I’m a Mormon and I Am Here

Neylan McBaine is Editor of the Mormon Women Project and a regular contributor to BCC.

I had just exited the baggage claim at the airport when I saw World Trade Center survivor Victor smiling from the top of a New York City taxi. “I’m a Mormon,” his picture said. And, “Mormon.org.” My seven-year-old daughter was actually the first to spot the ad. “Look, Mommy!” she cried. “Your work!” In the bustle of making our family’s annual reverse-pilgrimage from Utah to my hometown of New York City, it had slipped my mind that my work – as a participant on the team responsible for the campaign – would be following me home.

Growing up in New York City in the 1980s and 90s, I reveled in my power to create and shape the attitudes of my peers towards Mormonism. I was the only Mormon any of my classmates knew, and although I don’t know anyone who joined the Church as a direct result of my efforts, I took seriously my role as a member missionary. For instance, my junior year in high school, my monopoly on Mormonism was briefly challenged by an errant US history textbook that mixed up details about Joseph Smith’s life, but a confident and informed presentation to my class with the blessing of my teachers quickly cleared up any misconceptions.

In 1993, my power and the power of many other member missionaries of my generation was challenged for the first time when Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America won the Pulitzer Prize. It was strangely enfeebling to recognize that a play was representing my people – complete with an exact replica set of the Visitor’s Center in the Lincoln Center meetinghouse that I had grown up playing in and loving – in a light that was outside the paradigm that I had so carefully constructed for my peers. Of course this was only the first instance over what is now two decades of Mormon attention in the media.

Since 1993, I have experienced a creeping sense of impotence as everything from weekly magazines to movies to TV shows and now to Broadway musicals have defined Mormonism’s place within our society. I know I haven’t been alone in feeling that our story is being told for us. As a marketing and public relations professional, I have historically sympathized with the Church’s reactive stance. But I’ve also cringed at how the conversation around Mormonism has slipped out of my control compared to the position of power of my youth.

When I saw that taxi at the airport last week, my heart leapt, just as it had when I was first introduced to Mormon.org and the “I’m A Mormon” video profiles last summer. My tears started the moment I landed on the homepage. Even if I can never have the same influence to form opinion that I did when standing before my junior US History class, at least the Church is giving me the tools I need to take the lead.

The campaign has exposed cultural divides among our own people that were not previously obvious, offering a blessed beckoning back into the community for some and testing the dearly held paradigms of others. It’s challenged us to define for ourselves what it means to be a Mormon and to what extent our cultural practices are determined by doctrine. Most importantly for our an internationally expanding body of faith, it is daring us to confront the seeming paradox that it is by acknowledging our unique qualities as individuals that our commitment to Christ can most effectively tether us together.

I’ve seen dozens of the “I’m A Mormon” taxi toppers since I arrived in New York a week ago, and my heart leaps every time. To describe my reaction, I find strangely that Dr. Seuss the parablist comes to mind. My leaping heart feels like the joyful clatter of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who when Horton finally figures out how to get the other animals to hear them on their seemingly invisible, insignificant speck. Desperate not just to save their homes but simply to define that their existence is as every bit as real and vital as the animals who loom over them, the Whos unite in a chorus of “We are here! We are here!” They are not content to let others decide that their speck is too little to have a voice. My own voice might be small, but I’m telling my hometown once again that I’m a Mormon, and I am here.

Comments

  1. Wonderful.

  2. Mister Curie says:

    Interesting post. You mention that the campaign has “exposed cultural divides among our own people that were not previously obvious, offering a blessed beckoning back into the community for some and testing the dearly held paradigms of others” and that previously sought to carefully construct a paradigm of Mormonism for your peers. Do you feel that the “I’m a Mormon” campaign is trying to alter the perception of what it means to be Mormon within Mormonism itself?

  3. Speaking only for myself, I feel the “I’m a Mormon” campaign is giving us greater latitude to define ourselves than we’ve ever had before. That I can speak my mind, claim my faith and attach my name and photo to a testimony I wrote is powerful. It’s also, while not perfect, the church nodding to the fact that they cannot so tightly control the message anymore. And maybe this is a good thing.

  4. I’m so glad you are instrumental in this campaign, Neylan. I really love the breadth of Mormons you have chosen to spotlight (in this campaign and on your Mormon Women website). I admit that I hope this has as much of a PR impact INSIDE that church as outside, helping us break down barriers and embrace the diversity that is already present among us.

  5. Mommie Dearest says:

    My friend in NYC emailed me a pic of the taxi topper taken with his iPhone. I haven’t yet seen a single video profile at Mormon.org, and I can’t articulate why except to say I have no interest in browsing through them. I’m happy to see the church do something different with its PR efforts, though, and this seems to be more authentic than some of the other campaigns that have been done.

  6. MikeInWeHo says:

    This was very interesting to read. Lately I have been thinking along similar lines, and wanting to say to my Mormon friends: “Hey, you’re losing control of your own narrative! You really don’t want that to happen!”

