The woman makes a beeline for me.
I’ve been standing in the crowded chapel for fewer than five seconds when her eyes lock on me from across the room; she turns in my direction with the single-minded intensity of a cougar stalking a chipmunk. I force a smile that says, ‘I taste awful.’
I am surprised at how quickly she recognized me as an outsider. For the first time ever, I actually looked up, and then followed, the dressing suggestions on the denominational website. It says ladies generally wear skirts or dresses, so I dug deep into the back of my closet. I even dusted off a pair of old tights. Maybe I’m a bit on the jumpy side because of my preconceived notions of Mormons as a somewhat closed society.
“I saw the commercials,” I screech defensively. I had been planning to worship with the Latter-day Saints all along but they’re not listed in the Worship Directory so I was feeling reluctant. Then I began to see the commercials on television.
I don’t know if it’s a national marketing campaign, but the commercials have been in heavy rotation where I live. Each one has a similar format. The camera focuses on a face and flashes different scenes of the person going about his or her day like a mini-documentary about an ordinary, yet somewhat interesting, individual and just when you’re wondering what the heck this ad is for, they spring it on you: the person says “I’m a Mormon.” It tells you to get more information at Mormon.org.
The ones I’ve seen feature a young Chicano dressed in a shirt buttoned at the collar and baggy pants and sunglasses. In Los Angeles, he is what you might call a “homeboy.” The camera follows him riding his tricked out bicycle with the handlebars way up. Then it shows him giggling with his mother and the voiceover goes, “My name is Valentin and I’m a Mormon.” The first time I saw it, I was like, “No way. Valentin? A Mormon?” The other one that’s caught my eye highlights a big dude with a bald head and full mustache; he looks like he runs with the Hell’s Angels. But, no, his name is Allan and he’s a Mormon.
It is a very effective marketing strategy because it increased my confidence about attending services at the meetinghouse. I mean, if Allan and Valentin are welcome, then I shouldn’t be a problem, right? At the very least, it signaled to me that Mormons are looking to change perceptions regarding their inclusivity.
“That’s great!” she says about the commercials. Up close, she is surprisingly young. I was fooled by how mature she looked from afar. That’s the thing about Mormons: they look and behave like grownups very early. They seem to avoid the angsty pitfalls so many of us experience in our 20’s and 30’s. We Nones are lucky to approach middle age having developed the emotional capacity and patience to share our personal space with a pet and perhaps another human being. By then, Mormons have a bundle of children and marriages going on 20 years.
I’ve been admiring and rubbing shoulders with Mormons for most of my life. It began when I would sit in front of the television as a tiny kid, enthralled by the Donnie and Marie Osmond Show. Since then, I’ve had Mormon landlords, coworkers, and acquaintances. I’ve watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform Christmas carols on television. I’ve visited Salt Lake City and walked around the temple complex, their most sacred collection of buildings. I’ve marveled at the basic story of these pioneering people who trekked across the country, got kicked out of a lot of places, and finally settled in Utah. But until now, I had zero knowledge about their belief system.
Some of Joseph Smith’s ideas were so cosmic, so not bound to earth, that I struggle to wrap my mind around them. His vision was of a heaven filled with billions of spirit children “begotten” by “Heavenly Father” and “Heavenly Mother” in a celestial world near Kolob, the name he gave a theoretical star in the universe. The human forms we experience now are but a mere step, a brief incarnation, on an epic journey toward perfecting our spirit existence…