I just finished reading a fascinating book a couple months ago called To Mormons, With Love by Chrisy Ross. She blogs here and gives a quick overview of her book here. You can buy her book on Kindle here. Chrisy and her family are nondenominational Christians who live (voluntarily, not because of Witness Relocation or anything like that) in Utah County – and even enjoy it mostly! I’m not sure I know many Mormons for whom I could say the same, but I might live in the opposite of a Mormon bubble. Chrisy and her family are very happy with their religion, and they also share most of the values of their neighbors (although it was endearing to read about her disappointment that she couldn’t form a nice wine-tasting group in her Utah County neighborhood).
Toward the end of her book, she gives some advice to Mormons when dealing with non-Mormons. Are we ready to hear it? Here are some of her key points, summarized:
- Know Other Religions. People almost always assumed she was Catholic, as if that was the only other alternative to Mormonism, and when she would tell them she was nondenominational Christian, they simply had no clue what that even meant. Given that 10% of the United States goes by this term, you would think that we Mormons, weighing in at a meager 1.7% of the US population, would not be flummoxed when we meet one, even in Utah County where Mormons constitute maybe 98% of the population.
- Referring to “the Collective.” She found it unsettling when neighbors would use “we” to refer to members of the church: “We all just love you, Chris” or “We can’t believe how well you fit in,” spoken by one person with no one else around. It’s a creepy habit that promotes the feeling of being the “other.” It also seems to always be used to express surprise that the non-member isn’t scary or bad.
- Elusive Non-Members. Chrisy pointed out in the book two different issues with other non-members. First, when she was introduced or referred to other non-members, they were often a huge mismatch. As she says in the book, “Don’t just introduce me to the drunks.” She also wanted to steer clear of the non-members who were actually ex- or lapsed Mormons as she never found much common ground there. Beyond that, she said she found it strange when people would be deliberately vague about where the other “normal” non-members were, as if there was a fear that the non-members would form a secret cabal to bash the Mormons. She pointed out that while she does drink both coffee and alcohol, her entire life doesn’t revolve around it.
- Don’t Proselyte. So much for the idea of Every Member a Missionary. Chrisy rightly points out the basic flaw in this premise. It sets the tone for the entire friendship if the basis for it is to win a convert. She says she expects this from the missionaries because they are there for that purpose (and she does invite them in, knowing that’s the nature of the relationship), but when so-called friends see you this way, it means they are not really your friends.
“Long-lasting friendships can be tainted by an early effort to proselytize. A new family in an LDS neighborhood does not want to feel like the first thing everyone wants to do is change who they are and what they believe.”
- Where is the Fun? She talked about loving to be invited to ward activities because that’s the equivalent of neighbor activities like block parties in a Mormon community, but she wanted to be clear when she was invited what the nature of the activity was going to be: purely fun, socializing, kid-friendly, or more religious, devotional, and so on. Ward members often don’t require these types of clarifications, but non-members do. She also talked about the weirdness of going to a ward activity for one of the first times and feeling as if she and her husband were in a reception line because everyone wanted to talk to them and already knew lots of personal details about them. It raised her radar to realize how freely they had been talked about.
- Take No for an Answer. She kindly points out that “Maybe later” also means no, something I learned on my mission that was immortalized in an Operetta called “Hoy No Puedo” (Today I Can’t) written by a couple of fellow missionaries for one of our mission conferences.
- Follow Your Own Rules. She found it unsettling when Mormons would do the things she was led to believe Mormons didn’t do, such as mow their lawns shirtless. It makes it hard to know how to fit in with a foreign culture when the rules are constantly changing.
This advice reminded me of a post I did several years ago when I read a non-member account of visiting Kirtland. Some of those observations that were cringe-worthy related to how uninformed our guides were about the history of the site (what drew non-Mormons there in the first place) yet how eager to proselyte and bear testimony.
In case you are wondering, author Chrisy Ross also outlines some great advice for non-Mormons living among Mormons, which reminded me a lot of what it was like living as an ex-pat in Singapore. IOW, any time you are the visitor (or permanent resident) to another culture, this is some good advice to consider:
- Don’t believe everything you hear. You’ll hear weird rumors, crackpot conspiracy theories, and disgruntled stories full of bias. Believe your own experiences first and foremost.
- For some, the bubble is real. Realize that for some church members, the Mormon bubble is very real; they have few if any non-Mormon friends and really don’t know much about the world outside of Mormonism.
- Give people second chances. Or more than that. Be patient in building friendships.
- Accept where you live. The reason most of your neighbors live there is because they like it, so fighting it isn’t going to win friends.
- There is diversity if you look. When you only see people as “LDS” you fail to grasp the complexity of the person beneath that label. (This made me think of the TBM label many like to affix to others).
- Read the BOM. Chrisy felt this was important to understand what people believed. She told an LDS friend she had read the BOM twice, and her friend laughed: “That’s two more times than most Mormons.”
- Ask questions. Most members won’t take this as a green light to proselyte (although a few will). Most of them don’t mind answering your sincere questions about why things are the way they are or what terms mean or what is the norm in the culture.
- Lighten up. Don’t be offended when someone does try to proselyte. Don’t waste energy on negative feelings.
- Follow the rules. Don’t flaunt your alcohol / coffee-drinking / shirtless lawn-mowing if you want to make friends. It makes people feel awkward.
Interestingly, I thought her advice to non-members living in Mormon areas was great advice to those members with doubts. They may be for the first time ever observing the culture as an outsider rather than a devotee of that culture. It is also generally good diplomatic advice for anyone who is living in a majority culture where they are in the minority.
- What do you think of this advice for members? What would you add or change?
- What do you think of the advice for non-members? What would you add or change?
- Do you think this advice applies to those who have doubts who are seeing the culture from the outside? Where else does it apply?
- Who bears the greatest responsibility in these situations? Those who belong to the majority culture or those who feel like minority observers? How much of a mix is the responsibility?