The Choice to do Good and the Choice to Integrate

The article featured on BCC’s sideboard found here has inspired me to inner musings.  I like the idea that a community’s choice to exceed the mark, to communally do good simply for the sake of rightness has a lasting legacy, even if that legacy is only on a few individuals.  I also like the common theme of integration that weaves through such stories.In the NPR article featured above, the thesis is that Martin Luther King, Jr., spent a summer working on a tobacco farm in the Hartford, Connecticut suburb of Simsbury.  He reported in letters home to his family that the white people of this community were kind and accepting of him, and that he, for the first time, experienced an un-segregated life.  He ate in fine restaurants, went to shows, and socialized in the white community.  This time inspired him to not only fight against segregation, but also to become a minister.  After returning home, he was never again able to see the bitterness of separate and unequal treatment as being acceptable and “fought” for the rest of his life, though a doctrine of non-violence, to end segregation and allow all Americans the simple right of equal participation in society.

I don’t think we should delude ourselves into thinking that racism was absent in the North altogether.  Rather, I think the people of Simsbury chose a higher path.  As a community, at least in the eyes of one young visitor, they chose to act according to a higher good rather than give in to baser instincts.  Their uncelebrated choice for everyday morality had a lasting effect not only on that one young black aspiring preacher, but on every one in America who has been inspired to “a dream” as a result of Dr. King’s work.

This story reminded me of some other communities where a choice for good, even if it was personally uncomfortable or risky, had a lasting, if uncelebrated impact.  Initially in Denmark, during World War II, Germany left the country basically alone as a “Protectorate,” not wanting to upset the relatively peaceful balance there.  The country leaders reported to Nazi Germany that they had no “jewish problem” in Denmark.  In fact, there was no Jewish problem there.  The Jewish population was well integrated into Danish life, and while there was some anti-Semitic sentiment, by and large the population was supportive of their jewish neighbors.  However, by 1943, voices within Nazi Germany would not allow the Danish jews to remain un-molested any longer.  Rather than allow their jewish neighbors to be deported to a concentration camp, the Danish people resisted en masse and facilitated a huge refugee movement to neutral Sweden.  The Danish jews who were not sent to Sweden were hidden by their non-jewish neighbors and friends.  This mass resistance ended in saving roughly 99% of the Danish jewish population.  Not only were lives and future generations of Danish citizens saved, the country created a story for itself–one of reaching for a higher, more courageous good.  As a visitor to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. more than 50 years later, my personal feelings of devastation were so strong that I felt I could hardly move.  One of the final footnotes to the very effective display, was a reference to how it could have been different by pointing to the small but poignant example of Denmark.  After reading that, I felt I could breathe again–some small light of hope and morality existed.

On a much less grand scale, I’ve come across two unpublicized stories of passive resistance to racism in American history that deserve to be told.  One friend of Japanese descent tells how his mother’s family was saved from internment during World War II.  The family lived in a largely Italian neighborhood in New York.  As law enforcement officers would come around and question people regarding the Japanese family down the street, the Italian neighbors put up a united front and vouched for the family, convincing law enforcement to leave them alone.  In east Salt Lake, I heard of an entire ward that kept an unofficial neighborhood watch, calling the Japanese neighbors and warning them to stay indoors whenever police cars were seen cruising the neighborhood, saving this family from internment.  I’ve never really heard anyone in press or writing talk about these unofficial neighborhood resistances during the war, but the legacy of this community action is strong in the families of those affected.

Looking at these stories, it occurs to me that the choice to do good and right, even in the face of tradition, common notions of acceptable behavior, pressure, or even some personal risk, carries with it another message.  Certainly, each of these stories is a morality tale on standing up for what is right.  But each of these stories also gives an example of the power of integration.  Simsbury chose to be integrated, and that one community’s choice contributed to vast movements of American history.  Denmark chose to integrate its Jewish citizens into everyday life, and they became so Danish that ordinary Danes were offended at the idea of their deportation to camps.  The Japanese families that I referred to were such a part of their communities that neighbors naturally looked out for them.  What can we learn from this?  Were the victims in these stories the only ones to benefit from the integration, or did the communities at large become more complete for the effort?  Who are we excluding in our lives?  Can we integrate these people as neighbors, colleagues, and friends, even if the larger world scorns them for some named reason? How can our sense of rightness, good, and morality be extended to not only caring for the scorned, outcast, and at-risk, but also to accepting them as “neighbor” in the way that Christ taught?  Could any duty be more fundamentally Christian than that?

