Showing posts with label LDS Church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LDS Church. Show all posts

Monday, March 11, 2013

Re-reading Under The Banner of Heaven

          I have stated multiple times that I was in my mid-twenties when I found out that Joseph Smith had married multiple women, including teenagers and women who already had husbands. Although this is technically true, I find that my story of enlightenment about Mormon history is considerably more complex than I had realized. It is true that I did not learn these facts in church. While re-reading Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
, I discovered that these facts were hidden in plain sight, if only I had taken the time to look. 
          The first time I read “Under The Banner of Heaven”, I was in college and only a few years out of Mormonism. I remember reading the gory details of this book – the tangled messes of polygamous families, the horrible downslide of the Lafferty brothers, and the devastating murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter – and dismissing them as having nothing to do with the mainstream Mormon church that I grew up in. My primary reflex was to dismiss anything to do with polygamy as being not-really-Mormon. My secondary reflex was to dismiss any account of Mormon history written by a non-Mormon. These reflexes were there in spite of the fact that by that time I was an atheist who had made the conscious decision to leave the Mormon Church.
          On page 5, Jon Krakaeur states

“The religious literature handed out by the earnest young missionaries in Temple Square makes no mention of the fact that Joseph Smith – still the religion’s focal personage – married at least thirty-three women and probably as many as forty-eight. Nor does it mention that the youngest of these wives was just fourteen years old when Joseph explained to her that God had commanded that she marry him or face eternal damnation.”

          I did read this book when I was younger and yet the details about Mormon history, including Joseph Smith’s polygamous past and some of the more violent aspects of the early teachings, went straight over my head. There were a lot of details that I missed the first time around – the full import of the early teachings about polygamy, the more unsavory aspects of the early leaders, the connection between the early teachings about polygamy and modern Mormon fundamentalists, and the brutality of the blood atonement taught by Brigham Young. The first time reading this book, I ignored the history because it didn't agree with the lessons I grew up with. I also think that I ignored the history because I needed to protect myself. It is not an easy task to examine the short-comings of the religion you grew up with.
          The truth is, reading this book was an uncomfortable experience. There was a lot that was familiar, even within the story of the Lafferty boys. I was raised with a pretty literal interpretation of Mormonism; my father is the type of person who takes the words of the leaders at face value. The visions and revelations of the fundamentalists described in this book are eerily similar to the visions and revelations described by the early leaders. Within this book are the stories of people that took the words of the early Mormon leaders in a very literal sense and twisted them into a violent conclusion.
          I too was raised to take the words of the leaders at face value; to recognize that commonality, no matter how different I may be, is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling.
          Nowadays, the Mormon leaders are very careful about what history they do and do not teach. The majority of Mormons, including the ones I grew up with, are just people that are trying to live a good life according to the standards expected of them. The majority of them will live decent, upstanding lives. No one talks about polygamy anymore and the more radical teachings of the early leaders are being buried under a carefully constructed amnesia. But the words of the leaders are, according to the Mormon teachings, the words of God himself. This is the lesson I learned. This is also the lesson that the Lafferty boys learned.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Mormon Family's Finances

