Several weeks back, we received an announcement in the mail. One of Luv’s cousins would soon be getting married.
“She looks East Indian,” I noted as I looked at photo of the cousin and his new fiancé, “Maya.” Not only did she bear what appeared to me to be vaguely Indian features, but it looked like she wore a phul, the traditional stud many Indian women wear in their nose.
“She is,” replied Luv. ” Her parents converted to the Church from Hinduism when she was young, and moved here to Utah.”
Last week, my wife came home from work indignant with the news she’d heard from the family. “Maya went to the temple for her endowment today, and they made her take the piercing out!”
“The people at the desk wouldn’t let Maya into the temple with the ring. She had to take it out. The temple president heard about it and ran down to stop it, but he was too late. She’d already taken it out.”
This wasn’t just as simple as switching out your earrings each night. As is customary in many Indian communities, she had been wearing the phul nonstop for several years. The skin had grown around it, and digging was required. By the time the temple president arrived, the phul was excavated. Maya had made a blood sacrifice at the altar of the temple.
As I suspected at the time, and as others have since pointed out explicitly, the Church policy on temple attendence does not support this turn of events.
After carefully considering this very question, Church leaders have announced a ruling that preserves the need of an expanding church to both respect temple standards and accommodate itself to the demands of Christian love and understanding. The rule holds that the responsibility for teaching temple patrons about dress and grooming standards must rest upon the priesthood authorities who issue temple recommends. It is at the family, ward, and stake level, not at the temple, that the proper foundation for temple conduct and dress must be laid.
Once a patron arrives at the temple in good faith and with a valid recommend, temple authorities are not to pass judgment on that person’s worthiness nor upon the appropriateness of his or her attire and grooming. Attire that seems inappropriate to those of more conventional tastes does not constitute grounds for refusing admission to the temple. Every faithful member, regardless of attire and grooming, is entitled to a satisfactory temple experience (“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Feb 1993, 29–31).
The Church leadership, considering it the duty of the Church to roll forth to fill the whole earth, has long been conscious of the need to be flexible and accept diverse traditions and cultures. Policies have been crafted in several areas of the Church organization specifically to allow for cultural variation. Leaders have occasionally made official pronouncements about the need to be open to different cultural traditions among the saints. People like Sister chieko Okazaki are well known for promoting core principles and flexible, contextual application instead of worldwide application of specific cultural practices, most famously in her April 1996 General Conference talk “Baskets and Bottles.”
Despite an institutional focus on multiculturalism, there is also within the Church a countervailing emphasis on ethnocentric cultural norms. Vaughn J. Featherstone spoke out in a 1999 session of general conference against “earrings for boys and men, tattoos, spiked hair…,”, to be followed a year later by President Hinckley giving two addresses in General Conference (assuming the General Relief Society Meeting is part of General Conference) in which he denounced tattoos and earrings for men, and more than one set of ear piercings for women–going so far as to apparently state this as official Church policy (“We—the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve—have taken the position…“). His words were used more than once in addresses by leaders in official capacities encouraging and applauding strict obedience to the words of the prophet in such matters. While perhaps not exactly policy, Church “guidelines” suggest that “Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of [the sacrament],” something true only to the extent that the local culture from which our leadership came dictates this is so. Dress and grooming standards of CES institutions continue to strictly enforce Western conventions of grooming, suggesting to the membership that such standards are some sort of higher law for which we should be striving. This particular incident with Maya calls to mind the of former fMh perm, Mfranti, who was unable to attend LDS Business college because she likewise has a nose stud. Her rejection was not error, but policy.
And so, frustrated as I am with the desk staff who refused to accept Maya’s cultural trappings, I am uncomfortable blaming them. They were acting perhaps not according to the official policy, but according to what they had fairly logically deduced was part of the “unwritten order of things” so common within the Church. The official policies are quietly produced and disseminated, only occasionally mentioned, while the items which formed the basis for their understanding of the unwritten order of things are highly publicized and frequently reiterated. These staff members may have made a poor decision, but they should not be scapegoated when these attitudes are rather pervasive within the Church. This same undercurrent leads many members to encourage the universal adoption of these standards. It led me to believe during the first couple decades of my life that long hair on men was inherently disrespectful to the Lord, led my father to give a sacrament talk when I was in my teens excoriating men for wearing anything but white dress shirts to Sabbath services or priesthood duties, led my mother to recently quietly condemn to us the parents of the toddler who was running around with the little mohawk. This attitude was the norm in my community growing up. It was the attitude which caused a high council speaker in our current ward to express sadness that the prophet should even have to warn us against such obviously degrading and offensive practices as tattooing. This atmosphere in the Church is generated by the same Church leadership crafting those more embracing policies and making those embracing statements. The buck stops not with the desk clerks at the temple, but with the institution and leaders and the non-policy messages they send.
I visited the temple yesterday with my son Tater to pick up Luv, and to offer my congratulations to the bride and groom after the sealing. I was delighted to see the wedding party taking the customary post-sealing photos on the temple grounds, all dressed in a splendid Indian fashion. The bride and her maids all wore colorful Saris, Maya sporting a new phul in her nostril. The groom, of Mexican-American heritage, wore a finely embroidered Indian Sherwani. Wonderful that in this instance, everyone involved apparently accepted, even embraced, this unusual (for the location) celebration of heritage. This is what the Gospel to which I feel attracted is. Nothing I’ve read of Jesus suggests that maintaining middle-class wasp grooming models is a principle of the Gospel. An open mind to good found in whatever package it may be found is. I hope that the Church and its leaders change their messages to minimize the focus on superficial observances based on culture, and instead better encourage this shift towards inclusion within our communities. As they do, we will be more able to embrace the Gospel of the Lord of the whole earth.