Ten years ago this month, I left the United States. I didn’t abscond with the church funds, run off with a senator’s wife, or kill a man. I explained my decision to move abroad in my first post at BCC:
I left the United States in August 2001 because of a serious case of restlessness. I was 31 and single; I had just finished my MA and thrived as a high school English and Media Studies teacher … but the restlessness haunted me. I considered several options, all of which left me with a stupor of thought. Then I heard about international schools and off I went to Finland, never having been here before. After two happy years I married a Finnish Mormon and we moved to London, planning to globe hop until our feet itched no more. The birth of twins and the ensuing chaos cured us, and when I was offered a job back here, it smelled like a blessing. And, dear reader, so it has been.
Four years and two more kids later, it’s still all good. As I’ve considered this moment and what it’s meant for me over the last ten years, I have no regrets. That’s not to say that life would have been miserable had I stayed in the US, but I like the life of an expat. I’ve found a balance between going native and remaining obstinately American, being connected to the various communities around me and yet apart from them at the same time. The interplay between culture and behavior, both in individuals and groups, still fascinates me as much as it did when I first went abroad as a missionary some 20 years ago, and as I’ve gained language skills and some cultural friction here, it becomes more intriguing and rewarding.
This is as true for my Mormon experience as it is generally. The casual visitor to a Helsinki ward would recognize the church as they know it most places in North America. The wards are large and stable with core families, many second and third generation members and return missionaries, unlike so many of the branches I’ve visited in other parts of Europe. Visiting on any given Sunday, one would be forgiven for repeating the familiar mantra, ‘The church is the same wherever you go!’
Except it’s not.
Some differences are true for Mormons everywhere but the United States: very few of my ward members have attended BYU or a CES course, and even fewer have a relationship with any General Authority, past or present. We have no welfare farms, bishop’s storehouses, early morning seminary or church sports leagues. There is no Deseret Books or Meridian Magazine or food storage industry in Finnish. None of my fellow ward members have ancestors that crossed the plains or practiced polygamy. Pioneer Day passes without recognition. As a result, local Mormon culture has a different aspect, smaller and more compact in the lives of Mormons.
Other differences are more specific to the local culture. It would be almost unheard of for one ward member to criticize another, for the way they dress or how their children behave, for instance. This isn’t because our ward members are more virtuous, but because confrontation like that is anathema to Finnish culture. Likewise, politics and the more controversial elements of social criticism rarely come up in church, but they rarely come up socially anywhere. Member-missionary efforts are even more dire here than most places as discussing religion publicly is nearly a taboo. Baby blessings are a very big deal as it ‘matches’ the Lutheran christening, a huge part of Finnish culture. I laughed when my wife told me that no men attended stake girl’s camp as chaperones: it just hadn’t occurred to anyone to do so, which I think is a byproduct of the status of Finnish women in society. People don’t shake hands when they meet. Every year, we sing a few hymns not in the hymnbook that are sung in churches on the same Sunday in churches across the country. And of course High Priest’s Sauna Night is the best church activity ever.
What is the relationship between Mormon culture and the wider culture? It’s complex. I don’t want to understate the very real cultural sacrifices members here make when they join the church and live its principles. If American Mormonism is lurching toward normality, in most of the world it remains completely marginal. But at the same time, the culture of the people does have an influence on how the doctrines of Mormonism play out on a Sunday and in the homes of the members.
President Hinkley once said, ‘[T]he lives of our people must become the most meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.’ As a result, the broad cultural experiences of individual Mormons mixes with the Mormonism, creating a different experience, although sometimes slightly so, wherever one goes. And that, I think, is a good thing.