          Recently Bloomberg BusinessWeek published an investigative piece titled "How the Mormons Make Money", written by Caroline Winter.  The Mormon Church is very secretive about their finances; they refuse to publish their financial accounts even to members.  BusinessWeek’s conclusion was that the Mormon Church is very, very rich, with an estimated $40 billion in net worth and $8 billion in annual tithing revenue.  The article also outlined the Mormon Church’s business structure, listing all of the church’s for-profit ventures, which include a $5 billion dollar project aimed at revitalizing downtown Salt Lake City, real estate ventures, insurance holdings, among many others.  Although there was little in this article that surprised me, there is a heavy feeling in my chest as I compare the enormous wealth of the Mormon Church to the very modest - often desperate - financial accounts of my own family.  Although my family’s financial decisions were made of their own free will and they offered tithing out of love for their church, I am considerably saddened when I pause to think that their hard-earned money is funding the business ventures of the Mormon Church.  I was even more saddened to read that the Mormon Church only devotes an estimated 0.7% of their annual wealth to charitable ventures.  
          My parents were both converts; they joined the Mormon Church in their late twenties.  At the time, they had three children; my father was a gunsmith, my mother was a housewife.  My parents were poor.  But in the Mormon Church, there is a strong emphasis on large families - in 1979, three years after my parents joined, the prophet Spencer W Kimball went on record saying “It is an act of extreme selfishness for a married couple to refuse to have children when they are able to do so.”1  
          My parents were obedient and had another four children, the last of which was me.  Their financial situation became more and more desperate as they obeyed the dictates of their religion.  To feed the family, they raised chickens, pigs, cows, and had a large vegetable garden.  I was lucky - my mother went back to school after I was born and became a special education teacher.  By the time I was eight, my mother’s income meant that my family no longer had to worry about where the next meal was coming from.  My parents’ battle to lift themselves out of poverty was ultimately successful but was also brutally hard, as my mother had to juggle the demands of a large family, her school-work, and various part-time jobs.  
          During these financial struggles, my parents always paid their tithing.  Every year the Mormon Church received from my parents 10% of an income that wasn’t enough to feed a family.  There is a strong emphasis within the Church to pay tithing first; leaders promise that if an individual has enough faith, the Lord will provide.  And the Church did give back; when times were desperate, the local leaders stepped in to donate food.  Sometimes members would also pitch in, donating food and helping with babysitting.  In return, my family has also done their part.  The Mormon Church is composed of a lay clergy - the majority of positions are filled by unpaid volunteers.  My father worked for years as the ward clerk, keeping track of membership records.  Now that he has retired, he volunteers his time at the church’s family history center and the Palmyra temple.  My parents also volunteer their time and skills to help members in need.  One of my brothers is now the bishop for his ward; in addition to his full-time job, he volunteers an extra 20+ hours a week tending to the spiritual and practical needs of his congregation.  He is in the third year of what should be a five-year stint.  
          When I was fifteen, my oldest brother had a financial crisis.  He was building a house to replace his run-down trailer when he lost his job as a trucker.  My brother and his family was forced to move in with my parents while he worked full-time to finish his house.  My parents were faced with the burden of feeding five extra mouths, as well as financing the construction of a house.  I woke up every morning with a pit in my stomach, which was only heightened by the sight of the tithing checks sitting on my parent’s dresser, made out for an amount I knew we couldn’t afford.  
          To the ward’s credit, everyone pitched in to help out my brother.  Members volunteered time, coming every Saturday to help my brother build his house.  My brother also received weekly donations of food from the Church Welfare services.  The Relief Society stepped in one time, accompanying my mother to the grocery store and giving her $100 to buy food.  There was a strong sense of community within the ward as they tackled my brother’s crisis.  And yet, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the help received was in the form of volunteer work.  Even in a very dire circumstance, the local ward had few financial resources available to help members in need.  This was in spite of my parents’ monthly tithing donations, along with the tithing contributions of other members.  The policy is for tithing to be wired directly to Church headquarters, a small amount of which is returned to the local ward for assisting members in need.  
          My family pays tithing because they believe in their church.  And while I don’t want to impinge upon their beliefs, I do want to see the Mormon Church treat my family’s sacrifices with respect.  The Mormon Church refuses to release their financial records.  My family has worked so hard over the years to pay their tithing; why won’t the Mormon Church respect their sacrifices by telling them how their money is being used?  

