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Community Mormon

By Marintha Miles

It was hot and overcast on a Sunday in late July. My companion and I wandered down the narrow dirt path, weaving through the Moscow forest. We had a few more minutes of time to kill, but the path was ending, and we‘d already walked the other end of it. Smoke and the scent of shoshliki (kabobs) wafted through the mugginess, greeting us warmly. A dark haired family gathered before us, their handmade tablecloth spread filled with rice pilaf and salads

“Azerbaizhanie?“

“Maybe. Should we check?“ It was against the rules to teach Muslims, so we hesitated to approach them.

They greeted us with all the hospitality of Caucasia, fondling our hands, urging us to partake in the Gregorian Christian holiday. They were Armenian. We could teach them.

Cool drops of water fell on our faces. It was a race between us and the rain. We scribbled down a few of their names on blue planners, Karinae, Yegish, Vardan. The rhythmic zest of Turkish strings and percussion blended with the somber wind sound of the Armenian duduk signaled dancing was about to begin. No picnic was complete without music. We coaxed an address and set up an appointment for the following day. They had no phone.

Vardan was eager at first, we labeled him golden. He actually asked if he could join, but then disappeared to work somewhere as most people with brown skin do in large cities in Russia. Yegish appeared now and again, quizzical, never committing to anything. Karinae was twenty-two, with short dark hair, pale skin and thoughtful blue eyes. She had headaches frequently from poorly treated Type I Diabetes, headaches that intensified when she tried to read the Book of Mormon in Russian, not her native tongue. She asked good questions like, “I don’t understand it. Where is Jesus in it? I want to read about Jesus.“ We showed her 3 Nephi chapter 11. She loved church. She was golden.

She inherited her bright blue eyes from her father and we learned over plates of lavash and fried eggplant that he would soon take her back to rural Armenia. We had to hurry, Karinae wanted to be baptized.

The crowd was quiet, full of hope for Karinae who had considered deeply her predicament. She would return to a small village, the only member in her town. She worried most about abstaining from tea, and was saddest to leave behind a community of saints that she may never see again, a community she would never be part of for the remainder of her life. Karinae firmly held her nose and gripped tightly to the Elder as he lowered her into the warm bathhouse water.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, followers of Jesus have formed a close-knit network of support and love for each other. Archaeological evidence paints a picture of Jesus followers caring for one another, sharing meals, and burying each others’ dead. Jesus instituted the sacrament to gather the family of Jesus, the body of Christ, to remind us not only of him, but of each other. Truly the best way to develop Christlike attributes is to care for one another as Jesus cares for us.

Karinae returned home one week after her baptism. We armed her with Joseph Smith pamphlets, copies of The Book of Mormon and a small box of herbal tea. She hoped to build her own community, sharing the gospel with those who would listen. But if she couldn’t, she knew she could pray–she knew she had a community in heaven cheering her on.

When I remember Karinae, brave enough to be baptized with the prospect of losing her religious community, I wonder, do we sometimes expect too much from our own wards and communities? How quick are we to become offended at others for not inviting us to every activity, every event, every playgroup? Every birthday party? Do we too often expect those around us to fill up our social calendars or meet our emotional needs? Do we feel easily left out? I think of another discussion, I Love Mormons, and wonder if sometimes the main reason we are Mormon is only to be part of a community of Mormons. Could you be Mormon without other Mormons?

About Marintha Miles

Emerita

30 thoughts on “Community Mormon”

  1. I don't know what it's like not to be Mormon. My parents joined the church when I was seven years old, and it became a part of my culture. A few years ago the opportunity presented itself for me to branch out from my Mormon girlfriends. I was surrounded by other kindergarten moms sending their babies off for the first time, and I began to form friendships. Not until then did I realize what I had, and what I took for granted. Many of these women were so delighted to have a friend. They had no other social groups–no Relief Society, no ward activities, no play-dates or park days with other women and children who shared their beliefs. I remember hearing in a General Conference talk that we "are the salt of the earth. But the salt was not meant to stay in clumps in the cultural hall." We were admonished to get out and fellowship others. How brave this girl you speak of was. Reading about her makes me renew my awareness to reach out to those around me. We all need one another. I would be lost without the gospel and my associations, and that makes me want to be a light to someone who doesn't have that in their lives.

