Trophy Converts

June 6, 2013

Do the LDS have trophy converts?

Mid-may a report was published looking at the conversion experiences of British women to Islam. One of the things to come out of the report was the experience of white women: that they can be seen as trophies by heritage Muslims. In an interview with Jenni Murray on the BBC radio Woman’s Hour programme Professor Yasir Suleiman, director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at Cambridge, had the following to say:

Jenni Murray: Yasir, your report talks of white female converts being celebrated as trophies by heritage Muslims. What do you mean by that?

Yasir Suleiman: By some heritage Muslims. I think the Muslim community is a community that lives perhaps under mental siege and emotional siege in very many ways. And some people, when a white Muslim woman converts to Islam consider this a triumph of some sort or another, that is cultural, that is also in some cases religious. So the idea here is that those conversions are highly valued. They are visible. Made more visible by in a way that draws a distinction and difference between the conversion of a white woman, and the conversion of a woman from an Afro-Caribbean woman, although there are very many women from that background, the Afro-Caribbean background who are converting to Islam. …

[see page 4+ of the pdf report for additional information]

I was struck by what he had to say about mental and emotional siege. It’s a state of mind I have observed in the LDS church, and I set to wondering who might be our trophy converts.

Back when I was a student in London, there was a brief period when there was a large number of baptisms in the singles ward I attended. It seemed like there’d be three or four people to sustain as members every week or so. Most of them were students. Some from overseas. One of them is my now husband. Another is a General Authority. He was seen as the trophy I think; an articulate, personable, successful man; and white. He looked like a Mormon, behaved like a Mormon. His later non-member US girlfriend also looked like a Mormon, was carefully cultivated by the senior missionaries, and also baptised. I don’t begrudge either of them this. He was (and presumably still is) a great guy. But I don’t recall that quite the same care and attention was paid to the rest after a while, though it was universally agreed that all this group of converts were a great bunch.

A few years later we had a fireside at which two American converts, a husband and wife, were going to be relating their conversion experience. I’d attended a fireside given by astronaut Don Lind in the past, another by American footballer Steve Young, and a fair few by general authorities of the church, but converts was a new one. They were articulate, clearly well educated, in later middle age, and professionals in the publishing business. They were enthusiastic converts certainly, and told their story well. But it struck me as odd, recent converts on the international fireside circuit.

More recently, there seems to be a trend of inviting the more articulate converts in our stake to speak at stake conference. Not a necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. But where the majority of converts tend to be immigrants with poor English-speaking skills, it isn’t representative. And, as with the couple giving the fireside, I wonder at the purpose. Is this a demonstration of “yes, we attract these kinds of converts” triumphalism, or something more benign? And what is the effect of this on the remaining converts? Professor Suleiman concluded his remarks as follows:

Yasir Suleiman: So the conversion experience in that sense could be described as an ethnicised conversion experience, and the Muslim community, communities and others need to turn attention to it and to start to deal with it and help converts in their journey into Islam.

Do we to need to take a closer look at how we treat our converts?

Discuss.

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22 Responses to Trophy Converts

  1. Jeff Spector on June 6, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    There is no doubt that Mormons celebrate when we “catch a big one.” I remember the hoopla over Gladys Knight, for example. In the Deseret News, they are running articles about non-member athletes who join the church, some at BYU, some from association with members on their pro teams.

    We sometimes even celebrate celebrities who are less than faithful members. In some circles, I was a trophy convert, having come from the Jewish faith (there just aren’t that many of us plus the whole House of Israel thing).

    Not exactly that unusual as the Christian Groups like to trot out this country singer or that actor as well as “believers”).

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  2. Nick Literski on June 6, 2013 at 3:30 PM

    When I was a teenager, my “in name only” Catholic grandmother (whom I lived with at the time) looked over my ward list, and “harrumphed” that there didn’t appear to be any wealthy or influential locals (to her knowledge) in what was then my church. At the time, I thought that was a bizarre way to judge a church, but clearly there are some who think that way. It’s little wonder that the LDS church promotes famous converts–it creates legitimacy in the minds of people with limited spiritual sensitivities.

    Then again, when I was an LDS youth, it was common for the LDS church to send wealthy, successful, or famous LDS speakers to firesides throughout the stakes, with the promise that if you attended seminary and were “righteous” enough, you could be just as wealthy, successful, or famous as them.

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  3. Douglas on June 6, 2013 at 6:18 PM

    It’s just part of how we attempt to validate ourselves…we point to the good-looking, the successful, the talented, and say, “See? See? Good fruits of Mormonism!” Well, my testimony dependeth not upon how many touchdowns Steve Young threw (what matters is it took three attempts to beat Dallas in the NFC title game, the REAL Super Bowl after Joe Montana was traded to the Chiefs), or whether Mitt Romney occupies the White House, or the entertainment fortunes of Gladys Knight or the Osmonds.

