Home Teaching and the Miracle of Interruption

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Yesterday, I and another member of our church went to talk and counsel with a family in our congregation. (In Mormon parlance, this is called “home teaching” or “visit teaching.”) They’re a young couple, married less than a year. He was born and raised in the faith, but unfortunately also had made some bad choices and developed some addictive behaviors along the way–enough that he ultimately found himself in prison and excommunicated from the church. He’s now on parole, and it was through his and his extended family’s efforts that the woman he’d met and was dating chose to be baptized into the faith. Now they are expecting their first child, and the real difficulty of the path before them–the legal as well as spiritual one–as they make plans for their family has crashed down on them, hard. As it happens, I’m a little familiar with some of the behaviors that ultimately led him to place where he now finds himself, and I’d like to believe I was able to offer some solace and support. But it’s hard to tell. Our congregation’s boundaries were recently redrawn, and I was asked to take on some new responsibilities at church, and so I am suddenly meeting new people, confronting new problems. Thrust into this situation by choices I made–as, in a very different but still similar sense, this couple also find themselves confronted by the unexpected, despite all the ways in which their own choices put them in the place they are–I do the best I can….but you never know what will come of these interruptions.

Late last night, after returning home, I finish a movie I’d been watching over the previous two evenings: The Interrupters. It’s a harsh and difficult documentary to watch, but I finished it, thinking about the home teaching visit I’d completed hours before, and wished that I could find some way to show this movie (whose language is off-the-charts vulgar) to my fellow church members–all of whom are, in one way or another, asked to do what the characters in this film do: interrupt the lives of others. Walk into violence, or despair, or poverty, or confusion, or irresponsibility, or ignorance, and pose a challenge, send a message, offer a helping hand. The movie’s many parts build slowly, but by the end of the film’s two hours the different pieces of its tale of CeaseFire, the brave outreach organization which sends former gang members into the streets of Chicago to confront and heal violence, come together in a manner both haunting and inspiring.

Ammena Matthews is just one of those whose belief in her cause, her willingness to speak truth to the bad paths others are on, presents an example which ought to thrill and shame every Christian who has ever been in the position, and perhaps felt the expectation, or even had the responsibility, of standing up and calling out, of interrupting.

Here in the United States our Thanksgiving holiday is past, and for many the Christmas season has begun. Christmas means many things to me, but one of those many things is that wintertime, this season of endings and beginnings and gifts being given, is so often a time of quiet surprise. Of interruption, one might even say. The sudden freeze, the unexpected blizzard, the rush to get things done and then the unanticipated moment when it all halts and holds still. In the Mormon faith, those of us with home or visit teaching responsibilities are supposed to check in with one another at least once a month, and so of course–this being America–it’s become a rueful commonplace that every rushes to get things done at the end of each month. That’s what I was doing yesterday–but meeting and speaking with that young family slowed me down, put me on the spot, obliged me to speak more than just the usual rote pleasantries. If I interrupted them, they–their needs, their struggles–also interrupted me.

Nobody could ever mistake Hannah Arendt for a believing Christian, and yet in her political philosophy, she saw the root of all real, meaningful human action in the miracle of interruption: the unexpected moment when our own responsibilities and routines suddenly present us with moments of freedom, of being an authoritative actor in our own lives as well as others. Riffing on St. Augustine, she wrote:

Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe….God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning….[T]he human capacity which corresponds to this power, which, in the words of the Gospel, is capable of removing mountains, is not will but faith. The work of faith, actually its product, is what the gospels called “miracles,” a word with many meanings in the New Testament and difficult to understand. We can neglect the difficulties here and refer only to those passages where miracles are clearly not supernatural events but only what all miracles, those performed by men no less than those performed by a divine agent, always must be: namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected….Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a “miracle”–that is, something that could not be expected. (Arendt, “What is Freedom,” Between Past and Future, 1993, pp. 167-169)

