91903_000_005I learned that the gospel has room for cultural differences.
The waiter, a young Chinese man with a tuft of beard on his chin, brought a menu to our table. The front cover, embossed with ocean waves and exotic marine animals, touted the establishment’s name: “Happy Valley Sharkfin Restaurant.” I laughed to myself. Happy Valley seemed a strange description for our new home, the island of Mauritius—a volcanic foothold surrounded by the Indian Ocean.
When I was back home in the United States, I had heard the term Happy Valley used as a semi-derogatory description; it referred to a place residents were too afraid to leave for fear of being tainted by the worldliness of other places.
“Would you like to begin with wine?” asked the waiter.
“No. May I have a glass of water instead?” I replied.
He removed my goblet and politely inquired, “Would you care to have our vegetarian menu?”
“No, thank you; we’re not Hindu.” The absence of alcohol at our meal had suggested to him that we were probably Hindu or Moslem. In this country, seven hundred miles off the coast of Africa’s Malagasy Republic, we were a minority among devout vegetarian Hindus and among Moslems who do not eat any animal of cloven hoof—and then only meat that has been ritually prepared. “We are also not Moslem,” I explained. “We are Latter-day Saints.”
“That is an American church, is it not?” he asked.
“No, it is a worldwide church. There is a congregation here in Quatre Bornes.”
Our first month in this country—with our family of eight—had been exciting but also threatening. So many of our everyday experiences were different. Instead of selling zucchini squash, the hawkers at the open market sold songe, peaponguy, and laloe vegetables. Instead of speaking English, people spoke a form of Creole French that sounded almost African. There was no hot water in the kitchen tap, and we had to limit our showers to the few hours a day when water was turned on in the residential section of town. I had to wash the family laundry on a rock in our backyard.
Amid this rush of new encounters, I had found comfort and security in our little Church branch. There I felt the love of fellow Saints and heard the same hymns of praise that I had sung in the Provo Fifth Ward back home. The hymns were sung in French, which I didn’t understand. But I was familiar with the melodies, and if I closed my eyes, I could imagine the oak trees and golden and grassy wild oat fields of home.
Then, during one sacrament meeting, I had an experience that broadened my view of the international nature of the Church.
I sat behind a middle-aged sister and watched her reach over and hug her ten-year-old son. She and her family, former Hindus, had been baptized just a couple of days before we arrived. Suddenly it struck me that she no longer wore her hair in a low, loose braid down her back. When I first met her, she had worn red powder sprinkled in the part of her hair, a small diamond on her right nostril, and a red tiki dot between her eyebrows. Now, although her hair was still parted in the middle, it was pulled tightly into a bun at the back of her head. She had also traded her soft, flowing sari for a skirt and blouse similar to that worn by the sister missionaries.
Apparently, some of the aspects of our Church meetings that I had found comforting and familiar had felt alien to her—even though she was still in her home country. In her insecurity, she must have thought that by accepting the Church and its teachings, she also needed to adopt Western culture and dress.
Our hymns are of European and American origin. None have the sliding-scale, nasally sung Indian music with which she was familiar.
Our Relief Society homemaking manual, translated into French, carried instructions for the storage of canned goods—which would rust in a few weeks if kept in an island home.
Laurel lessons on dating taught to her two teenage daughters—intended to teach chastity—were threatening in a country where arranged marriages were still common and where many youth never dated. Even engaged couples often talk only once a week while sitting across a table from each other in a family home.
As I pondered this sister’s attempts to become assimilated into what she perceived as the Church’s culture, I remembered similar insecure feelings that I had had after being baptized. I, too, had thought that I had to change many things in my life that really didn’t need to be changed.
I joined the Church as a young adult who had been reared by a working mother and nurtured on California smog. During my first years in the Church, influenced by homemaking meetings, I thought that my testimony would be strengthened by learning how to make dough rise and bake a tender loaf of bread. I had also thought that sewing elaborate patchwork quilts might make me more of a stalwart. I had wanted to fit into what I perceived as the Church culture.
It didn’t work out that way. Loaf after loaf of home-ground whole-wheat bread sank to the bottom of the pan and came out of the oven as burned crust surrounding a moldering, burping center. Although I could sew flouncy party dresses for my daughters, quilting left my fingers sore and the cloth bloodstained.
My testimony did grow, however. It became anchored in the spiritual experiences that members worldwide share—experiences that are not unique to handcart pioneers or their descendants; experiences that a convert in metropolitan New York could feel; experiences that a teenage Cambodian refugee in Long Beach, California, could feel; experiences that a sari-clad Mauritian woman in a thirty-member branch could feel.
I learned that my knowledge of the gospel did not depend on yeast or thread—but rather on my relationship with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. At some point I stopped trying to copy the talents of other women in the Church and began to develop the part of me that was unique. Gradually, I came to understand what the essentials of the gospel were.
As I observed my Mauritian sister, I hoped that as her testimony matures, she will find an inspired balance between her cultural heritage and the heritage she adopted when she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I hoped that she and others like her would record their own Church history, which will greatly enrich our worldwide Church and add to the heritage of Saints worldwide. I hoped for the day when her children would hear the inspiring life stories of present-day Mauritian Church pioneers—as well as of those who crossed the plains to the Salt Lake Valley. I hoped that her Primary children would someday know faith-promoting experiences involving eels and mongooses—as well as gulls and crickets!
And I also hoped that Saints elsewhere in the world would come to accept and appreciate the unique offerings of the Mauritian Saints—and of other Saints whose culture and heritage are different from their own.
One day I may return to the Happy Valley Restaurant. And when I tell the waiter that I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he may say, “That’s a Mauritian church, is it not?”
To which I will reply, “No, it’s a worldwide church. We even have some congregations in the United States.”