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.