Arendt, a secular Jew, made this Christian observation even more strongly–and, considering the present time of year, more seasonally appropriate–in The Human Condition, when she wrote about “unpredictability”: “The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural,’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted….Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope….that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with the Gospels announced their ‘glad tidings’: ‘A child has been born unto us.'” (p.247)

As anyone who knows anything about contemporary Mormonism can tell you, all of us grumble about home and visiting teaching–that it’s a chore and a hassle, that it’s ineffective and inauthentic, that it pulls us away from what we already know how to do and confronts us with the Sartrean hell that is other people. (Okay, maybe only I bring up Sartre, but you get the idea.) And for certain, there is a basis for all of those complaints. But going about my own “automatic process” yesterday put me before someone else, whose similar wish for some dependable routine has left him entangled him in painful legal and moral quandary, and–last night, at least–in need of someone to stick his arm out, cry halt, open a hand, and try to help pull him into a new place, to–in some small and hopeful way–perhaps even play midwife to the birth of something new, preceding the new actual birth in their family which will, one again, interrupt all that they imagine their daily automatic lives will be. That was a good thing, a real thing. Something I need more of. Jesus was, truly, the ultimate interruption; if I, or any of us, claim to be His people, then we need to take action, and watch for and be part of His continuing unpredictable and interruptive miracles, day by day.


  1. I loved the Interrupters. I watched it when it was first on PBS. Yes the language was harsh to Mormon ears, but I guess years of listening to victims of sexual assault, rape, incest and molestation has made me more aware of the tone of voice and intent, even when the words are vulgar. There are words that would never be said in church, that in some settings become almost holy communication , as they reach out in ways Mormon vernacular never could, at least to those communicating at that time.

    I am glad to hear that the experience was meaningful for you, and hopefully for the couple you visited. It always saddens me to hear visiting and home teaching dismissed as a rote thing, not really authentic as part of our religious practice. I have had some of the most faith building experiences of my life visiting and being visited. Even when I have had letter routes of people only willing to have contact with another church member through the mail, I have had unexpected blessings come into my life. I have hope that more people will allow themselves to interrupt their lives, and the lives of those the have stewardship towards. Rote visits are not likely to be life changing, but no one is forcing you to give up blessings by making them rote.

  2. Thanks for this, Russell. There’s a lot to ponder.

  3. Great thoughts to ponder for the end of the year. I really like Arendt’s definition of miracles as an interruption of an automatic process with an unexpected result.

  4. Russell: your post was moving, and the video shorts brought me to tears. Thank you for this beautiful meditation. I’ve got some calls to make.

  5. Jack Handley says:

    Home teaching, in my view, is the gospel in action. When we do it faithfully, we start doing it always, even to people we don’t home teach, like our extended families, other people we notice, etc. we also notice our own need to be fixed, and our own short comings–blessings indeed.

    The Interrupters are taking that timeless principle to heart.

  6. I LOVE the home/visiting teaching programs of the church! Best thing we have going for us, imo. You capture beautifully here one of the most beautiful reasons why that is.

  7. Meldrum the Less says:

    Is this about home teaching or the movie? Both?

    Seems to me that home teaching can be, but rarely is about “interruptions.” Is the point of the film (I have not seen) to change the path to hell people are walking down? I will definitely view this film. I doubt the language will be much of a problem since my family joined the LDS church long before the manifesto on swearing and some of us still speak the old Deseret dialect rather fluently. Not at church though.

  8. Nice comment. I did an interruption, at least once, home teaching. I was assigned to visit a woman, who lived through the block, whose husband was not a member. On my first visit she had me huddle in the corner with her kids out of earshot of her husband for a lesson. I knew this was wrong, so I set about to make friends with her husband, which was not hard since both of us were engineers. We became very close and remain close to this day. (We took, each, our four daughters on a camping trip together!) He did not join but his antipathy left. His daughters were brought up in the Church, he came to activities. I disrupted a bad cycle and left pleasure and happiness behind, as much as I could.

