Friday, October 16, 2009

Flashback Friday: Being Mormon in Syria

Being a Mormon in the Middle East is unlike being a Mormon anywhere else. The rules vary a little from country to country, but generally speaking, you're not really allowed to talk about your religion, at least not with a goal of converting others. In a few of the countries, it's better to just keep your mouth shut altogether, to err on the side of caution.

There are no official missionaries - certainly not young, clean-cut elders, but no senior couple missionaries either. Instead, the few older married couples who go to the Middle East (on what would otherwise be called a mission) are simply known as "humanitarian service volunteers." They teach English or serve as advisors or instructors at the university, or find some other innocuous position to fill. No preaching or proselytizing is allowed.

The "native" members of the church, if there are any, and there sometimes aren't, don't officially pay tithing. They aren't encouraged to attend meetings, either. It's like some bizzarro, backwards world where every attribute the Mormons are usually known for is conspicuously absent. And I haven't even told you the part where we identify more with the Muslims and tend to separate ourselves from the Christians!

Anyway, the focus of this Flashback Friday is how the Mormons who found themselves in Syria managed to worship together. There were never very many of us in Damascus at any given time. The lowest consistent membership count I can remember (not counting days where some of us were absent) is four members, plus two "humanitarian service volunteers." It made for very intimate church meetings. The meetings were held at the volunteers' apartment in Abou Romaneh. We had a ghetto little keyboard that I played to accompany the hymns (and we managed to avoid singing "Onward Christian Soldiers," except for that one time).

You may be surprised to learn that even though there were so few of us, we still held all three hours of church: Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School (renamed Sabbath School since church was held on Fridays), and Priesthood/Relief Society. Needless to say, we all had plenty of opportunities to give talks and teach. And Relief Society was simultaneously kind of a joke, and also awesome: there were only two of us (just the wife half of the non-missionary couple and I). We would just go into the living room and take turns teaching the lesson to each other.

Before you feel too bad for us, having church for three hours with such a small group, please know that we were very generous with our passing times. Another reason you shouldn't feel bad for us was that every Friday after church, we had an expansive, delicious dinner. It was always an odd mix of American and Syrian food - tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, pomegranates, potatoes, and maybe a roast if we could get a good one - and always the best food we ever ate during any given week. After that, we'd settle down for a few (or several...ok, many) rounds of Speed Scrabble.

And now for some pictures:

An intense Speed Scrabble tournament. It should be noted that the usual champion was a 60-something Finnish lady whose native language was not English (Go Sister Jeffery!). Yeah.


There was a little parlor off the living room with a bed in it. Sometimes we used it for a little post-church nap.


Christmas in Damascus for the Mormons. This was our tree - an ingeniously arranged string of Christmas lights, topped with a star cut out from a package of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. The two humanitarian service volunteers to the left are the Pitkins. They are currently serving another mission in Nigeria.


A typical day at Church in Damascus. From left, standing: Elder Jeffery, then two American students, then a Syrian member, then Jeremy. Seated are Sister Jeffery and I. You can see our pathetic keyboard on the left.

I have to admit, I don't think I've ever loved church more than I did while living in Syria. We got to know our fellow Mormons so well and grew so close to one another as we struggled to live in a country very different than what we were used to.

17 comments:

Liz Johnson said...

That really is cool. There is something to be said for sacrificing a lot and putting in a ton of effort when it comes to church worship. While I'm grateful that I only have to fall out of bed, get ready, and drive 20 minutes to worship with over 100 of my fellow Mormons, I sometimes miss that intimate "we all must stick together" sentiment that I've had a few times in life.

Very cool. I loved this one!

Susanne said...

I enjoyed this so much! I wish you would have explained what you meant about identifying more with the Muslims and separating yourselves from the Christians although I have an idea of what you mean.

I remember laughing several months ago when I read the post about your playing "Onward Christian Soldiers" over there. Ha, ha! :-D

Mikael said...

