Social Justice with a Mormon Context

I loved my mission, don’t get me wrong. Some people may feel disappointment when called to a states mission instead of a foreign one, but I was elated. I didn’t see the benefit in slogging through difficult language learning for 18 months only to feel truly effective for a measly 6. When I received my mission call to Oklahoma City, I laughed partly because God has a great sense of humor, but also with happiness at never having to learn a difficult language to teach the Gospel.

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But there was one aspect about foreign missions that I grew extremely jealous about. Many missionaries who went to foreign missions came back with stories of how they taught English classes to open up teaching opportunities with others. My two loves – the English language and teaching – combined into one brilliant missionary practice seemed like the coolest idea ever. I often wished that I could have run English classes myself in Oklahoma, since it seemed to me more effective than knocking on random doors.

Naively, I felt like I would never experience the joy of teaching an English class while sharing the Gospel until one day I sat in bed staring at the ceiling thinking about how I could get engaged with the wonderful work going on in Seattle’s Korean branch. Suddenly, inspiration struck. Why not teach an English class? I’m proficient at English, I love teaching, and I love the Gospel. Certainly, one does not have to be a missionary in order to teach an English class in tandem with the local Church branch.

As I contemplated the greatness of this new idea, I began to think of other ideas. As the son of immigrants myself, I have always felt great passion when it comes to the hot topic of immigration. I often see the plight of immigrants and feel pained – at the exploitation, at the fear in immigrants’ lives as they adjust to a strange, loud, and sometimes hostile world. Education and knowledge, I feel, dispels that fear and steels against exploitation. The Church has numerous times advocated humility and charity when dealing with immigration in the United States – shouldn’t individual members take up such a worthy charge?

Shouldn’t we have Mormon social workers who offer up advice for free? Or Mormon lawyers educating immigrants in the community about basic laws and rights so that they do not have to feel afraid every time they see a police officer in their neighborhood? Couldn’t we have Mormon teachers and professors donating a night every week or two to teach basic subjects such as reading, history, social studies, math, and science? Why aren’t more Mormons donating time to teach various subjects such as basketball, yoga, resume writing, job hunting, personal finance, home loans, and where to pursue further education and social services available to immigrants but of which they are ignorant of? We have an army of returned missionaries armed with language skills learned on their mission – I know many of them read the Liahona in that language to keep their skills sharp. But instead of just reading the Liahona in Romanian or Spanish or Chinese, just as effective in honing your language skills would be teaching smart consumer skills in Romanian or Spanish or Chinese.

In the past, the local church building often served as a hub for the community. Why shouldn’t we now? Our churches are actually built as giant community centers – we have kitchens and basketball courts and more classrooms than we sometimes know what to do with. Isn’t it about time to utilize our churches to the fullest and transform them into local community centers for the poor and minorities, to not only better their lives temporally, but perhaps also show them a more excellent way? If we fail to do so, can we honestly claim that we follow Christ’s command to do the least unto these, our fellow brothers and sisters?

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Social Justice with a Mormon Context

  1. Sidney Carton

    A lot of this now depends on the rules for building use in the General Handbook of Instructions. If such activities are permitted, then it is a matter of getting the Local leadership (Particularly the Stake Presidency) on board with a plan.

    Of paramount importance would be trying to keep an explicit political agenda out of this (a supremely difficult task, as many of the things you are talking about doing are often associated with a particular political position in popular imagination) and making sure that there is the proper authorization and responsibility for any and all such activities.

    Oh, and I served overseas and hated teaching English.

  2. Ted

    This is very true. Many people consider immigration a politically charged situation, but hopefully people can agree that when the First Presidency has often called for mercy when we deal with immigrants, it need not be political.

    However, having aerobics/yoga classes, cooking classes, book clubs for wholesome books, or classes on consumer skills, using Microsoft Office programs, conversational English classes, or resume/job searching classes shouldn’t have to be considered politically charged, right?

    This is a matter I will definitely discuss with my bishop and stake president.

