Withholding the Truth from Ethnic Minorities

This post has a special place in my heart as it is one of the first times Kristine graced me with her ability to find holes in my arguments in such a loving, older sister sort of way. Thus, it ranks as number four on my short list of favorite blog posts from Sons of Mosiah. After quite the discussion, I think we came to a good understanding. But I’m sure there are plenty of you out there just waiting for a chance to voice your opinion on this topic. I’ve included my discussion with Kristine at the end of the post. This is where you’ll find Kristine’s classic line: "Bob, I *am* sweet and nice, and about 90% traditional : ) You’re one of the lucky few who gets to know the other 10%."

I received an email request from a Stephen to explain more on a comment I made over at Times and Seasons. In Bulgaria, as missionaries we were continually instructed NOT to approach and/or teach gypsies the gospel. The word on the missionary street was that this was told to the mission president by one of the Apostles.

Decent reasons were given; but as many of you know, I always seem to have issues with hard-set rules. So, let me explain the reasons and then my issues:

The unnamed, mystical GA’s reasons (in no particular order, I should note that these reasons are actually a mesh of what I’ve heard others say this GA has said and also what I’ve concluded on my own):

1) Gypsies have their own language and can be very hard to understand when speaking Bulgarian, even by native Bulgarians.
2) Gypsies generally live outside the city or in a separate section of the city. In other words, you’d rarely come across one while tracting. You’d have to make a special effort to go to that part of town (which is almost always the nasty, run-down part).
3) Gypsies in Bulgaria are beggars by nature. They are rarely self-sufficient. And many of them give part of what they make in a day to the notorious gypsy king. I don’t want to pretend to know the history behind this, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to research further. It’s almost like a pseudo-tithing.
4) Many Bulgarians think of gypsies in a discriminatory fashion due to some of the reasons above. Meaning, if a bunch of gypsies show up at Church, you’re automatically setting yourself up for less white folk to come (I can say that after serving as branch president twice, this is very true).
5) Gypsies’ number one distinguishing characteristic is their darker skin; so even if you did have a gypsy truly interested in the gospel, it still just looks bad.

I think those are enough reasons for now.

Now for Bob’s issues:

1) There are some well-educated gypsies, which live in the city and are self-sufficient (but as I write this, I think: have education and/or self-sufficiency ever been a prerequisite for hearing the gospel?)
2) Whatever the excuse may be, the idea of withholding the gospel from a certain ethnic minority has never sat well with me.

For the record, this isn’t quite at the level of "blacks and the priesthood". From what I understand, that "rule" had no exceptions whereas the gypsy rule has had some. I’ve never officially taught and/or baptized a gypsy, but one of my branches had a few.

In all honesty, for my having issues with withholding the gospel from gypsies, my life would have been much easier in a particular branch had the exception not been made earlier. We actually had some weird branch feuding going on, from which I learned a few lessons.

In any event, I’m not sure of any other recent instances where we have been asked to refrain from teaching ethnic minorities. So I wonder if Bulgaria is some exception or if I’m just not very well informed.

As I finish writing this, I’m thinking there’s not a really good solution to the problem. I know of at least a couple of wonderful gypsy members (who aren’t really gypsies for the most part, but just have the darker skin. That poses an interesting question; can you denounce your original "gypsyness"?). But I also remember gypsies trying to get free Books of Mormon just to turn around and sell them. It’s hard not to be judgmental (meaning, it’s hard not to assume this is what they are going to do) when within a few weeks you see Books of Mormon for sale at the local pazar.

As I always like to ask, what is to be done?

________________________________________________

Kristine: Um, "if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also"?

It seems to me that cheating, lying, stealing SINNERS are precisely whom the gospel is meant for. Not to mention for racist white people who might quit coming to church because gypsies were there–afflict the comfortable!! I can’t really imagine standing in front of Christ and saying "we didn’t teach him the gospel because we thought he was probably just trying to get free dental work." Heck, Christ would probably be pleased if you gave him free dental work knowing perfectly well that he hadn’t really accepted the gospel yet.

I get that in the real world we have to make compromises. What I don’t get is trying to find a reason for them and justify our inability to be really Christlike. We should just put on sackcloth and ashes and mourn the fact that we can’t yet approach Zion.

