I have on my desk a primitive pen holder in ceramic, about four inches high. The figurine, crudely shaped, shiny in its warm terra cotta coat, represents a little man holding a tiny bucket in which a few pens and pencils can be stacked. Many years ago, an eleven-year-old girl kneaded and baked the clay in the children’s activity room of a hospital, during her long convalescence. She made the figurine for me.
I was the young branch president of this Mormon congregation. We had worked hard to build up the Church in our Belgian outpost of the vineyard. Two priceless families with children had joined the group — a major breakthrough in missionary work. They gracefully complemented our stock of older sisters — single, widowed or only-member in their family. We even reached the new record of thirty people in attendance at sacrament meeting.
One late night, I got an anguished call from the father of one those two families. He begged me to come to the hospital at once, where his daughter lay in coma, and to bring anointing oil.
The emergency room, softly lit. The girl, unconscious, scarcely visible under a respirator mask. Tubes, wires, control devices. Standing in a corner, the father.
- Doctors aren’t sure yet, he whispered, answering my handshake and questioning eyes. It doesn’t look good.
- How is your wife?
- She went home with the youngest now. She’s been up here all day.
I took the phial with oil from my pocket.
- Will you do the anointing? I asked. Or would you rather confirm?
I will never forget. His face turned into a rictus, a convulsion of sorts. Only later, when I fully understood the case, did I realize I had witnessed the most hideous torment of guilt in the face of life and death.
- I can’t, he uttered almost voiceless.
I made a clumsy attempt to change his mind. To no avail. He begged me to proceed, in a panic, convinced the girl was about to die. I performed both parts of the ordinance. When I had finished, the father sat collapsed on a chair, a little heap of misery.
The following days the girl recovered very slowly from a type of metabolic paralysis. During her weeks of convalescence in the hospital, when she was finally able to move her fingers, she kneaded the raw figurine which is now on my desk.
Confession by the father: adultery. For months with the wife of the family he was assigned to home teach. Adultery within our two priceless families. Church court and two excommunications. For the betrayed partners their world collapsed. The families fell apart. All, children included, turned inactive.
What did I learn from the experience? First, the obvious: I vowed that I would never allow myself to sink in a position where I would feel unworthy to bless a family member. But second, there may be something knotty in our home teaching system, which is based on American society and originally pioneer needs. In other cultures, where traditions of privacy and of access to homes are different, home teaching may have to be monitored with special care and adapted guidelines to help avoid the kind of tragedy I witnessed.
The details of the case revealed the process. Home teachers are taught to become friends of the family they visit and look after its needs. In the mission field, this is often stressed with the fervency of its original pioneer intent. But what if the culture has a very selective and protective concept of “friends” allowed to enter the home? Home teaching assignments often force relative strangers into one’s domicile, with inexperienced converts on one or even both sides. What if one of the home teachers, out of misplaced zeal or sheer gaucherie, shoves himself into the intimacy of the family? What if a wife, confronted with whatever personal problem, calls one of the assigned home teachers to discuss matters, unbeknown to her husband? What if the home teacher starts calling the wife to give private counsel? Affairs do not only start in physical attraction, but frequently through gradual emotional engagement.
I would not have told this story if it had been a single occurrence in the many years of my Church experience in Europe. Though still a rare event, several marriage dramas I have witnessed or heard about in relation to home teaching warrant concerns. I think those concerns connect to cultural differences, but the matter is complex as it also relates, in any part of our correlated Mormon world, to the idiosyncrasy of our extended lay-organization. A difficult topic, for which I do not invite more tragic anecdotes nor a cheap critique of home teaching, but your thoughtful comments and counsel.
Meanwhile a ceramic figurine on my desk reminds me daily of the importance of marital fidelity.