As humans, we tend to categorize people, places, and things to organize our minds and make sense of the world. Sometimes, those categories and labels can be useful. For example, in my brain, I have a whole group of people I label as “Family Members.” I interact with people in my “family members” group differently than I would interact with my “strangers” category. In the church, we use other labels to help us stay organized — for example, new members, recent converts, the youth, primary children, and so forth. However, as humans, we tend to take those labels to the extreme.
We might label people in ways that make sense to us but have a nasty tendency of excluding, silencing, and pushing away people who don’t fit the labels we place upon them. If we want to improve our ward family relationships and unify our communities, we need to start by unboxing people and getting rid of overgeneralized labels.
Nobody Fits In a Box
People fit in many categories in life, and that’s a good thing. Versatility is the spice of life. However, we want people to be in a box because that makes us feel organized and secure. The truth is that no one fits in the box.
I’m a great example of a box breaker. I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints living in Utah. My husband and I are sealed in the temple. We own a home. We have two beautiful dogs, but we do not have any children, nor do we expect children any time in the foreseeable future.
Now here’s the real clincher for people. We’re at peace with our situation.
It’s almost funny when people meet us for the first time. They don’t know our story. So, within seconds they ask if we have kids. Then, without fail, they comment about how we’ll have kids in the future. Maybe they’re right, or perhaps not. The point is that we don’t fit that “perfect family” mold and I’ve seen people get so uncomfortable with it that they almost can’t stand it.
However, nobody fits that mold. If we look closely, nobody meets all the criteria of most of the boxes we assign to people. A recent convert may have more faith than the bishop. A returned missionary may or may not have served honorably. Special needs can mean anything from severe autism to hypoglycemia. “Inactive” or “less active” members may or may not have issues with their faith, the church, or their neighbors. Maybe they have to work on Sunday to feed their families. Or, perhaps they don’t feel loved.
We all like to think we have the facts, but the truth is we don’t have a clue.
Breaking The Molds
So, how do we maintain organization at church and in our communities without forcing people into inaccurate boxes? The first step is to realize that we label people. We all do it. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about it. Labels can be tools. However, we need to remember that people don’t fit in boxes. So, always remember that our labels are likely totally inaccurate or not the whole picture.
Evaluate your categories for people with the mindset that most people fit into a lot of different roles. So, no one box can hold them. Make sure that the categories you have for people are 1) true, 2) inclusive.
Truthful labels are provable facts and titles. I fit into many groups in my ward. I am one of two Special Needs Resource Coordinators. That’s a title, and it’s true. That title signals to other people that they can come to ask me questions about church and ward resources for all kinds of special needs.
I am also a member of the Relief Society. You can tell because I’m a member of the church and I’m over the age of 18. Some other accurate labels are home-maker, writer, self-employed, Dog Mom, and wife. You can probably gather a lot of information about me just from those few labels. However, you only see the facts that I’m willing to share. Those labels might be truthful, but they aren’t the whole story. It’s important to remember that we are not made up of the categories and labels others assign us regardless of truthfulness.
Before you set anyone in a category, make sure you stop and think if you’re using that label to include, love and welcome, or to shun, exclude, or shame.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a gospel of love where there is room for all of Heavenly Father’s children. During October General Conference of 2018, Elder Soares gave a talk called “One In Christ.” Part of that talk compares all the individual people of the church and how we all combine like two mighty rivers of different compositions flowing together to create the Amazon River in Brazil.
He says “In a similar way that the Solimões and Negro Rivers flow together to make the great Amazon River, the children of God come together in the restored Church of Jesus Christ from different social backgrounds, traditions, and cultures, forming this wonderful community of Saints in Christ. Eventually, as we encourage, support, and love each other, we combine to form a mighty force for good in the world. As followers of Jesus Christ, flowing as one in this river of goodness, we will be able to provide the “freshwater” of the gospel to a thirsty world.”
We must remember that our differences are vital for the progression of the Gospel. We need to celebrate differences and put our judgments away. If we’re using labels to exclude, shame, or judge one another we need to stop.
In the end, there are only three labels we should care about.
- We are Children of God.
- We are Disciples of Jesus Christ.
- We are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
If we can categorize all people as Children of God, then we must realize that we are all family. As a family, we must include one another. Welcome one another, and as Jesus taught, “Love one another.”
As Disciples of Jesus Christ, we must keep His commandments to love our neighbors as ourselves. We must strive to love, include, welcome, nurture, teach, and spread the light of Jesus Christ throughout all the world. The best place to start is in our hearts, our homes, our wards, and our neighborhoods.
Lastly, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we are part of something far more significant than any one person. We have the fullness of the gospel. We can unify with other members because we share our knowledge of Heavenly Father’s love for all of us, and the infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ. We know that we all play a vital role in Heavenly Father’s plan.
The Savior taught us to preach the gospel and love one another. Our job is to “mourn with those that mourn,” “comfort those who stand in need of comfort” and to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and all places…” If we must use labels, let’s make sure that they’re for the purpose of helping, including, and loving. For everything else, please apply Elder Uchtdorf’s two-word sermon “STOP IT!”