    I like Matt Groening’s version of solidarity as shown on the Simpsons:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Y_KNYNzN6A

    However, it doesn’t really leave a negative impression as long as we remember that whatever status we presume to achieve in this life is less than flatulence in the wind to the Savior…He’s looking for the broken heart and contrite spirit, something that I need always to work on myself.

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  4. Beth on June 6, 2013 at 9:35 PM

    Two years ago my husband and I became active in church after both being inactive since our teens. We come from a very small town in northern utah but everyone in our entire stake seemed to know about our “conversion story” and when we got sealed in the temple we were asked to speak in stake conference. I didn’t think much of it at the time but looking back it seems strange.

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  5. Hedgehog on June 7, 2013 at 2:29 AM

    Beth, your story made me smile. I saw it more in terms of celebrating the finding of the lost coin or return of the prodigal. I think we do get so happy and excited when people return. And news does travel fast, in the way of ‘do you remember so-and-so..’. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, in and of itself.

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  6. Hedgehog on June 7, 2013 at 2:38 AM

    Jeff, Douglas, Nick, I certainly agree that the celebration of big names be they converts or existing members has a lot to do with validation. I do think it can be off-putting for some people though, precisely because it is putting attention on worldly success and not what’s important.

    Nick, there are all sorts of promises banded about it in relation to seminary and institute participation, which can come across as horribly coercive sometimes, and which annoy me immensely.

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  7. Hedgehog on June 7, 2013 at 2:43 AM

    Jeff, your personal experience sounds interesting. Did you find it annoyed you sometimes? The whole House of Israel thing and converts was discussed in Wlifried’s post on T&S http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2012/09/the-blood-of-israel-in-europe/ .

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  8. Hedgehog on June 7, 2013 at 3:00 AM

    One story I didn’t relate in the OP. One ward I attended: at much the same time a single woman and a family were baptised. The family got a lot of attention. Went to the temple a year later amidst huge fanfare. I was the VTer of the single woman for a while, and she certainly noticed the difference in the way she and this family were treated and celebrated by ward members generally. Her later attendance at the temple was considerably more low key, her student daughter later joined the church. Both mother and daughter went on to serve missions, whilst the family who’d been so feted became less active.
    So one of the things I was hoping to discuss was how the different ways we treat converts can affect their experience of conversion. For a while the single sister felt as though she were of lesser value, unappreciated, by comparison with the family, but she stuck it out. The family, perhaps, were born along on a crest of general euphoria and celebration of which they were the centre, but was in the long term unsustainable.

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  9. DB on June 7, 2013 at 6:05 AM

    It seems that white women are considered trophies by many non-white races/cultures. Just an observation.

    As far as LDS converts, we’re no different than anyone else. We celebrate accomplishments that we consider to be more difficult to achieve. Poor converts are easier to get than rich converts. Singles are easier than families. The uneducated are easier than those with degrees. The everyman is easier than the celebrity. Women convert in higher numbers than men. The mentally unstable are drawn to us like a magnet while the sane folks take some convincing.

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  10. Hedgehog on June 7, 2013 at 9:10 AM

    So DB, is that a good thing do you think, or should we be asking questions about our responses to different kinds of converts?

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  11. Jeff Spector on June 7, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    Hedgehog,

    I was never annoyed by the attention, just somewhat amused. What was amazing is the prideful nature of some of the Jewish converts a have met along the way. Not all, mind you but some.

    I knew coming into the Church that I have a different perspective from most members and i have always been happy to share it.

    I’ve told my conversion story countless times, counseled missionaries on dealing with Jewish investigators, done some firesides on various topics, and presented at BYU. But I don’t really seek that out per se and I try not to wear my membership in the House of Israel (as opposed to adopted in) as some badge of honor.

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  12. Roger on June 7, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    It certainly is a long-standing occurrence. The LDS went overboard on Sidney Rigdon and John C Bennett, to their subsequent regret. I can recall our mission president calling his own number in an effort to get the last five yards with a potentially prominent conversion. But it is typical. Sandy Koufax and Tim Tebow are worthy exponents for their respective faiths. When the Twins were in town we looked for Harmon Killebrew at PH mtg.

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  13. rk on June 7, 2013 at 11:04 AM

    From my own the few people that would manage to give a discussion to usually had a lot of problems like mental and emotional issues, willingness to do anything remotely hard issues to name a couple. When someone like this was baptized the likelihood that they would remain an active contributing member of the unit was small. It was just such a relief sometimes to teach a discussion to someone who had somewhat stable life. The wards I served in had a limited number of capable people to shoulder the responsibilities of the ward. High maintenance members cap burn out these overextended folks. I perfectly understand the relief and joy of seeing a stable and potentially helpful investigator get baptized.

    Of course we are are beloved children of God we are equal in his eyes. But we however are mortal and have limits to how much we can serve and help others.

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  14. Hedgehog on June 7, 2013 at 11:50 AM

    rk, you make an important point.

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  15. Hedgehog on June 7, 2013 at 11:19 PM

    Jeff : “What was amazing is the prideful nature of some of the Jewish converts a have met along the way. Not all, mind you but some.”