    Part of this may be that the Church is a victim of its own success. Correlation and a uniformed global missionary force have created a very strong religious brand-identity (if you will). Missionary attire in particular is universally recognized, but this is also the only church whose buildings all have similar features. You instantly recognize an LDS missionary or chapel wherever you are on the planet.

    The risk is that this well-established visual identity can be co-opted and parodied rather easily. The Catholics are in a similar situation, because their priests and nuns have a highly distinctive look.

    The Tony Awards opened with dancing nuns and Mormon missionaries (among other things). You will never see dancing Evangelicals on Broadway, because society doesn’t know what they look like.

    The world knows what you look like. You don’t want your antagonists to teach them what you act like.

  7. Jared T. says:

    “Most importantly for our an internationally expanding body of faith, it is daring us to confront the seeming paradox that it is by acknowledging our unique qualities as individuals that our commitment to Christ can most effectively tether us together.”

    Well said.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I love the campaign, Neylan. Thanks for your contribution to it, and for this wonderful post.

  9. Anonymous for this one says:

    I know I should not say this, but I want to be honest. I live in New York and I don’t like them. Someone announced in Sunday School that they were going to do the campaign here and a lot of people noticeably grimaced. I don’t want to be on the front lines of some sort of battle between Church p.r. and The Book of Mormon musical.

  10. Emily U says:

    I have a question for Neylan.

    You may not be able to say this here, but I would love to know what the impetus for the campaign was at Church HQ. Was it to make church members more aware of the diversity among us and to give members greater latitude to define ourselves, as Tracy M. said? Or was it to improve the Church’s image and do damage control post-Prop 8, with no intention to change anything within the church? I hope it was the former but the cynic in me says it was the latter. Maybe it was neither, I’m just very curious about how the Church decided to invest in this particular campaign.

    I do really like the video profiles on Mormon.org – they’re extremely well done. But when a member of my bishopric told me they were filming in my city and asked if my husband and I would sign up for a time, I felt conflicted. I felt a nagging sensation like I was being used. Like, it’s great that we have this sort of alternative Mormon lifestyle when it’s suddenly become potentially useful, but in reality I get very little validation for being a working mom from the Church. I don’t see working moms in the Ensign and I don’t hear them being cited as examples in General Conference. I do hear quotes repeated like Pres. Hinckley’s statement that it’s well nigh impossible to be a good mother and a good employee at the same time.

    In the end we didn’t go to the filming mostly for logistical reasons. That, and I’m not nearly as awesome as the people I see in these videos, and knew I wouldn’t make it past the first screening!

  11. Yikes. Can someone help me with my botched link? Sorry about that.

  12. Within this post we see one of the purposes of advertising. Not to persuade people to go and buy (or to find out more or convert) but to reassure then they made the right choice after they have already done so. I wonder to what extent the church is aware of this with the campaign. If this theory of advertising is true and it typically is then it would make sense to put the ads in places where they already get the most baptisms and or discussions.

  13. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and can really identify with:

    “Growing up in New York City in the 1980s and 90s, I reveled in my power to create and shape the attitudes of my peers towards Mormonism.”

    That being said, I currently live in Brooklyn and was NOT excited to hear about the ads. At all. One thing I don’t like is that this advertising campaign probably costs millions of dollars. I am more than happy to pay tithing and strongly believe in it as a principle, but I definitely don’t want it to go to a billboard or taxi topper. I don’t really like the gospel being treated like a commercial product. Anyone who sees the Book of Mormon musical probably knows how to use google to find out more.

    I also feel like they are kind of disingenuous. I love Emily U’s comment about being used-the “I’m a Mormon” crew came to my branch to film and I went to another ward instead. I don’t feel like there is a ton of affirmation for older single people trying to have an interesting life and I don’t want to pretend that there is. I actually actively seek out friends who are married or nonmembers, because I don’t want to constantly deal with the unnecessary psychological turmoil characteristic of single Mormon girls around my age (30). So it seems like false advertising to me.

    Now if the intended audience is Mormons themselves, I am fine with that-because it might foster acceptance of diversity, although New York Mormons are probably way ahead of the norm. But that could easily be done by making the rhetoric coming from Salt Lake more inclusive.

  14. “Hey, you’re losing control of your own narrative! You really don’t want that to happen!”

    In many ways what is happening is the same as when minstrel troupes went about in Blackface. Mormons make a nice metaphor for the other.

    I think that being a mormon and being here is a way for us to reclaim our own narrative as complex.

    Negotiating identity has been on my mind recently [e.g. http://www.wheatandtares.org/2011/06/16/negotiating-your-identity-as-a-woman-in-the-lds-church/ and other thoughts]. I appreciate this post.

    As for letting yourself be a part of the face of something … when we had to chose, we participated in videos such as the one linked to here and others http://ethesis.blogspot.com/2011/06/tourrettes-camp-rachel-missed-this-year.html (for a grief support group, etc.).

  15. If we as a group of God’s children are serious about taking God’s message to all people, that means reaching out to all people of all walks of life and backgrounds and challenges. Not just to people who fit into the Peter Priesthood/Molly Mormon mold. It also means that the gospel net must be broad, and permit those of us who do not fit within the stereotype to grow and thrive. And so I am glad that the Church as an institution is, through this campaign, reaching out to those inside and to those outside to demonstrate, perhaps more by aspiration than by current broadbased cultural reality, that God’s love and message and ecclesia truly are for all people. Isaiah 56:7 (” for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people”). I hope the campaign continues for a long time. Well done.

