Mormons and Showing Up

ezra-comeau-jeffrey-77199-unsplash

Last night I attended a small interfaith dialogue dinner between Muslims and Mormons at Georgetown University.  It was lovely.  I made new friends.

One anecdote made me laugh.  Prior to the event, Georgetown’s imam told Georgetown’s Mormon interfaith coordinator to —not— post the flier to Latter-day Saint groups and listserves in DC.  Why?  “Because if you do, then too many Mormons will show up.”

The imam has Mormon enthusiasm pegged precisely.  My colleagues at CAIR tease me about the same phenomenon.  Whenever I promote an event or cause on Facebook, my #MormonHorde shows up.

A few weeks ago I attended an excellent dialogue on Watergate and integrity in government featuring Bob Woodward and D. Todd Christofferson.  (Coverage of Highlights: Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune.)  The Deseret News advertised it in some LDS Facebook groups — and the event went from obscurity to “sold out” in mere days. We packed the Newseum’s 500-person auditorium to overflowing.

A few months ago, The University of Virginia and its Mormon Studies Program held an alumni event in DC.  They invited the nation’s top religion constitutional law professor, Douglas Laycock, to give a lecture. Non-alumni area Mormons got word of this, and turned out in droves.  After all, Prof. Laycock wrote the Church’s amicus brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop.  Again: standing room only in a hall that sat 500.

I’ve seen the sensation more times than I can count.  If we just float a flier into the Mormon ether, our community is so enthusiastic, our top concern is often that there will be too many guests, not too few.

Throughout my life I’ve lived in or regularly attended wards in Florida, Indiana, Virginia, New England, Seattle, California, London and Spain — and visited countless others.  My overwhelming experience has been that Mormons show up.  Moving crews, cleaning brigades, meal trains, weddings, funerals, ward activities, informal dinner invitations and game nights — for events large and small, we show up.

I host parties frequently.  I have large, diverse networks in the area crossing many faith and professional communities.  But invariably, no matter how many personalized invitations I extend, 75%+ of my guests that show up are Mormon.

I’ve been trying to identify what drives this phenomenon.  My theory is that it’s a byproduct or extension of our ward families.  I’ve always loved that the ~300 person capped size of LDS congregations results in a fair amount of diversity in ages and experiences, and yet is small enough for everyone to know each other.  This relatively small number of “deep” emotional connections feeds into a sense of trust that radiates across ward boundaries and interconnects into networks with the world at large.

But are our ward structures the only reason we show up?  I’m not a social scientist, but I’m fascinated by this idea — what structures work to build community?  Does every organization, regardless of faith or other identity, with 150-300 people plus weekly activities experience similar bonding results?  I certainly hear people talk about their schools and intramural sports teams and book clubs and game nights in similar tones.

Maybe? And yet, this “showing up” doesn’t happen in other communities I participate in, at least not to the same extent, even when they’re structured similarly.  Don’t get me wrong: Catholic events are well-attended.  CAIR events are well-attended.  Indiana University alumni events are well-attended.  Tech conferences are well-attended.  Occasionally, those events burgeon into blockbusters.  But more often, the events have this precarious feel of teetering on the brink of disaster and no-shows.  Paid event coordinators are often scrambling up to the last minute to lock down enthusiasm and attendance.

Even when attendance at events in my other communities is high, the sense of cross-conversation outside of the people you already know is often low.   People stick to their preexisting cliques and conversationally breaking in can be awkward.  By contrast, whenever I attend a new ward or other event teeming with Mormons, I am quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of genuine introductions and conversations that happen spontaneously.  What drives that social dynamic?

Maybe my perspective is all skewed.  Maybe this showing up phenomenon does happen in other communities, but I’m not tapped in deeply enough to them to see it?  I certainly hear reports from friends with other interests about the hot-ticket events they’re planning to attend that weekend, but for which I’m on the outskirts of the invitee social circles.  Do I just notice more Mormons showing up because that happens to be my personal, deepest network?

I don’t think so.  Because the same friends often express holy envy over the strength of Mormon communities.  They marvel at my confidence that I could move nearly anywhere in the world and be surrounded by friends instantaneously.  They, like the Georgetown Imam, have observed the evidence that Mormons show up.

* * *

P.S. I recognize there are (sadly) many wards where everyone is overtaxed, the support structures are not robust, or the insular nature of the community turns its energy more towards judgment and isolation than welcoming and inclusion.  By and large, that has not been my experience.  But I know it has been the painful experience of many of my friends.  For that, I am profoundly sorry.  We can do better.  I pray that the strengths of Mormon’s social dynamics can inspire us to more faithful and inclusive action.

*Photo by Ezra Comeau-Jeffrey on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Sounds like the spirit of the gathering applying to other situations!