So interesting! wow, you have lived a full life already and you are not even 30! you are amazing bridget.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Such a unique experience . . . it makes one appreciate the comfortable buildings we have and large congregations. There's something to be said for both extremes.

Matthew said...

Dear Bridget,

I greatly enjoyed your post, because it was about that time that our paths first crossed. I never had the chance to go over to the branchlet in Syria, but I did talk to the senior couple by phone a couple of times. I wish we'd had more opportunities for our families to get to know each other back then. You might be interested to note that Our family is back in Beirut. Also, Elder Holland will be coming to dedicate Lebanon on Wednesday.

All the best.

Liz Johnson said...

Wait, Lebanon? What does it mean to "dedicate" Lebanon? Like for missionary work?

Bridget said...

Susanne, I don't mean that we deliberately eschewed the Christian label, just that we were not often pigeon-holed with them because we don't drink, we dress modestly, and we worship on Fridays. There's the whole past evidence of polygamy thing, too, which is kind of a weird thing to have in common with a Muslim, but whatever. This is probably its own post, so I'll stop there.

Susanne said...

Bridget, thanks for explaining that. I kind of guessed the drinking issue was it, but only later did the Muslim/Mormon polygamy connection come to mind.

For the record, there are *many* conservative Christians where I live who don't drink (myself included.) There are many Baptist churches that preach against the evils of alcohol though, of course, there are people who drink in those churches. One cannot force people do things plus - to be honest - the Bible does not forbid alcohol. But it does speak against drunkenness. So in the spirit of Christian liberty (see Romans 14), I have revised my thinking of alcohol. Although I personally do not care for it or being around those drinking, I cannot say "Thus saith the Lord" and forbid others. That's between them and God.

Also I know many conservative ladies who dress VERY modestly. I suppose being "Christian" is such a broad term these days that you have anything from those dressing like Muslims or the Amish to those dressing like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson! Thus why I am shying away from "Christian" more and more. I follow Jesus -- or I try. But I am not a Christian in the 21st-century, America-is-a-Christian nation sense of the word. If this nation represents Christianity then I say it's a bad representation of what Jesus modeled for us!

Do Mormons always meet on Fridays or did you do that only in Syria? I think we have one LDS church in my area and I have only met one or two Mormons (in person) my whole life. I see the missionaries, but they've never talked to me.

For the record, I like missionaries. My mom's family has many missionaries so I can relate to people sharing their faith and actually admire it. Not a very popular stance in a country or world that thinks religion is a private matter and one should never try to share his/her faith with others. Honestly I wish all roads lead to God, but since Jesus told us to go and teach all nations then it's hard to keep quiet about the Gospel without disobeying my Lord.

Thanks for your comment on the book I've been reading. While reading it, I kept thinking, "I wonder what Bridget would say about this" and hoped you would read it and give me YOUR point of view. I am open to that and don't wish to misjudge people who come across really really really admirable to me. I am just touchy about polygamy NOT because my husband ever threatened me with it (ha, ha!), but because of reading Muslim women's blogs and getting a bad impression of why it is practiced among many Muslims today. It just really angers me when men cloak their lust for more women, more sex, more, more, more in religious terminology saying this is the will of God or threatening their wives with taking a another wife if she doesn't "behave." Grrrrr.

Anyway, thank you for what you shared and feel free to delete this comment if you find it offensive. I wasn't sure if you'd read a follow-up comment on my blog so . . .

Oh, one more thing about that book...I did NOT like the pro-gay slant and some of the foul language. Normally I avoid those types of books, but I got sucked into the story of Ann Eliza Webb and finished it all.

Bridget said...

Susanne, I'll address only two pieces of your comment here, namely abstinence from alcohol and modest dress:

I should have prefaced what I said with the qualifier in the Middle East. In broad, black-and-white terms, in the Middle East, compared to Muslims, Christians a)drink alcohol and b)do not dress as conservatively. Even if this is not true in every single case (as you said, I'm sure there are distinctions among denominations, even in the Middle East), this is how it is perceived by many of the Muslims there. So you can see that (in the Middle East) a Christian person who dresses conservatively and doesn't drink might make a Muslim do a double-take.

