Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Latter-day Saint Women Around the World: Freja from Adelaide, Australia

Today's guest post is by Freja from Australia. It was really fun for me to get to know her better, her writing is a lot of fun. And personally I'd recommend that while you read her post you try to do it in an Australian accent, it makes it even better!

My name is Freja. My name is Scandinavian – it goes well with my recently obtained married name, which is Finnish. But I am completely Australian.

My Dad is from the bush (we don’t really say ‘the outback’). His Dad could navigate through floods by the types of trees, not the stars. Dad eventually went to boarding school in Sydney, then onto an Anglican monastery in Adelaide. He wanted to be a priest. My Mum is from Sydney. She grew up an only child, supported her family, and worked really hard. She used to get in trouble at school for having super shiny nails (they thought it was nail polish). She worked several jobs, and became a sign writer and artist. She is brilliant with a paintbrush. They both joined the church on their own, later in life. Dad served a building mission in Sydney. Mum served a mission in Perth. They then met each other at institute, and were married. Their honeymoon was a trip to the New Zealand temple (closest temple at the time) to be sealed for eternity.

I, the oldest of their three, grew up in Sydney. I’m the responsible and independent one, extremely organised and well-travelled. I put myself through university twice, all while working full time and travelling the world when possible. Once, I researched every painting by Johannes Vermeer (The Girl with the Pearl Earring, anyone?) and backpacked my way around to each and every painting. Amsterdam, New York, London, Dublin, Las Vegas, etc. I loved being by myself, taking my sweet time in museums (two whole days in the Louvre; I checked off every room on the map). Another time, I travelled with a group to sing in the BBC Proms (not heard of that? How terribly ill-cultured you are) in London, taking my Dad with me to visit distant family, both dead and alive (1740) and to then visit two dear companions from my mission in Paris and Rome. Gotta love serving a mission on Temple Square. It’s the United Nations.

I now work as a lawyer. But my career ambitions have changed over the years. I’m now focused on family-friendly goals. Last year, I was married in the Sydney Australia temple. It is almost our one year wedding anniversary. We had a beautiful ceremony, with as many people as possible crammed into the sealing room (most were standing, with a few sitting on laps). We then ran about Sydney Harbour and the beach, taking photos and getting rained on. It was glorious.

We live in Adelaide, Australia. My husband was born and grew up here. In fact, we attend the same ward (congregation) he did growing up. So, we are completely surrounded by family and friends. It won’t always be that way – we are planning to buy our first home after Christmas, so change is in the air.

1. What is the dominate belief system in your country? Do most people consider themselves to be "religious"? Are business and stores closed on Sunday? Do most people attend church?

The main religions in Australia are the footy (either Aussie Rules (Australian Rules Football) or Rugby) and beer. I admit – I follow one of those religions (but not the other).

To be serious, I think the majority of Australians are not terribly religious. Sunday’s are viewed as a family day, but businesses would never close on Sundays (unless you’re a lazy bank or government agency). In fact, the weather is usually best on Sundays (so the beaches are popular) and most school/community sport is scheduled on a Sunday. Heathens.

In my opinion, if you claim to be religious or affiliated with a religion, you should (a) attend that church fairly regularly, and (b) live what is being taught. And that is where many fall short here in Australia. When the census comes around (as it just did a few months back), a lot of people claim a religion – Anglican, Protestant, Catholic – but rarely attend or even know what they are meant to believe. Unless you were born into “a good catholic family”, you probably don’t see the value in going to church each week or really know if God exists.

Having said that, Australia is more multi-cultural than it once was, and probably a lot more than you internationals realise. So the above is my opinion of Aussies (i.e. Anglo-Saxon descendants and all baby boomers), but we have many other cultures, most of which have a firmer grip on religion and tradition. Italians and Greeks (hello Melbourne!); Asian, Indian, Lebanese, Islamic and Muslims (hello Sydney!); Samoan and Tongan (hello Brisbane and Sydney!). I generalise on their locations, but you get the idea. Lots of great take out places for dinner. And so, with a lot of ‘minorities’ (I use that term very loosely), there is a wider variety of religious beliefs, and a greater possibility that Australians (all-encompassing) consider themselves religious.

