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After shrine vandalized, questions arise about LDS missionary training

Published March 14, 2008 1:35 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Robert Fotheringham had seen these missionaries at their best. He can speak to how they assisted the elderly, dug cars out of snowbanks and hauled firewood to people who were stranded.

So the news that broke earlier this week, after photographs revealed three LDS Church missionaries allegedly mocking Catholicism and vandalizing a shrine in San Luis, Colo., has left the Colorado Springs mission president more than shocked.

"I can tell you story after story that's noble and uplifting and, of course, this is just the opposite," Fotheringham said. The behavior depicted in these photos, taken in August 2006 and discovered on the Internet by a Sangre de Cristo parishioner late last week, is "so counter to the regular pattern that it's just stunning."

Two former missionaries, and one whose call has now been terminated, reportedly snapped photos of themselves preaching behind a church altar while waving a Book of Mormon, pretending to sacrifice one another and holding the head of a Mexican saint whom one missionary claimed to have decapitated. The photos, taken at the Stations of the Cross, the Chapel of All Saints and the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs - all located on a mesa overlooking San Luis - were found on the Web site Photobucket. They have since been taken down, but their discovery continues to rock the small southern Colorado town.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued an apology, promised disciplinary action and vowed to seek ways to restore good will. But the events in Colorado continue to raise questions about whether Mormon missionaries receive sufficient training in cultural sensitivity before entering the mission field.

The LDS Church believes it does. Spokesman Mark Tuttle said in a written statement that Missionary Training Centers teach missionaries "to respect people of all faiths, to be sensitive to doctrines and beliefs that other religions hold sacred, and to obey the law. Once in the mission field, mission presidents provide additional training on local customs and traditions."

A former Provo MTC Finnish teacher, Anthony John, said he wasn't aware of a "regimented sensitivity training" and believed the responsibility rested primarily on individual teachers. He, for instance, remembered offering tips to his students and discussing the predominance of the Lutheran faith in Finland, a tradition that needed to be respected. His own mission president, he added, encouraged him and the other missionaries to visit and simply take in other churches on their free, or preparation, days.

"A lot of them were very impressive," said John, 27. "Even as a Mormon person," visiting other houses of worship "doesn't mean I can't have a religious experience."

It's one thing, however, to be heading to a foreign country, where obvious cultural differences are fodder for discussion and where missionaries spend many more weeks in training, in large part because they're learning new languages. John had his students for 11 weeks; missionaries who don't need language training, he said, only attend the MTC for three weeks.

Fotheringham, however, was quick to recite from the missionary handbook a line oft-repeated and meant to guide behavior for the more than 53,000 full-time Mormon missionaries who span the globe: "Respect the culture, customs, traditions, religious beliefs and practices, and sacred sites in the area where you serve."

Perhaps nowhere have the repercussions of ignoring these guidelines been more salient than they were in Thailand in 1972.

Only four years after the Thailand Mission was established, two LDS Church missionaries touring an ancient and famous Buddhist temple area whipped out cameras and snapped photos that sparked an international incident and landed them in jail for six months.

R. Lanier Britsch, a retired Brigham Young University history professor and author of From the East: The History of the Latter-Day Saints in Asia, 1851-1996, recounted the story of what happened.

He said the young men were walking through the ruins, "a highly venerated place," when they came upon a large Buddha statue that was easily accessible. One elder climbed onto the statue, straddled the Buddha's neck, placed his hands on the Buddha's head (the top of which "represents the Buddha's enlightenment, his expanded capability, . . . thus making the head the most sacred part of his body," Britsch explained) and smiled for the camera.

The Thai store proprietor who was later asked to develop the film was so upset when he saw the images that he submitted them to a newspaper. The two young men "paid a rather severe price for the indiscretion," serving six months in a Thai jail, and the incident "set the church back for many years" in that part of the world, Britsch said. And this, he added, wasn't an event that left anything broken.

What happened in Colorado, he said, "sounds like zealous antagonism," worse than the "momentary cultural insensitivity" that happened in southeast Asia.

"I find it unconscionable and extremely difficult to explain," Britsch said.

As for what punishment seems appropriate for the three missionaries who served in Colorado, the historian speculated that that will take care of itself.

"Their souls are going to be roasted for years over this. I don't think anyone else is going to have to put their feet to the fire. . . . They're going to feel so stupid."


* JESSICA RAVITZ can be reached at jravitz@sltrib.com or 801-257-8776. Send comments to the religion editor at religioneditor@sltrib.com.

LDS and Costilla County

About 150 missionaries serve in the Colorado Springs LDS Church mission, but only two are assigned to Costilla County, said Robert Fotheringham, the mission president. Due to the recent controversy, he said the missionaries will be kept out of San Luis for at least five or six weeks so everyone can "take a deep breath."

Costilla County, in south-central Colorado, has a population of fewer than 3,700 residents, according to the 2000 census. San Luis, the county seat, is Colorado's oldest town and has fewer than 800 residents. The majority of people living there are Catholic, and nearly all are Latino.

The Chapel of All Saints, where the altar photos were reportedly taken, is a small mission maintained by the Sangre de Cristo Parish in San Luis. It is perched atop a mesa, above San Luis, at the end of the Stations of the Cross, the town's famous desert trail that's lined with statues representing Jesus's final hours.

- Jessica Ravitz

Thompson's statement

Elder R. Thompson, the one missionary involved in the controversy who was still serving in the Colorado Springs mission, issued a statement on March 7, the day after the photographs were discovered by a Catholic church parishioner and reported to the Rev. Patrick Valdez, the priest at Sangre de Cristo Church. This note, which the missionary wrote himself, was delivered to the priest and other San Luis community leaders, according to Robert Fotheringham, the mission president.

Following is the statement from Thompson, who's been disciplined and sent home:

To whom it may concern and the community of San Luis, Colorado:

As a result of the recent photos which have surfaced involving me and the Catholic Church, I wish to offer my sincerest apologies. My actions at that day were inexcusable. I realize that my companions and I have made a mockery of that which is most sacred to many of the residents of San Luis and the rest of the world. I should have known better. I want to assure all of you that we meant no harm and surely no animosity toward the Catholic community. I deeply regret my past actions and wish to reconcile the damage that has been done. Again I give you all my deepest apologies.


Elder R. Thompson

What's next:

* The Costilla County Sheriff's Office is still investigating the incident and depending on what is discovered, the district attorney may file criminal charges.




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