All Saints

Inside the Pentagon, we finally arrived at the Office of the Chaplain directly across the hall from the Pentagon Chapel. My escort introduced me to the head chaplain, a friendly Protestant minister, whose job is to oversee the spiritual needs of Pentagon employees. Each branch of the military also has a head chaplain who leads a squadron of chaplains that provide spiritual guidance to troops in the field. One of the deputies from the Chaplain’s office agreed to take charge of me, so my original escort handed responsibility for me over and said he’d come back later. I thanked him and bade him farewell.

My new escort asked if I was ready. I didn’t know for what—but I said I was. We set off again, walking briskly up and down more hallways. As we went, he explained that today’s Catholic service would be especially large and would take place in an auditorium, not the chapel. I tried to hide my disappointment. I thought wouldn’t that be something to have made it this far and fail to even lay eyes on the Pentagon Chapel.

By the time we got to the auditorium, almost every seat was filled. The Pentagon is said to have roughly 30,000 employees; several hundred had come to honor the individuals throughout history who, according to the Catholic Church, represent the highest embodiment of the Christian faith. The front of the room was transformed into a make-shift altar: a priest in robes, candles, a table set with a chalice. This space was not really a church and the people present weren’t congregants in the traditional sense—presumably they were tithe-paying members elsewhere—yet it was as authentic a place of worship as any I had visited. I marveled at the distance I had come that elements of the ceremony could feel familiar to me: calls and responses, readings from the Bible, communion. I remember agonizing in the beginning over whether to partake in the sacrament. Today, I didn’t hesitate. I believed I could approach it with the understanding and intention it deserved. I had earned my stripes.

The service concluded and my escort introduced me to the priest. A fresh haircut made him look as bare as a new recruit. He agreed to speak with me and my escort gave him the job of returning me to the office; I was a baton in a chaplain relay.

We sat in the now-empty auditorium and he told me about his years ministering on the front lines in the Middle East. He explained that “ministering” in the military was not necessarily what it sounded like. His job wasn’t to preach his beliefs to soldiers, but to support their spiritual needs regardless of their religious identifications. Within every large group of soldiers, a spectrum of affiliations might be represented including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists—not to mention the variations within those categories. Given certain constraints—particularly those in war—only one chaplain may be available for all those soldiers. So the situation is likely to arise that a Christian chaplain will make sure that Jewish soldiers have the necessary accommodations to celebrate Passover or that Buddhists soldiers have time to meditate or that Muslim soldiers are given a chance to perform daily prayers or that an Atheist soldier be permitted to avoid it all. In one particularly memorable instance, the Catholic priest explained, he had even ministered to a soldier who identified as Wiccan.

The Pentagon

In the months of communicating with various individuals within the Department of Defense, a specific mental picture had taken shape in my imagination: it was of me participating in Jummah prayers at the Pentagon Chapel. I couldn’t shake the thought, even as I recognized that almost nothing in this journey had played out as I envisioned it. Instead, some variation or twist I hadn’t seen coming unfolded, and I would come to accept the discrepancy even when it struck me initially as a disappoint—like in the very beginning when I ordered my tome on Martin Luther, only to receive a children’s book. I had learned to maintain as light a grip on my expectations as possible. But this particular hope—that I could perform Jummah at the Pentagon—refused to be dismissed. For this reason, I feared a dramatic deviation. I thought even if I managed to get through security and my escort showed up, then something else would go wrong: services would be cancelled or, if not that, I wouldn’t be invited to witness them much less participate.

Cautiously optimistic, if a little nervous, I approached the first check point at the Pentagon. The man scrutinized my IDs and then turned his laser focus on me. He asked the purpose of my visit. I explained and he let me through. I waited again for the next probe—this one by x-ray machine. Once again I passed muster. I was permitted to leave the little security building and make my way through the entrance to the actual Pentagon. Just beyond the doors, I came to a large waiting area that had yet another counter, this one offering the final clearance once a visitor had been united with his or her escort. My contact had explained that he would meet me here.