Logan: Wow, Kristine, ouch. Do you really feel like this discussion has been saying that it’s good not to teach gypsies? When we make those compromises that you talk about, how do know the difference between including some degree of prudence in our decisions and "justify[ing] our inability to be really Christlike"?

Kristine: I don’t think most of the missionary program is "prudent." We send these cute but stupid 19-year-old boys out into the world with minimal training and marginal supervision and ask them to bear witness of a gospel they barely understand. It’s frankly crazy.

We baptize people ALL THE TIME who have little promise of making it as long-term members of the church, as the retention stats abundantly prove. My conclusion is that there must be some factor other than "prudence" that leads to policies like this, that prejudge entire groups of people based on the stereotypical characteristics of that group. At least where I live, "prudence" would exclude about 75% of the people who get baptized, and yet we don’t have policies that say "don’t baptize people who are on the margins economically; don’t baptize people whose mental stability is questionable; don’t baptize people who "quit" smoking 2 days before their baptism, etc." All of those would be prudent policies, and yet they don’t exist. I think excluding groups based on their ethnicity is racist on the face of it, and whatever "explanations" we come up with are justifications of our own serious failure to take Christ at his word and sow the seed without trying to prejudge the ground it falls on.

A disclaimer: I’m no more virtuous than anybody else on this; I had a good long rant the other day about the missionaries baptizing people who would further tax the resources of our already struggling ward–even my husband (who has reason to be aware of my capacity for meanness) was completely horrified at my lack of charity.

Logan: Kristine, I’m sorry if my use of the word ‘prudence’ got in the way of my real questions:

On what basis can we make the compromises that you have said must be made? On what basis are they made? (All the examples of non-prudence you cited couldn’t be based on racism, could they?)

Kristine: No, they couldn’t, which was my point. If we’re just trying to baptize people who are likely to remain active or be "good" members, our missionary program would have to look substantially different. The fact that suitability for membership is not a criterion more generally suggests to me that there is bigotry of one sort or another in a policy that says we won’t teach Muslim Near Easterners or Gypsies or people with black ancestry in Brazil (to cite a historically problematic policy). There’s something deeply wrong with a policy that is "explained" with sentences that start "Gypsies are …" In any other context that kind of thinking would be immediately and rightly condemned, but because some GA sanctioned this policy here we are spouting racist crap to make sure that we don’t impugn a GAs motives.

I’m not sure there is a righteous basis for such compromises. The only possibility is if we said something like "we as a church are too weak to make the kinds of sacrifices required to teach, accept, and fellowship our brothers and sisters who are gypsies right now. We are trying to repent."

Bob: "I had a good long rant the other day about the missionaries baptizing people who would further tax the resources of our already struggling ward"

"If we’re just trying to baptize people who are likely to remain active or be "good" members, our missionary program would have to look substantially different."

Kristine, you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too. Do you have a possible solution where you wouldn’t have issues in the end? Or better yet, do me a favor, and pick your poison:

A) You’d rather see gypsies baptized and tax the resources of the Church unnecessarily for that one out of hundred that isn’t playing us.

B) You’d rather gypsies aren’t baptized so that wards/branches won’t struggle (because they have and they would, big time – ask me if you want more examples. I’m not sure you quite understand "struggle" in this sense. Was your ward ever close to being shut down due to this problem? My branch was).

Please correct me because it seems like you disagree with both sides and agree with… well, I have no idea.

Kristine: Bob, saying "Members of X ethnic group are ______" is, by definition, a racist way to talk. It defines people by their membership in a group, not by their individual characteristics. It is wrong.

Also, it might be useful to consider why gypsies are reduced to begging in Bulgaria. It might have something to do with a few centuries of prejudice, being discriminated against in housing, hiring, etc. Yes, people sometimes adopt maladaptive strategies for dealing with such things; I’m sure we’d all be much more comfortable if they had developed their own thriving economy. But the fact that they haven’t doesn’t make them more or less worthy than any other ethnic group, and it does suggest that the majority population has been particularly hostile to their assimilation. There’s no good reason for the church to adopt the prevailing racist policy of segregation and discrimination.