Comments

  1. Wonderful post. In my Utah ward, I see Mexican-American and African-American families integrated. What I do not see, is non-Mormon families integrated as full-fledged members of our neighborhood. Maybe we need to organize neighborhood activities that don’t take place at church and are not directed by ward leaders.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Wow, fantastic post. This gives me a lot to think about today. Thank you.

  3. Excellent post, and equally thought-provoking questions. The next question that came to my mind was “How are we as Mormons integrating into our own communities?” Would my non-LDS neighbors be equally willing to jeopardize their own lives and families to keep me and my LDS neighbors among them should a similar situation occur? I don’t know the answer to that one. I worry that we don’t make a point to join our non-LDS communities in effort to keep ourselves “in the world but not of the world.”

  4. oh I LOVE the stories from denmark from WWII. It seems so possible and hopeful and amazing…unti lI think of what they were up against. By 1943, they had seen what nazi germany was. It amazes me how many people they were able to save. I hadn’t heard the stories of japanese people saved…I would love to read those first hand accounts.

  5. Stephanie says:

    MattG, that is a really good question. I am not sure I know the answer either.

  6. Researcher says:

    What an interesting post. I will have to listen to that NPR story.

    One note: it is possible that the stories about the neighbors of the Japanese families are not strictly accurate since Utah was not in the Exclusion Area, and I cannot find any evidence that New York City was, so Japanese-Americans in those areas should not have been subject to relocation. Salt Lake City was actually an official area for “permanent” relocation of some of the nisei, or American-born children of Japanese immigrants, and it is entirely possible that Japanese families living there and in New York could have been subject to intense persecution from the public and even from law enforcement, but I have checked a number of sources and have not seen any evidence that they would have been relocated.

    And, on the topic of the Danish Jews, I do love that story — it has always made me proud to have Danish ancestry, even though my family had left Denmark by that point.

  7. Unfortunately, we isolate ourselves far too much.

    Mosr members energy is poured into their ward. My sense is that most non-members feel left out in our neighborhoods.

    The real solution is to reduce callings and effort on ourselves and redirect more energy into our community.

    We need to be involved in local politics, community organizations, neighborhood activities, etc. Service in the PTA is sometimes more important than Primary. Block parties should sometimes have precedence over ward activities.

    Today, 90% of energy is inward. Imagine if it were 50/50.

  8. Great post. After reflection I thought about how am I choosing to integrate into my community? As a SAHM, it seems that it can be too easy to only function within the Mormon community so I have to make efforts to integrate myself into my local community. This is just one of many reasons to continue my efforts.

  9. Karen, what you say here is profound. I’ve wondered sometimes what the effect might be if we saw a MLK in Palestine now.

  10. Karen,

    This was lovely and thought provoking. Thank you for this message. This will stay with me for a very long time.

  11. It’s not that simple. I’ve been in a ward that tried to do just that, hold block parties, invite others to help plan events, include everyone in emergency preparedness drills and integrate with the community. The response? The community just didn’t care. They couldn’t be bothered to help plan events. They didn’t trust that there was not some underlying missionary motivation going on. Individuals cared that ‘we’ would not come to them. But they had no intention of coming to us.

  12. Lon,

    Our neighbors don’t want to more involved in our church activities for the reasons you enumerated.

    But, we can be more involved, as individuals, in our communities.

    We need to do less with our wards and more with those around us.

  13. Or even more simply, we just need to honestly reach out in friendship. Not sponsored activities, just human contact.

    Researcher @ 6: I don’t have a way of answering your questions about the internment stories, other than to say the one took place in New York State and not city. I was just relaying what the participants told me (or rather their children). It may be that the story was changed a bit in the telling, or their sense of fear was exaggerated, or that your information is inaccurate. I don’t know. I think the bottom line message of reliance on community still holds–these families were a part of neighborhoods where they were minorities, but still felt valued. Thanks for the thought provoking question.

  14. I do not live in a predominantly Mormon neighborhood, but if I did and I were not a member, I’d be skeptical of ward-planned neighborhood activities, just as I’d probably not attend an activity in my neighborhood planned by another church.

    If we are to make this change in our neighborhoods, it must come person-by-person.

    We actively encourage members in our ward to make friends among their neighbors, but Steve is right: in a world of finite time, more time at church leaves less time for other things.

  15. The Japanese Exclusion Zone included all of California, the portions of Washington and Oregon west of the Cascades, and southern Arizona. A map showing the boundary of the zone can be found at the Wiki entry “Japanese Internment.” Japanese citizens and American citizens of Japanese descent living in that zone were interned, without regard to whether they constituted any danger to the U.S.–or in the case of the citizens, without trial or criminal charges.

