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The Utah Mormon

I will never forget the time a woman in my Gospel Doctrine class in Seattle piped up with, “Those Utah Mormons. They think they OWN the church.”

Honestly, it was one of the funniest things I had ever heard. I laughed myself half silly. So did the other Utah transplants in the room.

Then I looked closer at the sister who had made the comment, and guess what? She wasn’t laughing. She wasn’t kidding. She meant every syllable.

I was thoroughly mystified by her irritation. Didn’t get it at all.

That’s chapter one. Chapter two happened a year or so later.

My parents were visiting from Utah , and my dad attended a Priesthood meeting where the Elders and the High Priests were all in the same class. An Elder taught the lesson.

When we returned home, my dad observed that it was a big no-no for an Elder to teach a lesson to High Priests. Clearly, the powers-that-be weren’t reading the handbook closely enough.

I was bugged by what I perceived as an unnecessarily judgmental attitude toward my little ward.

Chapter three took place in another Gospel Doctrine class in a branch in San Juan , Puerto Rico .

A young couple, fresh from Salt Lake , had arrived that week to spend a summer selling home alarm systems. As a discussion on “Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy” progressed, this sweet girl raised her hand:

“I think it’s terrible to see all these people attending General Conference on Sunday, and then heading out to lunch at a restaurant. How hypocritical!”

Sigh.

What was I going to do with these Utah Mormons? Was my Washington friend right? Did the Utah Mormons really think they were the rule-keepers for the rest of us? Were they really sitting in their air conditioned chapels and beautifully appointed Relief Society rooms, judging millions of their fellow church members?

And when, exactly, did they become “they”?

I grew up in Salt Lake City , where my ward consisted of two blocks’ worth of houses. I could stand on my porch and point to every house occupied by a “non-member”. There weren’t many.

Most of my friends were LDS, as were my teachers. The seminary had its own building, and we attended classes during the day. None of this “early morning” nonsense for us!

I have personally met three prophets, and countless apostles. I’ve spent innumerable hours literally feasting on the insights of some of the greatest spiritual minds the world has ever known, occasionally while sitting on their living room couch.

All of my early training in church government and organization took place at Ground Zero. From ward choirs to regional women’s conferences, I learned how to run them all.

And yet, I remember feeling a little embarrassed at being a Mormon. Felt kind of flattered in college when an atheist friend told me I “wasn’t like other Mormons”, whatever that meant. Winced when the school party-girl, whose father was a stake president, told my friend (the daughter of a Baptist minister) that she just HAD to be a Mormon because “you’re so NICE.” Still feel a little uncomfortable when well-meaning Utah relatives assure me that their non-LDS co-workers are “just really good people”, as though perhaps I would assume otherwise because they weren’t “members of the church.”

Ouch.

But I’ve been gone from Utah for nearly 20 years now, and I think I’m beginning to understand both sides of this question a little better. And I'm no longer embarrassed by my Utah Mormon roots.

The first time I ever told someone in Seattle that I was a Mormon, I braced myself for what I was certain would be some derisive remark or an eye-roll. Imagine my delight when their only response was, “Oh, we know about your church. You have such strong family values.”

Whew!

It took me several tries in Puerto Rico before I met someone who had even heard of the Mormon faith.

Unbelievable!

See, when you live in Utah , you walk this crazy fine line between those of your faith and others. Unlike many places outside Utah , folks there know all about our church. They know what we claim to believe, what our standards are, and what we’re teaching our kids. There is no anonymity for Utah Mormons, no hiding behind the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy that often cushions touchy subjects like religion and politics in other places.

And not everyone likes us, believe me. Spend a week reading the Salt Lake Tribune. You’ll get the picture soon enough.

If you are a practicing Mormon in Utah , you are living under a microscope. And you are constantly having it drilled into you that “everyone is watching.”

And you know what? It’s true.

