Friday, June 18, 2010

Marriage and Divorce in Latin America and What It Means to Missionaries

Not related to The Daily Universe exactly, but interesting enough that I felt like sharing it. (And it's too long to fit into a tweet.)

McKay Coppins, the news editor for the Universe back when I was a COMMS 321 reporter, is on an internship with Newsweek this summer and also does the "Mormon Twentysomething" column for Mormon Times (part of the Deseret News). He wrote a column today about marriage and divorce in Latin America culture and what it means for Mormon missionaries. And, because I'm a big fan of marriage and I have also been in "mission nostalgia" mode lately, McKay's column spurred quite a response.

To explain the issue for those who are unfamiliar with it: as missionaries prepare people and families to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they teach them some basic commandments and help them follow those commandments before their baptism. Part of this doctrine is the law of chastity, which means many things but includes abstinence before marriage and after marriage only having sex with your legally and lawfully husband or wife. For a couple who only lives together and are not officially married, even if they love each other, are completely faithful to each other and intend on being together the rest of their loves ... they are technically breaking the law of chastity, and do not qualify for baptism.

The solution might seem simple. Well, if you love each other and want to spend the rest of your lives together, just get married! And, if the couple understands and believes in the LDS faith enough, they would understand and believe in the importance of marriage and its significance in God's plan for His children. Likely they would just make the decision to be married and then become baptized and continue learning the gospel and receiving blessings.

However ... in Latin American countries, it's not so simple if someone in the couple had a previous marriage.

Divorce is common these days in the U.S., and Latin America is no different. What is different is that the laws in those countries are heavily influenced by Catholicism, and because of that the divorce process is extremely difficult. It takes a lot of money and a lot of time. It prevents a lot of people from getting married, even if they've found the love of their life, lived together and even started a family. It also prevents these couples from being baptized into the LDS church.

Law of chastity, marriage and divorce can be complicated for LDS missionaries anywhere, but the Latin America situation is unique. That's what McKay wrote about in his column.

A plea on behalf of would-be converts

And, for some reason, I read his column and felt like typing out a long response to him in a Facebook message. And then I felt like sharing that Facebook message with all of you! So here it is (with a few edits):

"I was a missionary in Cordoba, Argentina, and the 'common law' marriages were very, well, common. It's difficult as a missionary, because most of the time you're just happy to have a family who will let you into their home and teach them. And yet, should more priority be given to investigators who can learn and progress and be baptized in two months instead of a couple who is caught up in paperwork and legal fees for two years? It takes balance and moderation.

"My personal philosophy when I was a missionary was to show those couples that we weren't going to forget about them. Maybe we didn't need to stop by their homes every day, but I wouldn't want to take them out of the area book and let them collect dust. A couple who wants to join the Church but is going to take longer than your district's or zone's goals will allow shouldn't be left by the wayside. (To me that's interesting that in your sister's mission they won't even count live-in couples in their statistics. I have to disagree, although I also know it is important to absolutely trust mission presidents. So, the situation in her mission must be different from what I was used to. I don't advocate that she rebel against instruction from her mission president.)

"If you keep live-in couples in contact with the missionaries and the Church, and they have genuine testimonies of the Church, then they will still be baptized. Yes, it might not be until long after you've been transferred, but of course that shouldn't matter.

"I remember hearing about a missionary who had been in one of my areas before I got there. There was a couple, Daniel and Paola, who were one of those 'eternal investigators' because he had to finalize a divorce before he could officially marry Paola and then be married. When I was there he was even trying to sell his truck (on which his business depended) in order to pay legal fees.

"One night, this missionary was talking with Paola outside their house. The missionary had the gall and arrogance to giver her this idea: What if she just moved out of her and David's home, and then they could get baptized? She of course disagreed and was pretty offended. I mean, to her, that would be like a missionary asking Annie to move out of your home [Annie is McKay's wife]. To David and Paola, they fit every definition of marriage other than the 'official' definition. They had a young son, they had a home together, and they wanted to be baptized and later sealed together for time and all eternity. But they also understood the requirement to be legally married and live the law of chastity. And David was working on it. I realized after I heard this story that the missionary was just trying to get two more baptisms under his belt before he was transferred.

"Well, David and Paola soon got over being offended by the missionary. And, a whole year after I was in David's and Paola's area, I happened to be in a different area in the same zone and I saw David and Paola again at a conference. They were married, baptized, and filled with so much joy. It was one of the few times in my life I can actually say 'I could see it in their eyes' without it just being a cheap cliche. I really could see a difference.

"Who knows how many of those couples are missing out on the blessings of the gospel because missionaries who only care about numbers are giving up on those couples?"

So, anyway, there it is. Just thought I'd share that with you. I'll close by giving a brief testimony of marriage.

Marriage seems antiquated or unnecessary these days through the eyes of the world. People are trying to change it, abuse it or trivialize it. But I know that the institution of marriage is ordained of God, and marriage and family is central to His plan of salvation. Besides just reading about it in the scriptures, I know that my young marriage with Erin is the greatest thing to ever happen to me. The most happiness I have ever felt is a direct result of being married to her. Not just living with her, not just dating her, but being married. And I know that because we were married in the temple by priesthood authority, our marriage and family will be literally together for eternity. I know that's God's plan for me, and I know it's the greatest and most important part of my life and any other life. I am grateful for the blessings I have already received and the ones yet to come.

(Happy almost 10-month anniversary, Erin!)

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