Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Every member a friend

Since I’ve never lived outside of Utah for more than three months, I’m about as Utah Mormon as they come–that is as far as geography. I grew up in one of those cities south of the Mormon curtain (the point of the mountain) that is over 90 % LDS.

Nevertheless, one of my best friends and next-door neighbors wasn’t a member. “Jamie” came to primary with me. In those days, primary was right after school on Tuesdays, and we walked in mass exodus directly from the school to the church house. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like for someone of a different faith to walk alone in another direction.

It seemed natural for Jamie to come with me even though she wasn’t LDS. She was my friend and we did things together. She came not because she had any interest in the church, but because it was something to do. Besides primary was fun back then. And we got really cool green bandalos to wear with great looking icons glued onto them. When I was around ten, she decided that since she came to my church, that the fair thing would be for me to go to hers, a congregational church. She pressed me to come for a few weeks.

I really didn’t want to go to her church. It was a scary place with a great big brown cross and enormous windows, and of course I knew it was the wrong church. I wasn’t too worried though because I was sure my mom wouldn’t let me go. So to satisfy Jamie I told her that I would ask my mom. My mom surprised me. She said, for years now Jamie has been coming to primary, so it would be a nice thing, a friendly gesture for me to go with her. She told me that growing up in Montana in a small town there wasn’t an LDS branch, so her family had attended a church similar to Jamie’s.

So the day came. I was scared to death. My mom gave me some money to put in the collection plate. I walked with my friend down the block to the building I’d only peeked into through the windows. The chapel looked similar to ours with wooden benches. I remember the preacher dressed a little funny and preached a little differently than I was used to. He prayed with his eyes open and his arms outstretched. When it was time, I put my quarter in the basket. Next, we had a break and I finally saw the evidence I had expected, the evidence that the church was wrong. The adults sipped coffee and visited, while the kids ate cookies, drank punch, and ran outside for a few minutes.

After the break, we went to Sunday school class. It started out all right. My friend was there and the teacher started asking questions. She asked me the names of the first four books in the New Testament, and I froze. I could not remember even one of them. Of course I’d rattled them off in my own church. I had proof of that with a little plastic symbol of a book on my bandalo, but my mouth was completely dry. So the teacher started us off, and all the children chanted–Mathew, Mark, Luke… I was embarrassed. Here I belonged to the one true church and these kids seemed to know more than I did.

I made it through. And I never went back. I’m glad that my mother insisted that I go to church with my friend. I learned something I never forgot. Being in the minority can be intimidating, uncomfortable, and even frightening. It didn’t really sink in for a long time. I was well into adulthood before the lesson had its full impact on me. Being in the religious minority in Utah can be intimidating, uncomfortable, and at times frightening. Ask any person of another faith in Utah, and if they are honest with you, they will share negative experiences varying from slightly hurtful to horrific. We teach our children to share the gospel with their friends. Unfortunately with limited social skills our children may feel obligated to tell their playmates that their churches are wrong. Or they may ask them why they don’t attend the true church. Or they will tell their friends that their parents are bad because they drink beer, coffee, or smoke. StephnP ( a BYU Bio professor shares the following story which exemplifies this so well. “Of my fourth-grade playground I have one memory. It is an act of unkindness and my response. I had three friends. I don’t remember their names. Two were Mormons and the third was a Catholic. On that day, I found my Catholic friend crying between two buildings, sitting on the gravel with his head buried in his hands. I squatted down beside him and asked what was wrong. He looked at me afraid for a moment and then said, “They told me my church was not true.” Then from behind me I heard a voice say, “Because it’s not. We belong to the one true church. His is of the Devil.” There stood my other two Mormon friends. My friend not of our religion was crying and saying, “It’s not true. My church is not of the Devil.” My Primary friends said, “Your church is a lie. It’s not true.” And they started to walk away. I looked at my crying friend and moved to pity. I called after the retreating boys, “Maybe his church is true.” And I turned to him and said the same thing. It is strange to say, but I believed I was lying to him, but it felt so joyous to say. It was one of my first experiences with the Holy Ghost. I put my arm around him and said it again, “Maybe your church is true.” Again the warm feeling came. I was crying with him.
I’ve believed since, that kindness is a greater virtue than truth.”

Not too long ago I was asked to give a talk to youth on missionary work. What I hoped to convey to the young people in our ward was the same lesson I learned as a child. Being in the minority, any minority is intimidating. I believe we should teach and really mean it, every member a friend. It’s easy to be a friend and infinitely beneficial. A friend invites to include others and makes them feel welcome. A friend respects beliefs. A friend is doesn’t push an agenda. A friend offers friendship without expecting anything in return. A friend knows that he or she can learn just as much from people of other faiths, as they can offer.

In preparing for the talk I talked to a couple of my friends of other faiths. I wanted to get their perspective on what raising a family in Utah is like. My devout Catholic friend said that when her children’s friends try to convert them, it shows a lack of respect for their Catholic faith, a faith that they love as dearly. She did however want to have her children included in non-religious activities whenever possible. My other good Christian friend pointed out that because I am LDS I have a support system built in, and she has to get her support system elsewhere. She said that no matter where I move to, I will have an immediate group. This same friend mentioned how much she and her husband appreciated President Hinckley, how they felt he’d been good to teach tolerance and they respected him greatly for it. She expressed sorrow at his death, and hoped that President Monson would be able to do the same.

Going back to my own experience as a child, we should realize how intimidating it is to attend a church that you aren’t used to, how exclusive we Mormons are with our daily language and conversation. Pay attention to how often a group of Mormons, even when there is someone who isn’t of our faith in the group, talks about things that revolve around, missions, callings, temples, mutual, wards, stakes, bishops, and so on and so on. Being respectful may mean toning conversation to include everyone in the group.

Some of our LDS youth are under the impression that they are only supposed to date members of the church. How unfair for those ten percent who aren’t in the LDS faith when the prom comes along. We need to teach what “The Strength of Youth” pamphlet really says. “Date only those who have high standards and in whose company you can maintain your standards. A young man and a young woman on a date are responsible to help each other maintain their standards and to protect each other’s honor and virtue.” Using this standard may exclude some LDS members, and include many who aren’t LDS. If our youth follow dating guidelines to date in groups until after their missions, then there is no reason to not include non-LDS friends in their group dynamic.

In our small mostly LDS community, I am blessed to have numerous friends representing a variety of religious traditions: Reformed Jewish, Baptist, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, LDS active, less-active LDS, generic Christian, and Agnostic. My friends enrich my life and teach me. I have conversations with my friends on a variety of topics, including spirituality, faith and religion. Recently during a trial of faith, a period where my own personal belief was challenged by the teachings of my church, I received strength from an unlikely source. One of my friends from another faith encouraged me to “not throw the baby out with the bath water.” That reminder helped me to get through. Since my friends know I respect their traditions, true camaraderie and genuine friendship is possible. Nothing other than friendship is offered and nothing other than friendship is expected. Today I’m grateful for friends.