Touchstone Magazine’s blog Mere Comments has always been a little hit-or-miss with me. Sometimes I disagree with them. But every so often, I come across a piece I really enjoy. Yesterday, the piece was entitled “Man of God” and basically makes the case for the wearing of the standard uniform among the professional clergy. I found it quite moving and I’d encourage you to read it.
Despite Mormonism’s lack of a professional clergy, the article seems relevant in several areas of Mormon practice.
First, it seems to speak directly to the standard Mormon missionary uniform. I have heard some suggest that missionaries ought to be allowed to “blend in more,” and that the current dress code simply looks dorky. Like the author of the Touchstone article, I have long considered such sentiments, at worst, downright selfish (although I am willing to countenance that they may simply be benignly-wrong-headed). But rather than banging on those notes, I’d like to share an experience from my own mission.
The fourth area I served in during my mission in Japan was the mid-sized port city of Sasebo. The city was different than any other I had served in. This was due primarily to the presence of a small U.S. Naval base at the heart of the downtown. American servicemen and women were a common sight on the central downtown shoten – a sort of open-air mall, which you will find in almost any sizeable Japanese town or city. I found the city a nice change of pace. I enjoyed talking with Americans (besides my fellow missionaries) for a change, and the small military branch was full of good people.
But after a couple months in the city, I noticed a different social dynamic than in other Japanese communities I’d lived in. In all my previous assignments, I had found that Caucasian-appearing individuals were generally met, by the locals, with a strange mixture of nervous friendliness combined with intense interest and scrutiny. Being a “tall fair-haired American” in those places was somewhat akin to minor celebrity status. I had grown accustomed to generating a “positive vibe” wherever I went. But after serving in Sasebo for a couple months, I noticed a very different vibe.
It came out while I was doing a bit of shopping in the downtown. My watch had lost a screw and I needed it repaired. I entered a watch store to ask about repairs and, to my surprise, I was met with openly hostile looks and a flat refusal of service. I left the store thinking “that’s odd.” Then it hit me.
I wasn’t “in uniform.”
It was “preparation day,” essentially a missionary’s day-off. On preparation day, we weren’t required to wear the standard white-shirt-tie package that usually typifies LDS missionaries everywhere. I had been taking advantage of the opportunity to wear something else for a change and was wearing a rather nondescript sweatshirt and jeans. I looked no different than any of the numerous Americans who frequented the downtown. I remembered something I had heard from one of the other missionaries about locals having problems with drunken, rowdy, sex-starved sailors every time the miniature aircraft carrier that was based out of Sasebo pulled into port.
Come to think of it, I had been noticing for some time, that I tended to get a much chillier response from the locals when I didn’t “look like a missionary.” When I was sporting the white shirt and the nametag, most people were all friendliness and politeness. Not so when I looked like any other off-duty sailor wandering the streets looking for “a good time.”
I didn’t like being the object of such negativity, and eventually I put away my street clothes for the duration of my stay in Sasebo.
I think sometimes, whether we like it or not, we can never simply blend-in. For better or worse, we are different from our neighbors. We have different expectations from life and additional obligations that others don’t have. At a certain point, I think we have to acknowledge that our natural desires to be liked and accepted are simply no longer realistic. You can find good neighbors, good friends, good business associates, and good political and social allies… anywhere you live.
But you cannot find Zion just anywhere. Because Zion has never been about simply being “nice people.” Anthony Esolen’s post on Mere Comments concludes well and I think it speaks directly to all of us:
Ministers who want to be jus’ folks should take heed. God has singled you out, you men of God. I accept the priesthood of all believers; but I think that God has marked you with the sign of Melchizedek in a way that he has not marked me. Then do not try to efface that sign. I suppose it is a burden to you. Does it leave splinters in your shoulder? Does it bow your back and make your legs tremble for weariness? You cannot have expected otherwise. But it does not matter whether you would prefer to be my pal, the buddy at the card table, somebody just like me. You are no longer just like me. Pals I already have, and plenty. I don’t need any more of them. I need you: the spiritual father, the minister, the man of God.