    Ouch.

    I do think it’s great to share perspectives.

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  16. Hedgehog on June 7, 2013 at 11:23 PM

    rk, again, do you think perhaps, that if missions were more service oriented and less proselyting oriented that would lesson the problem?

    Also: ” I perfectly understand the relief and joy of seeing a stable and potentially helpful investigator get baptized.”
    Whilst I agree, I think there is danger of them being dumped on too quickly or too much and leaving again once the inital euphoria of their baptism and such is over, simply because we are so overloaded.

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  17. whizzbang on June 8, 2013 at 10:09 AM

    Oh man this is SO true around here in my part of Canada-worshipping the more articulate ‘converts’. I have had these same thoughts for years now. I know more then a few people that get baptized and then they are asked to give firesides, speak in stake conference, go on a missions if they are young and on and on. One couple flew to SLC, met with soem Brethren and got sealed in the Temple. These people their egos get so big or so much is expected or them that now none of the people I am thinking want anything to do with the Church. One guy, who was even written up in the New Era, was supposed to have been trained in CES to be the next big CES guy, he served a mission, was in a branch presidency at a very young age, got married in the Temple and now is totally, totally less active-last I heard he and his live in girlfriend are expecting. Sadly this isn’t isolated
    We put the “quality” ones it seems on pedestals and fall all over them and as I say their egos get to big or much is expected of them

    i’ve complained to the Stake Presidency about this but they said nothing

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  18. rk on June 8, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    “rk, again, do you think perhaps, that if missions were more service oriented and less proselyting oriented that would lesson the problem?”

    In the mission I served in definitely–no. I served in Europe and in many parts of Europe and other places in the world free service is a foreign concept. It is actually seen in a negative light, that it would be taking away someone’s paid job. People’s physical needs were already provided. I once asked if we could volunteer to go to nursing home to talk to lonely residents. The reply was, “We employ priests to do that.” My companions and I struggled to get any service hours at all, usually we helped out members of the ward that needed help with something.

    I think that non-proselytizing service can be an important part of a mission for many if not most areas. I would think it could be useful to have missionaries do more service hours when the situation is warranted, but I really doubt it would significantly increase the number of stable people who want to hear the discussions. If that were the case, it would have been done a long time ago. I do feel however that community service projects done by members and missionaries can go a long way to create goodwill and eliminate misunderstandings. Aside from having more members talk with their friends about the church, I don’t think there is a silver bullet for finding good people to teach.

    “Whilst I agree, I think there is danger of them being dumped on too quickly or too much and leaving again once the inital euphoria of their baptism and such is over, simply because we are so overloaded.”

    Yes, that could be a problem. Priesthood leaders should watch situations like this carefully so this doesn’t happen. As others have written, I think there can be a danger in showering new converts (or anyone else) with to much of the wrong kind of praise and attention as mentioned in the other comments. I would wait a while to put someone on the fireside circuit if they ever do at all.

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  19. KT on June 8, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    I like the gist of this post. I get the point and yea, we probably do need to take a look at how ‘we’ treat our converts. However, I do think it begs the bigger question….. What are ‘our’ ethics as far as WHO we are converting and HOW ‘we’re’ doing it?

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  20. Hedgehog on June 9, 2013 at 12:50 AM

    Roger. Yes. I certainly heard the John C. Bennett stuff was a disaster all round. Curious about Sidney Rigdon though – what happened with him? The other names you mention I’m not familiar with – I guess their fame is more of the US variety. (Mind you, the Steve Young fireside I think it was more the Young name that gave initial traction in Britain, we had to be told he was an American footballer).

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  21. Hedgehog on June 9, 2013 at 12:56 AM

    whizzbang, thank you for the comment. It isn’t just in Britain then.

    rk, thank you for responding to my questions. You make an interesting point about Europe. I think volunteering is probably a little easier in Britain since David Cameron’s talk of ‘Big Society’ and wanting to encourage volunteering. But many of his critics bring up the exact same point about replacing people in work with volunteers being a bad thing, and I don’t think I can disagree with that.
    I do wonder from time to time what happened in the long term with the convert couple who gave the fireside.

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  22. Hedgehog on June 9, 2013 at 1:07 AM

    KT, I certainly hear you on the who and how. I didn’t serve a mission myself, but the tales I have read of target-driven missionaries certainly make me cringe. And those targets are to some extent being applied to the memebership in general too, and not only by the missionaries.
    This month is apparently ‘invite someone to sacrament meeting month’. Hmmm. If there was anyone I felt was ready would I really have invited them in May, when there is so much danger of them hearing just how we’re all supposed to be inviting people to attend in June, and even in June, who’s to guarantee there won’t be someone issuing ‘gentle’ reminders of what we’re meant to be doing, and then in July some analysis of had we done well or could we have tried harder… Because I do think all this marketing detracts from worship, which is what we’re meant to be doing afterall.

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