"Shun" is a four-letter word that continues to rear its head.
I was recently at a Barnes & Noble book-signing event with several other authors. After hearing my book pitch, one woman said, “We’ve lived in Draper for almost two years. We had a babysitter we liked but as soon as her parents found out we weren’t members, they wouldn’t let her sit for us anymore.”
Her attitude was along the lines of, “I hope your book tells those mean Mormons a thing or two,” while shaking a fist.
Another woman lingered in front of my table with her preteen and teenage daughters, sharing in detail how she had moved to Utah from the East Coast, and while her Sandy neighborhood was “very nice,” she claimed the Mormon kids were not allowed to play with her kids. She said her daughters weren’t treated well at school by LDS kids and struggled with loneliness.
I questioned both women. Were they certain that their nonmember status alone deemed them socially unworthy? Each woman felt strongly that her situation was clear. Members only want to associate with members. Period.
The authors who I was grouped with at the book signing happened to be LDS. When there was a lull in customer traffic by our tables, I asked the other authors about what we’d all just heard.
“Do you know any LDS person who wouldn’t allow their kids to play with nonmember kids? Or who would forbid their teenage daughter to babysit for a nonmember family? Do you think people still shun?”
The short answer to all of my questions was no…and maybe. My fellow authors didn’t personally know someone who was religiously bigoted. They confirmed that the Church encourages strengthening relationships, and we agreed that all human beings, regardless of belief system, are susceptible to biases and environmental baggage.
As a nonmember, I don’t believe an LDS person has ever made a conscious decision to disassociate with me simply because I’m not a member of the Church.
When we arrived in Utah in 2002, the nonmember grapevine was alive with examples of member/nonmember segregation. After considering the source, I came to the conclusion that the disunion was likely a two-way street, a personality conflict, or the result of an individual’s personal character failings or biases—both the member’s and the nonmember’s. Not a result of pure religious discrimination.
Admittedly, my husband and I felt like a few families had a “there goes the neighborhood” look on their faces when they discovered we weren’t members. And I’ll also cop to the fact that I was worried a visible coffee maker and a countertop wine rack would be a friendship deal breaker for some people. But in my experience, relationships that have taken root have done so because of an authentic connection and those that haven’t have nothing to do with religion.
But I continue to hear stories that make me think we all need to do a better job of . . . something.
Last fall, a nonmember friend of mine in another state was assisted and befriended by Relief Society in her area. A long-distance, long-time LDS friend of hers recognized a need and knew whom to contact. My friend was thrilled to receive help when she was sick, meet new friends, and looked forward to participating in Book Club and other activities for mothers of small children. I recently asked her how things were going with her new friends.
She said she’d been embarrassed to tell me, but she and her husband were convinced invitations ceased because they had made it clear they weren’t interested in converting. I challenged her.
“Have you called the woman who reached out to you? Maybe they were trying to be considerate and not smother you? Did someone actually say that?”
I find it difficult to believe that in this day and age, relationships dissolve due to religious shunning. Hard to buy.
However, since mulling this topic over, I’ve discussed it with several LDS friends and acquaintances. When I share the examples (now third hand) and ask someone, “Do you know anyone that would shun?” I’ve heard replies ranging from the matter of fact, “Yes,” to an uncomfortable, almost panicked, passionate defense of the Church as a whole “Of course not!” with lots of discussion surrounding the answers.
Again, I haven’t experienced or witnessed firsthand a person not associating with someone purely because they’re not Mormon. I haven’t witnessed the opposite either, but I recognize that there are members who call the same foul—a nonmember disqualifying a friendship simply because someone is LDS. As ridiculous as all of this sounds in 2012…doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Notwithstanding, discernment is real when choosing the relationships we want to nourish.
I have to believe the majority of nonmembers who feel they or their kids are being shunned or excluded from social groups because they’re not members of the LDS Church aren’t taking into account schedules, interests, established friendships, and perhaps a sensitivity to overbearance. People underestimate one another and direct communication is often non-existent. Everyone I spoke with had relied on his or her feelings and perceptions. Not once was a question asked politely or directly, “Is there a problem we need to talk about?” The worst was assumed.
Nuanced, but present. Is that what modern-day shunning looks like? I’m just asking the question. If so, we can all—nonmembers and members—do a better job of identifying the root of the problem. We know S-H-U-N is a four-letter word — turns out so is L-O-V-E.
Chrisy Ross is the author of To Mormons, With Love (A Little Something from the New Girl in Utah), available at deseretbook.com. To learn more about her, visit chrisyross.com. You can also meet her this Saturday at her book signing in Sugar House, Salt Lake City on March 24th.