Sunday, September 18, 2011

Kirtland pilgrimage

I just returned from the Affirmation conference, which was held this year in Kirtland and Cleveland, and I want to "debrief." This was the first Affirmation conference I've attended in something like seven years.

The highlight for me was the Sunday morning events held at the Kirtland Temple, which Community of Christ very hospitably made available to us. I went early in the morning, sat in the garden on the temple grounds, and chanted most of D&C 109, the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer (minus some petitions to which I can't say "Amen" in good conscience). Then I attended a testimony meeting in the lower court of the temple, which was rather raw, as you might imagine. I gave the closing prayer, which went like this:
Holy God,
our spiritual forebears built this place to be a sanctuary of your holiness.
They built it in the faith and hope
that here you would endow them with power from on high,
so that they could go forth from this place in the power of your Spirit,
to carry out your work in the world.

Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to do your work,
to love and to serve,
to magnify our talents,
to be a blessing in the lives of others.
In Christ's name we pray, amen.
The testimony meeting was followed by a devotional, near the end of which everyone stood to sing "The Spirit of God."

When we had toured the temple the day before, I'd felt underwhelmed by the building, which didn't look as "polished" and elegant as it does in photographs. (I suspect it's a trick of how the photos are lit.) But sitting in the temple this morning, during the devotional, I felt I better appreciated what a lovely building it is, white and full of sunlight. The pulpits are quite distinctive. And it was weird to think that Joseph and Emma and others actually sat in those pulpits or in these pews.


On a more sour note:

The devotional was attended by at least one LDS missionary couple from the historic Kirtland village, down the hill from the temple. I was surprised to see them there, and the more I think about it, the less pleasant I find that surprise. Their presence casts a shadow on the conference experience for me. A positive reading of their presence is that we're building bridges. A more suspicious reading is that this, like the Tabernacle invite to gay activists last Christmas, was a cheap way for the church to build goodwill. It was a cheap way to try to prevent further embarrassing protests outside their temples.

Unfortunately, I've seen too many people get screwed by church officials, myself included, not to be suspicious. The LDS Church is going to have to work a hell of a lot harder to win my trust. I feel like Prior in Angels in America: "Answer me: Inside. Bruises? . . . Come back to me when they're visible. I want to see black and blue, . . . , I want to see blood. Because I can't believe you even have blood in your veins till you show it to me."

I'm a little surprised to realize how angry I feel about this.


And then a sad, wistful note:

At the temple gift shop, I bought a lovely little illustrated history of Community of Christ whose coauthors included David Howlett and John Hamer, two young scholars I know. It made me feel jealous. David and John are doing work for Community of Christ that I would love to be doing for a liberal LDS Church, which of course doesn't exist. I've known for a decade that this is what I want; I accept that like most people who have lived and do live in this world, I can't have what I want. But I still feel jealous and sad and self-pitying about it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Anniversary

Creator, Sustainer, Peacegiver,
Crucified and Risen One,

Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.

Grief for the loss of all who died on 9/11 and for all who have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Prayers for all those who have lost loved ones during this decade of violence.

Prayers for all who have been wounded in body or spirit.

Prayers for all who are trying to rebuild lives broken by terrorism and war.

I mean all. Not just "ours." All.

Including my enemies, whatever that means. I add that part because you told me to. I don't really understand what I'm supposed to be thinking or feeling or asking for, exactly, when I pray for them.

God bless America. God bless Afghanistan. God bless Iraq. God bless Iran. God bless Libya. God bless Syria. God bless Saudi Arabia. God bless Israel. God bless Palestine.

Risen One, I pray that destruction may somehow be transformed into genuine lasting good.

Give a spirit of wisdom to the leaders of the nations, if in fact that prayer corresponds to anything you can actually do. Give them a spirit of respect for justice and the rule of law.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

9/4/91 - Waiting to serve

I don't remember exactly what I was doing twenty years ago in early September. I was in the holding period between my mission call (early August) and actually departing for my mission (early October). I'm annoyed that I can't remember what I was doing that period. I assume I was living at home? Was this the brief period when I worked as a bagger at the supermarket?