I joined dozens of other individuals sitting in the chairs provided. I thought, perhaps, this was as far as I would make it; in fact, I was surprised to have made it this far. I took in all the details. The people waiting appeared to be others like me with meetings or perhaps some were family members of an employee who had come for lunch or an event. We sat adjacent to a small gift shop. Some of the items on sale included Pentagon-shaped refrigerator magnets and ball caps with military logos and pink camouflage t-shirts for the ladies. The mood in the room felt light, almost festive. I had to remind myself I was standing in what was probably the planet’s most powerful killing command center. Lest anyone forget, a huge emblem on the wall reminded us of our location.

I was genuinely shocked when my Pentagon escort showed up not just on time but several minutes early. He was a smiley guy who laughed between sentences. We made our way to the last counter. He vouched for me and they took my picture for a computer-printed badge that I attached to the collar of my jacket. We went through one last checkpoint and then I was officially inside.

We began to walk and only then did I get a first-hand sense of the enormity of the Pentagon. We walked up corridors lined with offices and down corridors lined with offices. We strode passed cafeterias, a drug store, and even a florist. We came to a big open atrium that was like a busy intersection with pedestrians going this way and that. We kept going. Even when I thought our destination must be just around the corner, we had further still to go. Now I saw that an escort was not just a security precaution, but a navigational necessity.

Other mosque

I arrived at the mosque that also traced its origins to the Nation of Islam’s Mosque 48.

It looked to me as if it had once been a single-story house with a big yard. Downtown had swallowed it up and spit it out. Now the yard was a concrete parking lot and the house had been transformed with additions and a paint job of vaguely Arabian scroll-work. A high iron fence ran the entire perimeter of the property distinguishing it from the empty lots and boarded up storefronts.

I parked on the street and put my headscarf in place. Sitting in the car with the engine off, I realized how anxious I felt. Throughout this entire journey from Christianity to Islam, I never set out for a place of worship without experiencing nervousness in my belly. Some of it was due to the logistics: locating the right building, getting myself through the proper entrance, and finding a suitable seat—all without inadvertently offending anyone and, ideally, maintaining a modicum of dignity. The bigger part of my uneasiness had to do with the fear of feeling like an outsider. I worried I wouldn’t be welcome—or, worse, treated with contempt.

Today’s anxiety had been higher than normal from the get-go. I started to feel it even before I left Grandma’s apartment. It’s hard enough when what you think makes you suspicious is invisible but quite another when your body is wrapped in it. In fact, by the time I was ready to exit the car, I realized the sensations in my chest were bordering on full-blown panic. I closed my eyes and took several lung-busting deep breaths.

I walked around the building and through the first door I saw. It was ajar and led to a little hallway that dead-ended into a bulletin board crowded with notices. From there, I could have gone left or I could have gone right. Doors hung in every direction; I felt like a contestant on a game show whose prize hinges on the knob she turns. I heard men’s voices coming from one of the options. I didn’t have the courage to pick any of them. I busied myself reading the announcements.

A man came from around the corner and paused when he saw me. He wore a white-cotton tunic with matching pants and skull cap. His attire looked exotic against his black skin, but something about the way it came together was uniquely American.

“Can I help you?” he asked, smiling. His pretty teeth matched his outfit.

“I’m here for Jummah,” I said.


His warm demeanor gave me a boost of confidence. I explained I wasn’t Muslim but that I was learning about Islam.

I followed him to one of the doors. “The sanctuary’s in here,” he said, pointing. The room was large by private residence standards but modest for a communal gathering space. He pointed to the back, “That’s where the sisters sit. You should go in because it starts soon, but feel free to ask me any questions at the end.” Slipping off my shoes and tucking them on a shelf by the door, I thanked him.

