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.


Neither Strangers Nor Foreigners

Dear Will:

When my wife Dana and I were first married, we lived in a two-bedroom duplex apartment in Westwood. We attended church in the building just north of the Los Angeles Temple, with an interesting cross-section of Angelenos: from young, poor married couples (mostly UCLA students like us) to wealthy, established families of Bel Air and Beverly Hills; we had Frenchmen and Persians and Iraqis and Nigerians mixed throughout the congregation along with the usual collection of expatriates from Utah and Arizona. And of course, there were lots of Californians. It was an interesting crowd, full of both ideas and faith. We loved them and loved attending church with them.

Eventually work (and children) made it necessary to move to Orange County, and the initial transition was difficult for us. It took us a few years, but eventually we found our way to Orange where we settled—quickly—to establish a permanent base-camp for raising our children.

One of the things that made it so easy to set down roots here was that the people we met at church—members of the Orange 2nd Ward—were so quick to take us in and treat us like family. We’re not necessarily an easy bunch to warm up to (too many idiosyncrasies, I’m afraid), but the locals were undeterred. They welcomed us, befriended us, cared about us and our children, loved us into submission. Even on the first Sunday we attended our church services, I can remember saying to my wife that it felt as though we had come home.

That was over 12 years ago. A lot has changed around these parts since then, as you know. Especially in the last four or five years, economic and demographic shifts have begun to take their toll on the area. Many of the people we love the most have cashed in their real estate and moved away; others have been driven out by the soaring cost of living and the battered job market. The spirit of the place hasn’t changed for us, but many of the faces have.

Such population trends have consequences, of course—which is why it was not altogether surprising to us when last week the Orange Stake Presidency announced a redrawing of the various boundaries to turn seven wards into six. So today we attended the first-ever meeting of the Santiago Creek Ward, which now meets at 1 p.m. in the Stake Center down on Yorba. Our friends who live east of Cannon are now members of the adjacent Peters Canyon Ward, and we in turn welcomed many new friends from the west side of the city. It was a strange day, meeting in a new place, greeting new faces, making a fresh start, as it were, even without having moved to a new place.

That’s one of the things that makes our church unique, I suppose: We don’t attend meetings based on convenience or preference; rather we are assigned to a place and time based on where we live and nothing else. That’s a hard practice when it means that you’ll no longer see good friends on a regular basis. But it’s a comforting practice as well, because it means that when people like us move to a place like this, we already have a family waiting for us—a group of instant friends who we can count on to help us settle in and feel at home.

I guess I look at it this way: Rather than losing old friends, we now have an opportunity to make new ones. Thus we will strive to emulate the teachings of Paul, congregating neither as strangers nor as foreigners, but as “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19)—regardless of where we live or how we speak or what we look like. Our common bond—our faith in Jesus Christ—will provide us with instant unity, enabling us to call each other brother and sister even when meeting for the first time. Just how Christ would have wanted it, don’t you think?