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To Mormons, With Love from Your Non-LDS Neighbor

Chrisy Ross - December 13, 2011

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Choosing to live in Utah as a non-Mormon is a decision I don't regret. It has certainly come with its share of confusion, paranoia (am I the ward's "project"?), even frustration. I experienced deep cultural shock moving to a place with such an all-consuming church lifestyle, but following years of adaptation, I have come to accept and embrace the unique and sometimes quirky culture of our Mormon community.

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We didn’t intend to be the only nonmembers in our ward. We knew we’d be in the religious minority when we moved to our small town in Utah County, Utah, in 2002, but we expected that minority to be more than 2-ish percent.

We’re mistaken for an LDS family everywhere we go because of where we live: a town I affectionately refer to as “Mayberry.” It doesn’t matter where we are—Utah, or any other state or country—if we cross paths with a person who knows the town where we currently live, the assumption is that all parties involved are members.

When we meet people in our own town for the first time, outside of our ward boundaries, they also assume we’re Brother and Sister Ross. We understand. And it doesn’t bother us . . . anymore.

When the time feels right, my husband or I reveal that we don’t happen to be members of the Church, followed by an enthusiastic and honest “ . . . although we love living in our community!” People are typically gracious but are also sincerely curious about our experience. Specifically, how did we end up in  our town, and what’s it really like for us?

Occasionally, our presence has caught people off guard and made them uncomfortable. Last fall, my husband, Chris, was in the front yard on a sunny Saturday afternoon, fiddling with landscape lights, digging in the dirt, and keeping an eye on our 5-year-old son. Our two older boys were running around the yard enjoying the pleasant weather. A car pulled into our driveway and a woman jumped out of the passenger side, approached Chris with a broad smile, and asked, “What’s the ward like here?”

My husband returned the smile and replied, “It’s great! We don’t happen to be LDS, but the neighborhood’s super nice.” 

The woman said, “Oh,” turned around, got back into the car, and had a brief exchange with the man behind the wheel before they pulled out of the driveway, avoiding eye contact. Chris said, “I think I spooked her.”

People are almost always surprised to learn we’re not members, but they’re rarely “spooked.” I only share these examples to emphasize the Mormon-ness of our Mormon community.

Mormon Life as a Non-Mormon
Adapting to life in Mayberry seemed effortless at first—beautiful scenery, kind neighbors, and a quiet, predictable life rhythm. Although I knew we had moved to a predominantly LDS area—not only Utah, but Utah County, Utah—I remained naïvely hopeful that I would meet some other girls in my community and form a monthly wine-tasting group. As the weeks turned into months and months turned into years, I finally gave up all hope for this group ever developing in Mayberry.

Like any move to a new neighborhood, it takes a while to make friends. Most people are neighborly and invested in the safety and vibe of their chosen home, but the gift of a true friendship emerges slowly.

I can now say I have friends in Mayberry, including a couple of lifelong gems, but it took much longer than I anticipated to cultivate these relationships. In hindsight, it was my bad. Culture shock and  paranoia hit me from left field and sabotaged many well-intended attempts from others at friendship.

The Conversion File
Having lived in religious melting pots throughout my life, I wasn’t prepared for what felt like an all-consuming church-based lifestyle. Social activities in Mayberry are church driven, and combined with my understanding that members of the LDS Church are considered missionary members, I assumed every invitation extended to my husband, my children, or me was rooted in our “Conversion File.” Surely there was a file at the church that documented everything there was to know about our family, who made attempts to woo us to church, and the ratings their efforts earned. The non-member grapevine (and there is one) fueled my neurosis. Undoubtedly, a few people were sincere in their friendship attempts, but I believed everyone was trying to convert me. Everyone. All the time. Even the neighborhood kids.

I am a quiet, questioning, non-LDS Christian. I have read the Book of Mormon and sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. I am also an open-minded person, with what I perceive as an above-average level of tolerance and acceptance of others (I judge a little—after all, I’m human), and I have a broad and diverse group of individuals in my pocketbook of friends. It would be a very awkward dinner party if we all got together.

I know there is no file. But it took years before I felt safe and genuinely welcome as a non-seeking  community member attending a ward-based social activity. Mixed messages, wrong information, different answers to the same questions, loneliness, paranoia, culture shock, and legitimately busy women created a vicious cycle in my mind. I was wrapped around the axle.

No Relief
I was periodically invited to Relief Society activities. Once I understood what Relief Society meant—a sorority for nice, married, sober girls—I asked an LDS friend who lived outside “our” ward boundaries if my attendance would send the wrong message. I was hungry for friendship but not interested in conversion. My friend told me if I ultimately was not interested in converting, the invitations would likely cease. “Relief Society activities are for LDS women, and I’m afraid if you don’t join the Church, they’ll probably stop including you.”

