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Mormonism and Asia conference explores growth, cutural diversity

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 3:42 a.m. MDT

The Mormons and Asia conference used the banyan tree to illustrate the growth of Mormonism across the world. (Asianmormonstudies.org) The Mormons and Asia conference used the banyan tree to illustrate the growth of Mormonism across the world. (Asianmormonstudies.org)

BERKELEY, Calif. — The banyan tree was the metaphor conference organizer Melissa Inouye chose to depict the growing Mormon community in the inaugural Global Crossroads: Mormonism and Asia in the Twenty-First Century Conference, on Saturday, March 22. The branches reach both upward and sideways in a tangle of roots and trunks that must work together to bring gospel nourishment amidst differing Asian and wider global cultures.

President Pui-Yan Kwok and his wife, Sister Abby Li, of the San Francisco California West Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened the conference with a discussion on how to bridge cultural misunderstanding that they see among their congregations and among their friends.

President Kwok outlined traits within some Asian cultures that present challenges to the growth of the church, such as the desire to not "lose face"; fear of organizations and distrust of authority; the inability to square traditional ancestor worship with Christianity; and peer pressure to conform.

The banyan tree, like this one in in Hilo, Hawaii, was used as part of an analogy to illustrate the growth of Mormonism across the world. (MARK RIGHTMIRE,, MCT) The banyan tree, like this one in in Hilo, Hawaii, was used as part of an analogy to illustrate the growth of Mormonism across the world. (MARK RIGHTMIRE,, MCT)

He then summarized some of the tenets of Mormonism that appeal to many Asians:

The LDS Church teaches that we have divine potential, “not just being in heaven and happy, but being in heaven and being like God.”

The church stresses eternal family: “Family is the only unit we can trust.”

The church teaches that anyone can be saved through vicarious ordinances.

• The church’s emphasis on work ethic, self-reliance and education.

President Kwok concluded that, “Yes, Asia is big, and full of different kinds of people, but Asia is a place where the church doctrine rings true.”

Sister Li spoke of her experiences growing up in America and her joy at joining the LDS Church in Chicago and singing gospel music under the then-local Relief Society President Cathy Stokes.

She described the challenges of attending an Asian ward when she didn’t necessarily self-identify as Asian, but as American, and challenged people to avoid unwittingly encouraging Asian stereotypes on the ward level. Discouraging diversity "can stunt our full spiritual growth potential in understanding how to more fully live Christ’s teachings," she said.

Inouye, of the University of Hong Kong, asked “What is the real significance of Mormonism’s global presence?” In exploring this question, she and Brad Jones, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sampled the talks of Sunday morning conference from 1943 to 2013 in five-year intervals and found a decline in the use of terms such as “America” and “United States.”

The high, they jointly found, was 78 in 1975, with the low being just 12 in 2013. She concluded that this indicated an awareness of the global reach of Mormonism.

Inouye invoked the image of the banyan tree to “helps us see the vertical interaction between prophetic charisma and grassroots charisma.” The banyan tree, Inouye explained, with its complicated root and trunk system, illustrates how Mormonism, instead of coming out of one location and sending out branches all over the world like an oak, “sends down roots and trunks wherever it grows. Congregations in Taipei (for example) are not merely extensions of Salt Lake City, but are communities firmly rooted in local languages, traditions and families." said Inouye.

In conclusion, she explained that the banyan tree weaves together the roots that soak up the life-giving water with the upward reaching trunks that seek the sunlight and that this can be a model for Mormons around the world.

Emily W. Jensen enjoys writing, editing, reading and eating dark chocolate, sometimes simultaneously. She happily covered the Mormon blogs for the Deseret News for five years. Email: ejensen@deseretnews.com

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