FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
CAMDEN, SC – JANUARY 11: The Book of Mormon sits on a coffee table as Mormon missionaries Shea Sego and Jacob Martin make home visits on January 11, 2012 in Camden, S.C.
I’ve lost count of the journalists who have called the offices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the past few months, wanting to figure out what makes Mormons tick.
At peak times, we’ve taken several dozen calls in a single day. The total number must be up in the hundreds, maybe more than a thousand. And, of course, we’ve seen a steady procession of media visitors to Salt Lake City to look at everything from the world’s largest missionary training center to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to how we handle humanitarian services.
On top of that are the journalists who never personally reach out to us, but seek out their own Mormon sources among bloggers, authors, academics or mere acquaintances.
You have to be grateful for any effort to understand our faith better, and we are. But with all of the thousands of words that have been written and the terabytes of digital images that have been shot, I’m coming to the conclusion that there is – almost always – something missing.
In Washington D.C. recently, Harvard Business professor and faithful Mormon Clayton Christensen suggested to a group of prominent journalists: “If you want to understand Mormonism, you have to understand the ward.”
A “ward” is what Latter-day Saints call a parish or congregation. Along with families, wards are the hub of Mormons’ religious life, the place where most of the action happens. To be a Latter-day Saint means that wherever you live, you fall within the geographical boundaries of a particular ward, and that’s where you go to church most Sundays.
Consequently, even if you move into a new neighborhood, you belong immediately to a ready-made community of perhaps 500 people. Typically, you quickly self-identify with other church members who may have similar interests or whose kids are the same age as yours, but gradually you get to know most of the members who come to church regularly. And because there is no paid clergy, you’re soon given service responsibilities which bring you into contact with other members.
The overarching goal which everybody works for is to lift others in a way that reflects a community of latter-day, Christian disciples. Everyone needs help from time to time, and everyone also needs to give help. Wards and stakes (a regional grouping of wards, like a diocese) also try to reach out and serve with others of goodwill in the community.
So why is this important? Christensen explained it best to that group of Washington journalists. He recounted a time when he was a bishop of a ward in Boston. In other words, he was the lay leader – like a pastor or parish priest, but without pay. It was a blisteringly hot day and he was in his car, wondering about the welfare of some of the elderly members of his ward. He called in on one of them, a widow in her eighties, and as he entered the house he was hit by a stench of which the householder, with a loss of her sense of smell, was completely unaware.
The culprit was an old fridge in the basement, a massive iron thing which had been unplugged maybe a year earlier. Inside, a few forgotten grapefruit had turned into a mass of reeking mold, amply assisted by temperatures close to 100 degrees and humidity almost as high. Christensen called a non-Mormon friend for help, and together they manhandled the deadweight up the stairs. At one point his friend remarked that he didn’t know much about “Mormonism.” Christensen, paused on the stairs for breath, said simply: “This is about it.”
Every Mormon will immediately get the point of this story, and everyone wanting to understand Mormons should. The ward is the community. Its collection of families and individuals of every type and shade is at the heart of the faith, and their collective commitment to each other is a direct consequence of their commitment to be followers of Jesus Christ.
This is not mere rhetoric. In a properly functioning Mormon ward, every family has either or both of two male “home teachers” and two female “visiting teachers” assigned as resources. Despite the “teacher” appellation, their primary role is not to teach but to provide a first line of support for whatever the family may need beyond its own resources. If those needs are beyond the capacity of the home or visiting teachers, they can call upon more substantial ward support, all the way up to the bishop.
Issues that are not personally sensitive or confidential will likely end up as a discussion point in the ward council – a collection of men and women who meet with the bishop a couple of times a month to review the needs of members, among other things.
I’ve lived in a number of wards in my life, in several different countries, and to be sure not every ward works precisely as it’s supposed to. Since every congregation is made up of fallible humans, that’s to be expected. But most do have this collective sense of shared responsibility and obligation to serve. It’s so central to what being a Mormon is all about that to ignore it is to miss the point of this continually growing faith, which is to love God by loving our neighbor. The ward where I live at present is as close to a text-book example of that model as I’ve ever seen – a few hundred members who work together more as a large family than a small community.
So for the journalists out there who still want to understand Mormon belief, may I suggest that you put the blogs and books and web searches aside for a few days, and come to church on Sunday? Any Mormon chapel will do – you can find the nearest one to where you live here.
Drop by, sit at the back and observe, or sit at the front if you wish. You won’t have to do anything – no kneeling, no recitations, no collection plates. But feel free to talk to the members. Ask them about the responsibilities they hold. Talk to the teenagers. Attend the classes after the main worship service.
Ask the bishop to explain what his ward council does. But if you want to talk to the bishop, make an appointment, because he’s likely spending most of the day face-to-face with members who need help. Maybe someone has a marital difficulty, or maybe a young person is on a wrong track, or maybe someone has lost their job or struggling spiritually. The bishop may spend 20 hours or so a week dealing with these and other issues related to his service, and he’ll do it for about five years until “released” from his responsibility. So be sensitive to his time, but don’t let that stop you from asking about how his ward works, and how he feels about his “flock.”
Those journalists who have already done this have found the experience enlightening. In the New Republic, Eliza Gray wrote about Mormons near Washington D.C. One interviewee recalled U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) standing up to his waist in a stopped-up septic tank. Another related how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faithfully served as friend and caretaker for a prominent, politically conservative Mormon family, working as a home teacher. These are unusual mental images that say something deeply significant.
Writing or reporting about Mormons from a desk and a keyboard without a field trip to a Mormon ward is like covering Congress from Kalamazoo. You have to be there. You have to feel the pulse. You have to understand the perspectives, the nuances, the motivation deeply rooted in belief. Then you’ll be better able to explain what makes Mormons tick so enthusiastically.