1 Spencer W Kimball, “Fortify Your Homes Against Evil”.  General Conference Address, April 1979.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Excess In Moderation

          My up-bringing taught me to fear the outside world.  Coffee, tea, alcohol, sleeveless shirts, premarital sex - all were considered to be very serious offenses against God.  When I left Mormonism, I had little to rely on as a guide to right or wrong.  I associated fear and shame with actions that mainstream culture accepted.  And so I found myself navigating a strange road as I examined my own internal values.  
          I have never been a wild personality; I am not one for partying or crazy stunts.  Even as a freshman in college, out of my parents’ home for the first time in my life, I was still tame by the standards of my peers.  There were some drunken escapades that we laughed about afterwards but overall, I was a student who spent most of her time in the library studying.  My evolution was slow and a practice in studied moderation; I didn’t want to be defined by what I did and did not do.  As a Mormon, I had been defined by what was considered sin.  As a post-Mormon, I did not want to be defined by what I no longer considered to be sin.  
          So my experimentation was gradual.  I started with cursing, to vocalize my emotional turmoil.  I was eighteen when I wore my first tank top; the feeling of a breeze on my shoulders was both foreign and liberating.  My first beer was Keystone Light, at a frat party my first week of college.  I hated the watery horse-piss taste of Keystone but later discovered I loved hefty beers such as Guinness and Young’s.  Coffee was a delightful surprise, as I discovered the joys of well-brewed coffee (the discovery of which coincided with the joys of romance).  Intimacy was harder, as I was very shy and had never been taught proper boundaries.  But contrary to all of the dire threats I grew up with, I learned to navigate my sexuality in a safe and respectful manner.  And when I did meet my husband, our pasts were simply something that added depth to our character.  My mother was quite distraught when we moved in together but living together before marriage was important to my own personal values.  I view marriage - and family - as commitments that should not be entered without careful reflection and research.  
          Bit by bit, I sampled the different options available to me.  Over the years, I have evolved into a beer-drinking, coffee-sipping woman who believes in taking responsibility for your actions.  As long as no one gets hurt, the choices of an individual should be respected and allowed.   
          I enjoy excess - in moderation. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Coffee Love Story

          I was raised to believe that drinking coffee was a sin.  No one in my family touched the black liquid; to bring coffee into my home would have been sufficient to spark a small war.  Having never been exposed to coffee, the very smell was enough to make me feel queasy.  Even after leaving the church, I stayed away from drinking coffee.  Sometimes, when I was cramming for exams and needed the caffeine, I would drink large cups of badly brewed coffee, which was sufficient to convince me that coffee wasn’t anything to get excited about.  If I needed the caffeine, I stuck with my standard Diet Coke.  
          And then I met a boy.  I was at a party when I struck up a conversation with a grad student in engineering.  He was funny and smart and we talked for hours as the party slowly died down around us.  He gave me his number and I resolved to call him again.  Which I did.  I called him, we talked, and we decided to meet for a coffee.  He picked me up after work and took me to his favorite coffee-shop.  
          This was not just any coffee shop.  This was a special coffee shop, with some of the highest standards in the industry.  The beans are ethically sourced and roasted locally by a master with years of experience.  The coffee is then prepared by baristas that have gone through months of rigorous training in order to pull a single shot.  The result is an espresso that is rich and earthy, with a beautiful caramel crema. 
          We talked for hours as I savored my coffee.  My horizons opened up, both by this new realization of the art of coffee as well as my conversation with a man who was raised by a single mother in India.  He told me about the trials of growing up in a highly orthodox Brahmin family while I told him about the trials of growing up in a highly conservative Mormon family.  We discovered a commonality in our experience that transcended cultural barriers.  Here was another person who had challenged his up-bringing and in so doing, had become more open-minded, more tolerant, more aware of humanity in all its glorious diversity.  I sensed I was on the verge of something spectacular.  
          Six years later and I find myself married to the same man that introduced me to good coffee.  There have been challenges of the sort that are inherent when two stubborn, strong-willed people from two very different cultures choose to get married.  But in-between these struggles have been a lot of good times.  We have shared a lot of laughter and had a lot of conversations that have challenged my view of the world around me.  I have a partner that makes me laugh, that reminds me to stop taking life so seriously, whose smile lights up the room.  More than that, I have a partner who understands the trials of walking a different path in life. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Holy Ghost Or Instinct?