Several men were sitting at the front of the room and a few women were at the back. The people were oriented at a diagonal—proof that the grid of the city doesn’t always align to the spiritual. I took my place among the ladies. This was the first I had ever sat in the same room as men during prayer, and I wondered if it would be distracting. One of the men stood and did the call to prayer. There was no niche in the wall at the front like in most mosques, so he cupped his hands and sang the words against his palms, helping the sound fill the room. I suppose I had heard this ritual done before, but hadn’t fully realized what it was because I was always in a different room. As men and women continued to arrive, I let the feel of the sturdy floor beneath me ease the remnants of anxiety that still tingled in my limbs.

My Pakistani cowboy

Mine was the only car so far in the mosque parking lot. I selected a space in front of what appeared to be the main entrance. Though the building had other doors, these were larger and a nearby sign that read “Notice: All Activities Monitored by Video Camera” gave it an air of formality.

As I waited, I arranged the scarf on my head. Growing up, I had always resented what I saw as Dallas’ feminine ideal of beauty. One had to be pageant-ready: hair shellacked into a “do;” figure accentuated; makeup clearly visible on face. I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror. The standard I was trying to live up to now was so far from any of those things. I had to admit it was kind of a relief.

A giant pickup roared into the parking lot. It was a shiny Ford, too new for plates. For an instant I was terrified that I would be witness to a hate crime. I thought about ripping off my hijab and fleeing the scene. With my doors locked and one hand on the key, I watched as a young man got out of the truck. He wandered casually to the mosque entrance. I could tell he meant no harm.

My first official Texas Muslim and he looked the part: new-but-faded blue jeans and pointy-toed shoes that resembled boots. It was a ranch-hand-meets-urban-hipster look.

I got out of the car. “Hello,” I called to him.

He was extremely friendly. He told me he was from Pakistan and specialized in the import/export business. His job was to locate gently used cars and arrange to put them on big ships and taken to different countries. I asked if he thought other women would come for the prayer service and he told me normally they did. He pointed out the entrance for women: a separate door near the main doors and another around the corner.

As we chatted, a third car swung into a spot marked reserved and came to rest at our knees.

“It’s the Imam,” my friend said cheerfully.

Through an expanse of windshield, I spied my first Imam. He had a beard the color of Ronald McDonald’s wig. It was either a dye job gone wrong or an excellent ploy to soften his image. His mouth was set in a no-nonsense expression but, surrounded by all that flaming hair, it was hard not to interpret it as a smile.

The Imam unlocked the mosque’s front doors and I waved goodbye to my Pakistani cowboy.

Directly inside my entrance, was a room for washing. Along one wall was a trough lined in marble tiles. In front of each spigot was a perch for sitting.

I removed my shoes and placed them on shelves for that purpose. I sat at one of the “wadu” stations and turned on the faucet. I let the water trickle on my toes and then I leaned forward and washed my arms and hair line the way Fatima had instructed. I was gentle on my face, hoping to keep on the moisturizer with sunblock I applied earlier. I cranked the towel dispenser and patted dry.

Beyond a set of glass doors sat the ladies’ worship area, which was a square of space carved from the larger square of the mosque and cordoned off with frosted glass walls. Masking tape applied directly to the thick green carpet divided the room into long rows. It wasn’t obvious to me which way to face, but I thought the lines were a clue. Back in the washroom, I had plucked a prayer rug from a stack offered by the door. It had a little built in compass in the center with a needle that bounced around. Now I spread it on the floor and plopped on top of it. From my bag, I pulled out the cheat sheets I had used to practice my prayers with Fatima. I arranged them on the floor around me. I needed them as a reference, especially if I would be doing the prayers on my own.

A mosque in Texas

I flew to Dallas and moved in with my grandma. She still lives in the same general part of town—just north of downtown—as she did when my grandpa was alive. Only she’s traded the swanky townhouse for a little unit in a “retirement community.” I suppose as far as old folk’s homes go, her’s is upscale. The building itself has a Mediterranean feel with cream-colored stucco exterior, dark wood accents, and lots of archways. Windows look out at gurgling water features surrounded by greenery with a tropical vibe. It all but screams: this is not a last stop on the journey to the grave, it’s an exotic holiday!

