Reconnecting with the Mormon community
Today, I reconnected with the Mormon community.
No, I didn’t go to some official church function. No, I didn’t go back to church (especially since today is a Saturday). Instead, I went to something totally different: the Mormon Stories Conference on Maintaining Positive Relationships Through Empathy and Dialogue that was in Houston this weekend. (Unfortunately, since I was stuck in O’Hare airport trying to get home from training yesterday, I couldn’t make the Friday session where there was dinner and a live Mormon Stories interview, and because my next engagement wants me to work tomorrow, I won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s “late morning meetup.”)
It was a great experience. Definitely way better than if I had gone to some official church function or to sacrament meeting itself (not to knock sacrament, but this set a pretty high bar). I wrote plenty of notes for most of the speakers, so depending on how much of a shill I feel like, I will either make another summary post for the entire conference, or I’ll make several posts addressing each speaker individually to maximize page views. But today, I wanted to talk just about my overall impression with the event.
Why did I go?
The first thing I’d like to mention is that this is the first sort of thing that I have ever done. I usually just lock myself in my apartment, so going out to meet strangers was something different. So the natural question that arises is: why did I do it?
The first part of the answer is simple: I have always wanted to go to something like this. It’s just that between my natural aversion to going out to the unknown and my desire to put some faces to online presences, the aversion would win every time if the event was in Utah or some other place outside of Texas. However, since this event was in Houston, just ten minutes away from where I’m living, I didn’t think I really had any excuse to miss it if I had the free time (which I just barely did.)
The second part relates to the first: since I was putting faces to online presences, what I originally said about meeting strangers wasn’t exactly true. Rather, I knew several people there, in a general sense and in a particular sense: the particular sense in which I knew some was in the fact that I had read certain people’s blogs (e.g., Kiley of We Were Going to be Queens, Heather of Doves and Serpents was there, and Spencer of Clean Cut as well), or had known of them through other venues (e.g., impotent_rage), or because they were e-famous (obviously, everyone going to a Mormon Stories conference are going to know about John Dehlin, Dan Wotherspoon, etc.,) However…the general sense, and the one that was really interesting to me, was that there was so much common ground already…truly cultural Mormonism shared. As Amanda N. expressed later in the day, this conference is one of those places where you can be talking to someone for 10 minutes, ask them, “OK, what’s your story,” and then after hearing their story feel that you know them on a truly profound level as a human.
What did I learn?
The last part of the previous section really plays into what I learned from the event. I left before the final panel discussion, but I was able to stay for the story sharing section (think of it as the Mormon Stories conference analog to testimony bearing)…while I ultimately did not bear my test…story…I did try to formulate what I would have said if I had to drill my story down into a bite-sized morsel.
Many of you dear readers may have already read posts scattered across this site that flesh out the details of what I’ll say here, but basically it’s like this. One of the reasons I’m really fascinated in things like this, the blogging scene and the Facebook groups and whatnot, is because I want to hear about differences. It’s interesting to find people who have similar experiences to me, of course, but it’s even more interesting to find people who had different experiences to me.
See, when I was growing up in the church, I never believed in it. So, for me, someone who converted and then had a faith crisis, or someone who believed, and then lost her testimony…those stories are new and exciting because I don’t personally know what that’s like.
But getting back to my story…as I was saying, when I was growing up in the church, I never believed in it. But my issue was that 1) I wasn’t really conscious that I didn’t believe in it and 2) I wasn’t conscious that others did believe in it. It was only later that I came to realize that others aren’t just treating church as a game or as a performance…and with that came my attempt to try to figure out why I wasn’t like everyone else at church in that respect.
My conclusion then was that if I didn’t (and couldn’t) believe, then I didn’t have any business going on a mission. I didn’t have any business trying to fit in as a priesthood holder and going through motions. I didn’t have any business going to a church that I strongly felt was for believers.
And so, I stopped going.
Since starting to blog, I’ve come across an idea that is incredibly foreign to me: the idea that an individual should negotiate his own identity within the church, regardless of whether he believes literally or not. But while that idea has been really interesting to learn about, I haven’t been convinced of it. I guess I can see why others would try to stick it out with the church, but for me, church is still a place for literal believers. As a nonbeliever, I am an outsider, notwithstanding the fact that I grew up in the church. And I thought that was something that would necessarily be the case: you would always alienate one side or the other.
No, seriously, what did I learn?
The biggest thing I learned from the Mormon Stories conference is that you can have a Mormon environment that doesn’t make either believers or nonbelievers feel like outsiders.
This was a really interesting thing to experience first-hand. I went into this with this silent assumption that most people would be inactive, or out of the church, or something like that…I didn’t even realize I had that bias until others mentioned that they still attended, still believed, etc., And as people told their stories, there were those who described themselves as true believing Mormons, those who were uncorrelated, those who were out of the church but still believed in some kind of deity, those who were atheists, etc., And despite the diversity of positions with respect to the church, everyone seemed to fit in.
I’ve said a few times that if church were like the Bloggernacle, I’d be there every week…but now that I’ve been to a gathering of Mormon internetizens, I can really confirm that sentiment: I’d be ecstatic if the church could somehow adopt the spirit and atmosphere of a Mormon Stories conference.
The second biggest thing I learned from the conference is that Mormonism is deep enough to provide for all sides.
In many of my discussion of cultural Mormonism, some commenter (or maybe even me personally) will remark that cultural Mormonism can’t thrive on its own. It’s a one-generation kind of thing that leeches off of conservative religion, but does not generate its own self-sustaining and self-perpetuating material. In other words, it has seemed to me that if one disaffects, then even if she sticks around in a cultural-Mormon-friendly environment (like Mormon Stories) to sort out the problems relating to her disaffection, then essentially, that ends at some point. Maybe she will not raise her children in the church, so they will not share in the cultural Mormonism at all. Or maybe she will raise them in a way that will not induce them to stay.
The idea there is that the conservative portion of the religion is what binds people through steep requirements. Liberal and progressive religious teachings have no past because they are divergent from tradition. Because they are not enforced through authoritarian hierarchy, they additionally have no future.
The thing about many of today’s talks was that they incorporated LDS scriptures and ideas…but in a way that was different…broader…than the way the church uses them. The church likes to talk about pioneers, but doesn’t generally apply the pioneer concept to those who pioneer by being open about their disaffection, their sexuality, or what have you. Today, however, the various speakers were able to take broad Mormon cultural ideas like that of pioneers and employ them in a reconstructed context.
To the extent that this was done coherently (and it was very coherent), it made me see why people like Dan Wotherspoon talk about “renegotiating identity” with respect to the church — it’s because for him and others like him, Mormonism truly is broad enough, substantial enough to be used as a base for a radically different religion…we can still draw from its depths to reforge life narratives, goals and aspirations if we simply will take care not to let the old interpretations, lessons, and assumptions that proved inadequate to us hold us back.