Unity in Diversity


In a worldwide church, becoming one does not mean becoming the same.

When I arrived home in Santa Barbara, California, after my tour of duty for the United States Army in Seoul, Korea, my first step in preparing for graduate school at the University of California at Los Angeles was to move into the Los Angeles Stake. The year was 1957. The stake, without any of us knowing it, was about to complete an era as an ordinary California stake, with leadership coming from men and women with Utah roots, and with membership consisting of members with mostly northern European ancestry. An occasional Jewish convert and a few Latin American converts could be seen in the congregations, but that was unusual. President John M. Russon would soon end a long and successful term as stake president, deeply respected by a stake that was identical in its ethnic composition. Little did we realize the revolution that awaited the stake in the three decades that followed.

Let me move ahead to 1988. The Museum of Church History and Art had just promoted the first international art contest among Church artists around the world. Art in any form with any gospel-related theme was accepted. The success of the contest was greater than we had anticipated. (A second international art contest was held in 1991.) The Tambuli printed photographs of many contest entries from around the world. These and others not printed were a visual delight for the Church. Art entries from many parts of the world hung on the museum’s walls during the months they were on exhibit. Some are still there, timeless and priceless in their messages.

These works of art were richly diverse. Art pieces of European craftsmanship with symbolic themes were hanging beside colorful and imaginative canvases from Latin America, a variety of gospel themes painted by island members, and a collage of forms and art styles from all parts of North America. Simple, direct, and realistic renditions were exhibited side by side with abstract, impressionistic, and thoughtful symbolic representations of gospel themes. Those fortunate enough to see the exhibit were rewarded by a delightful, unified, and exciting display of art and talent. The presence and influence of the Savior filled the museum and greeted its guests.

What unified the diverse entries? What kept the exhibit from being a mismatched collection of amateur works? The restored gospel of Jesus Christ linked and unified those works of art. Their cultural diversity was the strength and universal appeal of the exhibit. Attendance soared as many visitors came back again and again. Had art from only one culture and area been dominant, the excitement would have been significantly less.

Creating One Church

That international art contest mirrored the unity and diversity that today often greet us in the congregations of the Saints. The early Christian Saints also came face-to-face with diversity. It was not easy for them, either, and success in assimilating the many cultures varied. They did not have the many unifying factors we enjoy—such as instant communication, multinational business corporations, travel among continents, and a vast selection of books and magazines. But they found a way to create one church of those early converts from many lands.

Whether we recognize it or not, diversity is now a part of the Church, and it is increasing daily. If our experience in linking and unifying diverse members is as successful as our art contest, an institution of color, beauty, and deep spiritual unity can develop. To succeed, we will need unifying ideas taught by thoughtful leaders. Stakes and wards whose members can eagerly greet and make welcome diverse membership—putting brothers and sisters to work in meaningful service—will hasten the unification process. As the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All are needed by each one; Nothing is fair or good alone.”

Now, back to the Los Angeles Stake and the happy 1950s. There was only one clear minority found in the stake. President Joe Brandenburg presided over his beloved Southern California Branch for the Deaf. That small branch was the delight of the stake when I arrived. The Relief Society Singing Mothers thrilled us with their beautiful, rhythmic signing of the hymns in stake conference. The stake had many challenges, but true diversity was yet ahead.

Events began to reshape the stake and the region of Southern California. President John K. Edmunds decided to send a pair of missionaries to labor with the deaf. Elders Wayne Bennett and Jack Rose helped increase the branch membership. President Brandenburg became Bishop Brandenburg. The ward was divided several times, and deaf branches began meeting in other stakes.

A Dramatic Change

Meanwhile, in Korea in the early 1950s, other events were unfolding that would eventually change the Los Angeles Stake. As war enveloped that ancient land, which had been closed to Western influence and missionary work up to that time, gospel seeds were being planted by Latter-day Saint servicemen who lived their religion as they performed their military duties.

At the same time, Kim Ho Jik was pursuing his doctorate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He was trapped in a long separation from his family in Korea by the war, and his tears of concern wet his pillow by night. In that circumstance and mood he was impressed by the good works and doctrine of Latter-day Saint friends. He joined the Church and became the first elder of the Church from the Korean culture. Returning to Korea after the war, he became vice minister of education for the country and the leading elder among the Korean Saints. (See “Kim Ho Jik: Korean Pioneer,” Tambuli, February 1989, page 8.)

Soon Latter-day Saint missionaries replaced servicemen in leadership positions, and the missionaries began teaching the gospel in the Korean language. As a member of the military, I was there to meet Elders Powell and Deton, the first missionaries to arrive in Seoul. Branches, districts, and missions led to wards, stakes, and a temple. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans, including some of the Saints, emigrated to the United States and other countries. Many joined the Church in their new countries. Both at home and abroad, Koreans became a part of the worldwide Church, changing and enriching its tapestry. Many came into the Los Angeles Stake, where a Korean branch was formed. East was beginning to meet West—and this time in the West.

This dramatic change wrought in the wake of war was repeated in other lands, scattering Vietnamese, Hmongs, Cambodians, and many others throughout the world. The winds of tribulation blew these people from East to West and, as a result, doors of opportunity for receiving the gospel flew open. Latin America and the Philippines were likewise opened wide for the gospel, and many of these people came to the United States seeking economic opportunities for their families. Both in their own lands and in the United States, they came into the congregations of the Saints. Suddenly, the congregations of the Los Angeles Stake—used here as an example—were dotted with many cultures. The Oakland and San Diego stakes followed the same pattern. Leaders did their best to create unified congregations of Saints who loved, accepted, and served one another. Some foreign-language units were organized.