    “And it shall come to pass that the righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy.”

  2. I don’t think your perception is skewed. I’d chalk it up to a lifetime (for most Latter-day Saints) in a culture where showing up to home teach, do a service project or otherwise participate is valued, and reported. I see it as a good thing. Wonder if that will change now with less reporting?

  3. Kristin V Brown says:

    Yes, I heard someone say once, “If you build it, the Saints will come”.

  4. Kristin V Brown says:

    We had a wedding dinner at our home for one of our children. Many of my friends from the Relief Society helped decorate and served for the occasion. Among our guests was a minister from another faith. He was awestruck and asked me how I was able to gather so many helpers. I have to admit I had never thought of his question before, for it seemed normal to me.

  5. nobody, really says:

    Bro. B, we will never have less reporting. Our attitude seems to be that if we don’t put the number in a little box somewhere, it doesn’t count. We are “Bringing Numbers to Christ”. Just this month, we’ve received information from our stake that they will want the names of everyone contacted in ministering visits, the number and names of temple recommend interviews conducted, and the number and names of temple visits (despite the Handbook explicitly stating that this information is not to be tracked).

    I am certainly one of the overtaxed. Four callings, and the stake thinks nothing of contacting me on Wednesday to demand three hours of driving and two hours of training on Saturday. Joseph Smith famously said that the church that doesn’t demand everything will never produce faith sufficient for salvation. We use this as the perfect excuse to demand everything, and then fault the people who leave when they decide their families are more important than another planning meeting.

  6. Another Roy says:

    At my daughters B-day party we had a Muslim, a Buddhist, and several denominational Christians in attendance. I was proud of my daughter’s various social groups that were represented. Yet, by far the largest group in attendance was from our Mormon ward. Outside of the church we would invite 10 people for 1 rsvp. Inside the church 2 out of 3 invitees would attend. Part of this is to be explained because in some groups the invitation went to the child and may not have made it to the parents. Also in some groups the parents may not know us well (or at all) and the inertia against contacting relative strangers for a party RSVP is strong. Still, there appears to be something else in the culture that motivates Mormons to make a showing. We have even had Mormon kids that could not attend due to a scheduling conflict occasionally drop by the house later with a present and some happy birthday wishes.

  7. Another Roy: Right! My default assumption among Mormons is a 33% RSVP “Yes” rate. And for the rest of my friends I’m ecstatic if I get 10%.

  8. I’ve always seen the ‘Mormons show up’ phenomenon as being related to virtue signaling.

  9. My husband and I are affiliated with Georgetown campus ministry (Protestant) and I just had to plug Imam Hendi. He is a gift and I hope you have the chance to cross his path many, many more times.

  10. I’m team Georgetown imam! When I was in my first year of law school, our Mormon affinity group hosted an event with an LDS apostle that was aimed at the non-Mormon law students at the school (the apostle speaking was one of the ones that’s a former lawyer). It was an evening event, and the room probably had space for 300 people. It was a packed house, with people sitting on the floor…the only problem was that 95% of the attendees were Mormons from the area. Somehow word had spread on the LDS ward listservs, and as we all know, Mormons show up to see apostles speak. When non-Mormon students showed up on time/a couple of minutes late (as is typical), there was no space for them.

    When we hosted another apostle two years later and I was in charge, I told all of the Mormon law students that if they told ANYONE other than their spouses and I saw ANYONE from the random wards I was going to kick them out, because the event was for law students only. We scheduled it for a lunch hour (to lure in law students with free food and to make it inconvenient for anyone who wasn’t at the law school to attend), and had approximately 120 people show up, probably 100 of whom were not Mormon (a couple of non-law student Mormons found out and came anyway). I was really proud of that event, because while it certainly had less people in the room and probably appeared to be less successful than the prior event, it had the people it was meant for in the room.

    So yeah, I agree, Mormons show up…except when they don’t know about the event and/or they’re under threat not to show up :)

  11. Jack Hughes says:

    I’ve had this go both ways. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised at Mormon’s willingness to show up when ask. My ward has a particularly obnoxious fundamentalist/doomsday hoarder type who’s personal worldviews I can’t stand. But when I needed help to move some heavy furniture out of a storage locker, guess who showed up enthusiastically? He even brought his two adult sons (who live in different wards and I had never met before) and got the job done quickly without asking for anything in return. People are hard to hate up close.

    In other instances, I’ve had people “show up” when they shouldn’t have. An RS president once dropped by unannounced to ask if there was anything she could do to help as we were about to move away. We had already packed up our house and just had it professionally cleaned to prepare it for sale. Her 4 rowdy kids spilled through the door and tracked dirt all over our freshly cleaned carpets. And she had no intentions of actually doing anything to help, she just wanted to be able to say that she asked.