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  2. Now I can firmly say that I can be Mormon without other Mormons. After moving to the North East US and attending a Spanish branch (I don't speak Spanish) I have a better idea of what living my faith independently means. It was not easy to get used to supporting myself in my faith, having very few social outlets at church, and at the same time supporting those whose faith was weak/nonexistent. Doing so has further forged my faith, I know that my faith isn't social or I would have left long ago. I think at some point every person is faced with this dilemma, even if they live in the heart of Mormondom. People say mean things, friendships change, dear ones die. At some point this factor of everyone's Mormonism will be challenged.

    All that said, I did have my husband by my side throughout it all. Sometimes he was weak in faith and I supported him, other times it was me who needed support.

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  3. My first thought when you said you needed to teach her fast and get her baptized before she left was, "Oh no, maybe they shouldn't." But then you described her beautiful faith. I think she'll be the beginning of something wonderful wherever she is.

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  4. Not every ward is social and has lots of activities. Not every ward is good at welcoming new people. Its hard to be the only active member in your university. But it is possible.

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  5. It is interesting. I was thinking about this the other day.

    When I lived in Arizona, like, 65% of my friends were non-members.
    Now that I’m removed from my hometown, and now residing in New England, my church community makes up the broad of my friends. I might have three or four non-member friends… that is if you count my neighbors… do my neighbors count? If they don't, that number is cut in half.

    I’m don’t know if it is based on bias or just the lack of opportunities for social interaction.

    I’m guessing the latter.

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  6. sar, ha ha! I have heard that sentiment before.

    Interesting post. I'd like to think I could do it, but I'm sure it would be lonely.

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  7. I don't think Karinae was lonely. She had close friends and a lot of family. She would be lonely in the gospel for sure, but not socially.
    Sometimes I think it works in such a way that we expect our religious community to be our social network. It's great when they can be to some extent, but I'm not sure that's what they are there for. Sometimes I wonder if this is why visiting teaching is frustrating to people, they expect it to be something it is not.

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  8. I would not want to be the only person in my community who was a Mormon. How does a woman in a less tolerant possibly hostile culture survive in a marriage and remain faithful? What friend can she turn to for support and encouragement?

    I don't know if I could do it or not. I am glad I don't have to find out.

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  9. Your post reminds me of the story of Abish in the Book of Mormon. Starting in Alma 19:16 through the end of the chapter. "And it came to pass that they did call on the name of the Lord, in their might, even until they had all fallen to the earth, save it were one of the Lamanitish women, whose name was Abish, she having been converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father— Thus, having been converted to the Lord, and never having made it known," How she is so filled with hope when the king and queen and their household fall to the ground being overcome by the Spirit. Abish calls every one to come and see, and then it all goes wrong, many of the people are angry and contend one with another, even trying to kill Ammon. Finally Abish takes the hand of the queen and she arises crying "O blessed Jesus, who has saved me from an awful hell! O blessed God, have mercy on this people!" I just love the story of Abish.

    Sometimes I feel like I have to quietly live my faith like that. Making deliberate choices, on occasion the consequences of those faith filled choices can make it feel like it has all gone wrong from what I intended. Ultimately if I hang on the Lord is there to help sort it all out and help good come of it.

    I hope that I could hang on to my faith where ever found myself, but if I am frank and honest I have to say that I am glad that I live in Utah surrounded by a big support structure, not so much for myself but for my children. Having a part member family I feel like I really want as much saturation of the community Mormonism as well as of faith that I can. Not that I would not try and figure it out somewhere else, just this is a small tender mercy the Lord has allowed me.

    My Grandma Ruby grew up in Costal N.C. her mother, brother and self were the only members in their community on the mainland. They were very poor. They could only afford to take the ferry twice a year a Easter and Christmastime to take the sacrament and worship with their fellow saints on Harkers Island. The rest of the year they would read their Book of Mormon and then go to Sunday services with a Christian church on the mainland. Her mama would always remind them to look forward to the time that they could again go and worship in the true church.

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  10. I love this post. It reminds me of the Mormons we know in various countries throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. They are building their own communities of believers.

