex-pat wards can be a good thing. I’m going through a hard time right now because I haven’t been around church members with a common cultural connection for a really long time now and I’m missing it dreadfully. If it weren’t for the bloggernacle, I’d feel more destitute than I do already.

  20. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 19, 2005 at 8:54 pm

    My parents were in Saudia for quite a while. I’m the one who suggested BYU bumper stickers for finding other members. Don’t know if that continued in the late 80s after they left, but it worked well while they were there.

  21. Geo. Burnett on November 20, 2005 at 3:38 pm

    So enjoyed all the posts. The best part is seeing the gospel start growing to the “utmost bounds of the everlasting hills”. Most think of the intermountain area when they think of that phrase but it really works both ways. Hopefuly all of you who have lived there kept journals for that is where the history is preserved. I’m a 5th generation lds in Oklahoma, we have certainly experienced the special spirit felt in small branches. It is a testimony to the scripture “where 2 or 3 are gathered in my Name”…. Leadership will tell you there is a constant consideration between “the norm” and exception to church policy; the the overarching principle is to keep the gospel constant- church policy can change at any time.

  22. Kelly Knight on November 20, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    While in Japan on my mission, the second branch I lived in met on the donated second floor of the construction company owned by the only family in the branch. Brother Noda insisted that the missionaries come to Nishio, and to induce the mission president, offered the second floor for the missionaries to live in, and for the branch to hold their meetings. He outfitted our living quarters with American type beds, with frames, and installed a shower. Our office had 4 full-size desks with highback executive chairs. Our teaching room had a couch, table, and two chairs. The kitchen was small, but served us well.

    I once missed a sidewalk while riding at a rather quick pace on my bike and landed in a concrete ditch next to a rice paddy. The ditch had about 6 inches of pig manure in the bottom. When we got back to the apartment/church/business, Sister Noda took my clothes and hand washed them in a large trough filled with soap and water.

    Yup, life in “the mission field” just doesn’t get any better. (Seriously)

  23. annegb on November 20, 2005 at 8:27 pm

    Hey, Kelly, where you been?

    Emma, I absolutely loved your post. I’m the visiting teaching supervisor in my ward and I’m fanatic about it. The sisters are okay, our numbers are okay, usually better than okay, but there is a resistance to it.

    I used to be the compassionate service leader and I was never turned down. Not once. Not by inactives or active sister. If anybody needed help, everybody went all out.

    There’s a contradiction there that I don’t understand. Dropping by with a treat to simply fulfill a check box on a page is one thing, but it seems that visiting teaching is the lesser law of service. I think it’s necessary, but there’s a lack of desire/ability/time/energy to really minister to and love these sisters. Probably the same with home teaching.

    Maybe it’s time for a change.

    I think that’s only a small digression from Amira’s topic question, is the church the same? I wonder if the problem is in north America, or all over. I suppose they’re researching this as well.

  24. Erica Merrell on November 21, 2005 at 7:43 am

    Emma, I agree that perfunctory visiting teaching and many of the other things we do aren’t really what we should be striving for.

    But like annegb said, it’s necessary. There have been lots of times that I have been made aware of needs specifically because of these programs. And in a large ward, it really seems that there is no other way to keep track of each other. And why should we expect to be able to do more when we can’t even manage to visit two sisters once a month?

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