Grandma’s apartment has an extra room with a pull-out sofa. She’d had a helper make the bed and clear a space in the closet for my things. Grandma knew about my project and why I had come to town. I had explained it to her by phone several times, slowly and clearly. Since my last visit, she’d given up driving, though she kept a car in the parking garage for others to use. She kept saying I could use it to drive myself to “synagogues.” I never knew if this was an honest slip or wishful thinking. As I would correct her and explain the difference, her eyes always took on a look of distress. I couldn’t tell if she was concentrating to hear me or if she didn’t like what I was saying. I had two main goals for my time in Dallas: do whatever Grandma wanted and worship at mosques. It occurred to me that the one thing Grandma might want more than anything was for me not to worship at mosques.

The first Friday of my trip, I gave myself an hour to make it to the mosque. The jummah prayers were supposed to begin at 1:30, so I left Grandma’s at 12:30. It was more time than necessary given the distance, but I was anxious about navigating the roads. I had never been a driver in this city, only a passenger. I studied the street map the night before and wrote out each turn in big letters on my day planner. I wanted to proceed deliberately and cautiously. I didn’t want to so much as scratch Grandma’s car.

As I set out, I noticed I was a little nauseous. Now that I was behind the wheel, I realized all my worrying about the streets and directions had been a distraction from what I was really nervous about, which was the destination. I had no idea what to expect. Would it be obvious which entrance I should use? Would other women be there? I had selected this particular mosque to start because it had a website with clear information and a recorded message when I phoned reiterating the time of prayer. I would have preferred to speak to an actual person but as I called the mosques on my list, I realized I was more likely to reach voice mail. In most cases, I would just need to show up at the appropriate time and hope for the best.

From about a mile away, I spotted the dome. It wasn’t huge or fancy, just a simple green-capped cupola at the corner of two main roads in a mainly residential area. I pulled in to the parking lot. The building was situated such that I was able to maneuver the car around its perimeter, observing it from all angles. It wasn’t much more than an oversized cube of cream-colored brick uninterrupted by windows. Black security cameras were affixed at each corner, standing out against the blank canvas of the walls. I considered that it might not be a working mosque at all, but a brilliant art project providing socio-political commentary on being Muslim in Texas.

Neat packages


“What stood out most about your visit to my church?” Jackson, the young minister of the Buzz, asks me.

“The young, good-looking crowd,” I say. I realize that’s probably not the answer he was looking for, but it’s the truth and I’m relieved when he laughs. Apparently this youthful congregation has posed some challenges.

When I was visiting, before he started his talk on Nehemiah, Jackson mentioned his previous sermon series, which had addressed the topic of love and dating. He briefly reiterated to the congregation that while romantic relationships are healthy and good, the search for one shouldn’t be their motivation for attending church. Once he said that, I had to admit I was picking up a certain vibe I’d never considered: Jesus as matchmaker. The fact that services are held in the early evening may add to the romantic ambiance.

“…besides that, your literature is so….” I search for the best way to describe the difference between the leaflets at the Buzz versus those from many other churches.

I was struck by how artfully they were put together. It’s not just that the church has its own logo, it is how the text and the graphics were presented in fresh fonts and interesting colors on glossy cuts of paper in varied sizes with just the right amount of white space to make it all “pop.” Many other churches cram black words on a white 8.5 x 11 page folded in half. In fact, it’s the quality of the Buzz materials that made me think they must be backed by an organization with deep pockets.

“Slick” sounds too derogatory.

“….well designed,” I decide to tell him.

He explains that one staff member has a background in graphic design. It seems almost a requirement these days for an “emergent” church: minister and graphic designer. People who have grown up since the 70’s have such a keen eye. Almost no aspect of our lives isn’t tastefully presented, from websites to wine labels. Today’s average Joe is a sharp-sighted consumer—of Christianity and anything else.

