DEFYING THE STEREOTYPES
by Richard Mouw
“His warmth, open-heartedness, and readiness to engage with colleagues of other persuasions have left a lasting impression on me.” That is from Mennonite scholar, who wrote to me in response to the email I sent when I received word about Gene England’s passing. He had gotten to know Gene in the context of a group I convened regularly over the period of several years to talk about “traditions of leadership,” a project funded by the Luce Foundation.
Having Gene as a member of the group was a personal treat for me. I had come across Dialogue and Sunstone on the shelves of the Huntington Library in the 1980s, and as I made my way through the back issues, one of the writers who caught my fancy was Gene England—enough so that I purchased my own copy of his Dialogues with Myself, and read and re-read the essays collected there. When I put together the “traditions of leadership” group a few years later, I knew I had to do what I could to bring Gene into the discussion. It had become clear to me that he was certainly a leader, someone who was willing to speak out on topics like race and gender when that required courage in his own community. At the same time, he clearly was guided by a profound sense of being grounded in a tradition. There was never any doubt that Gene was more than a mere “birthright” Mormon; his commitment to the basics of LDS life and thought was a matter of deep conviction.
Meeting Gene in person only confirmed what I had come to expect from reading his essays. The members of our discussion group—myself included—had long been shaped by widespread stereotypes of Mormonism. On such a view, the phrase “Mormon intellectual” was an oxymoron. Dialogue with LDS folks about serious issues had pretty much been limited to what happened when two young missionaries came ringing the doorbell.
Gene defied the stereotypes. To be sure his “quad” was always at hand, and he opened it regularly to read a choice passage to us from the Mormon scriptures. But what he had to present was always to the point, and always—as the Mennonite scholar put it so well—with “warmth, open-heartedness, and readiness to engage with colleagues of other persuasions.”
To a person, the members of the group—which included, in addition to the Mennonite, a rabbi, members of a variety of Protestant denominations and two Catholic representatives—all responded to Gene with respect. Even more, we responded with affection. I, for one, came to see him as a friend—a friend who was also in an important sense one of my teachers. I am grateful for what I learned from him!