I do remember I attended the temple rather frequently. Loved the endowment. In the year leading up to my mission call, I attended the temple every Thursday afternoon using a baptisms-only recommend. Since I wasn't endowed, I could only be baptized, not baptize—though I remember being the voice for confirmations once. The baptistry director told me they'd put me to work officiating as soon as I was endowed. But once I'd been endowed, I never went back to the basement; all I did after that were endowments and the occasional session of initiatories and sealings. I feel a little bad about that.

Anyway, I attended the temple pretty frequently in the two months before my mission. What I didn't do during those two months, and wish I had, was learn more about the Dominican Republic. The problem was, my parents were encouraging me to do that, and since the mission was supposed to be my transition to adulthood and independence, I resisted doing what they wanted.

So here are the kinds of facts I wish I'd read up on.

First, a map of the DR—or rather, of the island of Hispaniola. I've made a point of including Haiti, though it usually gets cut off the left-hand side of most maps of the DR, and what little of it you see is often left blank. Out of sight, out of mind. A good number of Dominicans would like it that way. Actually, finding a map online that included both countries was harder than I expected.

Quick history: Inhabited by Tainos before Columbus; they get wiped out pretty quick after 1492. The Spaniards' first New World settlements are here. In the late 1700s, the island passes to French control and after the Haitian Revolution becomes the site of the world's first independent black republic. The Spanish-speaking population declare independence from Haiti in 1844 (a few months before Joseph Smith's death). Subsequently, the Dominican Republic's political history is tumultuous until the efficient but brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, 1930s-1950s. At the time I served my mission, one of Trujillo's cronies, Joaquin Balaguer, was president. The DR was invaded by the US twice, both times to quell political instability perceived as incompatible with US interests. The first time was in 1916, the second was 1965.

The CIA World Factbook (if you can't trust them to know, who will?) tells me that 70% of the Dominican population is urban. This is part of a global trend toward urbanization. Considering that Mormon tradition has a special focus on God as a city planner—as Someone who has definite ideas about the kind of city human beings ought to create—I'd love to see Mormons talking more about urbanization and the gospel. How can we contribute to building up cities that come closer to the pattern of Zion?

The population of the DR is currently just under 10 million. For comparison, that's about half a million more than the population of North Carolina, the last state I lived in, and about two million less than Ohio, where I now live. The DR is five times as populous as Utah. That's a lot of people on a small island. About a third of them live in the capital, Santo Domingo.

Over 40% of Dominicans live below the poverty line. The comparable figure for the U.S. is a little over 10%, but I understand that the measure of poverty isn't the same: I suspect that the DR starts out with a lower standard of poverty than the U.S. It's a poor country, is what I'm saying. However, in Haiti, on the other side of the island, the population living below the poverty line is 80%.

Does this all seem dry? I have mental pictures to go with these statistics. Neighborhoods. Homes. Families. Individuals.

There may be a million Haitians living illegally in the DR. Note that's about a tenth of the figure I gave for the DR's population. They work shit jobs, sometimes (e.g., in the sugar fields) as virtual slaves.

Meanwhile, there are over a million Dominicans and Dominican Americans in the U.S., with New York being the biggest population center.

Internet service is apparently widely available in the DR now. Electricity, I understand, is still irregular (i.e., frequent outages) but improving. UNICEF tells me that 86% of the population has access to safe drinking water, but I don't know if that means you can drink tap water yet or not. You couldn't when I was there—safe water meant bottled water.

There's a subway now in Santo Domingo—I was blown away to learn that. It's been operating since 2009. The pictures I've seen online look so . . . contemporary. Which is strange because of how it clashes with my memories of the run-down taxis and buses we used to ride in.

Enough. I'm having doubts about the utility of this exercise. What do these facts really tell you about the place? Maybe you do just have to get there and see these realities before they become meaningful.


