I’ve been in well over 20 wards in my relatively short lifetime. Some I remember fondly, others…….not so fondly. The last two wards in which my family and I have resided have been eye-opening experiences for my wife. She’s had strongly (though not exclusively) negative experiences with ward members. I’m sure most of you are familiar with these in some way or another; they are unfortunately not exceptional: purposive exclusion, gossip, derisive comments, biting criticism, cold indifference, etc. We’ve experienced the same to varying degrees in other wards, but in these two cases she has had the opportunity for the first time to become a member of communities of women outside of the Church. What she found, for her, was astonishing; these women were welcoming of her in ways that so many women in our wards had not been. When they discovered she was a Mormon (a point she did not readily volunteer at first, fearing a backlash), there was mostly just curiosity, though occasionally peppered with fascinating conversations with the Christian women in these groups about shared and cherished values and beliefs.
She has struggled to reconcile her experiences with these non-Mormon women–women who have not covenanted to love her, to mourn with her, to comfort her, but do so freely and eagerly nonetheless–with her experiences among so many brothers and sisters in the church who have done far less, and often quite the opposite. Of course, she would be the first to insist that there have been many fellow members with whom she has bonded and mutually loved in these ways. But there have been quite enough experiences which signal that, as a people, we seem to have a long, long, way to go before we see Zion.
The recent Pew Survey on Mormons in America reveals that while largely “satisfied with their lives and content with their communities,” “many Mormons feel they are misunderstood, discriminated against and not accepted by other Americans as part of mainstream society.” This predominantly collective sense of discrimination has been informally dubbed the “Mormon persecution complex,” arising, I presume, out of the initial Missouri degradations and continuing through U.S. government persecution of a polygamous LDS Church through to the end of the nineteenth century. Following the gradual end of polygamy, a general cultural and religious stigma regarding Mormons seemed to remain, despite Mormonism’s outrageously successful assimilation into American society. However, as many Mormons tiredly continue to point out to fellow anxious Mormons, cultural and religious ignominy is not the same as the material and substantive persecution of the nineteenth century. Not with so many Mormons becoming increasingly visible in government, business, entertainment, sports, the arts, etc., and especially not with the vast majority of mainstream Mormons blending so successfully into American society.
That point, however, is moot. Even if Mormons begin to experience genuine, nineteenth-century style persecution or worse, a much more urgent and relevant task remains perpetually before us, one that relegates concern for public perception or physical external persecution to the background: the task of Zion.
There are too many holes, gaps, forgotten souls, and festering wounds in our own community for us to be overly concerned about what nonresidents are thinking and doing. Not that public perception is simply of no concern, but our reasons for desiring a certain national and international comprehension of us as a people must be tied inextricably to how important we consider the internal construction of Zion to be. The wounds we incur in the houses of our friends are always deeper and more destructive than the cuts and stings of distant and foreign opponents. What would it look like to the world, in any case, if this inner cleansing and establishing of Zion was the public face of Mormonism? One particular social community is a remarkably enlightening example.
The Lil’wat Peoples Movement is the largest political group amongst the Stl’atl’imx people, the indigenous people of British Columbia’s western dry belt.  They have historically been faced with the tragically typical misfortunes of native groups in the West–epidemic suicides, alcoholism, systemic racism, substandard living conditions and education, encroachment on traditional lands by government and other groups, etc. The Lil’wat do work vigorously and publicly to overcome these conditions and fight against imposing external forces to the best of their ability. However, they do not bemoan their genuine victimhood. Instead, they use the commission incumbent upon them because of traditional and ancestral duties to ask themselves where they have failed to meet their obligations to others. This is the united face they present to the world, and the principal way they have chosen to battle oppression and stay true to their identity.
In response to opposition to the building of an LDS temple in Stockholm, Sweden in 1985, New Testament scholar and Church of Sweden Bishop Krister Stendahl advocated that we leave room for “holy envy” of other faiths, meaning that you purposively recognize elements of other faith traditions that you admire and would like to see incorporated into your own tradition. Perhaps, as in the case of the Lil’wat people, we might adopt a particular holy envying that exemplifies belief in the constant collective transformation and edification of a community and the physical, emotional, and religious redemption of each and every one of its members.
Our understanding of being a covenant people likewise creates particular obligations and understandings of our role in the world. Thus, the building of Zion should be a united inward task that is inseparable from the face we present to the world and ways we seek to make a difference in it. Repentance is the heart of the gospel; it should seize and unsettle us at every level–individually, as families, and as a community.  When our attitude and orientation to what matters most as members of the church is one of seeking to cleanse the inner vessel first, any inordinate concern for negative or positive public perception is replaced with a serious concern for our own standing before God and the Zion God has always and will always want us to build. The internal construction of Zion then becomes inextricably entangled with the ways in which we relate and reach out to the world. These dual elements are beautifully combined in Doctrine and Covenants 45:
And it shall be called the New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the Saints of the Most High….And it shall come to pass that the righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy (66, 71).
Perhaps then, for example, when we see encroachments on religious freedoms we will be first in line to defend other minority communities (e.g., Muslims and other religious minorities) and their rights to free association and assembly, defending them as a community who unequivocally knows both what it is like to be a religiously stigmatized group in America and precisely to what religious tasks it is called. The world would thus recognize the face of Zion as a refuge for all peoples precisely because its original architects have engineered it as such for themselves.
 This example was provided to me in a recent conversation with a friend.