I’ve been surprised that the following recent events and statements have not received more attention from the bloggernacle. I thought I’d briefly announce and discuss them here, as I think they are relevant both to scholars interested in Mormonism and race/ethnicity and to Latter-day Saints whose lives these events affect in very real ways.
I never thought I would classify Julie Beck’s Relief Society as progressive in any real sense, but two recent events have suggested that such might very well be the case.
Event #1: On April 26, over 1,500 Latina Relief Society Sisters from 32 Spanish-speaking wards and branches in Utah gathered in Utah Valley University’s Institute building for a fireside. Julie Beck and her first counselor, Sylvia Allred, spoke to the sisters in their native language about the unique talents and abilities they bring to the church as Latinas.
Event #2: While not technically a Relief Society event, the BYU Women’s Conference last week included similar outreach to Latina Latter-day Saints. According to the conference program, there were six sessions in Spanish over the course of the two-day long conference. To my (admittedly-limited) knowledge, this is a new development.
Both of these events are significant for a number of reasons. It is probably noteworthy that it is the female auxilliary organizations spearheading this more linguistically-sensitive movement within the Church (if two events held in Utah can properly be classified as a movement). Providing these sisters with opportunities to worship together in their native language is an important development, whether one agrees or disagrees with linguistic-segregation, because it marks a new development within the institutional church’s approach to Spanish-speaking Saints here in the United States. Could this be a preview of things to come? Might we see, for instance, Spanish-language sessions at other BYU sponsored symposia like the Sperry Symposium? What about a regional priesthood meeting for Spanish-speaking males? Could similar events successfully occur elsewhere within the United States? And looking further down the road, might we finally see Spanish (or Portuguese, German, or French)-speaking General Authorities address the Saints in General Conference in their native tongue (thus requiring the rest of us to read subtitles or wear headphones)? How do Latino/a Latter-day Saints feel about such possibilities? What about the English-speaking white membership? As my co-blogger David G. has put it, “Listening to the voices of our Latino/a hermanas and hermanos will become increasingly important in the decades to come as we learn what it means to be a universal church.”
Additionally, such events almost necessarily bring up the Lamanite question. In fact, the Church News reportedthat at the fireside, “Sister Beck attached special significance to the fireside because of the Lamanite lineage shared by almost all of the sisters in attendance.” She is quoted as having said:
“I think our purpose (tonight) is to express our appreciation and our great love to the sisters for the contribution they’re making in the building of the kingdom, and to remind them of the great promises that are theirs through the family of Lehi and what promises he was given regarding his posterity.”
Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, none of the Spanish-speaking sisters interviewed for that article noted the Lamanite (or “children of Lehi”) connection, preferring instead to highlight their Latina identity:
“It’s beautiful to know that this fireside is intended for us as Latina women”, said Deli Villarreal of the Provo Utah Central Stake. “For me, knowing that we can be guided and receive counsel from a woman like Sister Beck, an inspired person whose teachings I think about all the time, right now I truly feel very important and very proud to be Latino and belong to this Church.”
Such issues, in my opinion, do need to be discussed collectively by both church leaders and those traditionally grouped together as “Lamanites.” As on scholar recently noted, “The future of Lamanite discourse depends on much more than the outcome of debates over DNA.” It depends on how the institutional church and its international membership responds (or does not respond) to such debates as well.
Shifting now to a related but separate recent occurrence (ht: T&S Sidebar), I was struck by this statement (found here) from Eli Cawley, chair of the Utah Minuteman Project, on the ongoing debates within America (and now, specifically within the Church) on immigration reform, especially as it relates to undocumented workers who have come here from Latin America.
“The risk that the church runs by supporting illegal aliens is the risk of alienating their own white membership.”
That Cawley opposes amnesty, guest worker programs, and any other sort of immigraton reform outside of sending all “illegal aliens” back to where they came from (which, Mr. Cawley will be disappointed to learn, is not always Mexico) does not surprise me. But in addressing the Mormon context, his reasoning for doing so is interesting. The issue thus becomes one not about legality and safety or the 12th Article of Faith and obedience to presidents and magistrates, but rather one exclusively about race. While I recognize (or at least hope) that Mr. Cawley’s attitude does not represent the general attitudes of church members in the United States on this issue, I nevertheless think that his comment deserves attention.
What does framing the discussion on immigration in terms of race instead of obedience to law do to dialogue on the subject? In what sense, or to what degree, are Mr. Cawley’s fears shared by church members? Should the Church be concerned about alienating its white membership? How does this fit into discussions concerning whiteness in the Mormon Church? Has the Church’s quiet shift away from positively identifying Native Americans and Latinos as Lamanites affected how some Latter-day Saints see Latinos?
I’m interested in any and all feedback. I would like, however, for discussion to relate to the specifics at hand, and not degenerate into an argument over the right or wrongness of the Church’s recent run-ins with the immigration question. These are very sensitive issues to me (and to many others). Racism will not be tolerated.
 John-Charles Duffy, “The Use of ‘Lamanite’ in Official LDS Discourse.” Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 167.