Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Stranger

Questions and more questions. There were always questions. But even after being asked the same ones over and over, I was still always surprised if not humored that I was being asked the same questions yet again. “So why can't you wear makeup?” “You're going to Prom? But I thought you weren't allowed to dance?” “I thought you could only wear dresses? Does your preacher know you wear pants to school?” “How many wives does your father have?” “Don't you believe in a different Jesus?”

I found it strange that so many of my high school friends and classmates thought they knew so much about my Mormon faith, but clearly didn't. So much of what they thought they knew was nothing more than rumors, or something confused with another religion. So when the same questions came, the same answers followed.

“I wear makeup everyday-- can't you tell? There's nothing in my faith that says we can't wear makeup.”
“Who told you we can't dance? Our youth group has a dance every single month!”
“There's nothing in my faith that says women can't wear pants. We wear dresses to church, but other than that, we wear whatever we want as long as it's modest.''
The polygamy questions always made me laugh because despite the fact that for thirty-eight years in the late 1800's Mormons did in fact practice polygamy, the idea that my father would, or that any of the Mormon men I'd grown up knowing all my life would, seemed absolutely absurd to me. “There aren't any Mormons that have more than one wife. That was like-- a hundred years ago. The people who still do that aren't even Mormon.”
The 'different Jesus' question was, I admit, the one question that caused me to get a little defensive. I'd been told on several occasions that I wasn't Christian. When I told them I was, the retort was always the same. “But you believe in a different Jesus." The statement probably shouldn't have offended me, still, it did. It was like telling me I wasn't a girl. It was like telling me that my family didn't love me, or that I didn't love my family. I was a girl. I knew my family loved me. I knew I loved my family. And I knew I believed in Christ as my Savior. On the one hand I thought, “Who cares what they think? I know what I believe, and God knows what I believe. What they think I believe doesn't matter.” On the other hand, telling me I wasn't a Christian and that I believed in a 'different' Jesus offended everything I knew and felt, everything I was, and everything I was striving to become.

"A different Jesus? Is there 'another' one? I believe in the One that was born in Bethlehem to the virgin Mary. The One that was baptized by John the Baptist and turned water in to wine. The One that cleansed the lepers, made the blind see and healed the lame. The One that raised Lazarus from the dead. The One that suffered for my sins and bled from every pore in the Garden of Gethsemane so I could be forgiven. The One that died on the cross and rose from the dead . That's the only Jesus I believe in. There isn't another one." For many, what I said didn't matter. They chose to believe what they heard from someone who wasn't even Mormon, instead of someone who was. Thankfully, there were those who could see through the haze, stood by me, and even defended me. To this day, I'm still grateful to them and how they supported me in my faith, even if they didn't realize they were doing it.

I recall on one occasion, sitting with my friends at a table in the cafeteria. I was a sophomore in high school, and one of only 5 or 6 Mormons in a student body of approximately 2500, and the only Mormon sitting at the lunch table that day. The others, except for one Catholic were all Baptist. We were gossiping about someone. I don't remember who we were talking about or what we were saying about her. What I remember is the conversation that followed because it resulted in one of those important life lessons that has stuck with me ever since. After saying something about the girl in question, and surely, it was something negative and critical, one of my Baptist friends turned and said, in one of those joking yet serious ways, “Um... I thought Mormons weren't suppose to gossip.” By some miracle, I didn't choke to death on my food.
I can only imagine the deep shade of red that must have been covering my face, though I can testify to the heat that rushed my cheeks. I'd been called to the carpet and I was horribly, but deservedly ashamed.
I don't remember what I said in apology, but I do remember saying, “You're right. We're not supposed to gossip”, and somehow, the conversation turned to a list of things that Mormons couldn't do. As we talked however, a thought occurred to me. A lot of the things that Mormons couldn't do, were things that they, as Baptists and Catholics shouldn't do either. I'd been to church services with my Baptist friends several times. I'd even studied some of their literature. I also knew a lot about Catholicism. My father was Catholic, and to appease my parents, I went to church with them alternatively for a couple years-- one Sunday with my mother at the Mormon church, the next with my father at the Catholic church, and so forth. So I was familiar enough with both faiths to know that they shouldn't have been gossiping either, or many of the other things they were discussing as “things Mormons can't do.” Suddenly, I found myself feeling a little indignant. Not because I'd been unjustly accused. But because I was sitting at table of Christians, though of different sects, and yet I was the only one who was expected to behave as a Christian? That's when I spoke up.
“Wait a minute. You guys are all Baptist, and you're a Catholic”, I said, pointing to them perspectively. “You're all Christians too. I know you guys aren't suppose to gossip either, or do half the things your talking about. So why do I get singled out as the one who's not suppose to gossip?” Then came the answer that threw me for a loop. “'Cause you're Mormon. You're actually suppose to live your religion.” After a moment of dumbfounded silence, we all started laughing at the comment, even the one who said it, realizing how silly it sounded. But that's what had come out of her mouth. Mormons are suppose to live their religion. She didn't realize she thought that way until she actually verbalized it and as we talked they all expressed the same thing! For a reason indeterminable to them, they didn't really expect themselves or others to live up to their religious beliefs, the way they expected me to live up to mine, even though we shared most of them. We all agreed that day, that we would do our best to hold ourselves to our common beliefs and encourage each other to really live them. The conversation was both eye-opening and somewhat life-changing. It's one that I hope has stuck with them over the years, the way it has with me.
Two years later, I was invited to a senior party with kids that I considered “the good kids”. I'd been assured that there would be no beer or any questionable activity going on and that the parents would be home. About three hours in, the teen hostess broke out a bottle of wine. I must have been wearing shock on my face because she looked right at me and said “It's okay, my parents know. And it's not like we're “drinking", it's just wine-- we'll just have one glass and make a toast.” She began filling glasses while others distributed them. Someone I didn't know stretched out their arm to hand me a glass and suddenly people came from every direction saying things like “Don't give that to her!” “She doesn't drink!” “Hey, she's Mormon, don't give her that!” One friend even stepped in between me and the person handing me the glass. No one was making fun, no one was mocking my faith-- they were protecting me. Despite our differing beliefs, despite our different standards, they respected mine and were standing up for me and I didn't even have to say anything, and I've never forgotten that.
I've spent most of my adult life working with teenagers through the youth group programs of the church. To this day, when I hear people talking about the negative impact of peer pressure I have to insert a few comments. Surely, there are a lot of horrible influences on our children, and the negative forms of peer pressure can sometimes pull our kids onto paths we really don't want them to tread. But there is positive peer pressure as well. There are so many good kids out there and they can have a powerful influence. Those same kinds of kids helped me to live up to my standards by expecting it of me, and by supporting me in them and even defending me against those who they thought were trying to sway me from them.
In many ways, what I believed and the way I lived was “strange” to them. Nevertheless, their goodness allowed me to live my faith among them-- a stranger, yet a friend.

there is positive peer pressure


Angela said...

It’s nice to have friends who love you for who you are and don’t go out of their way to try and change you. I have friends like that and to me those are true and treasured friendships

Kev said...

What an awesome Tell!

Rahkyt said...

A thoughtful write, thank u for sharing!