Preface. I wrote this post last night. I told Dave that I would not post it online, and would keep it with all my other working-out-my-religion posts. Please know I never want to offend. That is why I try to leave my beliefs offline. Also know that I am posting because this post is not about beliefs or doctrine. It is about community. Earlier today my friend, Amy in Texas, reminded me that maybe we can have a productive conversation about building community when she posted this Salt Lake Tribune article. It was written two years ago. I think the author Paul Malan says it way better than I do:
“Each time a non-traditional Mormon lets her neighbor see her unique beliefs, she makes it easier for everyone in the congregation to be true to themselves. One respectful voice at a time, the silent minority will begin to understand that they aren’t alone in their doubts and beliefs. Power will shift away from the monoculture and toward the productive edges — to the ecotones where opportunity and challenges await, where ideas and opinions and personalities can blend together to create something like an ideological wetland: hard to define, hard to cling to, and infinitely more valuable to the world than anything Mormonism has been able to offer so far.”
My Words: I have been told that if I (a.) did not live in Utah, ground zero of Mormonism and (b.) had never been a Mormon that things would be different. I tend to agree. And in truth, this post is not about doctrinal discrepancies or our political differences. It is about community and my quest to find it here. And I know a big part of our community is measured (on both sides) then based on LDS church attendance and activity. Out of the gate, let me complicate that measurement. See, if I did not feel such a bizarre expectation when you see me at church, I would probably go. And in the interest of full transparency, yes, I would not attend full-time, but I would definitely go when I was feeling nostalgic, or wanted to connect with a very big part of who I am. Hold up. And to my non-Mormon, or former Mormon friends, you may ask,
“Beth, why are you bringing this up? This is not healthy. Draw a line. Make a boundary. Let it go and move on.”
To which I would respond, “You may be right, but why do you care? This is my story and my experience. And I seem to recall that you were able to have your experience too.”
And to everyone on all sides: Obviously you may think I am crazy for feeling the way I do. Instead of crazy, I would suggest I am grey. Meaning I sit on fences, and fence-sitters are hard to measure or box in. I suffer way too much empathy (for all the sides). Mostly and for real, I love, respect and care deeply about my mom. I know how completely sad it makes her that I do not go. I take her seriously and reconciling her sorrow is hard. That is my uncomfortable truth.
I want all people to feel safe being their authentic selves. That is why I chose to be transparent. And the truth is, because I was raised LDS, and because I live in Utah, Mormonism is and will always be an inescapable part of my reality. I have very fond memories of the LDS community I was raised in. I met my best friend, Marianne, at church, and I met Dave at BYU. It was not all bad. Eventually after fighting every single Sunday, Dave asked that we do something he wanted to do, which was to stop attending church. I love him. I support him. I heard him and we stopped. At the time I wrote my local bishop a letter and asked him to include our family in activities. Then the Mormon bishop and I met in person. We had a friendly conversation and I never heard from him or really that ward again. On a summer evening in a previous ward another Mormon bishop saw Dave and me out on a walk. He hesitated. Then he stopped and approached. His words:
“I was told not to talk to your family. I was told that you did not want any contact.”
“I am glad you said something now.” I kindly responded as I held my ice tea by my side.
We assured him that he had been misinformed. I pushed further and reassured him that whether we went to church, sat in the halls at church (which we did a lot at that time), or did not go at all, we would would always be nice and open. I said,
“You are our neighbors. I do not think it needs to be so black and white. I hope we can all be friends.” To his credit, he and his wife have remained our friends.
Having a friendly conversation with these bishops are not isolated incidents. If I had a dollar for every Mormon church leader I have reached out to, I could buy a really nice outfit. It is awkward. Because I hope things can be different, every time we move into a new place, I (preemptively) reach out.
“No, we are not drug dealers or pedophiles. And sure, I only have 2 kids, but that was infertility not choice.”
They reach back in an an excessive flurry, usually offering to take our kids to church if we don’t want to take them ourselves.
“Beth, it takes a village. The whole neighborhood is raising my kids.” One man texted me.
I responded, “Hey, if my sons want to go to church, I am happy to take them.” I am certain his intentions were good. I am also certain he does not understand the divisive implications of what he is suggesting: Church is good, Inactive parents are bad (not worthy) = Mormon Ward Members (neighbors) will save Kyle and Eli.
Sure, I wish I could say that my very assertive and sincere, we-can-still-be-friends public relations approach works. It sort of works. Like for a minute. Then when people do not see us at church, or because church responsibilities demand so much attention, we are forgotten, excluded, or awkwardly included. I left my anger and resentment behind years ago. Each time I sincerely thank them and ask them to include me in neighborhood texts, activities, or service. I usually do not hear back. Remember, I know the culture. They are busy. They are insulated and eventually, they drop off. So when we do see them, they usually overly share, look down or pretend they do not see us. It does not matter how many times I reassure them we are more like them then we are not. It does not matter how much I promise not to talk about doctrine, nor does it matter how many times I say nice things about their beliefs. We are never part of the community.
I am also human. So when we do get invited to a church activities, my memories of how Mormons feel about outsiders kicks in. I let my anxiety and preconceived judgements get the best of me and I act a little shy. Truth be told, I also persevere and force myself to engage:
“Hi neighbor. I am Beth. Our kids go to school with each other. Both of my boys are on the cross country team.”
The conversation always falls flat when they realize who I am and then they stare blankly. That is when I sense they are simply fulfilling an awkward responsibility to engage with the “inactive” lady. Check. I think you know the difference between a sincere and insincere response. Just in case you don’t I will give you an example: It is like when your mom forces you to talk to the dorky kid, that kid you would never invite to your party or a ski weekend. It feels just like that. Weird, not normal.