    Japanese citizens who lived elsewhere (as well as German and Italian citizens) were required to register as enemy aliens and to report to the authorities regularly. Some were interned, presumably when they were deemed a threat. The support and protection of neighbors would likely have helped Japanese citizens avoid being deemed a threat.

    American citizens of Japanese descent in areas outside the Exclusion Zone should have been free from internment. If arrested, such a citizen should have been entitled to a writ of habeas corpus and a hearing before a judge, where the government would have had to justify why it was holding him.

    So, if your friends’ relatives were Japanese citizens, and not nisei or sansei, they were subject to registration as enemy aliens and to possible internment, and the help and reassuring “testimony” of their neighbors could very well have reduced that possibility.

  16. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    Three years ago, we moved onto a new street and rented a home. It was brought to our attention very quickly that almost the entire street attended a certain Christian church. The way this information was shared was almost like a warning of some sort, and a way to “flesh out” where we stood in that regard. Inside, I knew that their church actively taught that the LDS Church is whack. So when I was asked if me, my wife, and two little girls attended a church, I watched their collective faces drop when I mentioned that we attend the LDS church nearby. The disappointment, tension, and frustration was palpable. I never mentioned church again.

    For the first year, it was radio silence. One family was uncomfortable even talking to me casually in the yard, as if merely speaking to me about the weather was an acquiescence to the validity of the Mormon church. The false perception captivity was pathetic. When my kids wanted to play with their kids, it was cold and not happening. But we conducted our lives as “good neighbors”–and not for any other reason than that is consistent with how we naturally live (trash cans pulled in on time, kept yard, quiet house, smiles and waves, etc.). It wasn’t some show to the neighborhood that we are “normal;” it’s actually who we were. Meanwhile, on Sundays, some of them would see “those whack-O Mormon neighbors of theirs” get in the car together in nicer-than-normal clothes and return a few hours later. I never spoke of religion. Neither my wife or I cared one way or another; we just observed and carried on with life as usual.

    Year two was a little different. They were friendlier. They would actually walk across the street and say hi. Their children came over and were smiling and laughing that year, which still made the parents a bit cautious. We were even invited to the block party, and to their amazement we actually enjoy food, movies, sports, entertainment, talking to people, community, fireworks, pool parties, and summer activities–just like they do, wow! They even noticed that we like to read newspapers, take walks, and ride bikes. I never spoke of religion. We just observed.

    Year three was completely different. The cookie plates we saw pass us by on the sidewalk in previous years now made a stop at our house during the holidays. Kids came to play. And when we decided to move, the neighbors actually showed *cautious* signs of sadness and wonder. When moving day arrived, our immediate neighbor to the left came and confided the following to me: “When you first moved in, we were all a bit uncomfortable because we didn’t really know about you and your family that well. I think we had certain impressions of . . . well, Mormons, you know. Now we’re sad your leaving. Please please be sure and leave us your contact information.” She actually said that. And I told her I understood completely, that it was OK, and that I was glad she shared that with me.

    I was deeply happy for one reason: her words and actions suggested that our behavior had somehow led her and others to confront an irrational fear, a lie, that they had been operating under. I was moved at how I felt she had been liberated from a lie. And that is a wonderful feeling. The amazing part is that my family and I really did absolutely nothing except continue to just live life!

    I really like the topic of integration. The fact that the concept of integration exists as is recognized is an indictment on the ultimate defect of the (in lds speak) natural man: fear. Fear of unknown “others” and the fear of how they may limit resources. This fear is a disease, but it seems it can be cured by constantly asking ourselves the questions that are asked here at the end of the OP. To me, fwiw, those questions suggest a healthy self-awareness of the irrational fear. There is no dangerous “other;” there is only our fellow man, struggling just like we do through the pains and challenges of life. The process of integration is a manifestation of a healing individual, community, society, and nation. It is the overcoming of a dangerous lie.

    As an aside, my secretary’s husband was in the Dutch resistance. He just died. At his funeral, we heard from his brothers first hand accounts of hiding jewish boys in barns under straw stacks, displacing large jewish families amongst several non-jewish families in the town, and the proverbial moral dilemma of SS officers asking him at the door whether he was aware of any jewish families hiding in the area (e.g., tell the truth and send them to their death or lie?). The SS wanted to conscript male teenage dutch jews into the front lines of fighting the Dutch resistance and front so the Germans’ sons would not be the bullet stoppers.

  17. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    oops, sorry, that comment is longer than the OP. is that an unspoken “no no”?

  18. CatherineWO says:

    Wonderful post and stories. Another group of people that we need to better integrate are those with disabilities, especially the less visable disabilities.