          My junior year of college I lived in a sketchy area; at least, what passes for sketchy in a sleepy university town.  My apartment was right next to a run-down building that housed a constant influx of people.  There was always some sort of a disturbance involving the police; my roommates and I called it the crack house.  
          One of the men that lived in the house liked to sit on the porch during the day and hit on every woman that walked by.  He hit on me a couple times and was very persistent; he physically blocked the sidewalk, preventing me from just walking past him.  He also did the same to my roommate Dana* and to the girlfriend of my roommate Steve*.  I thought of the guy as being a nuisance but not as a threat.  Nevertheless, I always crossed the street if I saw him sitting on the porch.  
          Then one evening I was walking home after a study session in the library.  I was pre-occupied about my test the next day, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark shape rising toward me.  The shape was that of my neighbor, who had been sitting on his darkened porch.  His sudden appearance surprised me as he stood on the sidewalk in front of me, blocking my way.  He made a motion as if to grab my hand; there was a manic look on his face that terrified me.  
          My heart almost stopped at the sight of my neighbor coming out of nowhere.   Then I got angry; I didn’t want to deal with his behavior.  And so, in a very quick motion, I said “I am not interested in this.” and held up the back of my hand, creating a wall between my person and his.  I am rarely that forthright or that quick to action.  But I had seen this man’s behavior before and his actions on that dark night frightened me. 
          I then walked to my house as fast I could.  The short distance to my front door seemed interminable; I was aware of every step crunching on the gravel driveway, every dark shadow.  My hands were shaking as I fumbled for my keys, trying to get into the apartment as fast as I was able.  For several hours, I paced my empty apartment, all thoughts of my test forgotten.  Finally I went to sleep, hoping to forget about the matter. 
          I woke up the next morning, the incident still rattling around in my brain.  I was still shaken and annoyed that my neighbor had caused such turmoil.  I resolved to do something about the matter, even if for no other reason than to feel empowered.
          That evening I called the police to report the incident.  A police officer came to my apartment and I described my neighbor’s behavior.  Since there had been no physical contact, there was little the police officer could do.  He was patient with me but I could tell he thought my complaint was a waste of his time.  He took my complaint and then he left.  
          About an hour later, the police officer called me. 
          “I just wanted to warn you.” he said.  “There was an incident yesterday afternoon; there was an attempted sexual assault just a couple blocks from your home.  The police haven’t made any arrests yet but the prime suspect is your neighbor.”  
          My neighbor was arrested a few days later for the attempted sexual assault of a girl about my age.  My testimony of my neighbor’s behavior, along with my roommates’, helped the police garner enough evidence for the man to be called in for a police lineup, allowing the victim to identify my neighbor.  The attempted assault happened just hours before I encountered my neighbor on my way home; I get the chills just thinking about what could have happened that night.   
          There are two possible interpretations of this story --- the Mormon way and the post-Mormon way.  If I were a faithful Mormon, I would be telling the story one way --- I would describe how the Holy Ghost had protected me from this man.  I would say that the Holy Ghost had prompted me to quick action; I might even say that the Holy Ghost had created a stupor in my neighbor’s mind, preventing him from following me to my apartment.  If I were really sanctimonious, I might even think that the reason the other girl was assaulted and I wasn’t was due to the gift of the Holy Ghost.
          But I am not a Mormon.  And so, my telling of this story is a little different.  I had a creepy neighbor, one whose actions made me uncomfortable.  When he rose up out of that darkened porch to block my way on that winter evening, I reacted quickly because the situation was very scary.  I also had prior knowledge of my neighbor’s behavior, knowledge that the other girl did not.  All of my human instincts were warning me to get away as quickly as possible.  I listened to those instincts and removed myself from the situation in a decisive manner.  
          I was lucky; I think my quick action surprised my neighbor enough that I was able to get away from him.  And I like the second interpretation of my story better than the first interpretation.  The first version assumes a dependence on the good-will of a fickle Spirit.  The second version is one in which I followed my instincts and got myself out of a dangerous situation.  
*Names have been changed

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Every Member A Missionary

          The one inviolable tenet of Mormonism is the idea that the Mormon Church is the "one and only true Church" on Earth.  This fact is the driving force behind the aggressive proseletyzing efforts; Mormons believe that the Mormon Church is the only avenue to Heaven.  To bolster conversion rates, every young man is expected to serve a two-year proseletyzing mission.  The pressure to serve a mission is very intense; the young women of the church are instructed not to date men that haven't served missions.  