2. How long have you been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? If you are a convert please tell us a little about your conversion. If you were born in the church tell us a bit about your family and who was the first in your family to join the church.

I have been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints my whole life (read my Mormon.org profile here) but my parents were not. My Dad joined the Church when he was about 22. I think my Dad was always religiously inclined, sensing there was more out there to learn and become. He felt he was a Christian, and went along to the local Anglican youth group. Sometime after, he felt to go study the priesthood. He wanted to be a priest. He left little-town Walgett for big-city Adelaide in South Australia, and remained in an Anglican monastery for two-three years. He prayed in Latin; chanted; ate simple food and enjoyed the periods of silence (especially now he has children). He wore a long black robe with red tie around his middle. A black cross with a gold crucified Christ hung from the tie.

One day, this path simply didn’t feel right – “I felt I shouldn’t have been there, but I look back with fondness”, and my Dad left the priesthood. I guess he felt a little restless. He moved to Sydney, to live with some friends studying at university. One guy had a friend whose girlfriend was investigating the church. They went to a dance, inviting Dad along out of courtesy, but thinking he would be a hopeless investigator and not terribly interested. Missionaries were at the dance – “like bees around a honey pot”, Dad said – to find prospective members. And later, Dad was baptised after a dance, under the Roseville Bridge - after midnight!

My Mum jointed the Church when she was early twenties too. With Mum, it’s black and white. President Boyd K. Packer reminds me of her. It’s either true or it’s not. Take it or leave it. And after coming across some church literature, given to her from a church member she worked with, she decided to look into the matter herself. She sought the missionaries out herself and asked to be baptised. Done deal.

We are, however, encouraged to know for ourselves. I may have been born to Mormon parents, and as a child I probably did go to church because my parent’s expected it of me while living at home – yet I have come to the knowledge for myself that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only Church on the earth teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in its entirety. (Read more here)

3. What is the LDS church attendance like in your area? How many stakes, wards, or branches are there in your area? On an average Sunday how many members attend church? Do people have to travel far to attend church? What are the demographics of your ward? Are most members young, old, married, single, are there more women then men? Or it is it a good balance?

According to the statistics (as of 14 November 2011), church membership in Australia is at 129,744. Out of over-22 million people in Australia, it’s a low figure, a figure which includes inactive members too I’m guessing. The cross-section of church members here would be greatly multi-cultural. In the past year, I’ve seen several baptisms in my ward. Eight year olds. And international (mostly Asian) students.

I am fairly new to Adelaide – it’s one of the smaller capital cities in Australia. The ward I attend seems to be quite big, but a manageable size. We can fill the chapel nicely, and a few rows in the overflow. We have about 30 kids in primary and maybe 8 in nursery – heaps more than the other ward that shares the chapel with us.

Our ward is one of four in the stake. And I gotta say - I’ve been disappointed with attendance to both Stake and General Conferences lately. Coming from Sydney, I am used to crowded chapels and massive overflows. Here, that is not the case – and it is not because we lack the members. The buildings have been built because the number demanded them. People just didn’t turn up.

In Sydney (similar to Melbourne, I suspect), church attendance is higher. There are way more members, and they are spread out far and wide. Eight wards in my home stake. Eight stakes. I think. But what is most astounding (ask the foreign missionaries) is the sheer size of land. My home ward boundaries cover way too much land for a bicycle. I think a drive north-south of my stake would be (again, in Sydney traffic) about an hour and a half. Its crazy distances, having lived in Salt Lake and now living in Adelaide (aka Radelaide). I grew up 20-30 minutes from my chapel, 45-40 minutes from my stake centre, 40-60 minutes from a dance or fireside. And 20 minutes from the beach. (I had to put that in there.)

4. How far away is the nearest temple? When was it built? How busy is it? Do most people in your country know about it? What are their feelings about it?

The Adelaide Australia temple is within my ward boundaries. It is literally 15 minutes away from the house. Unfortunately for me and my salvation, I don’t reap that blessing nearly enough.
The Sydney Australia temple – the first Australian temple built in 1984 – was within my stake boundaries growing up. Sydney traffic is pretty bad, but with my Sydney driving skills, I could get there in 45-50 minutes.