She wasn’t trying to convert me; I believe she was trying to answer my question honestly. Her answer discouraged me from attending Relief Society activities for the first few years, even though other women told me I was welcome regardless.

During the height of my paranoia, I was suspicious that any attempts to befriend me were rooted in Church obligations and not genuine friendship. One day a neighbor knocked on my door to invite me to a Relief Society function (again). This was a gal I thought I had things in common with outside of our faiths. I said, “If you’re inviting me because you think I’ll enjoy myself or you believe we have things in common as women, neighbors, wives, mothers, and hopefully friends, then I’m open. If I’m just a missionary opportunity, my feelings are hurt.”

My neighbor didn’t know what to say after my spiel. I’m sure I hurt her feelings—which was not my intention—but I was confused. I wanted to socialize with other women, but I wasn’t convinced that Relief Society invitations came with no strings attached. My new “friends” would surely liquor me up on lemonade, sugary baked goods, white rolls, and real butter. “Forget the crafts—brainwash Chrisy! Roll out the pool! Dunk her!”

I began to believe that the only way to be accepted and interact with other women was to become a Mormon. (So I did. And we all lived happily ever after. The end. . . . Kidding.)

Because of my personal revelation that I was different, I further tormented myself by wearing an uncomfortable Mormon filter. Even though my basic personality and mothering style were old fashioned and Chris and I went to bed earlier and were quieter than many of our neighbors, I felt compelled to portray a Sandra Dee meets Martha Stewart meets Earth Muffin image. When the doorbell rang in the evening and I had a glass of wine poured, internal sirens blared in my head. I was like a running back, shoving my kids out of the way so I could hide the glass in a cabinet, grab a piece of gum, and fluff my hair before answering the door.

I worried the neighbors wouldn’t let their kids come over to play if we had a coffee maker on the  counter, beer in the refrigerator, or visible contraband of any kind. I was annoyed by the Mormon-ness of everyone, yet I desired to be liked. My efforts at a squeaky clean image were not completely disingenuous, because a part of me liked the idea, but that reality is a stretch for any person.

Trying to hide anything is exhausting. I felt tired, frustrated, and lonely. I wanted to “get it off me”—the feeling that I was in a place where I didn’t belong and that I couldn’t be me. The reality? Not one person shamed me for being me. These were my own self-imposed thoughts and restrictions.

Separation of Church and . . . Nothing
Once I fully understood and accepted that the Church was the hub of all social activities in Mayberry, I was able to loosen up and have fun at the soiree du jour. But it took a while. For instance, it was odd to me that almost all social events were church-driven, not neighborhood- or relationship-driven. As ward boundaries changed, so did relationships. It felt like an “It’s not you, it’s me” breakup. Women who initially befriended me drifted away when the boundary changed. My delusion was further fueled.

As much as I sometimes resented invitations to church activities, there were times within the first few years of our landing in Mayberry that I believed we were conspicuously excluded from events. I now know it was an innocent oversight—an LDS-specific event not appropriate for a nonmember—or a deliberate decision not to make us feel like the Church was smothering or trying to convert us. My husband had an experience with a man in our neighborhood who candidly said, “My wife and I struggle with when and how often to invite you guys to stuff. We don’t want you to feel like we’re going to sneak up behind you with a bucket of water and baptize you.”

I could sense the trepidation, and I felt slighted. I cried to my husband, “They don’t want us living here. They may not be throwing rocks at our house, but we’re not welcome.” Mormons couldn’t win. If they did invite us, I thought, You don’t reeeally want to be my friend; I’m just a missionary opportunity. If they didn’t, I told myself, We’re excluded again; it’s like The Amityville Horror and they’re hissing, “Get out.”

Everyone pretended like it didn’t matter if the answer was “yes” or “no” to the question “Are you LDS?” but the relevance was palpable, even if it was only a figment of my imagination.

I complained to my mother one day on the phone.

“I’m so lonely, Mom. I don’t know how much longer I can live here. I think I’m depressed.”

“Remember when your father and I lived in Venezuela? All I wanted was mustard on my sandwich. I couldn’t figure out how to say ‘mustard’ in Spanish. Even though I was in a beautiful place with interesting people, I was tired, lonely, and depressed. Know why? Culture shock, honey. You’re experiencing culture shock. I expected it in another country. You just didn’t see it coming.”

Mom was right. What at first seemed like interesting and understated differences in Mormon culture turned out to be just that: differences.

