Being observantly religious can be a challenge for anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian Orthodox, extremely catholic, whatever. If you behave differently than the general population, you’re likely to realize a lot about yourself and the way others perceive you for being different from a relatively early age.
In my life specifically, telling people I’m a Mormon, people who would otherwise assume I’m perfectly normal, average, what have you, has also been a challenge.
I never had a problem talking about my religion before sixth grade, when a few friends and I discussed faith, to the best of our 11-year-old abilities, one rainy afternoon. I casually mentioned to my nondenominational Christian friend that I was a Mormon. He was less than enthused.
Turns out, his pastor was quite anti-Mormon. He’d read the Book of Mormon, see, and knew that it didn’t hold the truth that the Bible did. The book was a deception, a work of Satan. Et cetera, et cetera. I think a lot of us LDS folk have been there at some point in our lives.
It was the first time I felt truly unusual. This boy who, until I mentioned my specific faith, seemed to have very similar beliefs to my own, alienated me for things he didn’t even understand, and it hurt.
I wish I could say it got better in high school, but it really didn’t. I went to early morning seminary most days – by the way, current LDS teenagers, you’re all amazing, and the day will come that you’re not expected to attend gospel lessons with your peers every morning at 6AM, and that day will be as glorious as it sounds. Can you tell I’m not a morning person? Really, go to seminary. Just remember it won’t last forever. Probably.
Anyway, seminary each morning, church for three hours every Sunday, abstaining from coffee while growing up in SEATTLE; all these things made me different. I didn’t curse, my shirtsleeves covered my shoulders, and my discomfort regarding R-rated movies definitely stood out as unusual. But beyond these few little quirks, no one really knew what my deal was.
As my LDS friend quoted 2 Nephi in her peer-reviewed essay in our freshman English class, I questioned whether I was a bad Mormon for never, ever envisioning myself doing such a thing in a secular environment. When she neglected to participate in the extra credit movie viewing after school because of the film’s rating, I wondered if I was making the wrong choice by watching it after careful research on the reasoning behind it’s strong rating (it was 7 f-words, mostly in subtitled Russian, if you’re curious).
Throughout high school, my testimony was strong, but I avoided public discussions on religion as best as I could, unlike some of my LDS peers who felt perfectly comfortable explaining our idiosyncrasies, even proselytizing to their nonmember friends. I occasionally felt bad about it, but eventually realized that avoiding the topic wasn’t a character flaw or spiritual weakness, but a coping mechanism. Young people aren’t great at understanding differences, and that mattered a lot to me back then.
The fact is, I kept myself in the Mormon-closet because at my high school, you either a) didn’t really care about anything except maybe drugs; b) belonged to the local Christian church; c) belonged to an interesting, exotic, religion; or d) smugly waved your Richard Dawkins lit around as you basked in your “well-informed”, clearly-intellectually-superior atheism. Obviously, I was none of these things, and I didn’t feel like answering the questions I knew I’d get after “coming out” as anything different. I applaud those who did, but that just wasn’t my style.
I already knew Mormons weren’t well-received in that culture. The few times my faith happened to come up in casual conversations or in the classroom, the topics typically revolved around racism, homophobia, polygamy, or weird end-of-world predictions. Was it my job to set them straight? Maybe. But I really wasn’t comfortable with the idea.
When our meetinghouse next door to the school burned down after an arsonist’s very intentional attack, typically-opinionated, current-event-focused teachers ignored the literally smoldering building visible through the third-story window. An adult marching band tech commented that he felt bad about the fire until he realized it was a Mormon church, then he thought it was awesome. Had I witnessed such a hateful remark today, I would totally go all angry-woman on the loser and he’d probably feel like a judgmental piece of crap afterwards, but at the time I felt vulnerable, victimized, and alone.
But the fire brought with it many hidden blessings. So many students expressed concern and sadness over the burning down of our church building. Of course there were those who were insensitive to the situation, but the majority appeared sympathetic. Local churches reached out, left cards and flowers, even opened up their sanctuaries to us if we needed a place to meet. I felt loved, united in humanity rather than severed by minute theological differences, and it felt good.
Eventually I became more open about my religion, as convenience necessitated. Why am I not drinking coffee as I board the early bus to the band competition? Because the leaders of my religion discourage it. Do I think I’m better than my friends because I don’t drink coffee? No. That would be stupid. People would ask me these things, and it always surprised me that they assumed I judged them for doing perfectly normal, acceptable things I’ve chosen not to participate in. I don’t care if you drink coffee! Really!
It wasn’t quite as hard as I was expecting, though. I had a lot of good, wholesome discussions with friends of different Christian faiths, and they didn’t completely disown me after I told them I was Mormon. When I got accepted into BYU, I excitedly told people, even though I’m sure I have teachers out there convinced that I’m destroying any intellectual potential I once had by attending such a backwards institution. I was mostly excited to go to a place where I didn’t have to explain why I only ever drank caffeine in the carbonated form, but there are certainly other benefits, too.