    So, what do you do with people who really do not like home teachers or the Church, who will never, ever, rekindle the magic? I really want to honor their decision and to leave them alone. I can never disrupt that rut and move them to a different understanding. Is this a proper decision on my part?

  9. Thanks for making me think this through RW, because I think there is a fine line between genuine friendship, and friendship by assignment. I don’t think you should leave inactive/former members/post members, however they label themselves, alone. I do share your general thought that those who have chosen to leave, and truly want no contact with the church, should be allowed to do so in peace. They shouldn’t be assigned visiting or home teachers, or “friends” that are really just there as ward missionaries in disguise. On the other hand, if they are willing to a have a specific kind of limited contact, then both sticking to the boundaries, and consistently following through on the contact they will accept, is extremely important.

    Christ does not abandon them, and so whether the time we spend with those who have left relates to the gospel or not, we should not abandon them either. I think that Christ would meet that person wherever they were, interact with them in whatever way they are willing to interact, and keep loving them no matter what choices they make. If they are making some choices that you can’t in good conscience participate in, let them know that you want to be with them when your lives intersect, and that you are looking for as many ways to do that as you can. Then follow through and do it! Find those intersections, put on your friend hat, and leave your missionary hat at home!

    If a sister is willing to have a visiting teacher send letters or cards, then it shouldn’t be some that *could* be done, it *is* done, by someone who will prayerfully and conscientiously write to them. Even if there is no reciprocation, they should be getting consistent letters, written to them after prayerfully consulting The Lord and asking for guidance from the Holy Ghost. (You can go here to read about a specific experience I had as a visiting teacher. http://www.poetrysansonions.com/2012/08/when-did-i-serve-you-remember.html?m=0

    I think that was the most authentic “interruption by mail” that I am aware of having been part of. With several thousand cards sent just to VT sisters, I suspect there may be several that happened without me knowing. My companion knows, so we are all good!)

    Whether it is sending a card to a friend, (member or not) a family member, or someone I VT, I constantly rely on the best companion a visiting teacher could have. (I have been lucky enough to have the Holy Ghost as my companion for every card or letter I have ever sent. ;-) A truly inspired companionship.) He leads me to the official VT message in the Ensign very occasionally, but usually He has other thoughts on the focus of a letter or card. I am the junior companion, so I try to follow His advice.)

    For example, this November I felt strongly prompted to send all but one of the sisters on my route information about the changes to the new curriculum and missionary ages, (http://www.poetrysansonions.com/2012/11/november-visiting-teaching-excitement.html?m=0 ) but that didn’t change making them each a card, praying and fasting as I get ready to write to each of my sisters, and saying a separate prayer before I write each card or letter so that my companion is fully present while I write.

    In each letter or card, (most months I send out at least two) I include all my contact info. Every other month I include a stamp, a self addressed envelope, as well as a hand made card and an extra envelope. Every letter I send is handwritten, and there are always several stickers on the envelope. No chance it will be mistaken for junk mail!

    I find that I am always blessed as I follow through on my commitment, daily, to serve these sisters that Christ has asked me to watch over. My life is “interrupted” by constantly thinking about women I don’t know, but who the Savior and Holy Ghost know intimately. The fact that I never know which letter, which card, which extra sticky note of information I feel prompted to include, will be the one that gets there on just the day it is needed, means that I assume each one is vital to the person on the other end of the mailbox. (This refers to the story in the first link.)

    RW, your question ended up leading to a much longer post, and the outlines for a few more, (this comment in a small portion of that). I will post my entire response this weekend, and can post the link(s) here if you are interested.

  10. Meldrum,

    I suspect you will like the film. ;-)

    Being an Interruptor is not about huge life path changes necessarily, it is about knowing when something isn’t right or is on the cusp of something that has a point of no return, and interrupting that event. It is a confrontation of those who are at the point of violence, even killing, and speaking truth to those who are going to do the violence or killing. It is confronting the gang that is about to retaliate for a shooting and reminding them that this is their home, that there are innocent children around who will be killed in a gang war, that they don’t want to go to prison, but even more they don’t want to take the lives of those who are innocent.