So, yes, when a subject like “should girls wear leggings to church” comes up as a discussion topic on Mormon Mommy Blogs, it can be a real concern for those members whose every move, every choice, is being scrutinized and analyzed.

They want to do right by the Lord. They want to live up to the responsibilities that come with being “the city on the hill that cannot be hid”. So an opportunity to raise practical questions like that is a relief to people who are trying to live with the knowledge of their own imperfections and still be “an example of the believers”.

Perhaps the most significant issue that Utah Mormons deal with is also their greatest boon. Between Bountiful and Provo – a distance of less than 80 miles – there are seven temples.

Brigham Young told people who had been through the Kirtland years, who had endured the heart-wrenching loss of Nauvoo, that whenever this people deign to build a temple, the bells of Hell begin to ring.

He and his audience knew exactly what he was talking about.

And it is no different today. With the opportunities for immeasurable joy that are afforded to people living within the shadow of so many temples, come opportunities for severe trial and temptation. Make no mistake: Satan is “abroad in the land”, and “maketh war with the saints, and encompasseth them roundabout.”

Yet it is equally true that there are some features of LDS life that simply do not work outside Utah , and it is important for those who live in Utah to understand that doing some things differently does not imply a lack of faith or understanding.

It was my opportunity to gently point out to my young friend in Puerto Rico that many of those conference patrons were visiting from out of town, and had little choice but to eat at a restaurant following the session.

Small wards and branches often combine quorums and age groups for the simple reason that there are just not enough members to teach all the classes, nor enough members to fill them.

Ours was the only English-speaking branch in Puerto Rico , and it wasn’t possible for members living 100 miles or more away to come in for multiple activities all week long. Seminary was done home-study. Visiting teaching often happened by phone. We never had more than eight men on the High Council; there just weren’t the priesthood holders available. There was usually a Young Women’s president – no counselors, no advisers – and a handful of girls, all meeting together.

There are far more dramatic stories than these to be told from those areas of the world we think of as the “mission field.” Members and leaders doing the best they can to implement programs of the church, adapting to the needs of their people while maintaining doctrinal integrity.

It’s a tough dance, and a tribute to the beauty of an organizational structure that is both “fixed and immovable” and wonderfully flexible.

What we need from each other, then, is an extra measure of understanding. Assume that, if something seems amiss in the way someone else represents the church, we probably don’t have all the facts. What may trouble you in the American South may not even be on the radar in the Pacific Northwest . The church in the Caribbean may seem very different from the church in Serbia .

The gospel is true, perfect, and eternal. And it is that which unifies us as a people and allows the church to manage growth while meeting the needs of more than 13 million members.

Those who live in the far corners of the kingdom, we admire your fortitude and sacrifice. I’ve been there: Too much work for too few hands, and everyone wearing a dozen hats! Many of you will be the only representatives of the church in your communities, ever. What an awesome, daunting responsibility!

And to those of you blessed – and challenged – with living in Utah , please know of our appreciation for your dedication as the standard bearers for the rest of the church. You have been given the most, and the most is often required of you.

I will always be grateful for the years I spent as a “Utah Mormon”, and for the blessings that have come from taking that training and experience into the mission field.

We all labor in our own particular corner of the vineyard, doing whatever is required in that place and at that time.

And at day’s end, we answer to the Lord of that vineyard, and to no one else.

We'll all be much happier if we remember that.



DeNae is a Music teacher, composer, arranger; director of the Las Vegas Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus. She is also a free-lance writer; one published book, "The Accidental Gringo".

She says that her writing style is "essayist", which means she, like Norman Mailor and Moses, is incapable of uploading digital pictures to her blog.

She has been a Seminary, Institute and Gospel Doctrine instructor for 19 years. DeNae has lived in Seattle; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and currently lives in Las Vegas with the cute guy she married, 24 years ago and her 4 kids.

You can find more insightful and hilarious posts by DeNae on her blog, My Real Life Was Backordered.

 
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