Moves are difficult. I’ve lived in six states; I’m familiar with move stress. Culture shock was new.

When in Rome
Time, patience, education, communication, and the willingness to make an effort all contributed to my finding acceptance as well as happiness in Mayberry. Culture shock ran its course while mutual trust and respect were earned. I came to realize that even though the Sesame Street song “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others” may have been true about one aspect of my existence in a small, Utah community, the rest of the things about all of us were human and very much “like the others.”

It was like a voice from above boomed, “Lighten up, Francis.” So I did. I began enjoying life, my neighbors, and some of the perks of my community.

Neighbor Gifts
It was Christmas 2002. The doorbell rang for at least the sixth time that evening. My parents were visiting from Arizona for our first Christmas in Utah.

“Is that another goodie?” asked Dad as I returned to the kitchen with an object in my hand.

“It’s an extension cord with a little rhyme on the note. They’re ‘extending’ their wishes for the merriest of Christmases to us. That is so creative.”

“An extension cord? Are you kidding me? I’ve never seen so much stuff. All those treats and odd items.” Dad motioned to the pantry shelf that was the placeholder for the neighbor gifts. “Do you know all these people?”
 
“Not really. But they’re so nice. My friend in Salt Lake City said when she first moved here, she wasn’t prepared for neighbor gifts either. She said now she has all of her gifts ready in a basket so she can pass them out when people come to her door. Kind of like Halloween. I had no idea how many people did this until a couple of days ago. It’s so fun!”

The doorbell rang again.

Dad said, “Quick. Run and get a jar of Vicks and put a bow on it.”



--
Chrisy Ross is the author of To Mormons, With Love (A Little Something from the New Girl in Utah), which is available at deseretbook.com. To learn more about her, visit chrisyross.com.

© LDS Living, November/December 2011.
Comments 22 comments

mountainmom08 said...

06:52 AM
on Dec 13, 2011

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Fabulous article! Great to hear it from a different perspective. Thank you for giving us the benefit of the doubt somewhere along the way! And I disagree that it would be an akward lunch - I would love to attend such a lunch as I believe it would be fascinating rather than akward!

outsideofut said...

07:08 AM
on Dec 13, 2011

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Happy to hear you ended up liking it there. We are not all that way. Outside of UT mormons are different. Great article!

kingmoosemt said...

08:10 AM
on Dec 13, 2011

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Hmmmm...sounds like a perfect case study for why Mormons need to spread out a bit!

petragalazio said...

08:35 AM
on Dec 13, 2011

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I think this is more of a Utah thing than a "Mormon" thing. We are LDS and when we moved to Utah from a state that generally votes Democrat and where our ward boundaries stretched across 65 miles, we also experienced a pretty big culture shock. In fact, there are many things LDS here think are "Church" that are really not doctrine at all. (For example, it's really, honestly OK to be a Democrat AND a Mormon...!) We finally mostly fit in (except for that not-a-Republican thing!) though, and I am glad you did too.

jpacker said...

08:49 AM
on Dec 13, 2011

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I love your dad... "get a jar of vicks and put a bow on it" - hilarious! Great insights, thanks for sharing. I have noticed that even members, including me, sometimes have the same feelings that you have shared. When I'm feeling left out I have also realized that it's my own thoughts that have created that delusion. I still don't know how to help others through it though and be a better neighbor. We have moved away from, and back to Utah a number of times and the first few times we experienced culture shock too. The first time, because we are members, I had to conclude that it was indeed culture shock. The realization helped me gear up for the subsequent moves. I guess we keep coming back because the perks of living here outweigh the adjustments. Thanks for sharing your experience. I love it when an author can be introspective and candid.

ktd said...

11:43 AM
on Dec 13, 2011

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Great Article! I too am a non-LDS woman and live in a predominately LDS neighborhood. It was quite diffrent at first but I've grown to love it. And neighbor gifts...AMAZING!!!

docrosko said...

11:47 AM
on Dec 13, 2011

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The LDS culture is a peculiar one indeed. Having lived in a predominant LDS area and now in the "mission field", I would have to say that I can identify with the article. I love the church and it's teaching, but the culture of many of parts of the high LDS population areas is not my cup of tea. I love living life outside the "Zion Curtain". My children have benefited from being raised where a Mormon is something different. I find it interesting as "Utah Mormons" visit our ward in the dead of winter and nearly faint when they see sisters in (gasp!!) pants. Maybe -20 windchill justifies said decision. I love it that I know bishops who were called after being a member only 5 years. Anytime a question came up, he went straight to the Church Handbook of Instructions because he didn't want to just guess. I love it that my ward covers 740 square miles, 14 towns and cities and that we have the chance to put forth effort and sacrifice to do our callings. I also like it that there is a quality university system (BYU) where I can send my kids to meet other LDS kids and where they can also experience the feeling of being part of a larger population of LDS kids who (hopefully) believe and act the same way my kids do. I find it sad that so many behind the "Zion's Curtain" refuse to allow growth in their lives by leaving their sheltered mountain valleys and experience life and influence "gentiles". Utah is beautiful, the people are kind, but frankly there are too many dang Mormons there to make it a place I would ever want to live or raise my family in. Just my two bits ... for what it is worth.

athomson007 said...

