I grew up in a household with a steady stream of National Geographic magazines, sparking somewhat early curiosity and wanderlust. In my 4th grade time capsule I answered the question ‘If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?’ with the response, “Africa or Switzerland.” (For some reason Disneyland wasn’t even on my radar!) I knew enough about those two places from the magazines to know I was intrigued – the interesting people of Africa who lived a life completely different from mine, and the serene and charming beauty of Switzerland (and truthfully perhaps the cheese and chocolate.)
Having now visited more than 30 countries in all, began in college when I was fortunate enough to tour with a performing group from BYU, then stumbled into a major (anthropology) that fed this curiosity of people, and continued with the blessings of travel from a husband whose career has involved traveling.
I learned immediately from my first anthropology class that while “culture” is what brings a grouping of people together, it is in the finite nuances of a culture that we often find our differences – our traditions, how we respond to challenges, our local language, implied meanings, physical communication, assigned values of objects and ideals.
I remember my first impression of a “foreign country”, thinking everything felt so different yet somehow still the same. (Sidenote: Hilariously, it was Canada! And I’m from Seattle! Albeit, it was the French part – Quebec and Montreal.) The smells were different, the way things looked and felt were different, (the ketchup chips!!), but I found similarities. I saw grocery stores. Clothing stores. Cars. Trucks. Motorcycles. Husbands. Wives. Children. People hustling to what I assumed was work and school. Parks. Buildings. Streets. People buying and selling goods. I felt strangely at odds with myself as I felt both out of place and yet instinctively adapting.
Throughout our travels, we (my husband and I) have met and spoken with missionaries and couple missionaries, heard from Mission Presidents and Area Presidents, numerous Bishops, Stake Presidents, and ward members, and attended church in a variety of languages. We’ve seen several temples and even more ward houses and chapels. We have witnessed the similarities that unify the church and the differences that can strengthen us.
I sat in a sacrament meeting in Sweden fighting off jetlag, not understanding a single word (the only phrase I had learned at that point was Tack för maten – thanks for the food! That’s just the kind of gal I am…it’s all about the food.) But I found great relief when the hymn book was pulled out and I could slash my way through the language of a familiar song without even knowing the pronunciation of the words. I knew exactly what was being expressed as the sacrament was passed around an open-air chapel in Cambodia. I understood the purpose of the prayer offered over the bread and water in Italy.
On the heels of these similarities I noticed glaring differences from my own church experience. Entire families in Denmark rode bikes to church, even in the cold and rain. Church members in Cambodia expressed a sincere desire to go to the temple but knew that the long, costly journey would most likely never occur for them but maybe once, and only if they could manage to endure the extreme sacrifice and save enough money. Members from various countries sacrificed their holiday time to travel to another country to attend the temple, staying in patron housing and attending the temple daily for nearly a week. Members sacrificed to pay for the lengthy transportation to attend firesides and meetings.
I listened to a Relief Society president in Estonia as she worried about her ward members and one in particular that was having a hard time getting enough food for her family’s needs. She had many troubles to help sort out within her stewardship, but she continued to help with the extensive arrangements for the dedication of the Finland temple in the middle of these burdens – taking off work hours at her own expense in order to meet her church responsibilities. Her greatest desire was to have the members in her ward able to attend the temple. The temple in Finland would be easier to access with less time and money being spent. She was willing to make all of these sacrifices to help those blessings be available to her ward family.
While the foundations of the church worldwide are applied as a standard, administering of the day to day activities can often vary slightly from culture to culture. Ward cultures can vary between neighborhoods in the same city -the way a ward feels, or how it functions. Physical differences like ward houses that are not large buildings on open pieces of land but instead 2 or 3 floors of an office building on a condensed city corner, or a discrete building in remote neighborhood that sits behind locked and guarded gates. Members that walk a block to church, while others walk several miles, ride ferries, or bikes, or endure long bus rides at their expense, to spend an entire day in the city attending church. Some members enjoying long, leisurely showers and baths to prepare for the Sabbath while others take turns using the large bucket of water that was filled for the family. The church can look and feel slightly different from place to place, but the gospel itself does not differ. At the heart of the gospel, in light of small and big differences, stands a Heavenly Father who loves ALL of His children, who sent a Savior, even His Son, to atone for all of the misgivings of every person. The ordinance of the sacrament is the same no matter what language is spoken, no matter how the chapel looks, no matter how far the priesthood members have traveled to prepare it, or what the members look like. The bread and water still represent the great sacrifice that was made for us. The sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost is still available to those who want to receive it. (Even when the headphones provided by the interpreter don’t work.)