But it’s more than just aesthetics. So much content is available to us in both design elements and words. We prefer it filtered and arranged. We want the main point, but we also want the option for more. We’ve grown accustomed to the way the internet works: stay with the headline and synopsis or click to go deeper. We decide. As consumers, we have grown accustomed to the ability to navigate the information and, in some way, to participate in its presentation.

It’s a new way of moving through the world, one that can permeate even the smallest tasks—like singing. At the Buzz, the band played one of the same Christian rock songs I’d heard elsewhere, Your Love Never Fails, but in a slightly different way. They branched out to more complicated verses, but they returned to the lines of the chorus—Your Love never fails/Your love never changes/You stay the same through the ages—so many times that even I was able to sing along easily. Depending on knowledge and comfort level, a person can dive into the verses or just stay with the simple refrain to which the band returned until we were all of singing it over and over again, in an endlessly comforting loop.

Yet, I wonder about the downside of information that’s presented in such neat packages. Does having the path you tread prepped and prettied diminish the sense of discovery? Are we singing along on autopilot?

Back to beginnings

Perhaps I’ve become distracted by spirit worlds and heavenly realms and future paradises. The colorful plot twists of Christianity’s evolution have captured my imagination. I have to remind myself what this story is really about, and my original question of how it speaks to regular life lived right now.

All of it goes back to a person called Jesus and the core values he expressed during his time on Earth. His was a message of love and sacrifice. Through his example, I am meant to feel loved so that, in turn, I can do my part to love and care for humanity. I am meant to grow comfortable, confident even, walking this planet with the knowledge that my life as I know it will not last long. I have to concentrate to allow this core lesson to resonate in my chest.

Each time I step foot in a church or sing a hymn or read a Bible verse, am I supposed to automatically return to this basic message—triggered like a buried memory?

Not long ago, with my Martin Luther picture book in hand, I had imagined the experience of worship in a Catholic church as one of passive observation: ritual as beautiful, remote spectacle. I have stepped foot in countless Catholic churches as a tourist both here and in Europe and admired the opulent interiors that, even when not in use, are alive with statuary and reflective surfaces.

I may have come a long way on this journey, but it doesn’t compare to the distance the Catholic Church has traveled—first to the Atlantic shores of this continent and then towards the Pacific.

The plain and intimate chapel I walk into is surprising. The walls are stark white, the furniture simple. The one bit of sparkle comes from the flames of two candles atop the modest altar. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was a Protestant church.

As I take a seat in a basic wood pew, I conjure the image of a pampered and perfumed lady making her way across the American plains in a covered wagon. Each stage of the journey, she sheds a facet of her fancy facade. Illness forces her to trade jewelry for medicine, the wind takes her silk scarf, the sun freckles her porcelain skin. Finally, she arrives at her destination indistinguishable from the other pioneering women who’ve made the same journey: weathered, weary, and windblown.

The only initial indication that this is an outpost of the mighty Catholic Church is a fat book tucked next to the hymnals, which I pull out and flip through. In this volume, every mass of the entire year is spelled out. The “lectionary cycle” insures the Bible is completed on a regular schedule, mandating which parts are read when. The format, authorized by the authorities in Rome, is shared by Catholic churches all over the world: first, a reading from the Old Testament or, at specific times of the year, books of the New Testament; a responsorial Psalm that is, ideally, sung; a second reading from one of the New Testament Letters (only on Sundays); and finally a Gospel reading. Throw in a few hymns and communion. Bada bing, bada boom! You’ve got a service.

Even the communion wafers are mandated. The priest hands each person a tasteless disk of unleavened cracker. No random chunks of misshapen loaves here. Someone, somewhere, is in charge of purchasing Lord’s Supper supplies from a centralized source.

Consistency is key; codes and canons have standardized the practices. It’s a reminder that this denomination has a figure who’s something like a king, a human who speaks on behalf of God. While each church is a finger or toe of this single body, decisions are made by the head. It’s in part what Luther was reacting to when he wrote his manifesto of desired reforms. He wasn’t so much opposed to the consolidated power as what it meant: mandates or traditions he found disagreeable could not be easily changed.

