Shelly B. is a mother of two who works with university math departments to improve K-12 math instruction. We’re glad she shared these thoughts with us.
Could a traveling October General Conference help members around the world feel more included and valued?
When word spreads that a new bishop is going to be called, Mormon wards in the United States awaken with excitement and speculation. So it is not surprising that the excitement in the Mormon world over the calling of three new apostles in conference sent speculation soaring through the roof. With all the anticipation, there was bound to be disappointment among some members when their favorite seventy wasn’t called.
Much of the negative commentary on the choice of new apostles however all centered on a common theme. Some members felt disappointment that the new apostles weren’t more representative of the increasingly worldwide church. Whatever your view on the choice of apostles, it’s clear there is a desire from many members for the church to more visibly display its international status. So how do you help members around the world feel more included and represented? There’s obviously no easy fix. Even if three racially and ethnically diverse men had been called, that’s still 3 among 15. (4 if you count Uchtdorf) So it’s going to take a lot of little things to help those who feel hurt, concerned, or excluded feel more accepted and valued.
One interesting idea for a small, but meaningful change would be to hold October General Conference in a different location every year. Obviously, conference in Salt Lake City makes the most sense logistically. The church has an army of volunteers, a gigantic free facility, and all the necessary infrastructure. The Motab is based there as well as Church Headquarters. Most general authorities live there, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on flights and accommodations. Mormons around the world gather in Utah for mission reunions, family reunions, and more. The church already has an army of security personnel ready to go. For these reasons, keep Spring General Conference in Utah.
Imagine for a minute however if during the Sunday afternoon session of this last conference, Monson stood up and announced that the next October General Conference would be broadcast from Brazil or Japan or Nigeria. Members go ballistic if a temple they will never visit is announced. Imagine the excitement such an announcement would cause. More importantly however, think of the members from that country as they realize the whole church will be tuning into their country. Imagine the impact on missionary work it would have there. Imagine how loved and valued they would feel.
Fast forward a year and imagine an auditorium full of people who look and dress differently than the audience that gets panned over during broadcasts. Imagine all the prayers and choir performances being in that country’s language. Perhaps the choir would even sing hymns less common in America, but common in that country. Instead of an organ, instruments favored by that region might be used. Perhaps the meeting could even be conducted in the native tongue by whoever the highest ranking local authority is. A local leader could even speak if no general authorities are from that country.
Obviously, the list of logistic questions would be lengthy, but Mormons are great at organizing and solving logistical problems. The vast majority of speakers would likely not be able to speak the country’s language, but their talks could easily dubbed or subtitled the way that the recent foreign language talks are currently translated. Americans might have to watch a delayed broadcast due to time zones. Some authorities might not have the health to travel, but a prerecorded version of their talk could be shown. The church would have to limit travel to auxiliary presidencies, apostles, and select members of the seventy who are speaking. The church would undoubtedly run up quite a bill on security, facility rental, travel, and hundreds of other things.
With so many costs and issues, would it be worth it or would the purpose merely be to have one more thing to stir up Mormon member anticipation, wagers, and speculation? I contend that it would be worth the costs and that this is exactly the type of thing the church should be spending money on. When girls see only male engineers and math professors, they believe math isn’t something they can succeed at. Before Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, how many black kids felt like they wanted to take up golf or tennis? How many would feel welcome practicing in a country club? Countless studies show that seeing people who look like you involved or leading a group is important to feeling like you belong. I’m not sure black kids are clawing to play tennis now, but it’s a start.
Having significant representation of members who share your racial, ethnic, or cultural background on television is not the equivalent of Mormons feeling excited when David Archuleta is on American Idol. It’s a symbol that you belong, are valued, and understood. It helps a little to dispel feelings that the church only understands Utah problems. It helps lessen feelings of exclusion stemming from blacks only recently receiving the priesthood or false doctrine about their righteousness in the preexistence. It is profoundly important.
In the last few years, the church has released 3 new temple videos. Why so many? One likely reason is to prevent members from taking directorial choices to be the gospel truth. Seeing three different depictions of the events reminds viewers that we aren’t to confuse a director’s choice to cast a blond actor or decorate a scene a certain way to mean it was really that way. Separating the culture of the church from the eternal truth of the gospel is not easy as many things subconsciously become linked.
Since the only international broadcast each year is General Conference, many members’ only exposure to church leaders is through Conference. Members could easily associate common American dress, hairstyles, pulpit decor, music style, mannerisms, speaking styles, etc. as being THE correct way to do things in the church. Even if a member’s country was not chosen, seeing different cultural representations of Conference would help members realize that they don’t have to assimilate American culture to be a part of the church. Their own unique culture not only is acceptable but beneficial to the church as a whole.
Will this idea solve the problem of diversity in the church? Absolutely not. It would however be a step along that long path.