Yes, I think anyone who wants to be baptized and has demonstrated some reasonable commitment to the church (I personally would set the bar a little higher than it usually is–say, a couple months worth of Sacrament Mtg. attendance) should be allowed to be baptized. And whatever the baptismal readiness standard is, it should be applied without regard to a person’s ethnicity or the potential drain on church resources.

My earlier reference to my being upset about baptisms in our ward was just a public confession of my own hypocrisy. As much as I believe that we ought to welcome the tough cases with open arms, I find my own reserves of charity frequently unequal to the task. I think that’s MY problem, not the fault of the people being baptized.

Bob: "Bob, saying "Members of X ethnic group are ______" is, by definition, a racist way to talk."

Kristine, help me on this. I personally think racism is overrated. You’re right; we need to be careful. Racism can be and is a real issue. I just feel like you take it to the extreme. So, is it racism if we’re talking positively? Consider the following examples:

The French are romantic.
Germans are punctual.
Bulgarians are thrifty.

Is my problem that I need to put a "generally speaking" or "in my opinion" in front of such sentences? I’m an International Business major, and we talk freely about characteristics of various ethnic groups. In my marketing class, it’s a function of demographics. We have to talk about it.

So the question of the day is, if "Members of X ethnic group are ______" is, by definition, a racist way to talk" then how do we talk about ethnic groups? Because really, Kristine, we can’t just assume ethnic groups have no characteristics just because it’s racist to talk in such a manner.

Help me out. What am I missing?

Kristine: Bob, in the case of national groups, or especially demographic groups, one is clearly (though one ought to be explicit about it) speaking in generalities which are not based on biological characteristics, but on cultural ones. But it doesn’t really matter much to the definition of racism whether the characteristics in question are positive or negative–it is equally damaging to say "Japanese children are hard-working and obedient" or "Black children are not as smart as white children." In either case, you have denied the distinct personhood of a huge group of people, and prejudged them based on a characteristic over which they have no control. I think it makes a huge difference whether you say, instead, "Japanese culture strongly reinforces hard work and obedient behavior by children," or "black children in the United States frequently score lower on standardized tests than their white counterparts." Those are specific, testable statements that hint at cultural and sociological factors and allow individual exceptionalism. You can say that’s just PC word-polishing, but I think the way we talk dramatically shapes the way we think. If we’re sloppy in our discussions of racial minorities, we will likely be sloppy in our thinking about them. And sad experience shows that the human default mode seems to be quite racist; we should work hard not to think or speak in unconsidered generalities about these things. [And, btw, even in the case of national or demographic rather than racial or ethnic groups, it's sloppy and ultimately meaningless to say things like "the French are romantic;" if you're trying to talk about marketing, it's both far more accurate and far more useful to say "the French spend twice as much money per capita on flowers than other Europeans..." or whatever. I'd argue for as much specificity as possible in all such discussions]

In any case, I can’t think of any characteristics any ethnic group could have that would be a good excuse for not teaching them the gospel.

Bob: Kristine, thanks for your input. I’m with you on your "as much specificity as possible". If you can bear with me, I still have a couple questions/concerns:

If I say, "in general, gypsies are beggars" does that make you feel better? Also, if I understand your problems with racism… Do I have to believe that the fact that 99 percent of Bulgarian gypsies are beggars is just coincidence? Am I racist for drawing the conclusion that perhaps, heaven forbid, the two are related (gypsies and beggars) and that it’s not just some mystery of the universe? Or to avoid racism, I should assume there is no correlation?

"In any case, I can’t think of any characteristics any ethnic group could have that would be a good excuse for not teaching them the gospel."

When I told this to my wife, she laughed. All she could say was, "I hope someday Kristine gets to work with gypsies in Bulgaria". Another thing my wife pointed out, which helps her with the whole situation… the whole idea throughout the scriptures that the gospel will go to the Jews and then to the Gentiles and then back to the Jews… Why? Was God racist? I don’t think so. Sometimes there is an order as to how the gospel should be preached. As my wife and I discussed the issue further, we both feel that if missionary work were open to Bulgarian gypsies, it would literally destroy the Church in Bulgaria. I can explain the reasoning, if you like. But for now, just pretend to trust our judgment call and ask yourself the question, if baptizing gypsies meant the downfall of the Church in Bulgaria, would it be better to close down the mission rather than "be racist" by your definition?

