Periphery Privilege

I used to think I had it pretty tough as a missionary and then as a member of the church in Austria. It’s easy to feel isolated and maybe even a little under siege (see below!) with Mormons few and far between on the outskirts of the vineyard.

To give you an idea of how few and how far between, my hometown (population 28,000) in rural California–and by rural I mean the last stop before Death Valley–has four wards while Vienna (population 1.8 million) has just five. As a missionary I was around for the creation of a new stake in 1997, but since then a branch and a ward I served in have disappeared, well, merged, but still, the trend is going in the wrong direction. Our appeal among the general populace is so low that despite enjoying the benefits of official recognition since 1955 in a country where such things are important (see here for an incomplete treatment), we boast only about 1/5 as many members as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they have only enjoyed official recognition–and the right to actively proselytize–since 2009.

With so few members, units cover large areas and implementing the program of the church is a burden that falls on few shoulders and, to be frank, doesn’t get done all the time. At a recent leadership training meeting, for example, the stake president expressed dismay that percentages were down across the stake since President Monson’s talk on home teaching at the October 2013 General Conference. And with the church too small and uncharismatic to influence the general direction of society, those who do stay are subject to the vicissitudes of The World, including rampant Word of Wisdom violations–smoking in public is still very much a thing here!–and larger-than-life advertisements (warning–pixelated body parts!) that would make a sailor blush. If it weren’t for the unlikely union of Christian conservatives and socialists keeping the country closed on Sundays, the highway to hell would probably be complete by now.

Well, I’m probably being gratuitously flippant here because it really can be a struggle without much of a like-minded support network and the association of people who shared your deeply-held beliefs can be a great treasure. But in taking stock of my last ten years on the frontier I have to acknowledge that much good has come from the degree of freedom I’ve had to live my religion on my own terms. With hardly anyone around to enforce a particular vision of what it means to a Mormon, I get to explore the boundaries of my inner fortitude and discover for myself how converted I am. I’m not saying extrinsic motivation is a bad thing, and it’s certainly not non-existent; as long as one is integrated into the formal organization of the church somebody will be following up with you on your stewardship. However, the sense that the contours of one’s membership are the result of deliberate choices instead of a foregone conclusion inextricably linked to, say, maintaining important relationships, living up to community expectations and even remaining gainfully employed is liberating and reassuring. It’s like the practical application of a thought experiment I heard at a fireside as a youth–If you could occupy a room in which no one, not even God, knew what happened, would you still commit sin? It turns out the answer is yeah, but I would also pay tithing, give talks, clean the building, attend meetings during the week and pay attention to talks by high councilors.

For those whose “Cafeteria Mormon!” alarm is ringing, let me assure you I’m not talking about cherry-picking principles of the gospel that can be discarded when no one really cares–the lazy-beard approach to discipleship, as it were.  What I’m trying to get at is that the challenges of membership in a setting where one is left largely to one’s own devices do have a silver lining–namely, it has been relatively easy to navigate what a fellow BCC contributor called “the fine-but-important line between ‘living with integrity’ and ‘being a[n insufferable person]'” since the aisles in my china shop are as wide and accommodating as Haussmann’s avenues.

In recognizing this privilege I also intend to check it–you won’t hear me saying “well, why don’t you just, you know, live authentically” in response to concerns expressed about the Mormon way of life. Living with a bunch of Mormons–whether they be family members, neighbors, ward members or even employers is fraught with challenges that lone voices in the wilderness have few occasions to experience. I  guess we all have it pretty tough, and we are all blessed tremendously, but in different ways depending on how close to the mother ship our orbits keep us.

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for this report from “the mission field.” As someone who spent most of my life living in places where Mormons were distinct minorities, but who now lives in Provo, I can also attest that life in the church is differently challenging in each place. Still worth it, though.

  2. Cheers for Haussmann!

    Peter, here’s the question: is the Church better or worse on the Periphery? Where’s the “real church”?

  3. For nonconformists of every stripe, it’s better in the periphery. For many conformists, it’s better (or at least easier) in the Jello Belt.

  4. Hard to say, Steve, but on the balance I’d say being out here has been good for me. I enjoyed growing up in a small community with relatively many Mormons, and I enjoyed my BYU experience. There’s definitely something to be said for a deep bench of co-religionists to implement the program of the church, commiserate with, etc. But it’s been good for me to have the freedom to really explore the studio space, as it were, and own my religion with very little pressure to arrive at foregone conclusions. Though I suspect that whether such freedom is a bug or a feature depends on individual factors and probably wouldn’t work as a general prescription. Also, with a shallow bench, there is a need to prioritize efforts, and I’ve been pleased that the focus has been on pastoral care and outreach rather than culture warring (the battles here have all been lost already) and boundary maintenance, which I find refreshing.

  5. Peter,

    Am I correct in assuming that you are from Ridgecrest?

  6. John Mansfield says:

    Interesting thoughts. Thanks for writing them.

    “For nonconformists of every stripe, it’s better in the periphery.” Well, not every stripe. There are some things like Robert Kirby’s writing, or Sunstone, or the John Dehlin Experience that have a Utah-centric quality to them that wouldn’t work the same without a collection of conformists to play off and noncomformists to join in. A few nonconformists need something to not conform to, and the Vienna stake can’t fulfill that need. For those who just want to be left to do things their way, though, it’s seems like it would work well.

    Tangent: The LDS equivalent to Cafeteria Catholic ought to be Smorgasboard Mormon.

  7. iAlex, my parents always attached great importance to the fact that they lived in an unincorporated part of the county, but yeah, pretty much.

  8. So 1st ward or 3rd ward I would guess. This is of course after the boundary realignment back in 2000 that some members are still having issues with.

  9. Definitely grateful for Kirby, Sunstone, etc. I still think those individual writers would be happier outside the Jello Belt (although granted they would have a lot less to write about, and they would be sorely missed by many of us). The great thing about being LDS in a place like Vienna (or even some places in the U.S. South and Midwest) is that the very fact that you’re Mormon makes you a nonconformist.

  10. Mike R. says:

    I love Ridgecrest. I was a missionary there in 2002.

  11. It seems like a forsaken place at first glance, but it’s not without considerable charms.

  12. I grew up in an area that was 20% LDS, and it took me until I became a teenager to understand what that really mean, and to be somewhat offended. This really resonated wit me:

    “I have to acknowledge that much good has come from the degree of freedom I’ve had to live my religion on my own terms. With hardly anyone around to enforce a particular vision of what it means to a Mormon, I get to explore the boundaries of my inner fortitude and discover for myself how converted I am.”