    What struck me most about the movie is that the confrontation is only a tiny fraction of what it means to be an Interruptor. You can’t be in the place to stop the violence if you don’t know your neighbors and neighborhood. You have to understand the inner workings of the gangs, drug trafficking, and economic forces in the neighborhood. You have to know the people on all sides, by their names. By knowing their names, who their families are, you are showing them that you see them as people, and not just another black kid who was murdered or became a murderer.

    You can only be successful if you relate to them as equals. Just as you have to know them, you have to open up and let them know you. You can’t try to hide behind a perfect veneer of well spoken words, platitudes and evasions. They have to see the ways you are broken, the levels you have sunk to, the things you are most ashamed of, the real person inside of you who is and has been just as sure of being worthy as they have. You have to put all of yourself into knowing them and allowing them to know you, so that when you speak truth to them, you are speaking as one of them. They can accept your wisdom because it is from someone who can see the world the way you do, and has a better plan than the one they are interrupting.

    In my last comment I linked to the story of a woman was a letter only visiting teacher to for a relatively short time. I could have put my best Julia Molly Mormon slant to my cards and letters, encouraging her to read the scriptures, study and pray and she could be just as wonderful as my perfect self. If I had, I never would have influenced her life in any meaningful way. Either she would have decided that I really did live up to the Molly Mormon standard, in which case I could never understand her situation. Or, she could have seen me as fake, someone who is broken inside but is hiding it deep, trying to pretend it wasn’t there. If I was hiding it, because it was too shameful to admit it existed, then how could I have given her credible advice, hope or courage that she could face her brokenness?

    I certainly am not saying you have to go around shouting out all of your past sins to everyone. Thank goodness we have the Holy Ghost to help us know the right times, places and people to share. What we have to be careful of is hiding them from ourselves, pretending that we don’t really need the Atonement, or convincing ourselves that we are not broken. Interrupters don’t have the luxury of pretending to be perfect, not if they want to do their job. I think the same could be said of visiting teachers, home teachers, and anyone who professes to take upon them the name of Christ.

    If we go about our lives trying to convince everyone that we are just fine (practically perfect in everyway anyone?) then how can we testify of the deep healing of the Atonement? It is only when we can discuss the deep healing of catastrophic brokenness from sin, sorrow, grief, pain and the consequences of the sins of others, that we can then offer the hope of that healing to those who are as broken as we are, or were at some point.

    As an Interrupter, we can start helping to change small decisions, help others see the results of the small change for good, and eventually it may impact every part of that person’s life. To do that though, we have to have done the hard work of fixing ourselves enough to become credible carriers of the title Interrupter.

  11. Juliathepoet (#10),

    What struck me most about the movie is that the confrontation is only a tiny fraction of what it means to be an Interruptor. You can’t be in the place to stop the violence if you don’t know your neighbors and neighborhood. You have to understand the inner workings of the gangs, drug trafficking, and economic forces in the neighborhood. You have to know the people on all sides, by their names….You can only be successful if you relate to them as equals. Just as you have to know them, you have to open up and let them know you. You can’t try to hide behind a perfect veneer of well spoken words, platitudes and evasions. They have to see the ways you are broken, the levels you have sunk to, the things you are most ashamed of, the real person inside of you who is and has been just as sure of being worthy as they have.

