BYU junior Crystal Flake walked up to the LDS Church building in Lisbon, Portugal, for her first Sunday as a Spring 2018 BYU study abroad student. The building was different than what she was used to. The walls were covered with azulejo (painted ceramic tiles) and the floor was made of cork.
What she found inside, however, was the same thing she sees in church buildings in the United States: Sacrament meeting, Sunday School, Relief Society and the love the members have for the scriptures.
The gospel of Jesus Christ can overcome cultural barriers, according to Sam Heywood, a BYU student who studied in Spain during Spring 2018. Heywood said his experiences with the Mormon culture in Spain weren’t much different from his experiences with Mormon culture elsewhere.
“I think that the small differences that there are in their culture are adapted to the overall simplicity of the gospel, of living basic principles to become more Christlike,” Heywood said. “I think that’s universal and overcomes cultural barriers.”
The Daily Universe interviewed church members who were from or had lived in Europe to see how Mormon culture overcomes these cultural barriers.
Raquel Calderon, a Mormon from Spain, was born into the church. She has lived in the Alcalá de Henares Ward for about 14 years.
Calderon said it can be difficult to be a Mormon in Spain because of the prominent Catholic culture, so remaining true to the principles of the gospel is key.
“If you really know what the principles of the gospel are, and you truly have a testimony, being accepted won’t matter to you,” Calderon said. “And little by little, people will start to accept you for who you are. Of course, you don’t have to stop being around them, because there are not many other people around.”
When it comes to the new ministering initiative President Russell M. Nelson announced in the April 2018 General Conference, Calderon said she thinks this will be a good change for her ward, saying she can tell there is “more concern for others.”
Emily Richards, an American living in Spain, said immediately after the ministering announcement her ward released the high priest and elder’s quorum leaders and called new leaders.
Richards said the members in her ward try their best to live the gospel.
Heywood reflected this idea when he talked about how supportive and active his ward in Spain was in missionary work.
“Especially living in Utah, missionary work is very different there, so being in a place where you’re surrounded by non-members again, and missionary work is a big emphasis when you go to church, and they talk about missionary experiences and supporting the missionaries, that’s really exciting for me,” he said.
When asked about how Spanish culture or Spanish religious culture affects the way she practices her faith, Calderon said, “The most important thing is being converted and having a testimony.”
Faustino Lopez, one of the first four bishops called in Spain, said the church played a vital role in helping him and his wife “prepare our children to understand the gospel and face the world.”
Lopez currently has five callings in the church. He teaches seminary, helps with public affairs, is a counselor in the Madrid MTC presidency, is a member of the Spanish translation committee and represents the church on the advisory committee on religious freedom for Spain.
Lopez said he has taught an institute class on world religions several times. Representing the church on this religious advisory committee, Lopez said it has been interesting to meet people from these world religions, understand their beliefs and gain perspective through his associations with religious representatives.
“To have good friends in the other religious groups, that’s good because it gives me perspective of the other people, other beliefs,” Lopez said. “They are good friends. We should have friends outside that help us to understand people without our own beliefs, that are different. But differences are not bad.”
The Roman Catholic Church is a prominent religion in Spain is the Catholic religion. Lopez said Catholicism has become a cultural belief rather than a person’s religion.
“The Spanish are losing their religiosity because the Catholic church is not something they practice. It’s what they call a cultural belief,” Lopez said. “You are Catholic because you are born in Spain, and then you go to church for baptisms, for first communion, for weddings and for funerals and sometimes to mass. But not many (go to mass).”
Lopez said this is especially true among youths in Spain, who are becoming increasingly less religious.
Calderon echoed this sentiment. “I think it’s a bigger deal for the youth here because it’s harder to be accepted socially as a Mormon when you’re younger because you don’t do what everyone else is doing,” she said.
Richards, who moved to Spain for a two-year rotation for her husband’s work, has observed a number of cultural variations.
“The Mormon culture is different in the United States too wherever you go,” Richards said. “There’s East Coast Mormon culture, there’s California, you got Northwest — it’s so different wherever you go.”
Richards said her ward in Spain was incredibly welcoming to her and her family when they moved in. She said this is different from her experiences in wards in the United States, where it took them a bit longer to “feel settled and make friends.”
The most important thing to Richards is helping her children learn to rely on family and God.