Generally, in Australia, the temples are very accessible. We have five temples; every member really has no excuse. Whether travelling across the Tasman Sea from Tasmania to get to the Melbourne Australia temple, or driving across desert from Darwin, there really is no excuse.
I think attendance, overall, is low. Very few turn up regularly. I’ve seen the temple opening hours change several times in the past 12 months; sessions cancelled and different schedules offered, in the hope of a higher attendance. I think there are those people, usually the older generations, that are the regular attendees. Most have callings or assignments in the temple, or are retired and have the time to attend. They are the ones you see in the temple consistently.

Some ward/stake temple nights are good. Some are not. But generally, we members need those constant reminders from the pulpit. Otherwise temple attendance slips, and we find it hard to schedule in our busy lives.

As for the general public, not many are aware of our temples. Sure they stand out on the highways – big white buildings with beautiful gardens. But very little would connect the buildings to our religion. Even fewer would know what goes on inside – unless they are invited to a wedding or see the Christmas lights and camels on the hill (Sydney Temple).

5. What sort of reaction do you get from most people when they find out you are Mormon? Are people familiar with the church? Do you often have to defend or explain your beliefs?

I think most Australians do not know the Church or understand who we are. (This may be why the Church recently started the “I’m a Mormon” campaign here.) This is a friendly country – a culture of laying back, enjoying life, and having lots of mates (friends). But ask them about Mormons, and most would hesitate. There are so many misconceptions, and not enough education.

Most people try to hide it, but they are a little taken back when I say “I’m a Mormon”. I always say “I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” first … which only produces a silence stare, like I spoke in a different language. Then the reaction is “Oh. I … ohh.” Most people don’t know what we believe. They haven’t the faintest idea. They have heard of ‘Mormon’ before – probably in high school, associated with the words ‘new’, ‘cult’, and ‘weird’. (Not at my school … let me tell you, it IS possible to have the religious curriculum thrown out by speaking up!)

Recently, I started a new job. My boss took me out for lunch, asked me conversational questions, and of course my religion came up. Even if we are not discussing religion, it is an integral part of my life, so it will always come up. And I choose to discuss it. The entire lunch meeting was me explaining my basic beliefs to my catholic-raised-but no longer attended-boss. And the result is usually the same: once you get over the initial “Oh my ... I thought you were normal” vibe, they see our beliefs are very similar to their own. And of course they are! We are Christian! And we read the same Bible! The best is when I steer the conversation towards topics I know will interest them: raising children in righteousness; the Godhead and our relationship with both God and our Saviour; how a prophet leads us today.

Most times there is no need to defend myself or my beliefs. If they have questions, I answer them. Australians are very friendly people, and unless you’re having a confrontational discussion (as a missionary on their doorstep), they won’t ask you the questions on their mind. I’m sure several people have wanted to ask about polygamy, but didn’t want to be rude or start a serious discussion. Or perhaps they just didn’t want to know.

Of course, these conversations don’t happen unless you get over the bump of the “Oh my … I thought you were normal” vibe. And unless you are talking to a friend or work colleague, it may not get that far.

6. How is missionary work in your country? Would you say that it is difficult or easy for missionaries to find people to teach? How often do you have a new baptism? What are the greatest barriers to missionary work in your country?

Missionary work here is hard. Not impossible, but hard. Aussies aren’t really spiritually inclined. (Our Prime Minister is an atheist.) Sure, some tick the box on the Census, maybe attend church at Easter; but more often than not, just nominal. The problem is lifestyle – our social lifestyle of friends, sport, drinking at the pub – it is too ingrained in some. It is really hard to give it up, to change. For some, it may take a life-altering event (e.g. a death in the family) for them to realise there is more to life, or a void to be filled.

But … there are always those people who have been prepared. The one door in a thousand, behind which is a family who desperately needs the missionaries to answer their questions. I’ve seen that happen a few times.

Also, my country is filled with lots of people with different backgrounds. And we have several Chinese, Tongan, Samoan, and other wards. In my ward, most baptisms have been international students from China (and other places) who are here studying at university, and will hopefully take their new found beliefs back to their homelands.