BTW- I saw your bio and picture over at T&S. You look so sweet and nice… If I didn’t know you better through writing, I might have thought of you as more of a traditional Mormon, whatever that means. Don’t read too much into what I’m saying; I may just be thinking out loud when I shouldn’t be.

Kristine: Bob, I *am* sweet and nice, and about 90% traditional : ) You’re one of the lucky few who gets to know the other 10%.

I’m perfectly willing to accept that there are enormous practical difficulties in preaching to a group as culturally marginalized as gypsies in Bulgaria. I’m even somewhat willing to accept that there might be a need to build up the church to a certain point before actively seeking to proselyte within such a group. But we should be very clear that those policies are made for practical reasons that have to do with the weakness of the church, NOT that it is the gypsies’ fault they can’t learn the gospel because of some inherent weakness in them.

And, yeah, I hope I get to work with gypsies in Bulgaria someday, too.

Bob: Kristine, you sweet heart, thanks for your comments here. I think I agree with everything you said in your last one.

Comments

  1. Last Sunday I attended our ward’s missionary correlation meeting, and learned that the missionaries have set December 25 as a baptismal date for three investigators. According to the elders, they are all “golden”.

    Investigator #1 – A man who lives forty miles away from the chapel and will need a ride. Also, he is deaf, and will need someone with ASL skills to assist when he attends church.

    Investigator #2 – A recent parolee who insists that his conviction for sex-related offenses was part of an elaborate scheme to discredit him, concocted by his ex-wife.

    Family #3 – recent (illegal) immigrants who have no jobs, no car, and not much in the way of english skills. They might be moving in January, and the missionaries think it would be great if they were baptized before they move.

    I wish our ward were good enough to meet the needs of these people. I really do, and someday, we might be. But right now, we’re not, so it doesn’t bother me at all to point out that there is abosolutely no chance of success, and throw some cold water on the prospect of baptizing these people on Christmas day. I don’t blame the missionaries – they teach the people they can find, and if I gave better referrals, I’m sure they would teach them. I think there is wisdom in acknowledging our limitations, and I also agree we shouldn’t come up with nutty doctrinal explanations as a way of explaining our practical shortcomings.

  2. I’m glad you put this one up, Bob. I’ve actually thought about this issue a lot in the months since we originally did all this. To tell the truth, I find myself agreeing with Kristine more and more as I do think about it.

    CB, I feel you on the Christmas day baptisms. I’m in the EQ presidency, and our own ward mission leader just informed me that he’ll have 20 baptisms on Christmas for which he’d like home teachers. This is a real dilemma for me; of course I’d like to give them all fantastic home teachers, but the elders who actually do any sort of home teaching are so few and already stretched thin. I’ll do my best, but I doubt that more than one or two of these new converts will ever see home teachers at all. And getting lost in the crowd is already a huge problem for us — having 20 new members at once will only make that condition worse.

    Baptizing people faster than we can reach out to them is nothing new in my ward, but it’s regularity doesn’t make these decisions and realities any easier.

  3. Logan,

    I feel you on the HT assignments. Luckily we have a pretty good mix of active vs inactive HT. Our ward is pretty transient too. There are a lot of students that come and go in the fall and spring months. Constant updating is frustrating when they are usually the more active ones as well.

    I think the worst “golden” candidate our missionaries ever had was an illegal immigrant on the verge of being deported. He was in his mid twenties with a 16 year old, pregnant girlfriend. They insisted on him being baptized before being deported.

    On the lighter side of the post maybe it was inspired that the gypsies not be taught to make it easier on the EQ. Think of all the moving we would have to get involved in.

  4. Bob,

    I don’t know if this has any reason why gypsies may not be proslyted to, but I do recall a gypsy myth from a long time ago. I wish I could recall more.

    It is something along the lines that the gypsies were the ones that provided the nails to the Romans for Christ’s crucifition. After Christ rose, they were cursed to never settle in one spot. The Nail from Christ’s feet would follow them and bring with it death. Something about this legend sounds wierd to me but thats the way I heard it.