“No More Strangers”

A few of the members opposed to change complained, and many moved to other areas. Some longed for the old days. In 1978 more blacks began to join our congregations, and Church membership became even more varied. Leaders, using stake and ward conferences and other opportunities, taught doctrines of love, acceptance of all, and unity. A new spirit of excitement swept through the Saints. As Sister Pinkston, then Relief Society president of Los Angeles Stake’s Wilshire Ward, observed, “These are the days of excitement and glory, not the days when we were all of European descent.”

Many watched Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Chicago, Illinois; London, England; and other major cities become international population centers of the Church and wondered about the future. Soon it became apparent that this pattern was being repeated in scores of stakes near major population centers. Today, whether it be in Washington, D.C.; São Paulo, Brazil; Sydney, Australia; or Hyde Park in London, England, this diversity greets traveling Church members. It is as thrilling as it is enriching. It presents a multitude of challenges, but it is working well wherever leaders understand the significance of what is happening.

A Unifying Force

Is there a unifying force powerful enough to overcome the divisive elements of diversity? The answer is a resounding yes!

Inspired and energetic leaders are required. Where there is vision, the people respond. The doctrine is in place. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, and all who join are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). The prophet of God gives us a single authoritative voice on matters of doctrine and practice. Priesthood authority granted to men gives them the right to baptize, bestow the Holy Ghost, and bless our congregations with unity without robbing us of our diversity. Authoritative scriptures contain the word of God to guide us. Basic gospel ordinances, weekly sacrament meetings, temple blessings, and a universal priesthood and Relief Society are available. The gospel is centered in homes, and the work of spreading the gospel through missionary service and temple service for our deceased ancestors keeps all members involved, providing a dynamic, action-filled life for the Saints. As a solid foundation, the Holy Ghost unifies all who live worthily to receive and magnify its gifts.

Labels and Other Barriers

Despite these simple and unifying doctrines and practices, there are some barriers to creating greater unity amid our diversity. These barriers include racial and cultural discrimination and attitudes of separatism. The gospel is marvelously sufficient to create the desired unity, but people are imperfect. Discomfort because of language barriers, fear of accepting those with differences in skin color, alienation of the unmarried—all have created barriers to unity. Usually, mistreatment, isolation, and discrimination are reinforced by the use of labels. Labeling a fellow Church member an intellectual, a less-active member, a feminist, a South African, an Armenian, a Utah Mormon, or a Mexican, for example, seems to provide an excuse to mistreat or ignore that person. These problems and many more need to be addressed if we are to create a society such as that which Enoch created.

As we become one with God, we will become one with each other. As we become one with each other, we will become one with God.

This unity, which should come naturally, often comes painfully, a step at a time—“line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12).

It took a graphic revelation for Peter to say, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:

“But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34–35).

Some of us, like Paul, easily and naturally receive the concept of accepting all as alike. As a people we, like the Los Angeles Stake, are not doing badly with this imperative to create unity of many cultures. But we can do much more to enjoy the cultural diversity of our brothers and sisters. It may require a greater change in attitude, but we must learn to appreciate the differences in others. The future will bring much, much more cultural diversity into the Church, and all who come deserve to have friends and leaders like Paul.

The Common Bond

Simplification of organization, process, and worship—allowing a return to what is basic and fundamental—seems also to be coming. Change, all being accomplished in wisdom and order, is sweeping the Church. The new budget program is an example of this simplification.

Experience teaches me that we must work hard at creating unity in diversity. We must do it with active and strong leadership. Unity in diversity will not happen if we let nature take its course. Isolation and discrimination are still capable of surfacing in every location of the Church.

We each need to assign ourselves as a “committee of one” to create the attitudes of inclusion, acceptance, and unity wherever we find ourselves. It needs to be a high priority with us. We especially need leaders to show the way by precept and example. Each of us should be fair to everyone, especially the victims of discrimination, isolation, and exclusion. Let us be careful not to consider as funny any joke that demeans or belittles others because of religious, cultural, racial, national, or gender differences. All are alike unto God. We should walk away or face up to the problem when confronted with these common and unworthy practices. Each should do his or her part.

With the opening of new missions in South and Central America, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Hungary, and Poland, and with new countries dedicated for the preaching of the gospel, we continue at a breathtaking pace to become a Church serving most of the world. Racial, cultural, and national diversity will inevitably continue. It is a great day! We, like the Los Angeles Stake, will be enriched thereby.

May we look for every opportunity, therefore, to decrease isolation, increase inclusion of all, and enrich our lives with this human diversity within the bonds of unifying doctrinal beliefs. As was the case in the international art exhibit of the Church Museum, let us find the common bond that links us through love and through Christ and His gospel. May the happy result be the emergence of unity in diversity. May we enjoy the happy circumstance of the Book of Mormon era when there were not to be found “any manner of -ites” (4 Ne. 1:17).

[illustration] Illustrated by Roger Loveless

[photos] Photographs by Craig Dimond

[photo] Photograph by Peggy Jellinghausen

[photo] Photograph by Russ Holt