Reflections on American Mormons at New Zealand Pulpits


IMG_2244In New Zealand, I grew up hearing that American missionaries loved my congregation, my city, my country and me. They would often effuse from the pulpit, ‘We love the people of New Zealand so much’.   I’m sure those speakers hadn’t intended the opposite effect because their frequent effusions of love delivered so emphatically by passing American missionaries, and American church ‘authorities’ didn’t make me feel loved at all.

I knew love in quiet and small spaces where familiar eyes looked at me with knowing, and whispered their affections upon warm and sacred words, breathed into my ears alone.  I barely knew these loud and friendly strangers, who, no matter how few, seemed to take up large spaces at the podium or in foyers, who begged for attention like large flickering televisions bursting with colour and noise.   Even at that young age I recall those emotional tearless outbursts made me feel very small.  As if we from New Zealand were things to be petted and admired.  We were a pleasing spectacle of foreign faithfulness that stood voiceless, with an aesthetically pleasing backdrop of impressive Kiwi scenery.  We were postcard moments with only a grateful smile to give back from the pews.  Their admiration of us made me want to hang my head low in embarrassment and always, always, with the words running over my mind, ‘you don’t know me, you don’t know me to love me’.

That I belonged to an American church was recalled to me when visitors burst out from the metropol to re-claim the periphery.  Americans came to take over, to re-scent themselves on the outposts, to survey and to reshape New Zealand Mormon spaces, both brown and white.  They breezed in with the confidence of celebrities and movie stars, with the kind of smiles only one who feels utterly entitled has permission to wear.   I used to look around me shamefully at the quiet and unassuming familiar faces of those in the congregation who I knew and loved.  I compared us with them.  We wore reliable clothes, modest and tired.  They came in a riot of colour and style which hung perfectly to their manicured frames.

And then we had an American mission president (from Utah) who, it became quickly apparent, was rather well healed and not short a bob.  The generous and well appointed Church owned mission home was located in my ward boundaries (parish).  My local congregation which was largely comprised of working class, first generation Mormons, recent converts and the kind of socially aberrant strays that dot many wards in the ‘mission field’ before the second generation middle-classes shoo them away with their palpable intolerance of social difference.   I recall with clarity one day when Sister Mission President stood to address us.  Her lips bright with lipstick, her hair a perfect, coloured beehive, and her fingers dripping with dazzling accoutrements.  Everything about her made our paltry attempts at Christianity seem so parochial and outdated.   That odd fusion of Christianity and church membership seemed so wrapped up in our access to A type American personalities and personal wealth that I wondered if we would ever measure up and be the Mormons we were supposed to be.  We never looked as good, we didn’t have the money they had, and our words seemed so tiny and reluctant in comparison.

I don’t deny that they had a special touch, a way of making us little folk feel special with a warm and knowing squeeze but while they were part of us, we were never part of them – they had arrived to straighten us out, to impart something to us that we didn’t know and to ensure that the church looked like it was supposed.  These were not dialogical relationships framed in a commitment to the transformative powers of the divine, where our love of the Saviour was mutually nurtured, rather these were instructive paternalistic relationships in which we were required to play the part of willing listener, contrite colonial or grateful congregation.   Though I didn’t have the words to say it then – these encounters gave rise to a lingering identity crisis.  Mormonism meant more than just pleasant stories from the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, it meant more than knowing Jesus was my friend and that the Holy Ghost could speak to me in a still small voice.  It meant the way are in space, it meant the privilege of border crossing and above all it meant material wealth and an indoctrination into the logic of conservative America.

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  • Ganesh Cherian

    I love the imagery you use here, I can see it and feel it in my own experience.

    One of the things I have realized is that our perception of our ‘American Church’ is slanted because the visitors (and talks) we get from America are not generally the average american mormons. To live outside the US, to be in upper church leadership, or even a missionary, puts you in a whole different category. Your worth is unfairly favored. But this works both ways, New Zealanders are prized in London for their work ethic, and I can tell I am unfairly favored in our ward by our move to America for a time.

    The problem is most people have an inferiority complex that discounts the regular and usual and overcompensates with the different and unique. I remember growing up thinking black people were awesome (reverse racism) because all the TV shows I watched, sports games I saw and the few black people I ever met were exceptional.

    Since living in the States I now understand that there isn’t really much difference between the members in each country. But that doesn’t seem to stop me from making comparisons. :)

  • Michelle Quinn

    It is interesting to read the cultural perception of members here. With half of my adult life spent in New Zealand, and half in the States, I can see both sides of the fence. It’s funny that the “simplicity” that made you feel inferior is exactly what I felt made for a stronger expression of faith in New Zealand members- to be stripped of such materialism and boldness, etc… (As if we can measure faith via external appearance and action only…). To me, the bottom line is that there are two very different cultures here, and while we both enjoy the simplicity of The Gospel of Jesus Christ; mannerisms from members in church meetings will always be an “apples to oranges” comparison. -mq

    • kiwimormon

      Too true! Mostly the gospel cuts through the complexity of having to manage cultural ambiguities because it usually trumps both – but on some occasions it is a strain.

  • Christopher Gearheart

    “Not dialogical relationships framed in a commitment to the transformative powers of the divine, where our love of the Saviour was mutually nurtured, [but] rather these were instructive paternalistic relationships in which we were required to play the part of willing listener, contrite colonial or grateful congregation.”

    I can imagine this, because I performed it as the paternalist. I wish I could go back in time and do things differently.

    • kiwimormon

      Kia ora Christopher! Thanks so much for your note! What a warm, self-honest, and generous thing to say – I deeply appreciate this! Yours is one of the nicest comments I have ever read on this blog.

  • Cortney Templeton

    “They would often effuse from the pulpit, ‘We love the people of New Zealand so much’.”

    The thing is, they do this everywhere they go. Replace “New Zealand” with “Texas” or “Houston” and I’ve heard the same thing delivered in the same emphatic manner countless times in the twelve years I’ve been a member of the church. And it was delivered identically in both the middle class wards I’ve been a member of as well as the wards I’ve attended which were populated by those living in poverty.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city on the United States feels particularly foreign to these church leaders, that they’re revering us for some sort of cultural quaintness, rather, I think they are trying to express the Christ-like love they have developed for ALL people through the fulfilling of their callings. It saddens me that one’s self-consciousness can diminish these sincere declarations to perceived belittlement and subconscious insults.

    • kiwimormon

      I think you have identified part of the problem. I don’t mean to suggest that what they said was insulting, rather its was a reflection on how our American visitors did not take the time to understand ‘how’ we build relationships with each in New Zealand. It might be OK in the US where everyone will read it with the generosity with which it was intended. In NZ I’ve not experienced us saying those kinds of things to each other. Perhaps Americans love it and expect it – it doesn’t mean that everyone else in the world should and will. Neal Maxwell came to our stake years ago and said, ‘Hello, I’m Neal Maxwell – thank you for having me’, which was a very moving and appropriate way of managing his status in a cultural context in which we don’t get star struck very easily by ecclesiastical, political or celebrity status but rather warm more quickly to people who position themselves at the level of the ordinary. The problem was largely with the cultural obliviousness of these visitors who left us in no doubt whatsoever that we were people to talk at and to, not people to talk with.

    • kiwimormon

      The other thing that occurred to me also, is that in recent decades American visitors seem a little more self-effacing and understated but remember that these are reflections on my childhood experiences. As an adult I suppose I might have taken it with a grain of salt but it was something that really stuck out to me as a young child.