Reader Voices: Loving neighbors regardless of religion

By David Candland

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Cookies, casserole, house plant or just a friendly hello — what IS the best way to greet new neighbors and treat them regardless of religion?

Meg Volk, Associated Press

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Several years ago, while giving a sales demonstration to a woman in Sandy, Utah, I was interrupted by this question: “Are you Mormon?” I responded with “Yes, I am.” She seemed somewhat surprised. “I thought maybe you were, but you seem too cool to be a Mormon.” I wasn’t offended as I’ve heard similar comments before; still, I always wonder if they mean that as a good or bad thing. “You just seem really personable and not judgmental,” she said. I told her it was genuine.

Then the dreaded “Utah Mormon” conversation proceeded. She related how she recently moved from her home state of Montana to Utah and was impressed by how the neighbors came by, said hello and welcomed her. However, once they realized she wasn’t a member of the church or wasn’t familiar with the words “Relief Society,” they became less friendly, and she’s now lucky to get a wave at the mailbox. I was embarrassed and apologized for their inconsiderate behavior.

Come on! This doesn’t happen anymore, does it? She’s exaggerating or has an ax to grind with the church. I would relate similar experiences to my old boss who is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he would say the same things. Unfortunately, they do happen, continue to happen, and this woman wasn’t biased; she was a sweet person who grew up with Mormon friends who were accepting and never had issues with her beliefs. There are some who do genuinely have an ax to grind, and who knows, perhaps lack of inclusion just might be a part of the reason. Not much different than being the kid no one plays with at recess.

My old Scoutmaster, when living in Idaho, told me a family moved into his cul-de-sac and neighbors dropped by to welcome them. One woman baked a loaf of bread and gave it to the mother still warm and told her the ward meeting times. She replied with, “What’s a ward?” The neighbor, realizing she wasn’t one of them, grabbed the loaf of bread and left. Seriously! I asked if he was sure this wasn’t somehow embellished, and he replied that was what happened … the lady literally took her bread back!

As Latter-day Saints, do these stories infuriate you as they do me? Are we doing ourselves or the gospel any favors with this kind of behavior? While these may be extreme examples, the “I can’t play with you because my parents say you’re not Mormon” situations still exist.

One woman who was a Presbyterian told me she had to take her young children across town for play dates because they were the only non-LDS people in the neighborhood. Now I don’t necessarily hear these things all the time, but occasionally is often enough, and I have heard my share. I’ve heard from others who have also felt accepted here. ... I could hear those comments all day.

I find it odd when members who have embraced the title of a “peculiar people” don’t always accept that in others, especially in areas that are largely LDS. For those who have always lived in Utah, the “Utah Mormon” euphemism is truly a negative, and not just toward nonmembers, either. I experienced it in a different way upon moving back as a teenager after having left years prior as a toddler. Before we moved back, my father, who is a Utah native, was somewhat jokingly told by others that they hoped we kept our testimonies after we moved to Utah.

We came from an area with few Mormons — those who were knew everyone else who was. We weren’t a lot different from others except we didn’t smoke, drink and had “Sunday clothes” we wore once a week. Most friends were non-LDS. You did what you did because you wanted to, not because it was expected. Home and visiting teaching as well as collecting fast offerings weren't a walk through the neighborhood, but something that took miles of driving and several hours of your time.

Moving here was an eye-opener. I discovered there were young men who went on missions because of parental pressure or their girlfriends wanted them to, not because of their own desires. Some members didn’t adhere to the Word of Wisdom or moral standards like they should during the week but put on a good front come Sunday. I didn’t see these things as much living out of state.

I found foul language used more loosely by members than I’d heard before. And it was interesting to hear the phrase, “This is a great business opportunity because a leader in my ward is involved.” My old ward took easily a good half hour to clear out in the pre-block-time days after sacrament meeting, whereas here, people generally leave as soon as it’s over — no need to visit in the foyer because a given member is most likely your neighbor.

Growing up Mormon in the ’70s and out of state, everything was done big: we had marvelous Mutual opening socials (like youth conferences), road shows were produced annually, ward dinners seemed to happen at least once a month and a trip to the temple was actually a trip — a good 10-hour drive by bus or car. Going to Mutual/MIA was something to look forward to — you didn’t just see those you saw daily at school, but members who went to several different schools and lived across town. It seemed the things I looked forward to there were not as big a deal here.

It isn’t my intent to give the wrong idea about Utah or to overgeneralize, for there are many great things here. It is the headquarters of the church, and you’ll find some of the finest “salt of the earth” people with whom you will ever rub shoulders. Temples are abundant, access to genealogy, church materials, facilities and seminaries and institutes are plentiful, historic landmarks and diligent people of like mind are everywhere.

Two highly regarded institutions of higher education — BYU and the University of Utah — were both founded here by the church. There’s a diverse physical landscape, and it’s unique to live in a desert that actually gets lots of snow. I think it’s a great place to live and raise a family.

