A few years ago, a sweet and energetic young missionary started her mission in our little tiny branch here in the secluded mountains of North Carolina. She was excited about the prospect of meeting others, of teaching the Gospel and ministering to any who were willing to listen. While I believe her heart was in the right place, a few things seemed to be holding her back.
One Sunday in the hallway, she bounced up to me and asked me what part of Utah I was from.
I smiled and shook my head. “I’m not from Utah,” I replied.
“You’re not?” she asked.
“Born and raised right here in these mountains,” I said. “Did someone tell you I was from Utah?”
She smiled. “Oh, no. I just assumed you were from Utah because you’re pretty.”
Huh. Talk about a backhanded compliment. If you know anything about me, you know I’m very proud of my southern heritage. I love where I live… the culture, the people, the flavor of the south. I wasn’t happy with the implications of her remark.
What I FELT like saying was, “Wow. So where does your bigoted idiocy make you from?”
But I didn’t do it. It would have been just as ridiculous a remark as her own and I’ve never been one to try for intentional obnoxiousness. And really, what good would it do for her to think that the folks of North Carolina are not only ugly, but mean too?
(Note that I am not denying any cases of unintentional obnoxiousness. That seems to follow me everywhere I go and while I’ve often tried to disengage myself from such an identification… it clings to me like dog hair on your favorite black pants. But I don’t seek it; not on purpose, and certainly not by sparring with Sister missionaries.)
For the short period of time this sister served in our area, she continued to struggle. Her disdain for the people, for the smallness and sometimes lack of functionality of our branch was obvious. I hope that wherever she served next, she was able to learn to love the people, regardless of appearance, color, or fashion sense. I hope that she was able to realize that a person’s need for the Gospel, or ability to serve therein has nothing to do with how one looks and everything to do with how they feel.
Judgement is an ugly thing. It hurts to be judged and even worse, I think it hurts to judge wrongly and then realize opportunities or friendships lost because of our own shortsightedness. We can pin people into categories and by so doing, completely miss the person that they really are, the magnitude of what they might be able to offer to us, to others, to everyone.
When all we see is too southern, or too slow; too fat, or too thin; too old, or too ignorant; not capable, not willing, not pretty, we miss what’s on the inside. And though it sounds cliched, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Truth be told, my little tiny mountain branch is a little quirky. We are an imperfect branch, full of imperfect people; people that have never lived anywhere but right here in these mountains. People that have been to college, and people that have not; simple people, complex people, pretty, not so pretty, fat, thin, and everywhere in between. But among those people, in all their diversity, are people that when faced with challenges and overwhelming obstacles, steadily put one foot in front of the other and live the Gospel. There are people who when they have nothing, give everything to serve others, to serve the Lord. This branch has taught me much about love and sacrifice and those lessons didn’t have anything to do with appearance.
Many years ago, a different missionary was called to serve in the town where I grew up. The first few weeks after his arrival, his “southern” jokes were relentless. He spoke of toothless rednecks, refrigerators on porches, and hound dogs on every front step. He was harsh, to say the least.
One day, my mother, also southern-born and proud of it, backed him up against the wall and said, “Elder, are you planning on baptizing anyone on your mission?”
“Absolutely!” he energetically responded.
“How do you plan to baptize people you don’t love?” my Mother asked.
Chagrined, humbled, this particular missionary went on to serve an outstanding mission and I believe wholeheartedly loved the people here when he went home.
Stereotypes are judgments too. Redneck. Yankee. Utah Mormon. Valley girl. They limit us, keep us from being people, individuals that can serve and contribute. They keep us from being ourselves, and from loving others for who they are, instead of for who we think they are based on judgments.
So we should just stop. The end.