          In addition to full-time missions, members are expected to use their relationships with non-members in order to boost conversion.  The idea is that "every member is a missionary" and should be on the look-out to promote the Church.   To this effect, my peers and I availed ourselves of every possible opportunity to invite friends to youth activities.  Most of the time, our friends would come to the activities but say no to conversion.  A few of them were baptized; some remained in the church, others became inactive after a few months. My father was also very vigilant about trying to convert people; sooner or later he would try to give every non-member friend a Book of Mormon.  Most of the time, he ended up alienating potential friends with his excessive zeal.

          This attitude of members that every person needs to be Mormon is part kindness, part arrogance.  Kindness because members want non-members to be happy and think that they need Mormonism to attain happiness.  Arrogance because members believe that their way of life is superior to others.  At church, I felt uncomfortable by the attitude that non-members were lost and confused.  Our entire culture was built around the idea that we were the only people with the truth and that we needed to spread the truth to world at large.  

          By promoting this idea of "every member a missionary", relationships between members and non-members are fraught with the tension of potential conversion.  Some members are able to maintain respectful interfaith relationships.  Others aren't.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Mall, A Church, And The Misuse Of My Parents’ Tithing

          There is a new mall in downtown Salt Lake City called City Creek Center.  This mall is, from what I have heard, a very nice mall.  Adjacent to Temple Square and built to revitalize the downtown area, City Creek Center offers shopping, as well business and residential space.1  
          Normally I could care less about a mall in Salt Lake City.  I think Utah is a gorgeous state, blessed with an abundance of natural beauty.  However, my kind are not welcome in Utah and so I stay away.  But the issue is this: City Creek Center was financed and built by the Mormon Church to the tune of 5 billion dollars.  That’s right.  A tax-free organization financed by the charitable donations of church members decided to spend billions of dollars building a shopping mall.2  
          I found out about the City Creek Center about six months ago.  And every time I think about the issue, I start getting angry.   My parents are faithful tithing payers.  Every year, they give 10% of their pre-tax income to the Mormon church.  Tithing comes before food, bills, and everything else.  As a kid, I saw first-hand just how much my parents had to struggle to pay tithing and feed a huge family.  No matter how desperate times got (and there were some very, very desperate times) my parents have always paid their tithing. And my parents have complete faith in the Mormon Church.  They pay their tithing trusting that the Mormon church will put their hard-earned money to good use.  
          And how does the Mormon church treat their members?  Well, to start with, the Mormon church has never published their financial reports.  They take my parents’ money but they don’t have the courtesy to tell them how they use the money.  And now I find that my parents’ contributions are being funneled into the creation of a mall in Salt Lake City.  
          If that isn’t enough to turn me into the stereotypical “angry apostate”, there is also the issue of Church janitorial services.  The Mormon Church used to pay for people to clean their churches.  When I was little and my family was extremely poor, my mother used to work as the church janitor.  Sometimes my sister and I would come to work with her; we would sleep in one of the classrooms while my mother worked through the night cleaning the church.  Now the Church has decided they can no longer afford to pay for janitors.  Members are now expected to pitch in and volunteer time to clean their church building.  So not only is the Mormon Church dropping a whole bundle of money on a mall in Salt Lake City, in order to cut costs they have now decided to add an extra burden to their already over-worked members.  
          My parents have given so much to the Mormon Church.  Over the years they have paid tithing, paid to send their children on missions, given fast offerings, and put  in countless volunteer hours.  Now they are approaching retirement with little more than Social Security and my mother’s school-teacher pension.  They have given everything they have to the Mormon Church.  I wish that my parents had the courage to stand up for themselves; their sacrifices should be given meaning by the Church.  But my parents won’t.  They have spent too many years being indoctrinated by a church that forbids dissension of any sort, however justified the dissent may be.