Surprise, surprise, though. Utah’s crazy. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE being able to go to my food-centered job and simply say “I’m fasting today” to get out of tasting stuff, no questions asked. I LOVE going to church with my roommates and neighbors. I LOVE singing hymns and praying in some of my classes. I LOVE not having to worry about keg parties and strange men spending the night in my bedroom. Really, I do. It’s great, it fosters an amazing sense of community. It exposes me to the diversity within the church. It’s a wonderful environment for an LDS young adult.
But there are other things I don’t love, or remotely understand.
I see people FREAKING OUT about gay marriage, claiming it’s one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, “opening the floodgates of perversion”, and I feel baffled at the level of drama this particular supreme court decision has brought into our collective LDS life. I just got back from England. Same-sex marriage is legal there. Everything was all right church-wise. Really.
When I attended a gospel principles class in a family ward last week, and the elderly teacher almost exclusively focused on the laziness of impoverished Americans in his self-sufficiency lesson, I had a really hard time taking any of it seriously, especially after he talked about how wonderful the great depression was because it encouraged hard work. I wanted to go all “is this really how you think Jesus talked about helpless widows and lepers in the streets??? What, again, is the purpose of the bishop’s storehouse???” on him, but I didn’t, because I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference.
I firmly believe that our church is imperfect, run by imperfect leaders who are trying their best to share the divine perfection of the gospel with imperfect members, and that in itself can be a controversial opinion. I sustain our prophet and apostles, I believe they are divinely appointed, but they are not infallible. They sometimes disagree on things. I sometimes disagree on things. Such is life.
And I know that a lot of my problems with Utah and some particular inhabitants are mostly my fault. If I wasn’t so crazy-stubborn-opinionated, none of these things would even bother me. But I am. And they do.
Yet there’s something important beyond these petty, freaking annoying cultural issues I’ve come across that means so much more. When you get past the politics of it all, the judgments, the wildly-diverse (and sometimes not diverse enough!) opinions held within the church, there lies something beautiful and true.
Whether I’m struggling with people who just don’t get me, or people who think they get me and really, really don’t, Heavenly Father’s love for all of us remains constant. Even though I’ve spent most of my cognizant life feeling somewhat out of place, unable to understand everyone and everything around me like I wish I could, there is still a place for me in this church, and that is a wonderful, valuable thing.
As I look at the people around me every Sunday – and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, because, again, I live in Utah – I realize that nobody is quite what I would consider “normal”. They belong to a religion that believes that a teenage boy from New York found gold plates in the ground that told a story about Jesus visiting the Native Americans. They believe that every human on earth, and more, existed before our physical births, that God created our spirits long before we possessed human bodies. They believe that it is our godly duty to procreate, to produce bodies to house these spirits, so that they might learn from their time on earth just as we are, eventually progressing into a redeemed eternal life that transcends death. It’s crazy.
Of course they’re a bunch of weirdos.
But they’re my weirdos, and I count myself among them, because this sacred doctrine makes me whole, and allows me to have hope in this sometimes-hopeless world. My ancestors believed it, and sacrificed immensely for it, fueled by their testimonies. My living family members believe it, many of my best friends believe it, and even though it isn’t always easy, and even though it doesn’t always make complete sense, I believe it, too.
For all you fellow Mormons out there who feel like you don’t belong, in or out of the religious context, stop. You do. Even when others don’t understand. Even when you feel like people are hardcore judging you because you don’t always hold traditionally-Utah-conservative viewpoints. Even when you feel crazy for your unusual beliefs in a world that doesn’t give much value to unusual beliefs, you are loved beyond comprehension. You are never alone.
Jesus the Christ died on the cross so that each one of us will be redeemed – that includes the non-believers, the fence-sitters, the fringe-thinkers, the skeptics, the sheeple, the very eager, the over-judgmental, and whatever it is you think you might be. We, united, are children of one Heavenly Father, and there’s nothing we can do, say, or even believe that will ever change that. It’s easy to get distracted by trivial differences, but with faith and diligence in keeping the commandments to the best of our abilities, we can come together under that one perfect gospel and learn what God has in store for us.
Being different is a drag, I know. But isn’t being a cardboard cutout equally difficult? I can’t imagine my life without the church. I can’t imagine living in a world where my secular opinions are predetermined. Because I learned early on that unique qualities are valuable despite what other people might think, I can confidently say that I’m grateful for my God-given differences – they make me who I am.
We are told that we will someday become perfect under God, and I fully believe that, but I don’t think that “perfect” in this sense means identical. Though we tend to think of this perfection as a vinyl white picket fence, flawless and without any particularly interesting features, I don’t think that’s what Heavenly Father wants from us. I think He wants us to develop our craggy, natural-wood features, grow stone-like strength from our inevitable imperfections, embrace the industrial chain-link. There is beauty in this diversity, and I tend to think that He wouldn’t have made us all so crazily different if he wanted us to end up all the same.
If you’re a white picket fence, be a while picket fence, but by all means, don’t pretend to be a white picket fence when you’re actually a brick wall. This earthly life is about learning. Learn who you are, and become it. We’ll all be blessed in the end for trying.