7. How many families do you know (LDS or not) who have more than two children? If a family with four children moved to your area, would their family size seem unusual? What about a family with six children?

My husband is one of seven. One of his sisters has six boys. So now a family of four or even five children doesn’t seem that bad big. I know of families (all church members) back in Sydney who have nine, ten, eleven children. But golly, that is extremely rare.

I’d say, whether inside or outside of the Church, most Australian families have 2-3 children. The majority of families any larger than that are some other culture - Polynesian or other. A few years back, a federal politician here famously said (when trying to push for more births): We should all have “one for Mum; one for dad; and one for the country”. That is the expected average … that many fall short of, right here in Australia.

8. How many sisters do you visit teach? Do you have to travel far to reach them? What have been some of your best visiting teaching experiences?

I visit teach two sisters. The assignment is generally to visit two or three. I am not very good at it. To be honest, I’ve never really caught the vision of it. I am so independent and so busy, that I’ve never felt (or experienced) the need for it. I know that will change.

One thing that has made somewhat a difference is not being partnered with my Mum or sister. Back home, I guess it made our lives easier, but it ended up being just Mum visiting her friends. I didn’t take much initiative at all. Now that I live far far away from Mum’s plains, I have to do it if I want it done. I travel about 10-15 minutes to visit teach. Not that far at all. And I make the effort to read and think about the message, as well as being genuinely concerned for the welfare of my sisterly-friends.

I must say that I’m in such a great ward - I have diligent sisters who visit teach me right now. I don’t think I’ve have that before.

9. What are the greatest challenges the sisters in your Relief Society are facing?

I don’t attend Relief Society. I am in Primary, and I have no idea what goes on in Relief Society. I usually find out about activities after they’ve happened.

Sometimes I forget that I am a member of the society of relief. Truly. I just don’t think about it. But, of course, when some ward activity, a soup Sunday, a need arises, the women are there. I do think the majority of women get too bogged down in over-tasking themselves. Most have more than one child, which means school and all that it encompasses (homework, camps, sport) as well as sleep overs, youth programs, fussy eaters, toilet training, dating, teaching obedience, blah blah. Wack a calling or two on top, plus cordinating multiple children and husband’s activities, and even a job … you know where I’m going with this. Women are prone to busy over-tasked lives. I honestly think Sunday School and Relief Society are time outs for these women. Sure they discuss things, but for most it is quiet time. Unless you’re in Primary …

10. What is the greatest blessing that the gospel of Jesus Christ has brought into your life?

The gospel of Jesus Christ is knowledge, which equals powerful.

From this knowledge – the knowledge of who I really am, what I am capable of and can one day be, and the understanding of why we exist, and how families can be united for eternity – I have a powerful sense of SECURITY. I understand my purpose; I understand how it all works; I understand my potential; and I understand that my husband and I will be together forever, literally. Families are eternal. That is security.

What a bloody brilliant blessing. (I’m Australian. I’m allowed to say such things.)

Also … as a side note, because I have the gospel of Jesus Christ in my life, I feel incredibly USEFUL. I have the willingness and energy to serve others in my church and in my community. I want to serve others. I love using my talents at church. I love feeling useful. How’s that for a blessing?

Freja you have inspired me to go make a profile on Mormon.org, so thanks! Oh, also I should mention that Freja also has a blog called Young and Faithful that is really a lot of fun to read.


  1. Freja, what a joy it is to read your writing!

  2. Freja, I knew you when you were 8, you have grown into a far prettier woman than your dad could ever have made. I would ask for a dna test.

    I didnt know about your dads priesthood thing, that is so cool. He was probably in the thorn birds!

    It was great to read your thoughts and I agree re the visiting teaching..have never liked it, but I do it, cos it is a commandment. Good for you re growing into a gorgeous daughter of our father in heaven. Yay for you.

    Lots of love and Hugs Nicola (nee Hayes) Mills in New Zealand.

    ps give mum and dad a big kiss from me and tell your mum her interview skills on my 2nd hubby were spot on!!

  3. Freja, this is great. So interesting, some things I never knew about you!

  4. Update: I now blog over at faithfulfreja.blogspot.com.au