Today's guest post about Latter-day Saint Women Around the World happens to be from one of my all-time favorite people. Julianne and I met in a class on HIV/AIDS in college forever ago and she is definitely a kindred spirit. She's lived all over the world but I am so glad that she was willing to share her experiences.
My name is Julianne, and although I was raised in California, USA, have recently married a dear German man and have spent quite a bit of time in Germany over the last years since we've known each other. We are currently studying and living in the UK, but I thought I'd share a bit more about the church in Germany from what I have seen. My husband and his family are Catholic, but his younger sister also dated an LDS guy in high school, and I've really been exposed to the practices and perceptions of the LDS church in Germany from both inside and outside perspectives. All that being said, onto the questions!
1. What is the dominant belief system in your country?
Germany is quite irreligious: my husband is from Bavaria in the South, where nearly everyone identifies as Catholic, and are much more practicing than most of the rest of the country which is Protestant-dominated. Most everything is closed on Sunday (things begin to shut up early Saturday afternoon, especially in the countryside), but that doesn't necessarily mean everyone is going to church. They are a lovely, intelligent people, but like most of Europe, have seen the ravages of religious war and bloodshed for centuries and have in many ways "moved past" organized religion.
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 was born in the LDS church and have been active throughout my life. My mom was baptized by missionaries at the age of 12, and she later helped my father convert when he was 18. They are incredibly faithful and open and loving people, and I am eternally grateful for their examples to me.
3. What is the LDS church attendance like in your area?
Unfortunately inactivity is a great problem in Germany, as I think it is quite everywhere. When I lived in Berlin there were a steady 50 or so members who would be there every Sunday, but I know this represented a fraction of the actual ward membership. It is hard to be religious, especially of a religion that demands so much of you personally, in a nation where most people simply don't care about spirituality in any organized matter. The majority of the members who came to my Berlin ward regularly were families and couples, young and old, though the YSA is quite active too! There were quite a few expatriates in my Berlin ward, but in the ward in my husband's home town, it's a strong group of German families who are the main attendees.
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?
There are two temples in Germany, and the members are rightly very proud of their temples, particularly the one in Freiberg, which was prophesied to be built even under the Communist GDR (East Germany). It is a huge blessing!
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?
HA! Oh my. Well - I can tell you that when my husband would tell people he was dating a Mormon they were shocked and amazed he could actually pull such a feat off. It was admittedly quite hard for both of us to be harshly judged in that way. Most Germans do know what Mormonism is (especially now with Mitt Romney's campaign: Germans love American politics!) - and associate it with several negative and false stereotypes... polygamy, suppression of women, cult-ish. It can be frustrating to always combat that prejudice. There is the idea that Mormonism is this weird American church, and many people would actually confuse me for Amish, asking how I "escaped." It can be hard, but I have to say that sometimes I feel that Mormons tend to isolate themselves. I know that Toni's family always had the impression that the ward in their town was quite close-minded and un-accepting. You either believed or you didn't, and they were perceived as very judgmental. This is a huge problem! I think it comes from the fact that Mormons are so different in their lifestyle from the average German, that we can tend to stick to our own, but in the meantime, we may be too isolating of others who don't necessarily share our lifestyle or belief choices. It breaks my heart to think that Germans perceive Mormons as judgmental and closed-off. We should be following Christ's example of love and acceptance above all, no? So the perceptions can go both ways I feel.
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?
I don't think I can properly answer this, having not been a missionary there myself. I can only say that compared to other areas of the world I have lived in, baptisms were fewer - but they did happen! I know much of the work is simply engaging with inactive members as well, which is a hugely important task.
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's family has 3 children in it and that is considered large. There was one family in my Berlin ward with 4 daughters, but they weren't German. Otherwise, families are by and large quite "small" by American Mormon standards - 2 to 4 children at most. I'm from a family of 6, and people are amazed when they hear it.
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?
When I was in Berlin, I was never actually assigned sisters to visit teach, though I did have my own visiting teacher! I am not sure why that was. I was in the YW presidency, and perhaps that "counted"? All I know was that I was so well fellowshipped in that ward, and my visiting teacher (the RS president, as it turns out), was so consistently kind to me.
9. What are the greatest challenges the sisters in your Relief Society are facing?
Inactivity. It was so hard to see the small numbers of attendees, knowing how much larger the ward actually was. Most of the inactives were in part-member families... and again, I think this goes back to the negative perceptions of Mormons, and the difficulty of being Mormon in German culture. You have to fight for it constantly, and that can naturally be quite hard. It takes a strong support mechanism to keep at it, which is why I think it's mostly families who are active - they at least have each other.
10. What is the greatest blessing that the gospel of Jesus Christ has brought into your life?
Perspective. Full knowledge of the Plan of Salvation, but mostly just knowing everyone's true identity... we are ALL daughters and sons of God! He loves us all equally, and wants us all to return to Him. Christ suffered for us all, and we are all brothers and sisters. How powerful that is. I could not get through life without that knowledge. There is too much injustice for this world to be all there is. But there is another world, and a loving Heavenly Father who sent His Son to us, and I am eternally grateful for that truth.
Thank you Julianne, I sure love you!