    And yes, I have discovered that I don't need that community of Mormons to be a Mormon myself. But I'm not the most social being around, so that probably helps.

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  11. My first friends in San Diego were not Mormon, and it took a long time for me to make friends in my ward. I was so used to that being my social circle, but when we moved here it felt like it took awhile to become part of the circle.

    When I finally gave up trying was when I finally started feeling more accepted. Though I still feel like I go in and out.

    Though I think we are blessed to have such a community. Sometimes it is lonely being Mormon so it is nice to know there are others like you.

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  12. I love sar's comment. I feel much the same way.

    I actually find it easier to express my faith both inwardly and outwardly when I have lived in a community with LESS members. It bothers me that I prefer living in religious isolation to living in Zion, but that's just how I feel. I think I've had more close friendships and felt less like an outsider with non-members than I've ever felt with an abundance of people that I was told *should* be my friends. But that doesn't mean I ever had to compromise principles or hide my beliefs.

    In many ways, the social expectations are what make me uncomfortable at church, and I find myself feeling like I have to force my own attendance much of the time – completely aside from testimony issues. I just haven't mastered going to church and ignoring those issues in this environment. Some days I wish I could be more anonymous and slip in and out unnoticed, like in a large Catholic cathedral. I know all the good that the ward family does for people, I just want a break sometimes.

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  13. Mmiles, I read your question incorrectly. I believe that I could be a faithful Mormon without other Mormons around, but that would be because I've been one for most of my life. My faith and beliefs are such a huge part of me that I think I would be okay. It would be hard for a prolonged period of time. I can't, however, imagine JUST joining the church and then not being around anyone else. That would be hard. I'm sure this girl was truly converted, but will she continue to learn and grow in the gospel? I wonder, do you have any contact with her to know how she is doing?

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  14. Yes, I could be a latter-day saint without others who also were. As a young single adult I lived for a time in a small village in the Turkey where I was a latter-day saint. If it had been long term it would have been doable. Conference talks and letters from fellow believers would have become more precious.

    I am like corktree. When I am living in a majority LDS culture where social and religious networks are all mixed up together, the social requirements begin to feel shallow and deeply satisfying gospel application/service work gets harder to find due to the social layers wrapped around everything and the higher ratio of workers to real needs. I prefer living where there are fewer church members and there is more gospel work readily visible.

    We raised our children in a small town where they were the only LDS kids in school. It was a challenge that they weathered well with good family support and some distant friends and mentors in our stake. EFY, a day's drive away when it was held in our area of the US, was a tremendous shot in the arm for them each summer. I suspect that if they had grown up among many members it would simply have just been fun.

    Being a child or teenager without any fellow saints in the family or any gathering of saints available is difficult. Having someone else to talk to about gospel learning is often crucial for a young person.

    So perhaps it depends on your stage of life.

    A case could also be made for your personality having a say in the equation. Some people wither when called upon to work solo, preferring to work in groups. Others thrive on solo work and do not feel the loss of social interaction in the work they do. So your work style may influence your need for a constant community of saints as well, making their presence or absence of more or less critical importance.

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  15. I'm not a social person to begin with. It takes the Mormon community to help me feel comfortable to even say "hi" sometimes. The years we've lived outside of Utah helped me to talk to people without having that commonality. Still, I'm not one to care if I don't get invited to social events. I could be Mormon all alone, simply because I'm comfortable that way.

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  16. corktree and sar,
    I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I don't think we should expect the church to fill all of our social needs. Karinae did not, that is why it was ok for her to leave. I think expecting that is justing setting us up to be let down by members. They can't possibly meet all of our social needs because we are all so different. That is ok.

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  17. beautifully written post.

    I ache for Karinae because being a solo Mormon would be hard. I love my ward, I love the Mormon ability to 'circle the wagons" but I often think, like Sar said, that getting along with other Mormons can be one of the hardest parts of the gospel. We are the only religion that frowns on church hopping and that is because becoming a ward family is part of our test.

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  18. As a life-long active church member, I think it's hard to separate my cultural mormonism from my religious mormonism. We are told in the scriptures to "gather together oft" and to "strengthen one another." Yet, I've sometimes wondered, "Couldn't I just live my religion and follow Christ without attending church and being 'enriched' at RS meetings?" 🙂 I think the issue is complicated.