  5. Here is a gypsie myth I once heard- A fat man killed an old gypsie and was let off by his buddy the judge. The Gypsie husband cursed him, and no matter how much he ate, he kept losing weight….Oh, sorry, that was Stephen King’s “Thinner”

  6. What have the gypies given us, besides curses and a weird scene in “From Russia, with Love?”

  7. Bob, I can’t tell if you’re being very charitable or very sarcastic with your description of my screeds as “loving” and “big-sisterly.” I was pretty mad, and accordingly incoherent and rhetorically excessive. I’m glad you didn’t write me off completely after that exchange!

  8. Charles:

    That story comes from the Eastern Orthodox version of Christianity. I heard it in Romania on several occassions. Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with any sort of policies there may or may not be related to LDS missionaries proselyting to gypsies.

    -
    What Kristine wrote above bears repeating and jives with my feelings on the topic:

    “I’m perfectly willing to accept that there are enormous practical difficulties in preaching to a group as culturally marginalized as gypsies in Bulgaria. I’m even somewhat willing to accept that there might be a need to build up the church to a certain point before actively seeking to proselyte within such a group. But we should be very clear that those policies are made for practical reasons that have to do with the weakness of the church, NOT that it is the gypsies’ fault they can’t learn the gospel because of some inherent weakness in them.”

    I don’t recall any specific instructions that came down while serving in Romania — but we didn’t actively approach Roma men and women. However, we didn’t shy away from teaching those who expressed an interest in the church. Indeed, there were at least two branches that had active members who were Roma. I’m sure that they encountered racism on the part of some members — and indeed some members weren’t shy about expressing racist sentiments to us. Several times we heard the trope “Gypsies here are like your black people” (the L.A. riots took place while I was serving) — however, I also saw members overcome their prejudices and learn to love our Roma members (even if their feelings about the ‘group’ didn’t really change).

    Steve:

    I know you’re joking — but, for one: amazing music.

  9. Gypsy music? Really?

    I confess, I was joking, but now I’m intrigued.

  10. I was thinking mainly of flamenco.

    Here’s a good if somewhat amateurishly-written overview. I haven’t actively listened to enough of the music to know if I’m a fan or not, but I do recall liking the stuff I heard in Romanian, and I also like flamenco guitar.

  11. Wasn’t Django Reinhardt a gypsy?

  12. My husband served a mission in Romania, and he also was told not to teach the gypsies as a practicality in the country–the government looked down on gypsies, and if the church became a gypsy church then it would no longer be allowed in the country.

  13. I served my mission in the city with what was claimed to be largest gypsy population in the western hemisphere. They were a little bit odd as gypsies because they didn’t wander and they were all pentacostal. Nobody ever said to not teach them. When I was in that area I taught two different families. Both had polygamy issues. Not the usualy polygamy issues that you encounter in which an investigator says, “Aren’t you all polygamists?” I mean that the father of each family was a polygamist, and the community accepted this as long as he housed and fed both households. That made it difficult to teach the family as you might immagine. Obviously you can’t baptize the husband. Could you baptize a wife and/or the children? I have no idea, but it didn’t seem fruitful.

    Other complicating factors were that the members didn’t trust anyone from that neighborhood and several claimed to have been robbed or cheated by gypsies. Also, I have never walked down the street and had more people walk up to me and say rude things out of the blue than I did when in the gypsy neighborhood. It was a constant barrage. Lack of education didn’t help either. They considered the school system to be useless at best and harmful at worst and pulled their children out once they could do basic arithmetic.

  14. Bob:

    The term is definitely preferred, and it is gradually becoming accepted in English-speaking nations. Indeed, anyone who wants to write about this population in a serious way (journalists, artists, academics, etc.) use it.

    My sense of where it is heading is that it’s one of those things where if you are referring to culture — esp. (and perhaps solely) music — then it will be okay to use the term ‘gypsy,’ but for talking about the actual people or individuals, Roma (or Romani) is preferable.

    The term Roma has especially gained currency because of the rise in popularity of gypsy music as well as the book Bury Me Standing (which received a lot of press) and a documentary film (whose title escapes me at the moment) that made the art house circuit in the late ’90s (I haven’t seen it). The dmoz directory entry on Romani has a lot of great resources.

