When I was counselor in the Belgium-Netherlands mission presidency, the mission president asked me one day to handle the following. He had received a letter from a Utah family informing him that they had hosted a Belgian student as part of a high school exchange program. The family was “super excited” to tell the mission president that they had succeeded in converting the girl to the church. She had been baptized! But now that the girl was about to return home, it appeared that her Belgian parents were “very upset”. So, would the mission president please make sure that the girl would be welcomed in her new ward in Belgium since she “might face some opposition at home”?
It was not the first time I was confronted with such a situation. My reaction was plain: this girl should never have been baptized during the time she was in the exchange program even if she was of legal age (18) to make her own decision.
The reasons are obvious.
Toward the student’s family abroad, a host family should realize the devastating dimension of trying to change the religion of a young person entrusted to their care. Imagine the effect on Mormon parents if their teenage son or daughter, sent away for what is meant as a safe intercultural experience, is being maneuvered by the host family to reject Mormonism and to become, for example, an evangelical, a scientologist, or an atheist. The choice and value of the religion or ideology as such is not the issue here. In the eyes of the student’s parents, the issue is luring teenagers into betraying their family’s cultural heritage and identity while they are in a vulnerable situation, isolated from home, and unable to objectively assess the consequences of their decision.
That is why strict rules govern secondary school student exchange programs in order to protect the physical, cultural, and emotional integrity of the participants who are, in most cases, between 15 and 18 years of age. The U.S. Department of State has a long set of criteria for such programs. Information to be collected from host family candidates includes their willingness to disclose their religious affiliation and to respect the religious affiliation of the exchange student. The regulation under Appendix F adds this note: “A host family may want the exchange visitor to attend one or more religious services or programs with the family. The exchange visitor cannot be required to do so, but may decide to experience this facet of U.S. culture at his or her discretion.” Most exchange programs are particularly sensitive to this issue, as they are well aware of the conflicts that may arise over religion, and have therefore the explicit rule that religious conversion is prohibited during the stay, even with parental permission and even if the student is of legal age.
If the exchange student wants to “experience this [religious] facet of U.S. culture” and decides to participate to a certain extent in the Mormon religious lifestyle (attending church or youth conferences, join in Scripture reading and prayer…), that is certainly commendable, but there is no reason to see this as a proselytizing opportunity.
Of course, even without proselytizing aims, there is a chance the student will be impressed and at one point feel the spirit in one way or another. But we must realize that Mormon life in a well-organized ward, with plenty of youth, experienced youth leaders, and smoothly running programs, is usually a far cry from what the church can offer in the student’s home country. Over the years I have seen several cases where an exchange student, converted to this “exciting” Mormonism while being in the U.S., could not adapt to the reality of the local, small and struggling church unit and drifted away, with renewed tensions during the process, adding to the emotional turmoil.
A disturbing fact is that the church gives the impression not to have problems with the conversion of an exchange student baptized while being abroad, even against the will of her parents, as told in this Ensign story. In that case it was “a fellow student”, not a host family, who showed the way to the Mormon church. Even so, she was baptized while being abroad and against her parents’ wish. The narrator uses the argument of Matthew 19:29 – to forsake father and mother for my name’s sake – to justify the decision. Can this scripture be used in this context? It seems disingenuous for a church that promotes family unity. The Ensign story, as can be expected, turns out well in the long run, but does that validate the initial process? I am sure more such “success stories” can be told. But untold in our publications remain the cases where the conversion of an exchange student led to lasting familial tragedy or where inactivity in the church was the painful outcome.
Mormon families who feel driven by the rhetoric of “every member a missionary” should realize there are also boundaries of appropriateness and respect. It seems much more effective if an exchange student, accepted in a Mormon family, can return home with the memories of a fun, normal, and tolerant family. No doubt numerous Mormon families profile themselves that way. I would hope the overzealous are the exception. But every exception is one too much.
All of the preceding is not to say that living in a host family should avoid the experience of difference. Indeed, the main rationale of an exchange program is to broaden the horizon, step into a different culture, and learn to appreciate how other people live – within the set boundaries.
All of the preceding is neither to say that later conversion to the church is prohibited. But the step to do so must come from the student personally once back in his or her home country and after adequate preparation to also understand the circumstances of the local church unit. If he or she is still a minor, parental permission to teach and to baptize must first be obtained. Moreover, trying to gently involve the parents in the process, even if it takes more time, could be much more rewarding for all involved.
Perhaps it would be helpful (and legally protective for the church) if the Handbook of Instructions could say something like:
Mormon families hosting non-Mormon exchange students should not try to convert them, even if they are of legal age. Exchange students cannot be required to attend religious services or programs. If students show interest in the church, neutral information can be given since one of the aims of exchange programs is to learn about other cultures. The missionaries should not be involved.
If exchange students want to join the church, this should not take place during the time of their stay. After they return to their home country, these students are free to contact the church, but the initiative to do so is solely theirs. The host family should not inform church members in that country nor the missionaries of the name and address of the student.