  19. My mother did such a great job of being involved in the community. In the years she wasn’t working, she volunteered at our elementary school, ran my girl scout troop, and volunteered at the soup kitchen at the local catholic church. People at the soup kitchen were amazed that she would consistently come help and wasn’t a member of their congregation.

    Reading this post caused me to reflect on my mother’s example in a new way. Belonging to the LDS community was part of what we did, but we were also part of and involved in a larger community too. I saw from her that the LDS community does not have a monopoly on good people, good friends, or service opportunities. She didn’t have to tell me that; it was just how she lived. I think I owe her a little thank you note.

  20. The elephant in this room, in my opinion, is the poor. Not only do we of the middle class not integrate with them, but we don’t typically even think of them as an “out” group as they surely are. Most of my mother’s high standards she was taught on dress and behavior and tried to pass along to us were to be sure we were not mistaken for the poor. Much of her shock at our counter-culture dress in the 60s and on through the grunge era (which we may have instituted a couple of decades early among my friends) was that we might look to strangers like we might be poor people (heaven forbid!) Whenever problems such as drug addiction or family violence are mentioned, it’s often stated that they can occur at all levels of society, not just among the poor (where we naturally assume they will occur because poor people are just like that, right?) “Dress for success” means to dress as though you already have the job you’re seeking to land, i.e. as though you are well-off. Nicely manicured lawns are the outward signs of those who are wealthy either in money or health to be able to do the work themselves or pay someone else to. In a million ways we discriminate against the poor whose main difference from us is they can’t afford to wear the nice clothes and live in the nice neighborhoods we can.

    For every story of “yes, but” confirming all our fears and stereotypes about poor people, there were also many such stories about black people prior to integration in this country. What part of this is prejudice? How many times might the same thing be said of people at our income levels?

    I’m saying this, please understand, as someone who also struggles to overcome my fear of or distance from poor people. Even though I went to public school with mostly poor people, my closest friends were of similar background to our family. Paul Farmer has opened my eyes to what I’ve done all my life without thinking: discriminate against the poor. The Book of Mormon tells us in plain terms that it’s wrong to structure our societies like this, that we should have no poor among us and we should give of our substance to the poor. If we aren’t one we aren’t His. Looking around us, can we claim to be His?

  21. “As a community, at least in the eyes of one young visitor, they chose to act according to a higher good rather than give in to baser instincts.”

    While an admirable sentiment (and another good post on the whole), I have to argue a bit with this wording. As the child of an interracial marriage, I’d say that instinct is not to notice the difference. For instance, one of the children in our ward’s Nursery when my mother was Nursery Leader was astonished one day to notice, “Sister X, you’re face is brown!” That particular fact had never occured to the girl before.

    So basically, a long way of saying that differentiation based on race is something we have to learn. Otherwise, a great post!

  22. Indiana, fair enough. Racial differences wasn’t really the thought I had when writing that sentence, I had more in mind the idea of how much easier it is to ridicule or ostracize someone rather than include them, but on reading it again, I definitely see your point. I like your thoughts on the topic–and the nursery story is great.

  23. One of the best things I’ve read in a long time, and the responses are great too. For me, the question is whether we have to wait until some emergency arises before we think inclusively or whether we do it on a daily basis regardless of what is going on around us.

  24. Sorry to post such a downer in the middle of this feelgood thread. I guess I’m feeling challenged by life lately and finding it hard to be as optimistic as I hope to be. But it’s so much easier for us to feel good about these things when we aren’t asking ourselves personally to be made uncomfortable. It’s great to think the callous ones are always someone else, not us. But I think we in the industrialized world very much need to learn to notice the billions of poor in the world, and yes, perhaps we do need to learn to be less comfortable with things as they are.

    After this I promise I’ll post twelve funny happy things before sinking again into my old-person’s regret and gloom. =)

  25. I agree with the comments that we are far too insular and much too focused internally.

    But Christ comparing us to leaven suggests that we need to be mixed throughout the dough, not kept concentrated in a lump.

    For example, we have a tendency to think of missionary work as consisting primarily of trying to get someone to church. But that is like putting 1 tbsp of water and 3 tbsp of flour in a quart jar full of yeast, and expecting that we’ll get bread. When we’re all together in church we’re like a big jar full of leaven. Adding a bit of flour and water to a jar full of leaven won’t yield leavened bread.

    Rather, to get bread we have to spread a small amount of yeast – the leaven – throughout the larger portion of flour and water. In other words, we have to get out there and mix around among the people, get a little wet, interact, form bonds with the majority, and help raise the entire mix.

    In most of the geography of the United States, Mormons are in the right proportions to the whole, and if we’re like yeast, we’re never going to be, or need to be, in a greater proportion.

    So we should get to it.

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