Monday, February 25, 2008

Some Observations on Bearded Mormons (seen any lately?)

I was corresponding today with my good friend Toby, and he made an interesting observation: "I'm suprised to see that you've grown a nice-looking goatee. I thought the church didn't allow facial hair. I don't think that I've ever seen a Mormon with facial hair before." I gave him this short answer: "I had to laugh about the goatee. The short answer is that, yes, we can wear facial hair, but there seems to be a bias against it (throwback from the 60's counterculture movement?), so most of us don't. I remember Matt D'Errico calling me a Quaker Mormon, and I sometimes wonder if, at least in terms of grooming, norms of mission life and BYU's dress code set people up within the church to use dress and grooming in a similar way to early Quakers or Amish folk [i.e., not as a deliberate marker of difference, but one that evolves over time into a defining characteristic of a people]. I think it's easy for members to take wearing facial hair to mean that a person is "not with the program." Who knows? All I know is that my face is just that much warmer in the winter. Besides, I like that it makes some people feel a bit on edge that one of their local leaders doesn't follow the unwritten rules of piety that we seem to make that have little to do with living a truly Christian life."

As I continued reflecting, I think the real answer got to be a bit more complex. I think I'm getting to be less, rather than more, conformant with age, and I must have a need to draw attention to myself. I'll explain. When we lived in Salt Lake while I went to the U of U, I was the ward clerk and got to spend a lot of time working with our bishop, a guy who only wears bow ties. In his way, he was thumbing his nose at the system and taking a stand as an individual, and I liked that. So, I started exploring little ways to find the "me" within my personal life (You would think I would know how to do that as a 30-something with a fair amount of book learning, but it's surprising how few of us do). So as a for instance in this personal search, I decided to really embrace the fact that I still really enjoy Legos for personal reasons, and not just because they would make a good toy to play with my kiddies in the future. It also occurred to me that, while I wouldn't wear a bow tie all the time, I might enjoy wearing one on occasion, so I bought a tie or two. Then Hallie and I took our trip to Newfoundland, Canada, about a year and a half ago, and our luggage got delayed for a few days. Once we got our luggage, I decided to shine on shaving because I already had some growth going, and it was a vacation after all. So, I thought I'd keep it going once I got home. For the last two years, I've been pulling a Wally Bogguss (high school science teacher) and shaving for half the year and letting the goatee come to play for the other half.

I definitely get some varied responses from church members as a result of wearing a goatee. Most don't know quite what to do with me, because while there is no official policy regarding facial hair, there is a strong cultural bias against it. None of the big-wigs has gone bearded for over 50 years, and missionaries have a dress code (no facial hair), as does BYU (no beards, neatly trimmed moutaches are OK). By the time anyone who is raised in the church gets around to having the ability to grow a beard, it gets taken as a sign of rebellion. I think it's funny. So, I guess I just decided that having the goatee was my business as I continue to get to know who I am on the inside.

I think the big reason we don't see more Mormons with beards is that there does exist a strong cultural bias against facial hair among White, multi-generation (typically living in or with relatives in Utah, Idaho, or Arizona) Mormons, but the bias does not reflect in church policy (go on, check the handbook). Having a beard, for instance, can't keep a person from getting baptized or going to the temple, and the Big Guy has one (and it didn't keep me from being made the branch president (think bishop-lite) of our little branch (think ward-lite) out here in Detroit, so I just do my own thing and enjoy the stares.

What I genuinely hope is that people who have spent a lifetime or several generations in the church will someday begin to separate their own cultural peculiarities (which are fine and wonderful in their own way) from this beautiful gospel we purport to offer the world. Sometimes I worry that the cultural baggage we carry hides the message. One nice consequence is that I get observations from people like, "I thought that Mormons don't wear beards, have more than one wife, hate Black folks, etc.," and I get to reply with, "We can, we don't, we love everybody, etc." It's amazing how much more approachable I've been able to become to some folks while being such a thorn to others, all for not shaving. In some places, people still would have me shave if I were taking a leadership role ("It sets a bad example." I'm not sure how or why, other than the fact that hippies and Che Guevara and Fidel and Lenin . . . I'd better stop . . . wore beards), but out here in Detroit beggars can't be choosers. I plan on shaving when the weather heats back up (who want's a fur coat on their face in the summer?), and I am sure I'll get approving clucks from the folks who want me bald faced. "He finally got the memo," they'll say.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

68 Days and Counting

We found out this last week when will be meeting with Judge Iwasaki in Salt Lake, Utah, May 2. On May 3 we will be sealed to Landon at the Salt Lake Temple and on May 4 we will bless him in our ward, the Salt Lake 11 Ward. Everyday is new and exciting with Landon. He brings so much joy to our life. This last Friday he giggled while Mike was holding him. We are lucky to have a Poppy who is home with us a lot and has the opportunity to see these wonderful milestones. Landon turned 4 months this last week and he has taught us so many things and I am grateful that we can continue to learn from him.
If you want to attend any of our upcoming events please get in touch with us and we will give you more details.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Season Of Love

I am sitting here watching Oprah this Valentine's Day. A woman suprised her husband with the meeting of Patti LaBelle. The wife was so touched she started to cry when Patti LaBelle came out on stage and started singing with her husband. (okay so my explanation is not so hot) All I know is that I started crying too. As I sit here thinking about it I believe I was so touched by the moment because the wife was so happy to make a wish come true for her husband. I believe that Landon is a wonderful wish come true for my husband Michael. This year they are MY Valentine. Here is their darling picture. My cute boys at the breakfast table. What other husband would watch their little pop tart 3 days a week while his wife goes to the gym or while his wife goes to get her nails done. Baby Landon has become the light of my life. His smile melts my heart and when I see that he recognizes me there is nothing better. I am truly blessed this Valentine's day for the loves of my life.

