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 youâ€™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 donâ€™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 didnâ€™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 weâ€™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 canâ€™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 momentâ€™s notice, and thatâ€™s comforting no matter where you live. We donâ€™t have a bishop, or home teachers, or any of the traditional structure, but we still have each other.
So, no, the Church isnâ€™t the same everywhere Iâ€™ve been. Itâ€™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.