Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Being a Mormon in Sharjah

Church here is awesome for so many more reasons than just the usual. I came here knowing that there was a local Mormon congregation (made up entirely of expats, mind) but I expected it to be weak, transient, and struggling. Instead, what I found was a thriving, mostly Filipino ward featuring many big families with lots of children who have been here for years, and will stay for years. I was blown away. It's fantastic. And with the vast majority of the ward being Filipino - well, I said it already on an earlier blog post: they run a tight ship.

I don't know that I've ever seen certain volunteer positions fulfilled with such gusto. We have bi-weekly hymn practice in the ladies' meeting just like (almost) everywhere else I've been, but here in Sharjah she's got handouts and posters and research notes and you can tell she spent a long time preparing for her 3-minute lesson.

The choir director didn't just send out a half-hearted appeal for singers over the podium one Friday. She went up to individuals, took them by the hand, and said, "Will you join the choir?" How could I say no?

Speaking of singing, even though the congregation is fairly small, when they sing they sound like a much larger one. Everyone joins in so enthusiastically. It puts many congregations I've been to in the US to shame.

The children are crisply dressed and well behaved (OK, mostly well behaved, or at least better behaved than my kids). When the children's group performed their yearly program for the congregation last week, many of the kids - even the little ones - had their parts memorized. Among the Filipino kids, the rate of memorization was close to 100%.

I don't necessarily mean this to be an ode to the Filipino Mormons en masse. There are other, quirky things about being a minority among Filipinos at church. Like how if you sit quietly and listen to the congregational hymns, you can tell that they are being sung with a specific accent. And while the lessons are taught in English, there is the occasional side comment tossed off in Tagalog. My favorite oddity of being a white, western-US Mormon and being a minority at church is that the shared (Mormon!) cultural history is totally skewed. If you were to go to church in Utah as an outsider you might hear all kinds of stories and references and quotes that everybody else seemed to understand but you. Here in Sharjah, among the Filipinos, I get to listen to exchanges like:

TEACHER: This verse of scripture reminds me of that amazing story we all know about what happened at the Manila Temple back during the rebellion.

CLASS (everyone except the Americans/Brits/Aussies/miscellaneous): *murmurs of recognition and agreement.*

TEACHER: I know! It's amazing, isn't it? Now, moving on...

Meanwhile, there's me, totally clueless. And I love it. I love seeing a Mormon culture (not gospel) that is different from the dominant Utah version.

Another thing I love is the English that these Filipinos speak. I don't know where they learn it, but they all speak fairly to very well and their speech is peppered with all kinds of elaborate vocabulary. And they use these fancy words in normal exchanges without effort. Like "vicissitudes." I challenge you to use that word in a sentence at church and NOT sound pretentious. The Filipinos pull it off quite well.

Anyway, there are other neat things about our ward. Our bishop reminds me of Tony Stark every single time he gets up to speak. I keep expecting him to end his remarks with I AM IRON MAN, but he never does.

I think I mentioned before that our meetings are videotaped and broadcast (live, I think) over the internet to Mormons living in Middle Eastern countries where there aren't other members to meet with. It puts a little extra pressure on us to keep our kids quiet, as you can imagine. One time after the meeting I apologized to the tech guy running the webcast because the girls had been especially squirrelly. He laughed and said no problem. Then he said that next week, he was going to train the camera on them. Ha. Ha.

The last cool thing I'll share is that our larger congregational area (kind of like a diocese. Mormons call it a stake) is headquartered in [redacted because I'm no longer sure I'm allowed to say where]. It includes something like seven countries. I heard one of the congregation leaders mention to another that he was going to [neighboring country] for the weekend to tend to church business. I never thought such a sentence was possible.

But it is! At least when you're a Mormon in Sharjah.


Sarah Familia said...

I remember at Church in the Philippines almost everything was in English . . . until the speaker would arrive at the punch-line of a joke, which always came out in Tagalog.

The doctrinal discussions got pretty interesting too sometimes. I remember one heated argument in Sunday School about whether they (Filipinos) should ever eat meat, since it is never winter there. But then, I guess that's true in the UAE too.

Kathy Haynie said...

I love your posts. I read this one to my husband over breakfast this morning...back in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

Susanne said...

Enjoyed this! Samer went to a Mormon meeting last night and we've been discussing Mormonism lately because of it. He likes talking to Americans although some he has met now are German Mormons. A couple sisters and an elder came to his dorm room last week and he fixed them Syrian food for dinner! He only recently decided to try cooking, but he seems to be doing a great job. :-)

Craig said...

I was very favorably impressed with your ward when we visited. I know right away upon singing the opening congregational hymn how spirited a ward is. And yours is very much so. In fact, my Acorn (ward newsletter) article this month is about that. And even though I was sad to miss my ward's children's sacrament meeting, I really enjoyed yours.

Christina LeSueur said...

When Phil and I went to the Philippines a few years back we were very impressed at how everybody sang with "gusto", even if they weren't the greatest of singers. They would also hum along with the piano during the postlude and some would even sing if it were a more familiar hymn.

What pressure to keep your kids quiet! It would make me want to spend more time in the foyer!

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I liked visiting your ward; it gave me a taste of the Mormon presence in that area and I enjoyed the people I met. The Philippino children were impressive in doing their speaking parts, and singing too.

As you said, the congregational singing is strong in Sharjah. I've always appreciated the singing in our own ward and believe that worship through music is at least as important as the speaking.

Crys said...

They learn it in school and at home. One of my father's many wives was from the Philippines. She spoke both English, Spanish, and her native tongue, and taught all three to my two half siblings. And here, here to the well behaved kids. The 1st counselor in the bishopric of my ward has nine kids, the oldest is 12. The nine of them sit with there mom in the chapel and are so much better behaved then my kids it makes me want to cry :) BTW...Jason is in Portland then month and loving it...although not the rain, big baby!!!

Liz Johnson said...

That is fantastic. I am going to go ahead with a snarky judgmental comment here - perhaps the further from Utah you go, the better the ward? Just a thought. :)

(disclaimer - i loved one of my utah wards.)

Becky said...

This was fun to read--thanks for giving us all a picture of what your Sundays are like!


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