“Even when you feel lost, even when you think you don’t know anybody, if nobody understands you or what you’re going through, you’re never alone. You can always rely on your family and Heavenly Father,” Richards said. “It just takes time, and that’s been one of our things is teaching (our children) how to adapt, how to handle new situations.”
Juan Manuel Arnal is a convert to the church. He said one day while taking the missionary discussions, he decided he was done. However, he continued to read the Book of Mormon, carrying it “wrapped up and protected” in his jacket.
After a couple more lessons from the sister missionaries, Arnal was going to make good on his decision to quit taking the lessons. He decided to go tell the sister missionaries he was done but instead found a letter from them in his mailbox. The letter talked about how much the sisters loved Arnal and how much God loved him too.
“One letter, on a Saturday in Spain — and there wasn’t a mailman — they felt the need to go and leave the note themselves after a few lessons with me,” Arnal said. “And that letter made me make the decision to continue listening and later get baptized. Such a small thing, yet so important.”
Arnal is currently the bishop of the Alcalá de Henares Ward in Spain. He said missionary work is hard in Spain because “Europeans are a little colder towards the gospel.”
“The Spanish people, and Europeans, we have to go back to desiring to search for the truth,” Arnal said. “There are other cultures, where God is a part of their lives in a very natural way. It worries me that for a large portion of the Spanish people, but not all, God is a subject that isn’t present in their lives.”
Arnal said he hopes the people in Spain realize what they are missing — the gospel of Jesus Christ — and seek it out, a quality expressed in his personal conversion to the church.
“I’m hungry for him to answer me. And I know that he answers,” Arnal said. “If I need something at any moment, or I need him to be here, I want to live in the way that I have the right for him to be with me.”
BYU alumna Kayla Gubbay served her LDS mission in Paris from 2012–13.
She said the only differences she noticed with members from her mission were differences connected to French culture rather than a different Mormon culture.
“Many of the wards and branches that I served in were very small, and the few members that were active worked very hard to coordinate meetings and to serve the congregation,” Gubbay said.
Although fewer members meant smaller classes, Gubbay said the members she interacted with always worked hard to do their best and serve others.
Gubbay said the biggest difference she saw in the members in France was their willingness and excitement to share the gospel with others since they were “truly the minority in their communities.”
“Because of this, many members have learned to speak openly about their beliefs in a matter-of-fact way — whether it is to discuss what they did over the weekend (church meetings) or why they won’t have a glass of wine at the end of a meal at a dinner party,” Gubbay said. “Their religion is a major part of their identity that sets them apart from much of the population.”
The members would invite non-member friends or colleagues to ward activities, church meetings and baptisms, Gubbay said, which she said inspires her to “live the same way.”
Like Heywood, Flake said the gospel crosses cultures and brings members together.
“Everyone is pretty friendly, and, of course, the teachings are the same,” Flake said. “I think our common beliefs bring us together in a really special way.”
Flake said she enjoyed attending the ward in Portugal during her study abroad, helping out where she could and meeting the members.
“There are definitely strong members here who I admire and would like to follow their example,” Flake said. “I’ve noticed a great attitude towards service and helping others, as well as an enthusiasm for missionary work.”
Flake said culture can result in minor differences in religious practice. She gave examples of the Portuguese tradition to kiss cheeks as a greeting and of Portuguese foods that are brought to ward socials and activities — something not seen at traditional Mormon gatherings in the U.S.
“As far as religious practices,” Flake said, “they are the same.”
Gubbay met her husband while in the mission field. After they were married, they lived in London for two and a half years.
Gubbay said she hasn’t seen any major differences in Mormon culture in either France or England where she has lived.
One thing Gubbay mentioned about her London ward was how the members came from all over the world.
“Very few families in our ward were British. Each member brought something special to the ward because of their different backgrounds and upbringings,” Gubbay said. “For example, the Brazilians threw the best ward parties and created a real sense of unity in the ward. This diverse congregation became our family away from home and helped us learn and grow in new ways.”
Finding this feeling of home and family abroad is something each of these individuals said he or she enjoyed during his or her time living in Europe.
Heywood said he reached a point where Spain became his home, and his study abroad group and LDS ward became his family — all because of the ability of the gospel of Jesus Christ to overcome cultural barriers.
(Video by Camille Baker)