03:44 PM
on Dec 13, 2011

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I think Crisy Ross is just silly. I moved to Oklahoma a few years back and everytime I told people where I moved from, they would give me that look like, "Oh your one of those people." I even had a woman from a certain church that I won't name, Say, "Your going to Hell!" My point is, that I just laughed it off. None of this paranoid, oh they are coming to get me crap. If they wanted to be my friend I was and If not, Oh well!!! End of story!!

lvmom said...

08:36 PM
on Dec 13, 2011

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The issue I have is that the author says that all the activities were church driven and not community driven. That's because the church plans activities. Communities don't. I'm from Utah and now live outside Utah. No one has ever invited me to a community activity unless it's put on by a local business. Activities don't just spontaneously crop up. Someone has to plan it. Oh and someone should give her an additional warning that if she were to become a Mormon there is the chance she could be called to the activities committee and acutally help in the planning of all these myriad activities. Also, after reading the article I felt like saying, "Don't flatter yourself." But I don't think she can be talked out of believing that she is the "precious" and all those members are like Smeagol, hungry for her soul. I can just see it. Someone knocks at the door to invite her to Relief Society. She declines. She closes the door. "Honey, those damned mormons are after us again!" And she either goes to hide in the closet or just pretends to be upset so she can have fodder for articles and blogs. My advice to her: stay "the precious." If you become a Mormon, you will be a nameless soul in the sea on non-alcoholic parties.

jujuslc said...

10:00 AM
on Dec 14, 2011

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I think the article is honest, but still positive about the social dynamics here in UT. The church really is the community in most areas and drives most of the social activity. The piece got me thinking about how I interact with non-members and if there are things I can or should do to be more welcoming and interactive. Others I've shared this with have taken to heart some of the candid comments but also seemed to genuinely see the positive spirit of learning more about each other and coming together. A wonderful article, thank you so much for your insight and perspective. Can't wait to read the book!

hoosier said...

10:02 AM
on Dec 14, 2011

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Great article! Thank you, Ms. Ross for saying all of that out loud. I appreciate the laughs and the reminder that negotiating the cultural divide is hard for everyone - member and non-member alike.

tay0527 said...

10:15 AM
on Dec 14, 2011

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I'm also non-LDS, this article hit close to home. Loved it, amusing, and non offensive attitude that seems hard to find in our breed. (non LDS, living in an LDS world) : ) Great read!

hollyberry said...

10:21 AM
on Dec 14, 2011

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Great article! Having grown up in Utah as a member and now largely identifying as a non-member (thus, feeling like I've seen both sides of the equation), I found the author's insights to be spot-on. Unfortunately, far too often, those who are 'outsiders' of any organization wind up focusing on the negative and developing an 'us versus them' mindset. Hats off to Chrissy and her neighbors for instead turning the situation into a chance to grow and find the beauty in one another. I also appreciated the reminder that I better get busy on my neighbor gifts!

vagirlie said...

10:27 AM
on Dec 14, 2011

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I really love this article! I attended Rick's college, and was one of very few non-LDS members on campus. The term culture shock is perfect! Even though I'm no longer surrounded by Mormons, I do still count some members as my closest friends, and I look forward to sharing this article and the book with them! (PS - I wish the link to Chrisy's web site was an active link!)

steffijojo said...

10:31 AM
on Dec 14, 2011

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I love a writer who can both make me laugh and make me think. As a Utah Mormon, I hope I am being the kind of neighbor that a non-member would like to have, and I hope to meet many Chrisy's along the way...I'll take a genuine gal (with or without a glass of wine in her hand) any day!

ccannon said...

10:56 AM
on Dec 14, 2011

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Chrisy, thank you for your amazing article. You are a talented writer. I was touched with your honesty and ability to draw the reader (aka: me) in with your sense of humor and humility. What a beautiful person you are for enduring and being a genuinely kind and accepting human being. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints and was grateful to hear your perspective. I wish I lived closer so I could truly get to know you! Thanks for having the courage to share your unique experience that teaches so many about true friendship.

artie7 said...

