Sunday, May 10, 2009

Church #19: Cherry Grove Mormon (LDS)

I continue to be amazed by something I keep finding over and over again in the churches I have visited—that which unites them is more common than that which divides them. I had no idea what to expect when I stepped foot in the Mormon Church. I basically knew three things about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

1) One of my best friends in graduate school was Mormon, and he was one of the nicest guys I have ever known. Very normal. Very funny. Very kind. And very … Mormon. Mormons get picked on quite a bit, but I have always had a difficult time thinking Mormons were “abnormal” because my graduate school friend was such a good guy.

2) Mormons ride around on bicycles wearing white dress shirts, dark ties, and giant name tags.

3) In preparation for my visit, I did a little research to figure out where to go, what day and time they met, and where I could get one of those giant name tags.

HELLO, MY NAME IS STEVE!

It was then that I learned about “wards.” From what I understand, Mormons are assigned a church based on where they live. If I live in Norwood, then I attend the Norwood Ward. (Say that five times fast.) I could not attend the Milford Ward, even if I liked that service better. I suppose this means Mormons don't really “plant” churches. Locations are strategically positioned to accommodate that area's population.

I attended the Cherry Grove Ward near my parents’ house on the east side of town at 1:00 pm, but interestingly enough, a different ward (the Eastgate Ward) uses the same building at 9:00 am. I have no idea how strictly this rule is enforced, but legality seems pretty important to Mormons.

In fact, when I walked into the building and found my seat, two people approached me. One said hello and shook my hand. The other asked me if Cherry Grove was my ward. Unless I did the research, I would have had no idea what she was talking about. Luckily, I understood the question and told her it was not. She asked if I was visiting, and I said yes. Finally, she asked if I had someplace to go for dinner.

Ummm … was she inviting me to her house for dinner? If so, it was either the nicest gesture ever … or the creepiest. Not sure which.

The main room looked like a conference room with pews. It reminded me of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. No art, no pictures, very little color, and absolutely no religious symbols. There were about three hundred seats, including fiftyish folding chairs near the back of the room (where I sat). Almost every seat was taken. Most men were in suits, but there was one guy in shorts and a polo shirt. 99 percent of the crowd was white, and there was a healthy mix of young and old. Without a doubt, there were more children at the Mormon service than any other stop thus far.

Let’s pause here for a moment and chat.

Children. Cute little buggers. Cute, but loud. Especially in this particular Mormon Church. It was interesting how much emphasis the Mormon Church seems to place on the family. In fact, this Sunday was called “Family Sunday.” (Not sure what it means. Maybe they don’t do their version of Sunday school, and instead, invite the children into the adult service?) Either way, there were lots of kids, and they were so incredibly loud that it became comical.

It seemed like there was a competition to see which child could make the most noise. And there was a fifty-way tie for first place. More on that later.

For me, the service had two layers. Layer one was what happened on stage, which is probably similar to what happens every week.

The service (called Sacrament) began with announcements from a man who could not have had less enthusiasm if he tried. Pretty basic stuff. Pretty boring.

Next, a hymn and a prayer. During the second hymn, two teenage boys prepared communion while we sang. Ushers came forward to collect the bread and pass it out to the congregation. After everyone had their bread, then came the … water? Pause button.

Water? What’s up with that? I understand that many churches offer grape juice, but water? I have never understood the idea of taking communion with anything other than wine. Especially in denominations that are so strict about religious rituals. Jesus used wine, so we use … water? Or grape juice? Odd.

It was also odd to not have any music during communion. This might have been the first time I have ever experienced that, and it was awkward. Instead of the sweet sounds of a piano or guitar, I was serenaded by the chorus of a few dozen whiny children. (I like kids. I really do. But I could barely understand what anyone was saying because it was so loud.)

The message was from one of the Elders—a young guy that looked no older than twenty. He was about to leave for a two-year mission trip to California (which I believe all Mormons must do). His message was extremely dry. He pretty much just read from a piece of paper, stumbling over many words along the way.

It got much better near the end when he talked about his mother. He even shed a few tears as he discussed how much his mom loved and supported him growing up. The emotion seemed genuine, and it was nice feeling like the Mormon Church emphasizes family.

But …

A woman spoke later in the service and mentioned she had “lost” her son because he rejected the Mormon Church and his family. I wonder how often religion tears families apart. I thought about the irony of “Family Sunday.” Is the family unit only strong when children believe what their parents believe? When religion splits families apart (regardless of denomination), it must break God’s heart.

That leads me into the second layer of my visit.

While everything was happening up front (which, frankly, was pretty boring), there was a mother and her young child sitting directly in front of me. She was the third person to greet me when I sat down, and from that moment forward, her interactions with her little boy mesmerized me. They were the reason I ended up at Cherry Grove’s Ward of the Mormon Church on Mother’s Day. While other children cried and screamed, for the most part, her son was well-behaved. Not because she was forceful or demanding, but because she seemed to have a loving rapport with him. From the stage, people talked about loving mothers. Two feet in front of me, I got to witness it firsthand.

I later learned their names were Marie and Jake. Jake held up four fingers to tell me his age. As he squirmed in his seat, he also fell backwards into my lap, forward onto his head, and made exactly one farting sound that I am pretty sure the people around us thought originated in my bowels.

Marie was so good with him—patient and gentle. Her actions were more a message of God’s love than anything said from the stage. Or written in this book. Or, for that matter, any book.

It helped me realize the most important thing I could do on Mother’s Day had nothing to do with the Church Experiment. My mom was waiting for me, and I wanted to spend a few hours with the woman who sacrificed so much so I could live such a blessed life.

The service closed with a hymn and a prayer. Seventy-five total minutes. With a few exceptions, it sounded no different from a regular Christian service. Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon were mentioned a few times. I don’t know much about either, other than Smith supposedly walked into the woods one day and had a spiritual encounter that led to the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I have heard lots of bad things about Mormons, but Sunday, I encountered many decent people just trying to make life work. It reminded me of the other eighteen churches I have visited thus far.

You realize that which unites us is pretty strong when you get to know people instead of stereotypes.

I knew going in that after the regular church service, Mormons have a Bible study, and then (if I read it correctly), they split up into same-sex groups to discuss … who knows what. The meetings were scheduled to last about forty minutes each, but at the end of the service, no one gave any directions for guests. I had no idea where to go or what to do. They didn’t even mention the existence of a Bible study or men’s meeting. That, coupled with the idea that I could spend two more hours in church or two more hours with my mom on Mother’s Day, and the choice was easy. I said goodbye to Marie and Jake and bolted for the door. My Mormon experience came to a close, and I was off to eat lunch and watch baseball with my parents.

A few closing thoughts:

If you are neglecting your family to spend more time at church, stop it. If you have lost relationships with loved ones because of your religion, now is a great time to reconnect.

Literally, as I typed that last sentence, I am watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and these words were just spoken by Benjamin:

“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit; stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same; there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

I couldn’t have possibly said it better myself. That feels like a good way to end this week’s reflection.

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