  3. Relief Society already does a lot of those things. Weekly yoga classes, bi-weekly open volleyball practice, and monthly book clubs have been pretty standard in the last few wards I’ve been in, and some wards have even had computer classes and basic car repair classes. Activities are always open to the community, not just the ward. That doesn’t always translate into community awareness, and some members of the community aren’t interested in attending religiously organized events.

    I think the biggest challenge would be getting ward members to run these classes consistently. To be successful, I think they’d need to make administering the program and teaching the classes specific callings. Or else build on the programs we already have in place, and make sure the community is aware of them. I’ve always thought elder’s quorum could use a personal enrichment night. Why let the sisters have all the fun?

    Have you looked into local English language learning centers? I’ve found a lot of opportunities through volunteermatch.org.

  4. The Church does have employment centers that have staff trained to teach resume-writing and job hunting. I took their career workshop about two years ago when I was in a bind. It’s good. They also offer computer classes. All free and open to the public.

    There is a page on the LDS.org website that lists all the locations. There’s one in Seattle.

  5. Ted

    @Jamie – I would agree with you that consistency is the key to a lot of the programs’ success. I haven’t seen a lot of community-oriented activities in many of my wards, so it is most likely a local to local basis kind of thing, which it should be.

    We do have manrichment. Does that count?

    All in all, I think the biggest problem we have is a marketing problem. Maybe not so much in Utah, since it’s generally true (especially in Utah County) that everyone is Mormon and a ward activity basically is a community event. But out here in Seattle, I’ve noticed that we have a couple of really big things that are open to the public every year. I’m wondering perhaps we should focus the shift from large events with pomp and circumstance to the more consistent, less glorified classes which directly help those who need it most.

    And as far as teaching English, I have talked to my dad about this. He said they used to do it, but, as expected, it died out after a while. I am eager to start up the tradition again and he’s glad I’m willing to volunteer for it.

    @Beth – I agree that the Church’s employment centers are great. I’m assuming that you are suggesting that having computer classes might be redundant, and you are most likely correct.

    I have never used the Church employment centers (I oughta) so I’m not sure how open they are to non-members using their services, but from what I know, they don’t turn people away. Members should be inviting their neighbors to come to the Church employment centers just as much as Church, in my opinion.

    • David

      @Ted, bytheway, about the Employment Resource Center, check out the website ldsjobs.org, and sign in with your LDS Account, let the local Employment Center help you build your resume, find a job, etc. It’s a great resource that can help you as much as you want it to.

  6. Ted

    Just as a general comment, I’m not saying so much that the Church doesn’t do these kinds of things. We offer a lot of these services. However, we either run into the problem of (a) nobody talking about them, (b) non-members feeling these classes are closed to them or will turn into glorified firesides and are frightened or suspicious of them, or (c) just not enough of them in a consistent manner. While I agree that to be established effectively, it will eventually become a calling, I have a feeling people will feel more involved in not only their Church, but also their community if their calling is “Community Word Processor Instructor” rather than “Ward Greeter.”

    Also, we should advertise these programs aggressively. We should be putting up flyers in Hispanic markets that we teach English at the Church for free. We should be putting up flyers in the Crossroads Mall bulletin board that we have yoga practice every Thursday at 9 in the morning or that there’s a values-based book club in the Borders ad boards. It seems to me that this idea is not new, but when people implement them but fail to advertise them aggressively, people lose steam when no one shows up and the zeal for the project deflates rather quickly.

  7. justjillsblog

    Don’t forget online marketing, too, when you start putting this all together. Have a Seattle Community Classes facebook page or twitter or something.

    Keep us posted on any progress you make with this. 🙂

  8. David

    Great post, Ted. Our ward here has partnered with a local Spanish branch and we tutor their children one night a week. We help them with English, math, science, whatever, we help them with their homework. Or we organize a Spanish-speaker to help a parent with parent-teacher conferences, and so on. It’s a col project, doing just what a Church should do – serve the community, as Christ would.

  9. Ted

    I will definitely keep everyone updated.

    @David, I think that’s a great idea. I would agree that we should do as much as we can to help as many people out as possible.

    @Justjillsblog Never underestimate the power of internet marketing! I think it’s telling that while a lot of conservative Utahns I know hate things like Facebook and teh Twitters, our Church employs Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to get our message out.

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