    My sister went inactive during college. A zealous visiting teacher kept “showing up” at her door with cookies and a smile every two weeks, even after being asked not to. This eventually led to my sister getting a restraining order against the woman and then formally resigning her membership.

  12. The idea of a geographically defined congregation is fascinating, especially outside of Utah with larger boundaries.

  13. Stated as someone who has lived in the Northeast, Texas, and now Salt Lake County.

  14. This is very much in line with my experience too. Sometimes there is too much showing up – I danced a happy dance at the end of visiting teaching, and politely excused myself when asked if I wanted to participate in the voluntary “ministering” program which sounded exactly like visiting teaching. But then there are the movers, the meals, the help at big family events… one of the best things about being mormon.

  15. At first blush, I thought that was a conference center sustaining picture. Then I saw the person whistling and was confused. Funny how images can have 1 meaning then change as you look closer.

    I love the thoughts about congregation size playing into the mormon psyche. Great stuff. We just had a boundary alignment change where we picked up 6 or 7 families to balance out the wards. As the Bishop I was worried about integration of the new families, but it was far less of a problem than I feared. We mormons tend to adapt to new congregations fairly easily.

  16. A celebration of LDS culture on BCC? Praise the Lord!

  17. It’s great that Mormons gather, but a more important issue is developing better reasons for us to gather.

  18. I would like to think that “showing up” is a byproduct of what we are taught it means to “be a Christian”. We teach that when we hear of a need, whether it is privately or through our ward/calling structure, that we go into action.

    We had an experience where there was an almost fatal tragedy in our neighborhood. My wife and I wound up driving a father behind an ambulance, picking up debris/directing traffic, bringing dinners and even tracking down and comforting a grieving person. This was all par for the course for most within our faith community. Another neighbor who is a fantastic Christian of another denomination was fascinated – they shared that they wished they had done all of those things, but it just had not struck them what or how to do it. I don’t think my wife and are are model or better Christians, we have just benefitted from better training ;-)

    Side note, a good friend’s adult less active son posted on Facebook onetime cursing his father that because of all the training he had received, he cannot say “no” whenever anyone asks for help moving (all tongue in cheek). To me, a post like that is as great as those that celebrate temple visits, RS activities and other great things of our culture. The rituals and ordinances may not have stuck, but what it means to be Christ-like definitely had.

  19. I wonder when they’ll start showing up to ward and stake choir rehearsals — or to clean the buildings? Showing up on time might be good, too. Thanks, Carolyn, for the OP and its P.S.

  20. The sociologist in me says that the Mormon propensity to show up is its an amalgam of:

    1) A strong generalized reciprocity norm within our community. We show up to things like moving others, or somebody’s function or…or…because we are confident that when we need/want people to show up they will. This norm is definitely bolstered by things like widespread volunteerism that runs our wards, the magical size of our core community (wards) which is exactly as you decribe big enough to provide diversity and resources but small enough you have at least some connection and knowledge of others and of course the normative emphasis placed on it in our moral teachings.

    2) Our particular even relentless teaching about productivity and activity being a sign of righteousness. Its a bit of our own flavor of the “protestant ethic”. In Mormonism work is a virtue but work broadly defined so its more like productivity is a virtue. Its an expectation. Its what those living a moral right life do. It a sign you are on the right track. Its being “anxiously engaged”, “God will give you energy to serve”, “mortal existence is a time to prove yourself” etc. My favorite anectdote about this:

    I was in a largely grad student ward in Cambridge MA. The ward was made up of type A, MIT, Harvard, Tufts etc. etc. families many getting PhDs at the school or MBAs or Law Degrees. I was in Elder’s Quorum and the lesson was on “procrastination” (yes our SS was on avoid procrastination see #2). The person teaching for whom I have great respect was all of the following: a top PhD student in the MIT econ department (top 3 in the world), a young father with 2 young kids (and maybe a 3rd on the way), husband of the current primary president, living on only his Phd stipend, and training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, playing on a co-ed rec soccer team, had just signed up to show up at the church at 7 am to clean the chapel and I am sure a few other things I am missing. I he was genuinely racked with some guilt for how much he procrastinated. Think about that for a moment. Its nuts. But VERY Mormon. I actually love this about Mormons :)

    3) The interconnectedness of the community makes showing up really, really efficient because you are usually accomplishing more than 1 thing at a time. This is something I am coming to appreciate more as someone that is only marginally active now. I realized how much I can accomplish just showing up to church for one hour and wandering the halls. I set up a surf date for myself and my kids, I get some business advice I need, I arrange joint dinner, I get some emotional support, I help out a friend. So showing up to random event I kind of know there is a high probability that it will give high returns well beyond the focal activity. Its the exact instantiation of productivity returns from coordination that make us human.

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