Yet in the 500 or so years since Luther, the Catholic Church has made significant changes, some of which are exactly what Luther was calling for in his day.

As the day’s service unfolds, I imagine what Martin Luther might think if he were sitting next to me…

Movie review

Dear readers,

I’m introducing the occasional movie review to my blog. My goal is to dip my toe into the ever-expanding genre of faith-based films and to assess the stories through the lens of my growing understanding. I usually see mainstream secular productions, so this genre is new for me.

Here’s my methodology for selecting movies: I dig around Netflix’s faith and spirituality section. I read the little description and, if it sounds intriguing, I add it to my queue. Please share your movie suggestions. If it’s a newer release, I may need to wait for it to come out on Netflix.

First up: Baptists at our Barbecue

This romantic comedy, released in 2004, follows an unmarried Morman man who relocates from Utah (at age 29, this is his first time leaving the state) to a small fictional town in Arizona with a population that is exactly half Mormon and half Baptist. I initially jotted the title as Baptists at THE Barbecue, but quickly realized my mistake. Mormons are in charge of this shindig. I also thought the attractive young man and woman on the poster would be from different denominations like proper faith-crossed lovers. But no, she’s Mormon too. Not coincidentally, this film is released by Haelstorm Productions, an outfit dedicated to Mormon entertainment.

The movie opens with a quote from religious critic Harold Bloom (apparently Mormons appreciate the praise this Yale scholar has heaped on Smith). The text on screen reads: “The most significant development of 21st century religion will be the relationship between Mormons and Baptists.” When Bloom wrote these words, he might not have anticipated the dramatic rise in Nones. Reading Bloom’s quote, I anticipate some explanation as to the source of tension between two significant American denominations. I’m hopeful for an indication of how the relationship will play out.

The cause of the feud between the Mormons and the Baptists in the town appears to stretch back several generations; it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys in that its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint. As far as I can tell, the differences are silly. The Mormons don’t drink liquor and have funny names; the two main Mormon characters are called “Tartan” and “Charity.” The Baptists have ordinary names and aren’t opposed to moderate drinking. One Mormon character shouts, “They don’t believe in Joseph Smith!” A Baptist calls Tartan a “stupid water drinker”—an apparent dig at the Mormon communion drink of choice.

The Baptists have a real church building but seem to prefer gathering outdoors to listen to their preacher deliver fire and brimstone sermons. The Mormons don’t have a permanent structure, but they acquire a double-wide trailer, half of which mysteriously goes missing. The missing half is never found, but after the “All Faiths” barbecue that Tartan and Charity organize, some inroads are made at the two groups getting along. The sign outside the gas station that read, “Baptist discount” is replaced with one that says “Caffeine-free coke.” Perhaps the Baptists are beginning to see the wisdom of a stimulant-free lifestyle. After the talent show portion of the barbecue, at least one Mormon-Baptist romance brews—but only between minor characters.

While the Baptist/Mormon relationship is supposed to be the main dynamic here, I couldn’t help but notice a conflict brewing within the Mormon congregation. One uptight lady, Sister Wingate, sports an unfashionable hairdo (reminiscent of those worn by the women of some high-profile polygamous cults) and seems to represent an outdated mentality. Tartan tells Sister Wingate that the reference in the Bible to God making the earth in seven days is not literal; she accuses him of “preaching blasphemy.” Sister Wingate and her husband have a huge house (hint hint) where services were held before the double wide arrives. She has forbidden singing and music. In moving to the trailer, the congregation rejoices as boxes of hymnals arrive. Sister Wingate considers switching denominations.

Yet, the issues within the Mormon group aren’t unique to the denomination; if anything, they speak to trends in Christianity in general. On qualities that might be considered uniquely Mormon, the two characters seem to agree. Both Tartan and Sister Wingate look for “signs” to guide their decision-making, just as Joseph Smith suggested. Tartan asks Charity if she prayed about their budding romance and felt a “burning sensation” in her chest. Sister Wingate’s attitude improves when she goes to the top of a mountain to seek guidance about the changes taking place and the “mountains hum their approval.”

