Recently I had the opportunity to volunteer for an outreach program for homeless youth, or more accurately, youth with housing insecurity. Most of them are not homeless per se, but their family circumstances are such that they can’t live at home and have to move from friend’s couch to friend’s couch, or something like that. The program is sponsored by a local United Church of Christ. Every Thursday they offer a hot meal, a video and a chance to take a shower, as well as good old-fashioned fellowship. A year or so ago our Relief Society worked one of these Thursday night things, and one of the women was so moved by the experience that she decided she wanted to be involved on a regular basis. She and her husband have taken on the obligation of providing one meal every other month, confident that other members of the ward would support the effort, which they have.
Last month I tagged along to help serve the meal. Ordinarily I am not a people person. Well, in fact, I am just about never a people person, and so I don’t ordinarily volunteer to do things like serve meals, which might require…I dunno…talking to people…or worse, smiling. I am happy to donate food, cook, stuff envelopes, even clean stuff–anything to be helpful that doesn’t involve copious amounts of human interaction. It’s not that I don’t like humans. All of my best friends are humans. I’m just not customer-service material. For example, I’ve worked several jobs that required me to answer phones. I can’t tell you how many times people on the other end of the phone would inquire as to whether I were insufficiently rested and/or depressed. That is the quality of my demeanor in general. (Not pertinent to the rest of the post, but just as an aside: If you’re the type of person who calls up a place of business and asks the administrative assistant if she is depressed, I just want to tell you…you’re not funny. That’s all.)
However, I decided that 2009 is to be my year for Doing Stuff I Usually Avoid Doing. And thus I found myself serving tacos to youth with housing insecurity. I had a pretty good time. I certainly plan to do it again. But this is not going to be about how gruff old Rebecca J had her heart melted by adorable homeless teens. No, I am thinking more about the differences between how the LDS church does outreach and how other faith communities do outreach. While I was hanging out in the UCC, I noticed a lot of posters in their hallway–just simple text-only posters with statements like “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” (The comma, apparently, is iconic for the UCC. It refers to the fact that “God is still speaking [and here is where I end with a comma but the English major in me just…caaaan’t].”) There were other statements, the exact wording of which escapes me, to the effect that Jesus reached out to the prostitutes and the other unsavory elements of society and we should go and do likewise. The wording was intentionally provocative, but there was no illustration, just bold black letters on a red background. I don’t think the red was an accident. It made me think of sin, and Jesus’s blood.
Aside from us visiting Mormons who were serving the meal, it was hard, at this supper, to tell who were volunteers and who were guests. This is deliberate on the organizers’ part. They used to have separate sign-in books for volunteers and guests, but they found that everyone just signed in as a volunteer. Nobody wanted to self-identify as a “guest.” So now they still do a volunteer log, but on the down-low. For the most part, volunteers and guests just blend together. After serving the meal, we were able to mingle. I felt a little more at home. (In retrospect, I wished I’d worn my blue fingernail polish.) Ironically enough, I felt a lot less pressure to be friendly, with the net result being that I was probably a lot more friendly. (I might have even smiled at one point, but I can’t swear to it.)
The UCC is one of those more liberal Christian denominations that go out of their way to welcome all kinds of folks. I mean, they have a sign on their front lawn that specifically welcomes you, regardless of your race, color, gender or sexual orientation. You just can’t get much more explicitly welcoming than that. The LDS church, whilst being comprised of some wonderfully friendly people (me excluded), does not really have that same welcoming vibe.
I’m trying to say this in as neutral a tone as possible because I really like the LDS church, and I like Mormons–like them a lot, actually–but I do think that in some ways we are like an exclusive club. You are welcome to visit, and you are welcome to join–but you can only visit so many times before people start expecting something of you (you know, like joining), and you can only join after you’ve met a number of criteria (e.g., living the Word of Wisdom, marrying the person you’ve been living in sin with, etc.). Once you have joined, you’re expected to take on certain responsibilities. If you fail to meet those responsibilities, we might start to consider your presence more of a burden than a blessing. It’s not because we’re suckheads (even though some of us are), but it’s just that we’ve got this project we’re working on, see–proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the saints, redeeming the dead, basic Kingdom of God stuff–and if you’re not going to contribute, well, forgive us, but why are you here?
There’s also the fact that by virtue of our peculiar lifestyle, we tend to set ourselves apart from the world. Well, that’s deliberate. We want to be set apart from the world because the world is kind of nasty, truth be told. Let’s be honest. This is part of our appeal. We’ve gone to great lengths to cultivate this image of wholesomeness, and I would be hard-pressed to call it a bad thing. If other folks see us as the super-nice people with the good teeth, what’s so wrong about that? Nothing, I guess.
However, I knew a girl in college–a “liberal” Baptist–who was talking to me about the Church, and she said that she had gone to a Mormon service once and had really enjoyed it, i.e. the service, but she just didn’t feel comfortable with the people there. Not because they were unfriendly–they were, in fact, super-nice (probably had good teeth, too, though I didn’t ask). No, she just felt out of place. For one thing, she was wearing a knee-length skirt and all the girls there were wearing tea-length or longer. That wasn’t the only thing she said, but it’s the thing that sticks in my memory–because for Pete’s sake, what a silly detail, and hardly a pernicious flaw. But it’s just one of many tiny things that may inadvertently make others feel like they don’t quite belong.
My point is not to solicit a bunch of comments about how far afield of Jesus’s mission we’ve gotten as a people. I think as a people we rock pretty hard. I know that I’ve been lucky, but I’ve seen the church in lots of different places, and my experiences with fellow (and sister) Mormons have been overwhelmingly positive. However, I was born into this. I’ve worked through a lot of angst, and I’m at the point where my relationship with the Church is like a marriage that has grown comfortable. Yeah, some stuff gets on my nerves, but I’m used to it, and I’m too lazy to start over. Mostly, it’s just grown on me. Mostly, I like belonging to this exclusive club. It’s what I know, and it’s my home–but also, it’s kind of cool. Maybe I just think so because it’s my family, but even the shortcomings I find kind of endearing. The church can’t be all things to all people. My daughter wishes we had more stained glass windows. My step-mother wishes our music were less crappy. (Also, that we had more exciting speakers and less sexism. But some folks just like to complain.) The fact is, we are what we are, and some people are going to find us appealing–welcoming, even–and others aren’t.
I just can’t get those silly red posters with their prostitutes and their commas out of my mind. When it comes to welcoming every soul, the most important thing that we can do as a people has to be done as individuals. Individually, we can always do more to include others, to be less judgmental, to not put a period where God has put a comma. I am curious, however, if there is anything the Church can do–or do less of–institutionally that would (better) communicate the message that God intends to meet us where we’re at, and that the church is a safe place for us to find our way to where He wants us to be.