Our worldwide missionary effort is plurilingual. The Church has always been involved in outreach efforts to other tongues, now translating material into 185 languages. There are wards and branches, led in the local idiom, in 165 countries.
The matter, however, is more intricate when we deal with foreigners living in a host society with its own dominant language. A Korean branch in Provo, a Latino stake in California, an American ward in Brussels, a Russian Sunday School in Berlin. The Church has been struggling with two policies in this respect: Assimilation or separation?
In this post I will use foreign generically for persons with a different lingual background, even if such persons have become established citizens. Local applies to the official, dominant language. Unit means a branch or ward.
Assimilation, by having foreigners attend the local unit, is meant to help them with their integration in the host society, not only for the language, but also to acquire new sociocultural skills, expand their knowledge, enjoy the benefits of a broader network. The process should also hasten the full assimilation of the second generation. The locals, moreover, can learn to work with ‘foreigners’, find ways to better integrate them, and through the multicultural experience enrich their own lives.
Separation, by organizing a lingual unit, allows foreign investigators and members to be taught in their own language, ensures better understanding of the Gospel and usually much more participation. People can express themselves with ease – for prayers, testimonies, talks, class discussions. They feel at home and accepted. Retention is high.
However, the disadvantages of both approaches are apparent as well.
Assimilation may leave foreigners feeling isolated in the local unit, struggling with acculturation, sometimes even facing unintended forms of discrimination. Callings which could provide valuable experience are less frequent because of language and cultural barriers. Sometimes the children are not easily accepted in their peer group. For the locals it is not always simple to approach foreigners in the most appropriate way. Some foreigners, usually those who have lived for a long time in the host country, want to be treated as fully integrated and not be reminded of their foreign origin (‘Where are you from? I like your accent!’). Not to speak of questions that assume backwardness (‘Do you have TV in your country?’) or that tend to folklorize the foreigner. A major issue is retention. When the Church decided, in 1972, to discontinue the Spanish-speaking units in the U.S. and integrate these members in local wards, the consequence on retention was catastrophic. The policy was subsequently reversed a few years later. See Jessie Embry’s book for details.
Separation has drawbacks too. The group may be too small to be viable and will struggle along. There may not be enough experienced members for proper leadership. But even if those problems can be overcome, the major concern is that separation can result in segregation and cultural isolation. Perhaps not too important for an older generation of first immigrants, the matter may become problematic for the younger generation as it leads to ghettoization. Many people will never or only partially assimilate in the mainstream. That undermines the opportunities for education and better jobs, also creating a divide that fosters misconceptions about the “other” community. Those Latinos. Those gringos.
Moreover, both in the case of assimilation and separation, the foreigners themselves may have internal tensions. A rift may develop between those still close to their original culture and those who are assimilating. The former are looked upon as backwards, the latter as cultural traitors.
In its organization of lingual units the Church has been struggling with the choice between assimilation or separation. Though assimilation seems to have been the preferred course for some time, the pressure from foreigners to establish or keep own units has been vigorous. Closing a foreign unit and asking people to join the local congregation leads to inactivity. And retention is now a sensitive issue.
In the background, also applicable to Utah, is the heated discussion on “English only“. Some find it an unnecessary discussion because, they claim, overtime the next generations will assimilate anyway and speak only English. In their opinion Spanish will disappear from Utah since the American melt pot has shown this natural assimilation for a few centuries now. I am not so sure. In times past there was no way to escape anglification, but this is not true any more. The media now provide easy access to the home language (Hispanophones have Spanish TV, internet, radio in streaming audio) and people enjoy increasing services in Spanish. The Church itself, through e.g. the organization of Luz de las Naciones for all Hispanic congregations along the Wasatch Front, sends a strong signal of acceptance of the current situation. At the same time consciousness of national and cultural identity is being promoted, diminishing the need to assimilate.
A quick side comparison with Europe. I come from a country where issues between lingual communities have dominated politics for more than a century. Once such communities demand rights on the basis of their lingual and cultural entity – social, educational, economic rights – that have to be negotiated, clashes are unavoidable. But the present main challenge is the immigrants. All over Europe millions of newcomers (esp. from Islamic countries) now form expanding lingual and cultural communities with their own schools, churches, satellite TV channels, internet… outside of the mainstream. State and local authorities are now realizing that the former politics of ‘multicultural respect’ finally lead to dangerous ghettoization – with radicalization in the fringes. Authorities now deploy vast efforts to integrate foreigners. Intense language and cultural assimilation courses are offered. Laws are enacted that make citizenship dependent on the measure of integration. People do not need to give up their language and culture, but they must acquire a serious functional acclimatization within the host society and the second and third generation must get full chances for better education and better jobs. Critics say it is too late: it should have started thirty years ago.
So, coming back to the Church and to Mormon foreigners in the host society, should we promote assimilation or separation? Or is it possible to combine both?
No more foreigners? Paul told the Ephesians, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God.”
Did he mean assimilation?