During a daily devotional on a student trip, I discovered a scripture that resonated with me immediately. It is still one of my favorites as it proclaims the love of a Heavenly Father for all of His children.
ALMA 26:37 “Now my brethren, we see that God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in; yea, he numbereth his people, and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth. Now this is my joy, and my great thanksgiving; yea, and I will give thanks unto my God forever. Amen.”
“…mindful of EVERY people…” During a trip to India I had a poignant experience that lead me to question this statement when visiting a shelter that housed abandoned and abused women and children. As we danced and played with these small children who had no trouble finding joy and smiles despite circumstance, I noticed a mother in the corner who very much struggled to find any joy. She was holding a small child who wasn’t moving much. I learned from one of the nurses that this was the mother of the vibrant and precocious boy I had been dancing with. The small child was his sister. She told me how in some of the rural and outer villages, the value a female child offers to a family’s financial well-being is still perceived as so little that when a mother is abandoned by a husband and has no support, she must choose — choose which child’s needs to attend to, which child to amply nourish and feed.
The natural choice is the boy as he will provide for her family one day. The boy who will be educated and thrive. This mother had been put in a heart-wrenching situation. The small girl, who appeared to be 18 months in size, was in fact almost 3 and so ill that she was not expected to survive much longer. I wept. I wept as I struggled to come to terms with how a loving Heavenly Father could watch this happen. How could this be the only option? I sorrowed over this for quite some time. I was driven to my knees and into the scriptures where I re-discovered yet again my favorite scripture. That same scripture that testified that Heavenly Father in fact knows and loves ALL of His children – each one. He knows the one. He knows us each individually. He loved her and her small, frail child. I found peace knowing He wanted them to return to His loving embrace, ready to accept the Atonement, and be with Him in His kingdom. All would be well for her again. The earthly trials must come. The suffering must be heavy. But hope and light can be found in a gospel that is quite literally available to all of His billions of children – a gospel that consists of His never ending love for His children.
David A. Bednar said in an address to a congregation in Reading, England in 2011 “But the keys of the kingdom were sent here to find a one. You don’t talk to a congregation; you talk to assembled ONES. So just go get one, who will get one, who will get one. And that’s how it works, and that’s how you establish the kingdom, and that’s ultimately how thousands come.”
Somehow, amidst the realization of how vast the world is and how many children He has, my testimony of His love of “the one” has increased. If we can have skin that is a different color, speak different languages, attend church in a variety of locations, have lives that look so very different from day to day, and still ALL be loved by our Heavenly Father, then surely none of those differences matter. Those differences can unite us – unite us as children who are loved by our Heavenly Father.
He loves the small Thai woman who, with her tribe in the northern mountains, sings a folk song about a golden book hidden in the mountain that she doesn’t know anything about yet. He loves the young French teenager who asked an LDS girl in an American square-dance costume about why she and her friends seemed so happy. He loves the beautiful woman from Czech Republic who came to see what all the excitement was at a local building where young men in white shirts wore cowboy hats and sandwich signs advertising a group of American musicians and dancers from BYU, drawing a news crew and a large crowd. That same woman who would later speak with one of those boys in white shirts and discover the gospel and decide to be baptized. That woman who would, almost 15 years after that amazing experience, find one of the musicians who had played with that group, back in Czech Republic, and tell him her life had changed that night. It changed because she felt the love of a Heavenly Father. She was “the one” that night. Heavenly Father loved her and cared about her. THAT is the essence of the gospel and it IS available worldwide to all of His billions of children. His love has no bounds.
Britney Wood is a mother to 6 children and recently started a business with one of her best friends. She loves traveling, reading, sewing, and laughing. She loves good food – both cooking and eating. She loves to wear aprons, loves textiles, and has a tablecloth collection from around the world. She loves her heritage, traditions, and being around kind people. She loves jazz and Broadway musicals but is the biggest fan of her fiddling husband. She can be found trying new recipes, driving kids around, or eating artichokes. Or carbs.
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