I have been actively a part of the SSA community in Salt Lake for seven years now and I’ve been active in the church for twelve. I’d like to make a comparison between the two communities as a whole. I want to state now that this is in no way an attack on the church, its teachings, leaders, doctrine or organization. This is just more my observation of the culture. Think of me as the Jane Goodall of Salt Lake.
I had the privilege to attend the Northstar Christmas Fireside last Sunday almost directly after church, so my comparison was really easy to make. I’ve lived in my current ward for just over a year, and through my own preconceived notions and concepts I carry around me and own for myself, I just haven’t been able to make any friends there. There are a couple people who say hi to me when they see me, mainly the bishopric and the elders quorum presidency, but besides that I keep to myself, sketching Disney villains in the back while half listening to the lessons.
At the fireside on the other hand, before and after, I found myself maneuvering through the crowd, grabbing friends in bear hugs and catching up on faces I hadn’t seen in a while. I remember watching people walk in beforehand and having thoughts like, “Ooh there’s Randy! I must tell him about sign language class,” and, “Oh I like Pret’s tie, I need to ask him where he got it,” and being genuinely happy to see my friends, some of whom have been with me every step of my journey.
So why am I drawn to the fireside and not the ward? Here’s my thing: in the times I’ve talked to my fellow ward members or overheard conversations they’ve had with each other, I just can’t find things all that engaging about them to talk about. To me they always feel like characters in a sitcom, just empty characters you can describe in a couple sentences and whose little quirks can be worked into an episode for a running gag. My ward happens to sport a guy in love with argyle, and a ward secretary who claims to be romantically involved with his own mustache. If they’re not trying out for a bland sitcom then they just don’t exhibit any real personality at all, like they’ve been hired by the bishop to take up space.
And again, yes, I own that this is my observation and I’m fully aware that, if I took the time to tie one of these people down, I could dig past their facade of blandness or one-liners and find a beautiful child of our Heavenly Father with a rich background full of ideas and yadda yadda yadda, but that’s kind of where I’m going. In order for me to get to the golden center of these people, I have to dig. I have to peel away the layer of blandness and quirky before I see anything that’s authentic with these people. That’s my big critique. We’ve built this culture where one must hide who one really is in order to blend in at church, be just like everyone else while remembering that you’re not perfect and that nobody else is either. It’s like going to a Halloween party where everyone’s been asked to be in character. It may be fun to talk to Frankenstein’s monster but if you want to have a conversation about what’s happening to oil prices, you’re probably going to be out of luck. What’s worse is when a metaphorical child walks into the room where everyone’s pretending and the kid isn’t let in on the joke, he could actually believe that he’s walked in on his own nightmare. The real-world equivalent to this is someone who doesn’t understand that everyone is putting on the bland facade and really is a person, thus questioning his own person-hood. He doesn’t see people at church, he sees background people and sitcom stars. I had this problem when I was younger. I thought I was bad somehow because I actually felt things nobody talked about at church, and I liked to read science fiction and fantasy. I didn’t understand that they were just like me underneath their shells, so I believed there was something wrong with me.
Back to the fireside. I feel a deep connection with a lot of the people that were there, even those I’ve known less than a year, because when meeting them, there seems to be this great equalizer of “You struggle with SSA, well me too!” After that, authenticity is easy to come by. I know what Blake is dealing with or what Stephen’s got going on, and they know what I deal with, so the whole need to pretend that everything’s okay just isn’t there. It’s replaced with a loving brotherhood of understanding and concern. Some may say that it’s sad that I can get this love and brotherhood from an SSA event and not priesthood, but I say at least it can be found anywhere at all!
So a critique is just whining without at least an idea on how to solve the problem so here’s my want: I want to see the elders quorum bringing down their shields a little. I want an open discussion on what’s going on with the men and how the quorum can help. I know the bishopric and EQP have these, but how much more help could be offered if it could be brought up before the whole quorum? And how would it feel to hear that guy in the corner talk about how he struggles with some of the same things you struggle with? Then maybe with the facade broken, the walls down, the elders quorum could feel like a band of brothers, serving Christ, and magnifying His priesthood, rather than another room of empty smiles.