Like any place, it’s not perfect. A mission companion of mine spent a decade living in Virginia before moving back to Utah. I asked him if he noticed any difference. He lived in a ward with the biggest financial disparity he’d ever seen. There were the extremely wealthy who commuted daily to Washington, D.C., and there were those who were considerably lower income. Regardless, he said they all got along very well and there weren’t any cliques. Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder.

Conversely, that isn’t always the case here or other areas with higher LDS populations. There can be a fair amount of keeping up with the Joneses and unwanted piety. Some of the treatment nonmembers receive is no different than that of active members who may not be in the same social class, have a prestigious job, or live in a nice neighborhood with a nice car. Even the amount of children one has or what calling one is serving can make a difference. I have seen this at times, and it is disappointing.

A person very close to me served in the military in the late ’80s on an island in the Pacific where there were many members. He is a fair-haired Caucasian and subsequently was not treated well at church. He tired of the subtle and not so subtle swipes at the white man in general. It seemed there was an unwritten caste system in place, and because he wasn’t a local, he was at the bottom.

On Sunday during priesthood meeting and after one too many flip comments about “Haoles” (an invective slur to describe outsiders), he got up and left. He went over to the Relief Society, motioned to his wife, and they walked out the door and never came back. At the time, she was barely a convert, and he had been less active. For a church that withstood criticism for over a century regarding the priesthood and the blacks, this behavior is mind-boggling. It’s not the church, it’s the people … and unfortunately, people are imperfect.

There is no room for pretenses or juvenile non-acceptance games in the church — none whatsoever. That doesn’t mean we have to be best friends, but we do need to be cordial and respectful to all regardless of their station or influence. I feel fortunate to belong to one of these wards.

What can we do to improve and how can we put ourselves in a better light? The following are suggestions that might endear nonmembers, less actives and others to those who live here and in pockets of Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, the islands or other places with large LDS populations and even those with small ones:

Follow Christ’s example. Did he preach only to his flock? No, he shared what he brought to this earth with everybody, from the poor, sick and down-trodden to the wealthy and wise, the obedient, the sinners, law-breakers and adulterers.

Let’s don’t assume everyone has knowledge about us and our culture — we’ve all heard the stories of those who thought the “stake house” was a restaurant! Not everyone gets what “endowment” and “primary” means in our vernacular or what a CTR ring is. I always, when referring to my mission experience in mixed company, state it was an LDS mission. I don’t want those to feel I take for granted that they are by default versed in our lifestyle and lingo because they live amongst us, even though they might be.

Observe the Golden Rule. It’s really as simple as that. With many high-profile LDS members running for political offices on a state and national level, do we appreciate being unjustly scrutinized and having our beliefs misunderstood and disregarded by nonmember candidates and the public in general? The answer is no.

Be inclusive. Most everyone likes to be included or at least recognized; it equates to being accepted. Years ago, as a high council member, I was over music and activities on a stake level. We had a big sing-a-long around Christmas, not just for members, but for whoever wanted to come. We even promoted it that way and didn’t push any agenda — just come, sing and make merry … and yes, there were of course refreshments.

For other activities, we made a point of inviting anyone who wanted to stop by for dinners, neighborhood breakfasts in the summer, holiday parties and other programs. I even promised a few we wouldn’t fill the font or hand out Books of Mormon!

It’s human nature to be drawn to those who are like-minded, however, let’s make an effort to understand others and their beliefs to avoid becoming the Sadducees and Pharisees we rail against in Sunday School. Let’s nurture an appreciation for others and try to step outside our comfort zones. Surprising results may ensue. Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve said, “This is especially important in our interactions with members of other Christian denominations. Surely our Heavenly Father is saddened — and the devil laughs — when we contentiously debate doctrinal differences with our Christian neighbors. This is not to suggest that we compromise our principles or dilute our beliefs.”

He further said, “Without guile, true disciples avoid being unduly judgmental of others’ views. Many of us have cultivated strong friendships with those who are not members of our church — schoolmates, colleagues at work and friends and neighbors throughout the world. We need them, and they need us. As President Thomas S. Monson has taught, 'Let us learn respect for others. … None of us lives alone — in our city, our nation or our world.’ ”

Love is a verb, a noun and preferably both.

Don’t be a fake friend. Treat someone nice because you care for that person, not because you are duty bound or it’s a calling. There is a difference, and people can tell.

For those men, women or couples desirous to serve a mission, only commiserating with your own isn’t a good way to prepare for teaching the gospel and hinders the missionary effort. I recall a mission presidency counselor at a stake training meeting telling us if we fully comprehended what we have in this gospel, we would be pounding on someone’s door at 2 a.m. to excitedly share with them what we believe. Two in the morning is not recommended, but I get what he was saying.

We need to do all we can to dispel the label of the “Utah Mormon” or the self-righteous member, no matter where we live, no matter whether we are a majority or a minority. We owe it to others and ultimately to our own salvation. What we hold sacred and are blessed with is not a guaranteed free ride to heaven … we still have to earn it. Let’s share what we have with others and befriend them in the process regardless the outcome.

David Candland has a good heart, would love to change the world and is keenly aware that he "kind of" looks like Elvis and talks too much.

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