Friday, June 06, 2014

Why Michigan is not Detroit

"Yeah, we're going up to Michigan for this annual family fishing trip," the new mom said. A few of the other ladies rolled their eyes and muttered something about Detroit, and she responded, "Hey. Michigan is not like that. People only think about Detroit, but when you get outside the cities, it's really beautiful -- all green, with farms and forests -- and it has more miles of beaches than any other state."

"Ah. Great Lakes," an older woman murmured.

"Exactly. There's a lot more to Michigan than most people realize," the mom replied. "It's not all burned-out cities and heavy industry." Her child began to gurgle and bounce energetically on her lap, and the talk turned to another subject.

I'd been attending this stitch-&-bitch-style group in the back room of my local craft store, off and on, for over six months. The women varied widely in age and crafting experience, but all shared a fondness for yarn-based crafts. Knitting and crocheting projects were common; one woman even brought in a small tabletop loom and began weaving a beautiful textile piece. Typically the participants would wander in, choose a table and pull up a chair, unroll whatever projects they happened to be working on, and talk and work and laugh and eat the baked goodies someone had brought in to share. There were some opinionated minds in the group, but since I'm pretty opinionated myself, I really didn't have a problem with that.

It seemed like a good group -- one that was friendly to new people, but also (at the risk of perpetuating a bad pun) close-knit. I was nervous the first few times I attended, unsure of myself around new people, not certain how well I'd fit in, but I was starting to settle into the swing of things, getting the sensation that I'd found a good local support group and a source of new friends. That particular night I was sitting next to a woman who shared my love for science fiction, and we got so engaged in the discussion of books we'd been reading that I wasn't really paying attention to the conversation at the next table. So I honestly don't know who started the ball rolling about "religious groups you really hate."

But the muttered word "Mormons" perked my ears up.

"Oh, those people are just awful," an older woman drawled.

"We had this Mormon family living across the street from us and they never even came out of their house," another offered. "Way too good to even talk to the rest of the neighborhood."

"Well, they only care about other Mormons, you know," yet another chimed in.

"And they are the most judgmental people I've ever met," said another, with a little moue of disgust.

The conversation at the other table plowed on: anecdotes of annoying Mormon missionaries, tiresome Mormon neighbors, crazy Mormon schoolmates. I sat there, not really knowing what to say -- or whether to say anything -- as the list of grievances grew against the Mormons: Weird. Rude. Clannish. Arrogant. Sanctimonious. Intolerant. There was a sudden lull in the conversation, and I swallowed and quietly said the first thing that came to mind: "Oh, I don't know, I like to think I'm a pretty tolerant person." I'm not sure anyone at the other table even heard me, and I went back to my knitting, ears burning with discomfort.

I don't think anyone there was aware that I was a lifelong Mormon, or they might not have been so blunt with their opinions. The subject of religious belief had never come up before. I'd thought it would be a non-issue; after all, this was a crafting group. We were there to make stuff and enjoy each others' company, not to discuss matters of faith. I'd enjoyed other people's projects, and they'd said kind things about my work, and it all seemed to be going really well. But now I knew what they thought about me -- well, at least what they thought about my co-religionists -- and it was throwing everything into disarray in my mind.

It occurred to me suddenly why some people choose to introduce themselves as gay or lesbian right away. It's a self-defense mechanism. If you're going to be rejected by someone, it might as well happen right off the bat; the longer you know and care about the other person, the more it's going to hurt. I'm sure no one meant to do it, but it still felt powerfully like a personal rejection -- of the kind I haven't felt since I was in school. And after six months, it stung.

The group met again tonight. I thought about going in as usual. I even drove over to the store, hung around in the yarn section, trying to get up the nerve. But I couldn't make myself do it. I didn't want to sit through another round of Mormon-bashing, and I also didn't want to explain to the group that I am a Mormon and endure that long, significant, awkward silence, punctuated by stilted conversation.

Here's the thing: having known literally thousands of Mormons in my lifetime, I can say I've had my share of experiences with the kinds of Mormons these women so disliked: arrogant, cliquish, superficial, quick to judge others. Mormons are human beings, and as such we do human things like being prideful or making errors in judgment, just like everyone else. Nothing in our belief system justifies the kind of bad behaviors these women endured.

But because I've known so many Mormons, I can also say that these experiences are not typical of Mormons as a whole -- any more than Detroit is typical of Michigan as a whole. Of course Detroit exists. But it's hardly the whole story.

When I hear the words "Mormon missionaries," for instance, I don't immediately think of two arrogant teenage boys in suits interrupting you during the big game. I think of Elders Larsen and Stone, the missionaries currently serving in my home ward -- their vibrant curiosity, their senses of humor and their constant search for someone who is ready to hear the news they bring. I think of Ender Smith and Devin Munk and the other former members of the irrepressible Nerd Brigade, many of whom have served or are serving missions right now. I think of my two brothers and one sister, who gave years of their lives in Norway and Wisconsin and France to teach and to learn from others. I think of my own father, who served a mission here in the Pacific Northwest. I think of the two missionaries who taught my dad back in Indiana, and the Mormon farming family that "adopted" him as one of their own when he joined the Church. I think of the two missionaries who taught my father-in-law's parents, who baptized this little family in the middle of Struggleville, Oklahoma. I think of my father-in-law and mother-in-law, who gave up many years of their lives and time with their grandchildren to serve as mission leaders in countries halfway around the world. And I think of my own sweet husband, who spent two years of his life gaining a greater appreciation for the people of Mexico and serving them any way he could. Missionaries don't go on missions because they want to have doors slammed in their faces, or because they seek to annoy you and waste your time -- they go because they want to serve God and man, and to learn more about the wider world in which they live.

Likewise, the word "Mormon" could never leave a sour taste in my mouth because it brings up memories of so many of the wonderful people I've been privileged to know in my life: Carrie and Fen and Laurence and Marie and Tara and Teri and Wendy, Coz and Dean and Douglas and Ed and Joe and Ken and Mitch, all the talented and fantastic women from my Relief Society, home teachers, visiting teachers, neighbors, friends, family. We share more than just a belief system -- we belong to each other, look after each other, cherish each other as brothers and sisters from the same immortal and loving Father in Heaven. I guess that could look like clannishness from another perspective, but we just as firmly believe you are a son or daughter of the same Father, and if you were to visit our church we'd do our best to welcome you in and make you feel loved. We're not perfect people, but we're doing our best to be better today than we were the day before.

Last Tuesday I tested the waters of another crafting group at the same store. It's too soon to tell, but so far this group seems like it may be a better fit -- the participants are friendly and funny and seem to enjoy everyone's company. I think this might work out. I want it to work out. And maybe, if I get up the nerve, I might try returning to the other group as well. But if the subject of Mormons happens to come up again, I want to have the courage to open my mouth and tell them about the Mormons I've known -- and to aver that although their own personal experiences are valid, painting all Mormons as obnoxious and judgmental is as inaccurate as suggesting that all of Michigan is just like Detroit.

1 comment:

MarieC said...

The Michigan/Detroit analogy is perfect! Love it. (And, I'm honored to see my name in this post!)