I also get it. I am sensitive to their position. And of course, I have many Mormon friends who accept me no matter what. Unfortunately, here in Utah, there is no separation of church and state so their better-ness and exclusivity bleeds into the culture. Mormon moms make the best PTA presidents and organize the best running groups. Again. I get it. To them, I am an unknown. Consequently, I am not safe. I am an outsider. They are human and maybe saying hi to a stranger is really hard. I imagine they could be gun-shy, because when they do reach out, they are are met with confrontation and frustration. My whole point is I do not need to be a stranger. I literally know and understand your culture. We literally live next to each other. Our kids go to school with each other. I can help you with your PTA stuff. I am probably more like you than I am like my non-Mormon friends. Don’t you see that? That is why I keep trying to connect. I realize that I may not fit the mold of someone who does not go to church. I am grey. In truth, who really fits into that mold? I know many of my close LDS friends do not. I think there are more grays. And #protip, grays usually exist on the fringes. And I would actually argue that the fringes are getting even bigger. If it helps, do you realize one of the reasons people exist on the fringe is their desire to bridge differences? The grays, or people on the fringes, will always be the first line of people willing to consider other perspectives.
But because I am (peculiarly) determined in my belief that all bridges can be crossed, I keep trying. I am honest and I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. I ignore the truth adjustments, weird excuses, or blatant deflections. Nevertheless, being excluded or labeled, “outsider” sucks. It is no longer about religion, but about tribe and belonging. I think I need help or advice or understanding or to finally find some consistent healing. Does it really need to be black and white? Do I really need to pretend my Mormon neighbor is not there when she is standing right in front of me? I keep writing, talking, and yes, even praying and meditating, in hopes of figuring out and resolving my weird relationship with Mormonism and the Utah Mormon community. Sometimes I think I have figured it out. In those moments, I feel relief. Something happens and another layer peels away. Then I am reminded about the incongruities between the inclusive Mormon teachings and reality.
Rest assured. At times, I too, think I am crazy, brainwashed, or super weird for trying to resolve these disconnects between myself and my faith. I was raised in Minnetonka, Minnesota, where the LDS members clung tightly together in a place where Mormonism was considered a curiosity, and Mormons were definitely held at arm’s length. After feeling the culture exclusion, I swore I would never exclude or do anything to make someone feel less than. And as fate would have it, I now live in opposite land: Salt Lake City, Utah, a place where the predominant culture is Mormonism. And now in this bizarre twist of fate, because Dave, the boys and I do not go to church, we are the peculiarity. We are definitely held at arm’s length, especially in our Mormon neighborhood. The disconnect kind of drives me crazy.
My question: Why can’t people be normal (or in fairness, how normal like I see normal)? Why is it hard to embrace people on the fringes? Don’t they remember the persecution and rejection their religion suffered? And really, why do they act so weird around me and my family once they realize we do not go to church? It makes no sense. Wherever we live, the ward boundary dynamic is always the same. They are fine with us until they realize we are not exactly like them. And when a friend finally connects that we are different, they reflexively close the door (usually along with their friendship). It is so strange.
Instead of the norm, I want things to be different. In some ways they are (actually). I want Kyle & Eli’s friends to consistently treat them equally, even though they do not attend Mormon seminary or attend Young Men’s activities. I want the neighbor ladies to include me in neighborhood text chats and group walks, even though I do not go to church. I want the dudes to include Dave on the fun stuff not just the awkward neighborhood football fellowshipping activity. I want the dads to know that even though we do not go to church, and that my sons are not the LDS sons you want your daughters to date, my boys will always be respectful. I promise. Please know that we are strict. We talk to our boys about consent and we even follow Mormon cultural norms about dating and courtship.
Selfishly, I want to shake them and say,
“Come on. It is us, Beth, Dave, Kyle and Eli. We are respectful and we will not bite.We do not care that you go to church. Why do you care that we don’t?”
Am I asking too much? I do not expect perfection. How could I? We are not perfect. And really, I can be such a dork. We know and understand you are super busy with all of your church commitments, obligations, and are most likely unaware of your commitment-based isolation (monoculture). Nevertheless it is clear you that unless we do it your way we will never fit in. We will remain the pariahs, which sucks, by the way, because remember, we are nice. This could be an opportunity to heal or to bridge? And when you do connect, or when you do allow your children around Kyle and Eli, I do not understand why you get a pass and why we always feel like we have to present you with a personal worthiness resume, which includes, but is not limited to, a mention of our prominent LDS friends, our service experience, our Mormon history (yes, Dave & I went to BYU and all 4 years of seminary), and then why do we further need to assure you that we do not have amnesia regarding the Mormon church, its doctrine or values? And then there is this, why do we need to remain in compliance with Mormon dietary restrictions, especially when you are addicted to Diet Coke, secretly buying frappuccinos in the Starbuck’s drive-through line, binge eating desserts, hyper gossiping, Netflix binging, or drinking mass quantities of Red Bull? Finally, I want to shout (so it penetrates):
“None of this makes sense!”
In the end, I know the idea that we can all get along is my hope and really a fantasy. I know you have been taught a certain way and ultimately, I know I do not fit into any of those safe and acceptable boxes. Let me assure you again. I do not expect anyone to see the world like we do. I also know that our neighborhood is deeply rutted in cultural norms, traditions and expectations. From our perspective, you guys can seem a little cult-y and exclusive. We are willing to look beyond. We know we are the outsiders. Nevertheless, we are your neighbors. I walk the same sidewalks. Our kids go to the same schools. And sure, we may not be doing things the same as you anymore, but we are probably much more similar than you think. Bottom line is this: You are a huge part of who we have always been.