P.S. We love Natalie for her precious gift to us.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Life in a Branch—Come join us!

With an average sacrament meeting attendance of between 50 and 55, our wee branch makes up for its small numbers with large personalities and a fair amount of drama. I told a colleague that being branch president was like being a “bishop lite.” However, as I continue getting into this calling, I think I misspoke. There’s a lot to do in a branch. In some ways, I don’t have as much to do (not as many tithing settlements or interviews, for instance), but in other ways, there is more I do individually. For instance, I go out with the missionaries or have them over at least a couple of times a week (We currently have 3 pairs of elders, and I’ve requested a pair of sisters. We put them to work in Primary, Priesthood, Sunday School, and home teaching. I want another set of visiting teachers. These folks are members of the branch, and we work ‘em), I serve concurrently as the YM 1st counselor, I help the clerk out with his duties (good thing I’d done that job before), and I’m my own executive secretary. Jobs get delegated out, but in a branch, we all take on multiple roles (YM pres/secretary, RS Pres/VT coordinator/supervisor, Melchizedek Priesthood leader/branch missionary/taxi, Activities chair/seminary teacher, and the list goes on). Sadly, there are branch members who cannot or will not do more. Their reserves have been tapped.

Whatever it was I did or failed to do as a missionary, I really feel that here in the branch I am back at that work. We’re out here on the fringes, where the real action is. People take different attitudes about living here in Detroit and in the branch, and these attitudes are similar to those Hallie and I saw among expatriate members living in the San Isidro (English speaking) ward in Buenos Aires. For an American not familiar with Argentina, the culture shock can be pretty intense, and I think the same can be said of Detroit’s unique culture for those of us who have come from out west especially or for people who from a context where they have not interacted with people of different races and ethnicities on a daily basis. Some take the attitude of, “We’re only going to be here for a couple of years. If we just slug it, out we’ll get through, and then we can escape to a real ward close to family or where there are lots of members.” Others are fully engaged. They may live here for two years or twenty, and you’d never know it because they are fully present and involved in the work here in the branch. Having members in this branch with the latter attitude is such a blessing, because we face some stark realities and challenges that don’t happen in robust wards that cover small geographic areas. We have no Scouting program. We have a half dozen active YM/YW total. We’re grateful we have that many, but it means that our youth find many of their friends outside the church community.

Families go inactive from too much stress to perform in callings or from a perceived lack of support or from being offended, and when they go, we feel it deeply. When people move out or in, we immediately feel the impact of their absence or presence. Living in a branch is not for the casual member; conversely, if you want to do the work of building the kingdom in ways you felt like you were doing as a missionary, a branch is a wonderful place to be. You get to know all the active members really well. We are in the process of finishing construction of a building on Detroit’s southeast side. I just found out that the building will not be built in stages—it will always serve a small number of members. Once we outgrow it, a new small building will be built, and we will split the branch, so Hallie, Landon, whatever other children we have, and I will more than likely spend the rest of our time here in small units like Belle Isle. I have reservations about the prospect. When I served in Buenos Aires from 1992-94, we had baptized several members in General Rodriguez. Rather than building the unit into a ward, two branches were formed in 1994. By the time I returned a few years later (1997), the newly formed branch had withered, and by the time I went back a second time a few years after that (2002), membership in the remaining branch had continued to dwindle. I now hear that the branch and the church unit it Lujan have had to combine. There is a strength in numbers that you don’t find in branches unless all members stick it out. I hope the powers that be will help us navigate the risks of a small unit strategy.

I realize that we as parents have goals for our children. We want them to be strong, to have friends that influence them in the right direction. We want a robust community of faith where we can feel safe sending them out into the world. These things can be found in the branch here, but they have to be worked for and earned. We can’t take the fulfillment of these goals for granted here, and being far from family, we can’t have their casual company to support us from day to day. We have to build our family here with the friends we make here. We have to exert ourselves. I see the fruit of the strength our children earn here as they bear testimony of defending the gospel and their beliefs when schoolmates mock them. I see the fruit of the strength of our adults who stretch their schedules to accommodate missionary visits and make friends with nonmember neighbors. In a society that is generally disengaging (read Bowling Alone for a good treatment of the phenomenon), branch life offers a potent cure. I sound like I’m preaching here, but I have come to feel these sentiments deeply. I wish more of our members in the branch, the stake, and the church felt the same way. I wish more of them would come share what we have here and help us build and strengthen the kingdom of God in the weaker places.

In fact, we’d love to have you out here on the frontier! This is the front line in the battle to bring souls to Christ. This is where people who want to make a genuine contribution can make a difference. This is where notions of living in the world without being of it get put to the test every day and where gospel living takes on tangible meaning. Come to Detroit. You will be put to work in the branch, and you’ll feel the impact of your efforts in real ways.