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers’ weave in little nods to the ways in which Joseph Smith’s influence is still appreciated and, perhaps at times, overstated. Protagonist Tartan emulates Smith’s reverence for place and the biblical significance of North American continent when he acknowledges that the events occurring in the little Arizona town are so profound he wouldn’t be surprised if “the ten tribes had a reunion here” (a reference lost tribes of Israel). Yet, the filmmakers seem to be aware that such veneration of Joseph Smith can be taken to unrealistic extremes; the audience is meant to laugh when one elderly character insists it was Smith, not George Washington, who “chopped down that cherry tree.”

A flutter

The year of the “Great Disappointment,” when Jesus didn’t return in 1844, Joseph Smith was gunned down by an angry mob in Missouri; apparently they didn’t much appreciate his ideas about plural marriage in part because some of his would-be “wives” were already married. Smith was, by all accounts, an exceptionally magnetic and good-looking guy so it was sort of like if Brad Pitt came to town and put out a shingle that said “wives needed.” Otherwise sensible ladies might have been compelled to shove a few belongings into a purse and yell, “catch ya later!”

Smith was killed in June of that year, just a few months before Jesus missed his October cutoff date. How abreast Smith was of the prevalent messiah deadlines is unclear, but it’s a safe assumption that he was at least in tune with the popular anticipation and died believing Christ’s return was eminent because much of his church’s theology hinges on this point.

After the service, we break into smaller groups for further discussion. The men stay in the main chapel for their meeting, some of the women gather to go over charitable duties, and the rest of us are invited to join study groups. It’s a beginner’s class for me, and down a long hall to a back room with rows of plastic school chairs and a teacher expecting twins soon; she has a hard time getting close enough to the chalk board to write.

I am given a copy of a thin book called “Gospel Principles,” comprised of 47 short chapters designed to introduce the faith to newcomers. Today we discuss the chapter called “Signs of the Second Coming.” It outlines all the usual stuff like war and pestilence.

Flipping through the booklet, I notice photos of regular people doing boring, everyday stuff peppered with over-the-top illustrations of Jesus and intergalactic cloud bursts. The artwork perfectly captures Mormon’s dualism: earth-bound responsibilities side-by-side with celestial fantasies.

Only a single hint of something exotic occurs the entire day. It’s during the service at the blessing of a newborn. In a frilly bonnet and ruffled dress, she looks like a doll. Her father carries her to the altar and a group of men gathers, each putting a hand to the baby. Together, they wish only good things for this precious life, but something about the sight of a fortress of men surrounding a tiny girl sends a tingle up my spine—whether for being creepy or just odd, I’m not sure. I’m reminded that men in this denomination are considered priests during their human incarnations and that beyond this life they hope for a powerful promotion.

For a second, it’s like the diaphanous drape flutters open and I get a quick glimpse of the quirky ceremonies that supposedly take place in the hidden chambers and back rooms of Mormon temples everywhere. From what I surmise, believers act out momentous occasions; they might pantomime death, make believe meeting God, and pretend to travel through the afterlife. These rituals are the elaborate secret handshakes in a cosmic clubhouse. The baby remains motionless for the duration, then the men return to their seats and the curtain closes and everything is normal again.

Smith encouraged people to make up their own minds. In his writings, he instructs anyone who is unsure about a topic to plant a seed of a question in their hearts and observe the answer that grows. This would seem an invitation to any divergent opinions that may arise, even a change as radical as ditching a central principle of the faith. Smith must have understood that faith isn’t something one can set like concrete. The history of Christianity, especially on these soils, is an endless series of modifications to create practices more meaningful or palatable to contemporary tastes. Over and over again people have taken the parts that work for them, and discarded those that don’t.


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.