What was I expecting from the Mormon service? I guess after reading about Joseph Smith’s theology, I was worried it might be like a page ripped from a science fiction novel. Taking my seat, I scan fruitlessly for the cast of oddball characters; disappointingly, I spy not even one “homeboy” or biker dude, as suggested by the Mormon commercials.
No, the big room is filled with my best but most boring neighbors—the ones with meticulously-kept lawns and who never park their cars on the street. These are the foot soldiers of the garage-proud army who “accidentally” leave their automatic garage doors gaping to show off how well tamed they keep spaces so vulnerable to filth and chaos. As if a tidy garage is a reflection of the purity of the soul, a final step of getting right with God.
One of the Mormon settlements before Salt Lake City was called “Orderville,” which I thought sounded like a terrible name but now realize was a term of endearment given by these experts at organizing people and spaces. I understand why new converts might be inclined to join these individuals so skilled at taming the wildness of each new frontier.
The day’s proceedings are decidedly earth-bound. The program doesn’t include an official sermon, just regular congregants who give brief talks; it seems everyone is encouraged to commit to one of these from time to time to make up the bulk of every service.
Today, two teenage girls share the podium, each dedicating a few minutes to the topic of volunteer work. They are, like, totally into it. Next, a young man elaborates on the theme of righteous living. It is real, real important. None of the speakers demonstrates particularly stellar oratory skill; they are as awkward and bumbling as I would be up there.
Most of the remaining time is dedicated to an administrative matter: this ward is splitting in two. I can’t believe my luck to be here to witness the reproductive process this organism of a denomination has used to grow so mighty over the last 100 years.
Apparently the population of Mormons in the vicinity of my house has climbed steadily for the last decade and now the congregants who show up at this time slot are too numerous. The pews are not enough and the addition of several rows of folding chairs is no longer sufficient and often latecomers are left to stand at the back of the chapel. The Assistant Bishop whose domain includes several wards takes the podium to say a few words regarding this matter. Starting the following week, he explains, one portion of this ward will show up for the 1 o’clock service and the other will begin at the new 3 o’clock slot. Like everything else, the division is determined by the location of each family’s home.
He acknowledges how difficult this transition is, especially because the group has been worshipping together for many years and close ties may tempt some to choose one time over the other based on friendships rather than street addresses. He stresses the importance of abiding by the rules. He assures us that over time we will grow not only comfortable with, but even to love, our new ward mates and he hints that soon what began as this one ward may require a brand new meetinghouse. I sense chests welling with pride, and the seeds of determination silently sprouting. Slowly, taking cues from nature, one ward split at a time, the Mormon Church will expand. It’s all so rudimentary. Anyone who has ever participated in a campaign or community organizing effort will recognize the nuts and bolts of this discussion.
For the first time ever, I actually know the hymns. We sing Come All Ye Faithful and Joy to the World even though it is over a month until Christmas. Despite the inclusion of verses I had never heard, the familiarity is comforting.
Most of what unfolded that afternoon seemed as elementary as the water we drank in place of wine for communion.