Dear Ian Williams,
I've calmed down now. When I first read your letter, I was very upset--not because of any specific dig at my faith as because I felt like you'd built up a fantasy world and exiled me to it. You gave yourself a "messy, colorful" America and stuck me into an Edward Scissorhands world, where the shallow sameness is suffocating and anything unusual is kooky ("don't buy the underwear yet!" ha ha) rather than unique and worthy of the respect you might otherwise offer to Difference.
I've heard all that before, of course--I wasn't baptized yesterday--and, on honest reflection, I can understand where people like you are probably coming from. We Mormons persist in valuing an optimism and earnestness that can easily come across as naive. Our commercial art competes with Bollywood film for sentimentality. And we do like knowing our physical neighbors, which is beginning to seem so twentieth century, right on the border between quaint and antiquated.
Yes, we must seem like vestigial Jimmy Stewart fans in the era of Robert Downey Jr. For a screenwriter like you, I'd imagine the mismatch is particularly disconcerting. You've tried to talk with us, but we get even the rhythms of the dialogue all wrong. You've been to church meetings, but you can't get over the decades-old memo about white shirts and suit jackets being passe our wardrobe department obviously missed. And then, of course, there's the disaster of the casting: all those women with all their babies--sometimes five to a family!--so many that you wonder whether their mothers will ever get to have normal, productive lives doing important things, like writing op eds or restaurant reviews and otherwise contributing to adult society.
I get it, Ian. Your world is not my world. Fine. Your world is cooler than my world. OK. I'm not bothered by that.
But you seem to think that your world is the real world, and that the real world is something I'm impossibly distanced from. You say that missionaries, in particular, are immune to reality. "Mormons see the world," you say, "but they don't get it."
And that's when I get mad.
Because, Ian Williams, I don't think you get the world either. Where I come from, we believe there's a beam in every human eye. And it's my strong personal belief that there's a whole skyscraper worth of beams in eyes that look through ultra-specialized, demographically segmented late capitalist culture.
I am going to make some assumptions about you now. They are assumptions based on patterns that are largely true of Americans, but feel free to correct me when I'm wrong. First assumption: I'm betting that your job matters to you and that, like most Americans, many of the people you know best are people you know through work. Second: I'm betting that you went to college, and that in college, the people you spent your free time with were almost all college students. Shall we go on? I'm also betting that most of the people you break bread with are somewhat similar to you in terms of educational and income levels, political views, and favorite TV shows. Am I at least close to the truth so far?
None of this, of course, is inherently bad or would make you unusual, but all of it suggests a degree of separation from that big, diverse, messy world you don't think Mormons are a part of. You may read about poverty and have great ideas about it, but you probably don't spend a lot of time around poor people. You may have positive attitudes about immigrants, and I commend you for them, but you probably aren't having dinner with families whose legal status is complicated. You almost certainly think Nazism is terrible, but you've probably never sat in the living room of a former Nazi as she tells you what those times felt like.
You know the world, I would guess, far better from how it looks on paper than from how it looks up close.
Because of my church, I've seen it up close. I've helped struggling people in two continents move out of apartments due to all sorts of crises, from crooked landlords to persistent gunshots at night to serious vandalism by drug-addicted friends. I've eaten in homes where the first language has been Spanish, Navajo, Telegu. Where it's been German, Turkish, Portuguese, Russian, Marathi, Farsi, French.
And no, I wasn't following the news when I was a missionary in the former East Germany, and I never went out clubbing or whatever people do in your world to get to know the locals on a European trip. But I've sat in an old woman's apartment and listened to her struggle to make sense of what she remembers feeling when she saw Hitler at a rally in her youth. "He was like a god to us then," she said, "like a god." And I've been cooked meals by women who served in that war, and who can never forget the hunger they felt as the war dragged on and ended with near chaos in its wake, some of whom walked for hundreds of miles from confiscated homes toward uncertain futures. I've learned by experience how to recognize someone who won't feel right unless you eat every last scrap on the plate. And learned deep respect for the endurance of the old.
A man who was imprisoned by the communist government for non-cooperation once showed me the model train set he works on to find peace. A woman who'd believed and participated in the same government told me how her sense of betrayal when the wall came down and the secrets started coming out was so acute she had to be hospitalized.
I've had people tell me, holding little back, just which scars on their hearts they blame a God they don't believe in for. And I've felt a part of the pain in their old wounds come up fresh through their eyes.
I've heard people who swore they were staunch "materialist" atheists tell me why they believe in guardian angels. What happened in their lives they couldn't explain any other way.
I've talked to people about homes back in Africa they long to return to. To others about forsaken homes in authoritarian countries they've given up the hope of seeing again. And to one man, who'd been a trucker in the old days and taken long hauls across Siberia, about how at home he'd felt in the villages where everyone would come out to welcome him, where they'd give the space nearest the fire to the rare visitor from so far west.
There's a town near Leipzig called Eilenburg. About 17,000 people live there. As a missionary, I walked down every street in that town. Rang almost every doorbell. Met the variety of people who live in a real town in a real world, who never in their lifetimes will all meet each other. When I got home from my mission, I started to think about how even a mission in your home city would seem foreign. About how through the church, I'd been to parts of Columbus where no one from my suburb of Upper Arlington normally thought about or went. I still think about how many amazing people are always just beyond the edges of our awareness, and about how we find a piece of the divine whenever we really get to know someone.
I helped a woman move one time from the west side of Columbus to the east, this was a woman who'd only recently fled from a failed marriage with a bad man in a county known for strip mining to the concrete and cracked asphalt of the big city's low-rent areas. She tended her plants so carefully. Just little things in pots she could keep by run-down apartment windows. She said she'd seen another woman grow potatoes out of a boot above a sink and intended to grow her that stubbornly. I still think about her, too. And about the Mormons in the east side of Columbus who took time out of their weekends to welcome her to their side of town.
Just a few months ago in Utah, I held a man who was bone-thin, dying with two kinds of cancer, just held his body in place as gently as I could while his wife washed him. She wanted to do that while a church brother was there instead of a church sister, she said, to protect what she could of his privacy. She told me, "We come into this world without much dignity and that's how it is again all too often as we leave it." But I swear, no one else has ever looked so much to me like Jesus Christ as that man did just a week before he died.
We're kind, Ian Williams, but we're not blind. We know that life can ache, that people struggle and suffer as often as they find transcendence or joy. We believe in guidelines--or confines, call them what you will--not because we're running from the messiness of life, but because we know that life can be messy enough on its own and doesn't need our help to get there.
And because we want to be ready to find God in the faces of his children. Every day of the week, yes, and twice on Sunday.