    Some have written that they prefer living far away from other Mormons, that it strengthens faith and testimonies, etc. However, I've found that the distance from UT doesn't necessarily prevent Mormon claustrophobia. I live in Japan and our branch is fairly strong and active, with most of us serving in a few callings. Just last Sunday, I dashed from the building to avoid "lingering longer" with my branch. Sometimes these social ties that bind feel like handcuffs. I feel suffocated and overwhelmed by the pressures of my Mormon culture.

    And yet, I can't live without it. I love the members of my branch. I love to hear their testimonies. I love the common spiritual ground upon which we both stand and build our lives. I benefit from the spiritual gifts of others in my branch.

    I guess that, yes, living your religion without the support of others is possible. Some days, especially on "linger longer" Sundays, I am absolutely convinced that I could do without all the difficult, complicated social interactions that the Church fascilitates. Other days, I really need my branch family and I am so grateful for them.

    Mostly, I feel the need to have a balance. I wish it were easier to break free from my little Mormon world and really be a friend to my neighbors. I've often wished we could, for example, join the local scout troops. Sometimes I feel like Mormons isolate ourselves and by doing so, we miss out.

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  19. Runnermom, You articulated the dichotomy in Mormon communiites well. We are close knit communites. We stick together but are supposed to reach outward to bring others in. It's a consant tug o' war.

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  20. There certainly are some things that are difficult about being Mormon pretty much on your own, but those difficult things have very little to do with the social aspects of Mormonism, in my opinion.

    For example, women in Karinae's situation are usually cut off from all of the ordinances available to most members of the church. A priesthood-holding man can do a little for himself, but not much. It's also different, in a church that places so much emphasis on authority, to not have an authority to turn to. There are so many examples that are a lot harder to deal with than the minor social aspects.

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  21. Amira,
    Quite right. However quite honestly, I'm not sure she had such a depth of understanding to miss all of that immediately (that is not to say she was not ready for baptism).

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  22. I completely agree, mmiles. Some of the thing I missed most while we were in Central Asia were things that never even seemed to cross the minds of the local LDS women there who had never experienced those things. And I don't think I could begin to understand what they hoped for themselves.

    Thanks again for the great post.

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  23. One of my fave posts from you, mmiles.

    Tug-o-war indeed. I think community is part of the gospel, ultimately, a la Moroni 6 (and there is little that is more sweet when a community provides that kind of spiritual nurturing). But I also think that our religion invites the kind of faith that could mean existing w/o that for a time in a less-than-ideal situation…knowing that it's true in and of itself, being willing to sacrifice for it and be true to it, even if that means not having others with whom to worship for a time.

    But ultimately, I

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  24. I try really hard during moments like those you have described to put myself in the other persons shoes and try to decide that if I were them what sort of response wouldn't be offensive.
    For example:
    If I offered someone some jello and they didn't want it, how could they do so without offending me?
    If I went to give someone a handshake but they didn't want to receive one how could they not shake and not offend me?
    I guess we just need to learn to be gracious about everything even if we don't necessarily partake.
    And about the kisses.
    I found myself receiving these from my husbands family when I first married into his family. I was quite uncomfortable at first about it.
    I've found that it doesn't really matter how you kiss, air kiss, sound effects, both cheeks, as long as you don't completely push them away and say,
    "Eeeew!"
    it'll be fine.
    😀

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  25. I could live in isolation as a Mormon, but that's probably because I've had a whole lifetime to internalize it. And at least a portion of that internalization took place as a direct result of being raised in a religious community.

    It would be hard to convert and then go home to a village with no support. I don't think it's impossible, but I would deeply admire and respect anyone who did that successfully.

    =)

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  26. Lol, Rose. I think you meant that comment for the "Good Graciousness" post.

    Anyway, I've been thinking about this post and I have to say I enjoy my community of church members. While I think that, like Sue, I could live on my own as a Mormon because I have a deeply-ingrained testimony (and yes, my church community has helped me develop that testimony), it would be very lonely. There's a reason why the scriptures tell us to meet together often: we need each other. I so admire people like Karinae. And I hope she's found a little community of saints to belong to.

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