  15. Aaron Brown says:

    Bob,

    Words don’t have inherent meanings. Meaning is a function of context. Thus, I’m not sure what it means to ask whether your mother-in-law’s use of the n-word is “intrinsically bad”. Those of us who have grown up in America, and who understand all the relevant social conventions, know that use of the n-word is inappropriate. If I use it knowing its offensiveness and intending it to be harmful, that’s obviously “bad.” If I am ignorant of its derogatory connotation and I use it, that is “less bad.” I’m not sure what else there is to say about our use of language.

    Of course, some of us feel there are many who are hypersensitive to the use of certain words, and who try to render anathema the use of certain terms as part of a political program. If we don’t agree with that program, we might refuse to play along with the convention. Whether that’s appropriate in any given case depends on one’s personal opinion, as well as the prohibited word at issue.

    Aaron B

  16. Bob Caswell says:

    “If I am ignorant of its derogatory connotation and I use it, that is ‘less bad.’”

    So Aaron, you are saying that it’s still “bad” to a certain degree, right? Why do you think so (given the example of usage on another continent where the demeaning value doesn’t exist)?

  17. Aaron Brown says:

    Bob,

    I only think it’s “bad” in that it will go over poorly in mixed company when it is used. Thus, good idea to instruct your mother-in-law not to use it.

    I may be misunderstanding you, but my sense is that you’re wanting to discuss the inherent “badness” of word usage on some kind of objective, cosmic level. I don’t believe there’s any sense in which that is a meaningful endeavor, so I’m not sure what else to say…

    Aaron B

  18. This issue forces us to think about what baptism really means. If baptism is simply a saving ordinance performed for people who profess faith in Christ and are willing to make a commitment to become his disciple (think Alma at the waters of Mormon), then there is no reason to deny baptism to anyone because of their race or their perceived weaknesses. In fact, denial of baptism to such a person would be unthinkable. However, that is not how we see baptism. For us, it also entails membership into our “club”. Since the existing members have obligations to new members, we think we have to be somewhat selective. We want people who will build up the organization. We don’t want people who will subsequently prove to be a burden, so we sometimes try to screen out those who are likely to become burdensome. To some extent, the Word of Wisdom and the commitment to pay tithing fulfill that function. If people are willing to give up money, coffee, smokes and booze, that is a sign that they are serious and will be contributors to our community. But should we think this way? The people who are too weak to contribute do not go away. The gypsies, the mentally ill, the poor and the otherwise dysfunctional are still with us. By denying them admittance to the church do we really relieve ourselves of the burden to care for them, or do we just keep them invisible? Are we really made stronger by screening out the weak, or are we just deceiving ourselves? When we screen out people because they will be high maintenance, we are subordinating the saving ordinance aspect of baptism to our goal of building the organization.

  19. Bob Caswell says:

    William Morris,

    I couldn’t help but notice your use of the more proper term “Roma.” Do we know if this term is unique to Romania and Bulgaria (and other neighboring countries)? Did we already have this conversation? I’m just curious if there is another way to say “gypsy” less offensively in America or if this is it, and we Americans are just unfamiliar with the negative connotations of the word “gypsy” or “tziganin” (in Bulgarian).

    I’m not sure if this conversation is ready for the following question, but I’ll ask anyway… Are Americans racist if they use a word of which they do not understand the somewhat demeaning nature? Or does are ignorance protect us? Let me give another example, my mother-in-law is not American and still refers to blacks with the “n” word because she was raised not knowing it to be more than just a term referring to a group of people. She was surprised when I explained to her that at least in the States, that’s a big no-no. It’s easy for us to think of this as really “bad”. But if it is intrinsically “bad” somehow, how is it worse than Americans saying gypsy? I wonder…

    I’m sure I’ll get reprimanded yet again for saying this, but I’m just asking these questions on a thread full of sensitivity. Otherwise, I probably don’t have the answers and don’t care as much as I should. Maybe it’s just as simple as my mother-in-law respecting the nature of things in my country while I respect them in hers. And when we’re in our respective countries, we use whatever words we feel like even if across the ocean it’s offensive. Because if the intent of her saying the “n” word and me saying gypsy has nothing to do with racism, why assume it does?

    Kristine,

    I wasn’t being sarcastic. And besides, sisters (at least mine) are known for their ability to be mad and loving at the same time!

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