Originally posted April 14, 2013
For Patrick Mason’s “Introduction to Mormonism” class this semester, each student in the course (all of whom are non-Mormon) was required to attend a full three-hour block of Mormon Sunday meetings and report on their experience. Several of his students have abridged their papers so that they could be posted on this blog. The following reflection was written by Catrina Ellis, a first-year Master’s student in religion at CGU for whom Mormon Studies is a concentration. Names have been changed.
What resonated most in my three hours at church was the emphasis on life. The building was full of life, and the service centered on life. The room was filled with sound—laughter, crying, talking, screaming. Audible conversations before the sacrament meeting were not only permitted but encouraged. These congregants were happy to be spending their Sunday together, for they genuinely liked each other. I overheard one woman saying to a man she had just embraced, “I love being at Church. It’s so uplifting,” and it appeared most others would have agreed with her.
The pews were another example of the emphasis on life and community. Growing up Roman Catholic, I am accustomed to pews as a source of pain. Uncomfortable pews and kneelers discriminate against the injured and elderly. These pews, however, lacked kneelers and included padded cushions. They did not imply that at least a modicum of discomfort is necessary for worship. Furthermore, pews, as opposed to individual chairs, promote community. Neighbors are in each other’s space; physical closeness accompanies the emotional bonds of communal worship.
Another marked difference between a Roman Catholic Mass and this Mormon worship service was the constant presence of children’s voices, a persistent (and often loud) reminder of the presence and value of new life. An overwhelming shushing was not the harbinger of the beginning of the service, and within reason, children were permitted to be children. One boy in the pew across from me was in a ball on the floor, and his father did not immediately snatch him off the ground; rather, he simply held onto the boy’s pants to prevent the repeated attempts to crawl away. Later, the boy began kicking the hymnbooks and the girl’s head in front of him, and when that did not garner further attention, he screamed. This behavior would have forced Catholic parents to forcibly remove him, but he was merely remonstrated quietly. Many of the children were also allowed to eat. One boy was handed gummies after emitting an alarming shriek, which he ate looking immensely pleased with himself, and many others proudly held little bags of Cheerios. The tolerated presence of rowdy children demonstrates the same understanding that was apparent when latecomers were neither glared at nor expected to sit in the back: life happens, and it does not prevent one’s ability to participate in Church.
The content of the service itself similarly centered around life. Sermons concentrated on the here and now; only one mentioned the afterlife. Both the bishop and stake president spoke about setting reasonable goals to become “a little better, a little closer to Christ,” not lofty ones which devalue everyday life. Bishop Jackson even took the grandiose song lyric, “Home can be a heaven on earth,” down to earth, so to speak. Using an anecdote about his wife’s epic struggles to prevent their two sons from beating each other in the pew, he assured the congregation that these words were meant to be aspirational, not necessarily descriptive. Along the same vein, the church was described as a hospital for sinners, not a shrine for saints; in other words, the struggles and temptations of life are acknowledged as real and difficult, for those who come to church are not expected to be perfect, exalted beings.
Even less obvious aspects of the service demonstrated that normal, worldly life was permitted to enter the church. For example, the sacrament passed around was a generic wheat bread, not a specialized host, and easily obtained tap water, rather than some exotic drink. There is power in saying that everyday sandwich bread and water are sufficient reminders of Christ.
These examples contribute to the lack of mysticism in the church. There were no candles, no incense; the building was brightly lit, and all was visible. The sacrament was not a miracle performed by God through human agency but rather a remembrance. Even the fact that all speakers, office holders, and missionaries were named permitted them to maintain identity rather than becoming bodiless, interchangeable roles.
These individuals’ authority did not separate them from the community, however. Even the stake president remained a part of this family. When he spoke, he asked the congregation to pray for him, which demonstrated both his level of humility in an authoritative position and that his title did not inherently place him on a pedestal, detached from the congregation. Further, he addressed the congregation as brothers and sisters. This terminology promotes equality of status among the community, but the stake president using it demonstrates that despite his higher position, he remains a brother. Catholic priests, in contrast, would greet their “children”; they become fathers and consequently are ideologically separated from their flock.
This community also made multiple attempts to assure me that I was entirely welcome. The Relief Society president approached me before the worship service to introduce herself, and she clearly announced my presence to the bishop and stake president, for both made sure to welcome all visitors while looking in my direction. Both also must have come over at least three times each after the first service to welcome me and ensure that I knew where Sunday School and the bathroom were. Sister Knight summed up this welcoming spirit in the Relief Society meeting. She reminded that even simply saying hello is touching another person’s life, and that hello might have been just what was needed to lift that person’s spirit.
The remainder of the Relief Society meeting stressed the importance of love as well, but self-love rather than communal love. It was clear that the woman who led the meeting was greatly concerned about the lack of self-confidence and self-love among her sisters. The second activity consisted of tossing around a ball of yarn and each woman naming her own best quality. Some of the older women had enough self-confidence to say something, but many of the younger women could only list mundane qualities, such as washing dishes, if they could say anything at all. The leader finally had to resort to having the other women compliment the yarn-holder, and they were perfectly willing to say wonderful things about others, just not themselves.
Bishop Jackson was very affected by this, and he made a small speech, saying that he supposed being unassuming was one of their qualities but he hoped they knew they were loved and appreciated by their ward family. The leader was very thankful he spoke up and shared an emotional personal story of her revelation in the temple in which she asked God why she was still alone and if God still loved her, and God told her that she alone was loved and precious. The anecdote seemed to resonate with the other women, and I hope it will help them accept their worth as well.
My experience at the Mormon church was very positive and welcoming. There were other apparent themes, but at their essence, the services and congregation promoted life and community.