    Thank you! This comment of yours really sums up, with far deeper insight and far more succinctly than my original post did, the logic of “interruption.” The miracle of action (including, but not being limited to, such actions as repentance and change) which it seems to me interruption both represents and makes possible is only very, very rarely some spontaneous miracle; more usually it is a hard-won one. If I never home teach the family I mentioned in the original post again, never visit with them again, never make space in my life for them again, then what has happened wasn’t an interruption of their (and my) “automatic” routines; instead it was just an aberrant moment, something which might have meant something miraculous, but of course didn’t. The interrupters in the film are people who genuinely live and suffer and pray and serve alongside those whose life trajectories they want to get off their automatic paths. The young woman who Ameena Matthews spends the most time with in the film is a focus of her attention for years–through failure at school, through jail time, through all sorts of difficult moments. This is a point which the organizers of CeaseFire make over and over again to the cameras–that they make use of former criminals and gang members because such people can sit down with those who desperately need an interruption and speak their language, relate to their neighborhoods, “relate to them as equals” as you say.

    You can find all sorts of support for this insight in the scriptures, and it can play out in all sorts of ways as we think about and reconsider our own Christian service. It ought to give pause to home and visit teaching assignments, or missionary postings, that go through frequent transfers and changes. It’s something that we ought to be able to see in the life of Jesus Himself, in fact. Surely, God could have “interrupted” the work of sin in this world in any number of ways; but what He did was come to earth and live here alongside His own creation, and then He died here right alongside us as well, and by so doing gave us a route and guidance and power to find salvation. That isn’t a rush-to-get-it-done-before-the-end-of-the-month kind of thing! That’s a miraculous interruption, a miracle of grace, that came through time and work and risk and blood. Ultimately, in our bourgeois American Mormon lives, we need to find the resources to be able to do the same.

  12. Meldrum the Less says:

    In 1995 we moved into our current house, where my children were the only LDS students in the school. I grew up in a small Mormon town and l was in the military where friendships are formed (and lost) quickly and so I started making friends with the neighbors. It seemed that everyone was too busy to take much notice of their neighbors. One guy 3 doors down seemed to share my hope that maybe the neighborhood could have more of a sense of community. He organized a block party and I helped and it was well attended, a good first step.

    Shortly after that we invited the full-time missionaries over for dinner. I got stuck in traffic and was late. They have rules not to go in homes with a woman without her husband present and are under pressure not to waste time. While waiting they tracted out my neighborhood with no results. Later, dinner was fine and I didn’t think much of it.

    But I noticed a change in the attitude of my neighbors, a distinct cool breeze blowing my way after that. One cranky old lady who often complained about imperfections in my yard told me that the entire neighborhood didn’t appreciate me sending my missionaries to visit them. To make matters worse the Jehovah Witness Kingdom Hall is not far away and we get tracted out by them a few times a year. Frankly, it is tiresome every time we see them working the street and I can’t help that we Mormons are easily confused with them.

    The friendly guy who organized the block party died of colon cancer and his wife moved away. The neighbors on either side of us have both moved twice and the current residents are younger. One wants to heavily prune our massive oak tree which is protected and my daughter nicknamed him “the lumberjack.” He was over helping me with a ladder and it tipped over and damaged one of my wife’s sacred Camella bushes. i quickly sawed the branch off and swore the lumberjack to secrecy; telling him if he thought he had problems with my wife and the oak tree, wait until she finds out about this! The other neighbors claim my tree leaves and mulching practices create mold that aggravates their small chlid’s asthma. We have managed to foster an alliance between our neighbors against us and our huge trees.

    Another interruption: Several of the little girls who grew up on our street happened to be 1 or 2 years older than my daughter. On the Junior High bus they tormented her and this overweight Jewish girl named Robin because their names were plants and animals. To counteract this mild verbal bullying, I suggested to my daughter to rename these little snots: Magnolia (Martha), Sassafras (Stephanie), Catalpa (Katherine) etc. and they managed to make these nick names stick. It helped my daughter survive a rough year on the bus but it did not improve our social standing in the neighborhood except with the parents of Robin, who are rather clannish with their numerous Jewish friends. A few years later we had the “honor” of Swastikas and phallic symbols being spray-painted on our house, tree trunk, grass, and car along with a few other Jewish families in the area. Probably high school pranksters who were never caught.

