Mormons in New York

by

06/29/2002

W 122nd St & Broadway, New York, NY 10027

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

At 7:30 on a Monday evening, my apartment on 122nd Street and Broadway fills with the voices of young Mormons singing hymns. From 7 on, around 40 clean-cut, blonde, smiling 20-somethings, some bearing baked goods, arrived in a continuous stream. They bustled down my bowling alley of a hallway to the living room, where they proceeded to comment on their surroundings. “What’s all this weird stuff on the walls?” (my MOMA posters) “Don’t tell me you read the Village Voice now, Nat.”

I live in Columbia graduate student housing, so my roommates are randomly assigned by the Housing Department. This year I was assigned two roommates from the School of Social Work-Amanda, a 24-year-old Jewish girl from Tucson, Arizona, and Natalie, a 24-year-old Mormon girl from Salt Lake City. Amanda was pretty uptight about cleanliness. Second semester, she pinned an abrasive note on the fridge chastising Natalie and me for occasionally leaving dishes in the sink or letting the garbage pile up. And she was unpredictably moody, chatty one minute and sullen the next.

Natalie, on the other hand, was friendly and laid back and easy to talk to. We’d chat in the kitchen about nothing out of the ordinary-work, classes, dating. Natalie was always going out on dates with guys she said she’d met through her church. She had the same complaints that I did and we could pretty much finish each other’s sentences until she started talking about marriage, which is where I stopped relating. But there was plenty that Natalie and I saw eye to eye on, enough to make small talk while my pasta boiled anyway.

So I didn’t think much of the Mormon thing until there were 40 of them singing hymns in my living room. Natalie frequently had groups of people over for dinner unannounced. Granted, these dinner parties were sometimes loud and inconvenient, and it was a little strange how her guests made themselves at home in our mini-kitchen, seemingly oblivious to Amanda’s and my attempts to squeeze through their casserole commotion for a bowl of cereal. But Natalie was so sweet and accommodating in other ways that I was willing to overlook it.

Until there were 40. Unable to work with all the singing, praying, and lively analysis of recent individual testimonies in Church, I found myself cowering in Amanda’s room, which was adjacent to the living room.

“Natalie knows I have to get up at 6 to go work in the Bronx tomorrow morning,” she said. “Jeez, with all the Jews in New York, you’d think I’d wind up with at least one of them for a roommate. Instead, I get a Mormon. What are the chances?”

“At least they don’t try to recruit you,” I said. (Early on, I made the mistake of mentioning to Natalie that I am a lapsed Presbyterian, and now she never failed to invite me to join her gatherings.) The night of the invasion, she’d nonchalantly popped into the kitchen, commented on my “interesting” scramble of spinach and Morning Star soy meat, and invited me to play Trivial Pursuit.

I saw that it would be necessary to state the obvious: “Natalie, there are about 40 people in our living room. It’s a little loud.”

Her sweet moon look vanished. She frowned and said it wouldn’t happen again. I felt bad. I almost ran after her and said, “Okay, just one quick round of Trivial Pursuit.”

It wasn’t until after the worship service Natalie held in our living room that I began to think this was no ordinary religion. I did a little research on Mormonism and it soon became clear why most of Natalie’s social life seemed to take place at church and inside our apartment. Mormonism prohibits the consumption of coffee, tea, and alcohol and warns members against exposing themselves to “the gross evils that are so prevalent in societies today” (Elder Alexander B. Morrison, “No More Strangers”). Beyond bars and coffee houses, dance clubs also present a danger. Hinckley proclaims: “When dancing, avoid full body contact with your partner. Do not use positions or moves suggestive of sexual behavior. Plan and attend dances where dress, grooming, lighting, lyrics, and music contribute to a wholesome atmosphere where the Spirit of the Lord may be present.”

It also became clear to me how much power this extremely conservative religion with its history of racism and sexism, was gaining. It is the fastest growing religion in the nation and wields considerable political authority. In 1976, LDS Church launched a 5-year campaign against the equal rights amendment and is now conducting a similar campaign against same sex marriages. Time calculated its net worth in 1997 at a minimum of 30 billion dollars and its annual income at about 6 billion dollars, which, if it were a corporation, would place it in the middle of the Fortune 500 List. Wanting to keep the peace with my roommate, but now thoroughly intrigued and terrified by the Mormon Church, I sought out Tom Johnson, a third year nonfiction writing student in Columbia’s Master of Fine Arts program. Tom was just completing his thesis, a personal narrative on the Mormon missionary journey.