  16. rb1rider says:

    Pres Packer said this in last Apr Conf:

    “Obedient to revelation, we call ourselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than the Mormon Church. It is one thing for others to refer to the Church as the Mormon Church or to us as Mormons; it is quite another for us to do so.
    The First Presidency stated:
    “The use of the revealed name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (D&C 115:4), is increasingly important in our responsibility to proclaim the name of the Savior throughout all the world. Accordingly, we ask that when we refer to the Church we use its full name wherever possible. …
    “When referring to Church members, we suggest ‘members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’ As a shortened reference, ‘Latter-day Saints’ is preferred.””

    Perhaps someone can help me figure this out, did Pres Packer have a senior moment, are you trying to tell me that he didn’t know about the “I’m a Mormon” PR campaign? Did I miss something? I haven’t seen a single comment about this in the blogernacle. Is this just not a big deal?
    I feel very much like Emily U #10 and Jill #14. I wonder what the impetus is also and about the usefulness of spending tithing funds on this. Don’t get me wrong, I actually love watching the videos, it makes me proud of our religion, it’s the kind of diversity we need. But the problem is I don’t see people like that in the church. Everyone is the same. The Church has been very selective in choosing who gets featured. My area (I’m in a midwestern city/state) wasn’t involved but I too would have been cynical if I had been, wondering exactly how this is going to push forward the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    Just as an side note, forgive me if you consider it a threadjack. But in the past we have heard the Brethren speak, even in GC, about how we are a Christian faith. They’ve been great talks and I believe it. For me personally though I don’t call myself a “Christian”. What I am trying to do in my life is behave as a Christian would, then hopefully others will call me a Christian. Could the Church do this more, not worry about how the world perceives us, quit advertising how Christian we are and simply do Jesus Christ’s work and let what happens happen?

  17. MikeInWeHo says:

    Elder Packer may have had one or two senior moments in the past year or so……

  18. #18: Senior moments or not, we may see Elder Packer as the next head of the Church.

  19. Whether it is/was the intent or not, the “I am Mormon” campaign is definitely opening up discussions within the membership about things such as how to interpret the Proclamation on the Family (see the first link in #15 for an example), how legitimate choosing alternatives to the “ideal” in family structure and roles is to be considered, and how we should think about “diversity” in the Church. Honestly, I think that internal discussion alone is worth whatever tithing money they put into it. Trying to reconcile what we see in “I am Mormon” with the current manuals and other official materials at least lead to a refreshingly new and open discussion. Anything that begs nuance and challenges pure black and white thinking is a positive in my book. My wife just got assigned to teach the “gender roles” lesson in RS in a couple of weeks in a ward where that is a very sticky subject. “I am Mormon” will feel like it is heaven sent.

  20. I’ll be, my comment evaporated when I hit “comment.”

  21. Still gone.

    Well, rah — I think you make a good point.

    All, the Church website says this about the campaign “The effort seeks to break through the stereotypes of what people think they know about Mormons .”

    That fits.

  22. I share your sense of wonder. I’m serving on the Board of Advisors of the Silver Lining of Hope Crusade, an affiliation of 60+ churches in central Los Angeles working against gang violence. I was able to coordinate the participation of 10 LDS wards and branch in the Day of Awareness last month at the location of a gang killing. As passing motorists asked who we were, we answered with our own version of “I’m a Mormon and I’m here.”

    Photos of this day, half of which’s participants were LDS, are featured on Silver Lining of Hope’s homepage:
    http://www.silverliningofhope.org/
    We were several of the black and all of the non-black participants. More photos are viewable here:
    http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183930282#!/media/set/?set=oa.212843588738937

    A bonus ocurred when leaders of the Santa Monica Stake invited several of Silver Lining of Hope’s leaders to hear Pres. Uchtdorf speak the preceding Thursday at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. One of the pastors offered Pres. Uchtdorf one of our lapel ribbons, which he accepted and wore the rest of the evening.
    Photo: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2157918225870&set=oa.217821668241129&type=1&theater

  23. In addition to the taxis and Times Square billboard, there’s also some subway advertising (I see it every day on my commute). I love the ads…a subway car full of pictures of smiling faces is a welcome break from the norm. Also, many of the people used in the ads are from the New York City stakes–the ads might not paint an accurate picture of the church in Utah, but they’re accurate to the local “market.”

  24. I agree with Kyle. The pictures are absolutely accurate in representing the church demographic in the NYC area.

  25. #6, Mike, spot on.

    To me, this campaign seems to represent the diversity and openness and acceptance that I wish were in the church but which I don’t experience. On the one hand, I like the idea of it opening up a conversation within the church about ourselves, but on the other hand, I really don’t like the idea that our members are feeling used by the campaign. I guess I’m undecided.

  26. I agree with Tracy #3.

  27. Are the mormon leaders buying their way to heaven?

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