    A few weeks ago I attended “The Great Day of Service” organized by the local Methodist church and discovered one of my neighbors only a few houses away was the crew leader I was assigned to work under. I was embarassed that I didn’t even know his name but we have started a friendship after all of these years. I see him out walking his dog while I run after dark many evenings. It is a two-words-at-a-time friendship.

    I think “interruptions” can go in multiple directions. My Mormonness is a social barrier that I have difficulty overcoming, and yet my unorthodox views at church isolate me within my own tribe. I think religious tracting has interrupted the sense of community I might have been able to promote in my neighborhood, along with a few other things. Well meaning door-to-door tracting has a hidden price. It is not just neutral for many of the people who are not interested. Tracting leaves a stench in the air long after you dust your heels. and move to another area. It might have been worth it when we were entirely unknown and visits were once in a life time, but at this point I suggest it is not worth it. My current “interruption” is that I have asked the missionaries when they visit not to tract on my street because they get transferred every few months but I have to live here for many more years. They look at me like I am crazy.

  13. Meldrum has made a valid point. If he (and other ward members) had gotten to know his neighbors (or others) and offered to share the gospel with them, the missionaries wouldn’t have had to go tracting in his neighborhood. As it is, it seems awkward because it looks as if he’s too cowardly to say something to their faces, so he just sent the missionaries after them and pretended it never happened. The neighbors would very rightly wonder “what’s up with that”.

    Missionaries wouldn’t tract if they had better things to do. They’d have better things to do if we’d find them people to teach.

  14. Kaphor-

    I don’t think your comment fits in anywhere in the conversation about Interruptors, except in the sense that missionaries *can* be Interuptors, but most often are not. We like to mythologized missionaries as so closely aligned with the Spirit that they will always be led by the Spirit to do good things. We don’t have a place in our Mormon lexicon to fit the damage missionaries can do because they *don’t know* the people and communities they are serving in, and so often they are viewed as just another do-gooder, trying to talk about changes that aren’t relevant to the people or community they enter.

    The reason why investigators that are “found” by members are more likely to join the church is that they are more likely to be approached on their own terms, in their own language, in their own timeframe. That can only happen if friendships are built and strengthened by getting to know someone on their own terms, and waiting for a signal from the person, who you now know well enough to call a friend, that they are interested in something you have. If Meldrum, or any of us, want to share the gospel with our friends, we first have to make and be friends who are loving and accepting, without any missionary requirement somewhere in the friendship. Communities and people can take a long time to know, especially when their culture is fundamentally different.

    That isn’t to say that I think missionary work should stop, either from full-time missionaries or members. I hope for more nuanced missionary work, with less tracting and more service. I am encouraged that some missions have cut or eliminated tracting requirements or goals. Our missionaries have asked us to let them know of ANY community service projects, not just LDS run ones, that they can join or volunteer at. We are in a downtown branch of students, singles, older folks whose kids are grown and gone (if they had them) and a variety of other people who have chosen to live downtown and don’t have a reason that requires them to go to a family ward. (I am sure Meldrum will be glad to hear that the mission president gave his missionaries that are Eagle Scouts to sign up as merit badge counselors so they can volunteer with the Methodist sponsored troop that focuses on high risk youth.)

    With the missionary surge coming, I am glad that the church has been encouraging more volunteering with people and organizations who are not LDS. I hope that the surge bring even more focus on understanding and loving the people in an area, and finding ways to work alongside those who are also a vital part of the fabric of the community, rather than tracting indiscriminately, without understanding the negative possibilities.

  15. To follow-up on #14 and continue that threadjack (sorry, Russell), fwiw, the following are excerpts from two posts on my personal blog abount missionary work:

    “If I could change one thing about our missionary “program”, it would be to encourage our members to invite people to attend church with them and read the Book of Mormon cover to cover – only introducing them to full-time missionaries after they had expressed interest in learning more.”

    “Be confident enough to ask others to back off and let you be the one who lets them know when direct missionary discussions and conversations are appropriate. Seek that understanding actively.”

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