One of the things Mormons love to say when they travel (whether it’s across the ocean or just to the next town over) is that they’re so thankful that “the Church is the same no matter where you go.” And to a certain extent, it’s true. We all sing the same hymns, although every ward congregation seems to have its particular favorites. We all read the same scriptures. Sunday meetings follow the same general format, with everyone meeting together first, then separating into adults and children, and then further separating the adults by gender and the children by age. Sunday School lesson manuals are standardized and translated into over a hundred languages, and on any given Sunday the whole worldwide Church is studying the same lesson, give or take a week or two depending on how organized the Sunday School teacher happens to be.
I do appreciate the general “sameness” of Church meetings. It’s nice for my children (and for me!) to know that no matter how different the country where we live may be, when we go to Church it will feel familiar. But I also relish the little differences. For example, in Italy when I arrived at Church I was greeted not by handshakes, but by kisses on both cheeks (and sometimes the top of my head too). There’s nothing like being kissed thirty times in a row as you walk in the door to really make you feel welcome. The congregational singing in Italy was also much more robust than in most of my U.S. wards, even though our branch in Italy was about a fifth the size of a ward, and I was playing a little electric piano rather than a booming church organ.
One of the great things about attending church outside the U.S. is meeting new and different people with whom I nevertheless share many things in common. And you don’t always meet the people you would expect. Our branch in northern Italy had some Italians in it, of course. But many of the members there were actually from Argentina, so while Italian was the official language spoken from the pulpit, there was a lot of Spanish floating around in the halls. We also had some members from Nigeria, with whom I conversed in mutually broken Italian for several weeks, before we realized in relief that we were both more comfortable in English.
Testimony meeting in our Irish branch was a luscious bouquet of accents. There were Irish people from various cities, someone from Latvia, South Africans in both vanilla and chocolate skin tones, a cute little family from France, a missionary from the English Midlands, and then us. Our branch in Florence may have been even more eclectic, although it varied a lot from week to week, since many worshippers were tourists just passing through. One sweet woman in the branch really took us under her wing, although we were only there for a couple of months. She was from Peru, and had lovely thick black hair and a dark complexion. Her husband could not have looked more different. He was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and his ruddy face was crowned with a mass of curly blond hair. I loved the fact that they had both come so far from their native lands only to meet each other in Italy and fall in love.
Another fun aspect of Church in different places is the subject matter of Sunday School discussions. General topics like faith, following Jesus, and loving our neighbor, come up everywhere, of course. But I participated in a discussion about the Word of Wisdom (the Mormon health code) in the Philippines that couldn’t really have happened in any other branch I’d attended elsewhere. As well as proscribing tobacco, alcohol, and coffee, the Word of Wisdom tells us to eat meat “in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” This counsel is variously interpreted and applied by Mormons in different places. In the case of this Filipino Sunday School class, the lesson turned into a heated debate on whether they should ever be eating meat at all, since in the Philippines it is never winter. Filipino Sunday School was always interesting, because they have a lovely cultural tradition of being very respectful to the elderly. Invariably, there would be a venerable old man with a multitude of odd ideas, who would lecture exhaustively on whatever subject was being discussed, while the rest of the room sat in reverent silence. The ward we attended in Manila had many English speaking foreigners, and meetings were generally conducted in English. Somehow, though, whenever a speaker in Sacrament meeting told a joke, he or she would switch to Tagalog just before the punch-line. I’d usually laugh along just to be sociable, and then have Tony explain it to me in a whisper.
Here in Tunisia, we are having yet another new Church experience. We and a few other Americans meet informally in the home of a member. Every Sunday the eight or ten of us sit down in their living room, sing and pray together, partake of the bread and water, and watch a Conference talk. Then one of us takes the children to another room to have a little class with pictures of Jesus and songs and coloring, and another leads the remaining adults in a discussion of a chapter from the New Testament. It’s simpler than the meetings in most Mormon wards and branches we’ve attended elsewhere, but we feel the same spirit of fellowship and faith in our little “twig” in Tunisia.