11:18 AM
on Dec 14, 2011

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This is a well written, sensitive article that gives unique insight to the author's points of concern living among a huge population of LDS people. The generational LDS folks sometime have no clue or grace when interacting with their non-LDS neighbors or co-workers. In my view, only converts or the 100% Christ-focused LDS can truly understand her plight. As an LDS convert myself, having been raised outside of Utah, but also having the "Utah experience" raising my kids there, I am really glad to now be living outside of Utah again in a diverse community of many faiths, where every human being strives for the same basic needs for love and acceptance like everywhere else. Our community welcomes anyone who wants to give service to one another, no matter their choices of faith, gender or political choices, etc. When I start to "miss Utah" now and then, all I have to remember is not only the positive perks which were wonderful and appreciated, but the negative aspects as well that affected my family personally from time to time. For example, when I was working at BYU my 15 year old son was asked by security to leave the campus because his hair was shaggy and almost reaching his shoulders...the security employee told him his length of hair was not BYU standards. He had been walking with his friends on campus when this happened. I talked to the department head of security myself after this incident and he apologized profusely. But the damage was done to my impressionable son who kept growing his hair in spite (because that's what teens do), and before long, he was obviously no longer accepted among his LDS peers. He had no LDS friends. This was the singular reason why we had to get out of Utah. LDS culture is indeed quirky to those outside of the faith, but all I know in my heart is that we are all here on earth having a human experience and the LDS are often naively insensitive to the non-LDS in many ways. If there is any sort of connection to the author on her insights, it is that her LDS neighbors are trying their best to reach out because of their neighborly love and care for her but understand that it is their important duty taught in the faith to share the Plan of Salvation. I do believe that LDS folks need frequent reminders to not judge others because of their long hair (boys)or otherwise don't fit into the mold, and simply ask, "What would Jesus do?" BTW, my son was readily accepted in our new Ward outside of Utah and he eventually cut his hair and rediscovered his handsomeness the same time.

ljraveney said...

01:57 AM
on Dec 15, 2011

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What a wonderful article. :) I was surprised to read a comment that stated communities don't plan activities. I am blessed to live in a community that plans many activities for the benefit of all. These are community dinners, parties, festivals, charitable fundraisers, interfaith holiday celebrations, service projects, art shows, and many other such events. Although I feel that my community is certainly above-average in inclusiveness and involvement, I have never lived in an area that is as utterly devoid of it as some may believe.

leecrites said...

10:38 AM
on Dec 15, 2011

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Back in the 2002 timeframe (long before BLOG sites like this were available), I wrote an article similar to this, except it was how a non-Utah LDS Church member survived in Utah -- the "culture shock" is, in many ways, just as significant. My point was this: People in Utah are as friendly as anywhere I have ever lived (currently in my 41st location). But they just don't understand what it means to be a FRIEND. With family and church activities, there is little, if any, time for outside friendships. We realized that before we were "truly accepted," one of our kids would have to marry into one of the "established families." That didn't happen because we moved (once again) back to take care of my parents. I still look back on the decade we lived in Utah (three places) as being good, and would move back again. But this time, the culture shock wouldn't be an issue.

reganbutler said...

07:33 AM
on Mar 14, 2012

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It is true that the LDS culture outside of Utah is very different and more accepting of differences. My daughter just moved to Zion from "the mission field" and it has been a miserable experience. She is an active LDS young adult and is so lonely and isolated. She is appalled with the way her colleagues at the hospital treat their non-LDS associates. The non-members have tried to explain to my daughter how they want to have friends but once someone finds out they are not LDS and don't want to convert there are no more attempts to befriend.

carolanne said...

10:35 AM
on May 15, 2012

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#1 - those words that appear to single out those not interested in actually responding are just terrible. Took me many times to get them right. #2 - I'm a Christian and I believe Mormonism is a cult. Don't know if you do. However, don't you feel concerned that your children will become invovled with a Mormon and be forced into conversion? I woudn't put my kids in that danger.

etude said...

02:10 AM
on Jul 23, 2013

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OH THANK YOU for writing this article!!! I am you! This answers so many questions for me and validates what I was feeling inside. These people don't really want to be our friends. It feels like a parking ticket quota. It sucks that they are SO nice because that is such a rare trait these days. All we want is to actually TRUST someone and share our thoughts, experiences, and good times together. No one really wants to be sucked into a lifestyle/ belief system that they don't agree with. Bless you and countless thanks for being honest enought to come out with this valuable TRUTH and comment on society! You have done a great service (but not a mission ; )
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