ADDENDUM: Rising into consciousness this morning as the dog demanded her walk, I had an epiphany: Part of what bothers me about this exercise is that I don't have a good sense of the historical "Why's." Why do 40% of Dominicans live below the poverty line? Why did the public transportation system consist of run-down taxis and buses? Why hadn't the government created drinkable tap water? Why does electricity remain intermittently available? How did all these realities come to be?

The answer would be complex, I presume, and would involve slavery, Spanish feudalism, colonialism, perhaps the terrain and the difficulties it presented for creating a stronger central government, corruption, foreign debt, the power dynamics of international commerce. I have this vague sense that my country, and other First World countries, are largely to blame—we're indifferent, or we're interested in the DR for the wrong, selfish, exploitative reasons. But I don't carry in my head a succinct historical account for the origins of Dominican poverty—or Haitian poverty. I wish I did. I presume economic historians could give me an answer, or multiple competing answers, to that question. Is there somewhere I could find that readily, as close to my fingertips as Wikipedia? There ought to be.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

8/1/91 - Mission call

Twenty years and one month ago today, a letter was signed by a machine replicating the signature of Ezra Taft Benson, calling me to serve in the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission.

I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around how much time has passed since then. More time has passed between that mission call and today than passed between my birth and my mission call. My God, I'm middle-aged.

I don't feel it because I don't have kids. I probably have mission companions who are within just a couple years of sending their first sons on missions.

Or let's put this another way: Almost as much time has passed between my mission and now as had passed for my father between the time he served his mission and I served mine.

That's weird to think about because, of course, my father served his mission before I was born, and anything that happened before I was born is ancient history. But 1991—that feels like just a decade ago.

A real decade ago, 2001-2003, I "relived" my mission over that two-year period by rereading every day the journal entry I had written exactly ten years previously. (I kept a voluminous missionary journal. Which no one will ever see if I have anything to say about it.) Then, every Sunday, 2000s me would write a letter to 1990s me commenting on what had happened to 1990s me during that past week—offering advice, consolation, etc.

Weird as it might sound, I found it a fruitful spiritual discipline. It helped me see how I had changed over those ten years. It helped me get clear about what I valued from my past Mormon experience and what I was glad I had left behind.

I've decided that I want to do a similar kind of extended observance of the 20th anniversary of my mission. But this time around, I don't want it to be so much about me. I want this to be an occasion to reconnect with the Dominican Republic. Hell, maybe I'll even move past the computer screen and try to reconnect with some actual people. That should be feasible with missionary companions at least, even if it's tougher with Dominicans.

This will be a fast Sunday discipline. Once a month, I'll blog about where I was and who I was with 20 years ago. And with the continuing democratization of technology, it's easier now than it was 10 years ago to do things like find satellite images, and even YouTube videos, of the places I lived 20 years ago. So you'll be getting that kind of thing.

It should be as interesting to readers as missionary slide shows have ever been. (Which is to say: it won't be.) But let's be frank, this blog has always been a pretty selfish endeavor—I do this mostly for me—so that won't be new.

Why reconnect with the past like this? Because my mission remains the spiritual highpoint of my life. Or to use a different metaphor (at the risk of getting rococco or New Agey or something), my mission is a well of spiritual energies that I've drawn from in the past and would like to draw on again. It was the time in my life when I was most intensely focused on other people and their needs. It was the closest I ever came, and ever will come, to full-time ministry. It was the time in my life when the LDS Church came closest to working for me—when I came closest to experiencing the kind of Christ-infused community that the church can be at its best. It was the time in my life when my testimony was formed—when I became convinced that the Spirit works through Mormonism.

So I keep looking back to my mission. But I don't want the next two years to be so much about looking back as looking back out. Back out at the Dominican Republic, not as it is in my memories, but as it is now. Back out at the people I knew then, who have gone on living outside my memories, with their own transformations and challenges and joys.

That's the idea, anyway. It will be what it will be. Whatever it ends up being, I ask God to consecrate this performance for the welfare of my soul.