Leaving the Mormon machine, I struggled to find community without conformity
Years ago, on a cross country road trip, an LDS friend of mine broke an axle in the middle of Nebraska. He found a payphone, called his father in Utah, got the phone number of the region’s stake president, and called the man, a stranger. Then the Mormon machine got moving. The stake president called a mechanic in his ward, the mechanic towed my friend’s car to his shop, put him up for the night, had the axle fixed the next morning and wouldn’t take a penny for services rendered to a complete stranger. Membership in Mormonism comes with an extensive service plan.
You may ask, how often does this kind of thing happen? Here’s your answer: why was the local stake president the first person my stranded friend thought to reach?
When I was in college (in the days before Uber) I never once paid for a cab to or from the airport when classes began or ended. Nor did I ever ask someone for a ride. The people in my ward knew my school schedule, and offered. It is part of the Mormon DNA to help someone move boxes or to set up a meal brigade when a family has a birth, hospitalization, or death. For many years, Mormons were told not to accept welfare payments because the Church would take care of them. And, often, it did.
It was comforting to know someone (usually many someones) would be there when a car broke down, a job was lost, a homemaker hospitalized. That the Mormon machine would be there. And it was fulfilling to be part of the machine too: to jump to someone’s aid, to become the gears of the community, to be an everyday hero.
This came home to me a couple years ago when a colleague at work learned that she’d need to be bedridden for weeks or months. I didn’t know her particularly well, but we were in the same city, and her family was in another country. So I called and asked if I could do vacuuming or dishes or grocery shopping once a week. Definitely I didn’t have the time, but I thought she could use the help.
My overture was not well-received. She found it intrusive and presumptuous and told me she’d figure it out. I felt bad that I’d offered. Sure I wanted the ego-stroking of being an everyday hero, but mainly, I think, I wanted to rekindle the sense that, when help was needed, help would be on offer. Decades after leaving the Church, this is what I miss most about Mormonism: the ability to offer and accept assistance without awkwardness.
Looking back now, I can see that the price of community was conformity.
Dustin Lance Black’s memoir Mama’s Boy captures the tension in an example from his boyhood. Every month an envelope would appear in his family’s mailbox, funds his family needed to make rent. Without those envelopes—arranged by their bishop—their family would have lost their place to live. But the bishop also repeatedly urged Black’s mother to stay with a physically abusive, controlling husband because Mormons need to be married.
(This is a good place to pause and say that I imagine social changes have made things both better and worse in the LDS-world now. Now Saints probably call an Uber before their home teachers, and more bishops (I hope) see a dissolved marriage as better than an abusive one.)
Anyone reading this blog has likely seen (or experienced) how Mormon friends fall away when a once-faithful member shared doubts or somehow stopped conforming to the status of “member in good standing.” Even as a teenager, I suspected that the prohibitions on coffee, alcohol, and cigarettes were more about keeping Mormons apart from mainstream society than about keeping healthy. The Word of Wisdom is another way to achieve conformity.
Lately, I have come to think of the Mormon trade of conformity for community as a choice between different types of loneliness. Choice one: fail to conform and be lonely for your community. Choice two: conform, and be lonely for yourself. You can be a gear that’s extracted itself from its machine and feels disconnected and useless. Or else you can be a gear that’s trapped by other gears, locked into position and shape.
But those choices are so stark only for communities that demand cookie-cutter conformity, like the Mormon machine. I still sometimes have to pinch myself that there are ways to be in a community and be yourself. I think of it as swapping compliant conformity with conscious customization, an idea where people adapt to each other rather than adhering to an all-encompassing set of expectations. Being part of this kind of community demands skills that Mormons aren’t really taught. I am still learning how to work through conflict, how to react when I’m rubbed the wrong way or rub another the wrong way, and how to set boundaries rather than saying yes to whatever my bishop demands. Also, community may not be more than ‘my friends’ and the Mormon credo of “be ye perfect” is much less useful than the more-complicated dance of finding balance.
Customized communities probably won’t serve funeral potatoes or green Jello. Nor will they have the global reach to pull off a Nebraska car repair from a complete stranger (though, actually, AAA has served me well). And definitely it takes less than a Sunday or a phone call to feel that you’re part of the community and the community part of you. Without the conformity, after all, people need to spend some time to get to know each other.
*BTW: has anyone ever tried the secular congregations known as Sunday Assembly? And don’t the photos suggest a wholesome Mormon vibe?