Gathered In

Dear Will:

It was January 15. By my reckoning, the year was 1979, or maybe it was 1982 or 1983. I’m really not certain, but for sure it was January 15: Martin Luther King’s, Jr.’s birthday.

This was before Dr. King’s birthday was designated a national holiday. I was an undergraduate at UCLA, and the Black Student Alliance or some similar on-campus organization was commemorating the reverend’s birth by sponsoring a rally in his honor at Meyerhoff Park—a small patch of grass at the center of campus set aside for just such purposes. I didn’t know what to expect at such an event, but I felt sufficiently moved by Dr. King’s efforts to make our nation a better place that I decided to attend. It seemed like a good place to be and a good reason to be there.

Arriving early, I took a seat on the grass and waited for the rally to begin. As the smallish crowd gathered around me, I became increasingly aware that I was more than a little out-of-place. I was, in fact, just about the only Caucasian in the group—a middle-class white kid from a nearly-all-white high school in a nearly-all-white town. And as if my physical appearance weren’t enough to make me feel like I did not belong, I then listened to speakers whose references to “we” quite clearly did not include people like me.

Had I not arrived early, I could have hung near the edge of the crowd before making an inconspicuous getaway. And no doubt I would have—gladly. But there I was, smack in the middle of it all, the awkward, white undergraduate, in it for the duration.

My self-consciousness reached its peak when one of the speakers invited everyone to stand and join in the singing of the National Anthem. The Black National Anthem, that is. The Black National Anthem?, I thought. I didn’t know blacks had their own National Anthem! And you can bet I didn’t know the words. I wanted to crawl away.

Then, as the crowd joined hands and began swaying and singing, something remarkable happened. From behind someone grabbed my left hand, and then someone else grabbed my right. No doubt detecting my apprehension and embarrassment, they had found a simple way to gather me in and let me know that I was among friends. It has been over 30 years, and I still cannot share this memory without becoming emotional. How glad I am that I stuck around that day.

Does this story perhaps sound familiar to you? I fear that sometimes we Mormons can make those visiting our congregations feel a bit like they have stumbled into someone else’s rally at Meyerhoff Park. We do tend to talk alike, dress alike, act alike. We have our own vocabulary and rituals and unfamiliar songs. To newcomers and outsiders and folks making those tentative first steps back into church activity, we may inadvertently give signals that if you don’t look or act or talk a certain way then you really don’t belong.

Well, that is certainly not our intent. I can tell you that as Bishop my goal is to make the Santiago Creek Ward a sanctuary in the fullest sense of the word: both a safe place and a holy place. Come as you are, I say, with all of your warts and imperfections. If upon arrival you feel a little self-conscious, stick it out for a few minutes and you will discover that we have plenty of warts and imperfections as well. Come worship with us, and before long you will feel yourself welcomed, gathered in, as if a warm hand has slipped into yours to let you know that you are safely among friends.


How to Choose a President

Dear Will:

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Mormons have been in the press a lot lately. For instance, recently there was a four-hour Frontline special on PBS tracing the Church’s history from the early 1800s to the present days. But much more has been said about the Church (and will be) due to the candidacy of Mitt Romney for President of the United States. As every semi-conscious being in and around the United States must know by now, Romney is a Mormon. And it has caused much hand-wringing.

I continue to be surprised by the frequency with which politicos include Mormon theology in the discussion of Romney’s suitability for the office he seeks. What I find especially remarkable is that they do not, at the same time, at least make a gesture toward discussing the religious beliefs of any of the other candidates. In fact, I couldn’t tell you which church ANY of the other candidates belongs to, nor could I so much as confirm whether he or she so much as believes in God. I’ve now voted in six or seven presidential elections, and not once were the religious affiliations of the various candidates included in the public debate—even though (it should be noted) my voting life has coincided rather directly with the growing influence of the so-called “religious right.”

Most surprising of all is that so often you will hear that such-and-such a spokesperson for some ostensibly Christian political group will state emphatically that he/she would never vote for Romney simply because he is a Mormon. The implication, of course, is that such people would rather vote for a candidate who may or my not be a Christian and whose beliefs may or may not align with Christianity. Better to do that (they seem to be saying) than vote for a fellow Christian who happens to be a Latter-day Saint.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone the right to use religion in deciding for whom to vote. But what I find hard to understand is the arbitrary application of such criteria. If you eliminate one candidate because of the teachings of his church, shouldn’t you be equally diligent in determining the accepted teachings of each candidate’s religion? To do otherwise is to be guilty of a kind of bigotry which I find inconsistent with the ideals which Jesus taught.

Please do not misunderstand. Personally, I have no idea if Mitt Romney would make a good President. I can assure you that I would never vote for him because he is a Mormon any more than I would vote against someone else because he isn’t. I would be much more interested in examining the personal integrity and motivations of each candidate. Let me know what he truly believes in, what he cares about, how he acts when the pressure is on and the right thing may be neither popular nor politically expedient. Then I will know whether his beliefs align with mine, regardless of where or if he goes to church on Sunday (or any other day, for that matter).

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who dreamed that one day his children would be judged not by their skin color but by the content of their character.  I sometimes find myself dreaming a similar dream on behalf of the Latter-day Saints (whom I know and love): Judge us on our character, not on some mistaken understanding of what we believe. Jesus said: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (see Matthew 7:15-20). That’s a standard up to which Mormons should rightly be held—and one worth discussing in reference to all candidates in any political debate.