Tom had Natalie’s gentle demeanor and spoke in the same calm, almost-whisper, which made many of his statements all the more alarming. I mentioned to him that before I knew anything about Mormonism, I’d naively invited Natalie to go dancing with several friends of mine who happened to be gay men. Tom explained that, “going to gay bars is not something that would appeal to your roommate seeking to find an LDS husband. But even more, asking a Mormon to go to a gay bar is something like asking a Hindu out to a beef festival, or a Jew over to dinner and then serving pork.” Tom told me that he had written some about the non-practicing homosexual who accompanied him on his missionary journey in Venezuela, so we talked some more about his views on homosexuality. Tom said the Mormon Church did not deny the fact that some people had strong homosexual inclinations, but believed that acting on these feelings was a sin. He sighted Kant, saying that an action was only moral if the whole of a population could take that action and continue to exist. He said that this was not the reasoning of the Church, but his own, which was considerably “more reflective” than the Church’s logic. The Church condemned homosexuality primarily because it undermined the family structure.

“But don’t you think this guy you did missions with deserves to be in a relationship with someone he’s attracted to?” I asked.

Tom hesitated. “I could tell that when I wrote about it, my workshop wanted me to say that the Church’s position is wrong, but ultimately, it’s not for me to say. I can’t know what God’s feelings are on the matter.”

“But can’t you receive direct revelation from God through prayer?”

“Well, yes, but not on issues that affect the Church as a whole.”

That’s as far as we got on homosexuality. That’s as far as we got on any issue. Still, Tom seemed concerned that he had not represented the Church’s position well. He emailed me a couple of days after we talked:

“I would re-clarify myself on my position on gays. I said I don’t presume to know what God’s feelings are on the matter-what I meant is that I myself don’t presume to be able to interpret God’s definitive position on homosexuality. We believe God reveals his will through his current prophet, so basically if the prophet says gay relationships are immoral, we assume that God feels the same. It would be wrong for me to override the prophet and tell him that he is wrong, because I don’t have access to that kind of Godly knowledge.

What you won’t find on the net are figures of how much the Church has spent in its campaign against the legalization of gay marriages. Clearly the Church sees this institution as one force that will unravel the family structure of society, and therefore directly relevant to the lives of church members who live in that society. It’s an interesting twist considering the heavy persecution the government made against polygamy in the 19th century-you’d think the LDS Church would want the government to leave moral issues totally alone, but the Church doesn’t see it that way at all: “Polygamy strengthened families; gay relationships don’t.”

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§ 2 Responses to “Mormons in New York”

  • Where'sYankeeStadium says:

    I haven’t been home in ages. I’ve been in Utah. I don’t want to see the mormon.org billboards and ads plastered all over the place. I’d rather see the Playboy Bunny and whatever smut might be much more reminiscent of the Times Square/New York I knew and loved. Plus, I have to disagree that mormons are the fastest growing religion in the US. They are not. It’s a well-known fact they fudge their numbers and keep people on their rolls until they are 110 years old, even if such people never even attended. At last count, I do believe the Seventh Day Adventists (who don’t fudge their numbers) were at 20 million worldwide, followed closely by Jehovah’s Witnesses at 13 million. It is speculated actual mormon numbers are closer to 4 million worldwide. I’ve known people to convert and then just as quickly un-convert complaining how weird everything starts to get. They are not doing so well financially, either. Apparently their own church members are getting online with rants about how, to save costs, they are being told to clean the temple toilets. Everyone thinks they’re so cute and fluffy, something I find amusing. Try disagreeing with them on anything and you’ll find it’s like feeding the furry little creatures after midnight, or getting them wet in any way (scare-ee). I’m coming home because I’ve had enough of the forced garbage. As long as they give me wide berth and don’t try to take over New York the way they do here, we’ll get along fine.

  • It is unfortunate that the above comments are so negative that they leave one not believing in the veracity of the statements but rather thinking the writer might have personal issues with either an individual in the LDS Church or decided that living the standards of the Church were not for him. Either way, there is no reason to bash the Mormons. They are all about family, living a good life, and caring for others. The Church prospers in its wealth in terms of its finances and its membership. I would say, “Spend your time thinking about what is in your own heart and ‘pay it forward'” Life is too short to focus on negativity. Be practical and give because “Givers Gain.” And that has nothing to do with religion. It is just a fact of the universe.

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