I don't speak at all to Christians in the United States. It's a totally different situation and I feel bad that you might have thought I was sweeping all American Christians into some kind of drunkenness-and-miniskirts category.

I know there is a lot of bad blood between a few Christians sects in America re: Mormons as Christians. I'm not trying to touch that issue at all. I was just trying to show how being a Mormon is different in Syria.

Last thing - I did check the "email follow-up comments" on your blog so I would have gotten a response. I wasn't sure if you minded a Mormon commenting there so I hope it wasn't too awkward for you :). Thanks for responding.

Bridget said...

And from my previous comment, everyone can see that I am, in fact, capable of typos.

Susanne - the Friday worship is a ME-only thing since that is the way the work schedule works there. Students and employees get a Fri-Sat weekend so to make it easier for us to attend, they hold church on Sundays. In Israel/Palestine, the services are on Saturdays (Shabbat) for the same reason. In Lebanon, I think church was on Sundays because there is a sizeable Christian population (or at least lobby) there.

When you think about it, it would be possible to go to church 3x/week in the Middle East - Syria on Friday, Jerusalem on Saturday, and Lebanon on Sunday. Jeremy and I did 2x/week once or twice while we were there (Syria & Lebanon). Fun stuff.

In America, as far as I know, it's always on Sunday.

Susanne said...

Bridget, thanks for your reply. I *really hope* I did not come across angry in my earlier comment. *blush* I was not in the least. :)

I just didn't know if you knew there were some non-Mormons who believed similarly to you all re: abstaining from alcohol and dressing modestly. Forgive me if I came across in a wrong way. Writing things does not always convey the proper tone of voice and spirit in which it was written...oops.

I was very happy you commented on that book I read. I *wanted* your POV since you are Mormon. Honestly I only hoped I did not offend you when I saw you actually read part of what I wrote.

I have a lot of admiration for you and respect people of your faith so I did not want it to be a diatribe against Mormons and I apologize if it came across that way when I was venting (mostly) against polygamy.

Thank you for the clarification you gave on drinking and dress pertaining to Middle Eastern Christians. I didn't hang out with any while we were there so I didn't know there was such a difference between them and the Syrian Muslims although I DID pick up that they were OK with alcohol since alcohol was sold in the Christian neighborhoods.

Thanks again!

Bridget said...

Susanne, no worries. I figured you weren't angry so much as potentially offended.

People who are not as nice as you and far more closed-minded have said much meaner things about Mormons and their church, so really, you don't need to apologize for anything :).

Nancy said...

@ Suzanne, I didn't think you sounded angry at all. It was nice to hear your questions.

@ Liz -- The church is going to be recognized as an official church in Lebanon. I think it's like the 17th Christian church to be recognized in Lebanon (something like that) and it's really exciting because I'm pretty sure it isn't recognized anywhere else in the Middle East.

I doubt they'll allow proselyting, but we can maybe put our name on the building, have local members officially pay tithing, etc? I don't really know what it entails...but it's still exciting!

Nancy said...

PS. Susanne--I totally spelled your name with a 'z' and I'm SO sorry about that!

Susanne said...

Bridget, thanks again. No, I wasn't offended either, but I can see how my reply maybe gave you that impression with that "for the record" stuff in there. Oooops! :)

Nancy, thank you! And it's fine if you spell my name with a "z." I am used to it as Suzanne is the more popular spelling. Mine is actually "short" for Susanna, but I'm used to the Z spelling. :)

Peter said...

Very interesting post, Bridget. Sounds like an incredible experience.

On the Speed Scrabble front, you might be interested in playing Speed Scrabble Online. Might help you brush up for the next tournament??

Shannon said...

Ah, speed scrabble. It's a Syrian-Mormon tradition, I think! We first played it after Thanksgiving dinner in 2003. I was an instant addict.

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