Every summer, my sister and I looked on as our neighborhood friends prepared for Pioneer Trek, a week-long excursion into the Utah mountains complete with carriages and 19th century Mormon pioneer-era clothing.
“Mom, dad, can I go on Pioneer Trek next month?”
I knew the answer would be no. The answer was always no. I was young, growing up on a quiet tree-lined street on the East Bench of Salt Lake City, Utah. It was safe. It was quiet. It was overwhelmingly Mormon. Everything about my life growing up in Utah was overwhelmingly Mormon. My friends on Yale Avenue. My friends and teachers at Carden Memorial School. The only time I wasn’t an outsider was on Sunday mornings when my parents drove my sister and me to Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church. Every week I lurched between two worlds. The world that I inhabited and the world that inhabited me by virtue of my birth. Identity is a tricky thing. It can ground us. It gives us meaning and something to grasp. It can also be confusing. As a kid, all you really ever want to do is fit in, which meant that as a kid in Utah, all I ever wanted to be was Mormon.
From first through eighth grade, I attended Carden Memorial School. It was a small, non-denominational private Christian school, but the teachers and students were mostly Mormon. When I say small, I mean I went to school with the same twenty people, give or take a few entries and exits, for eight years. Carden was the definition of innocence and obedience. We had strict uniform regulations. We had open cubbies, not lockers. There was no cafeteria; we brought our lunch to school every day and ate on our desks. The school motto was “courtesy is not optional,” which meant that we stood every time an adult entered the room. We started every class by lining up outside the classroom, patiently waiting to be invited in, then standing behind our desk until the teacher told us we could be seated. The headmaster stood at the entrance of the school every morning, and as our parents dropped us off in a neat line of cars, he shook the hand of each student as they walked into school. This happened almost every day for eight years.
We started every morning by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then we prayed. We folded our arms; we bowed our heads; we prayed the Mormon way.
Each day, the teacher chose a student to lead the class prayer: “Our Dear Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for this day, we thank Thee for our families…”. The routine was repeated at lunch: “We thank thee for this food which will nourish and strengthen our bodies…” and so on and so forth.
There were around four people in this class of twenty at any given time who weren’t Mormon. I was one of them. This made the end of prayer time extra tricky. If I did my cross, it called attention to the fact that I wasn’t Mormon. It almost felt like an act of defiance. I decided it was best to just keep my head down with my arms folded in quiet reflection.
LDS stands for Latter-Day Saints, which is a more formal way of referring to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as Mormons. My best friends on my street were LDS. Much of my childhood was spent at the Bonneville Stake Center, the Mormon church a block away (there are 8 Mormon churches within a one-mile radius of where my parents still live). Every church picnic, every talent show, every basketball tournament or youth dance, my sister and I were there. It was our second home. Running up and down the church hallways, playing hide and go seek with the other kids, we were always there. We belonged.
That’s why I never understood why I couldn’t go on Pioneer Trek. I didn’t get why my parents were bothered when they discovered my friend up the street had been inviting my sister and me over for dinner on Monday nights. Monday night, for practicing Latter Day Saints, is Family Home Evening, which is a night of no TV, no electronics, and, of course, Mormon scripture readings. I don’t think my parents would have ever put two and two together if my sister and I didn’t come home one night and say something about reading the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants after dinner. It also didn’t help that my sister and I found a Book of Mormon on our porch one day (probably left there by one of the missionaries that often visited our house), snuck it inside, and hid it in our closet. I might not officially be Mormon, but those were still my people.
Weren’t they? If you’re in Utah, one of the first questions someone inevitably asks is if you’re a member of “The Church.” The Church, of course, refers to the Mormon church. So anytime I was asked that question as a child, which was all the time (by adults and children alike), it always felt weird to say “no.” Those moments snapped me back into reality; as much as I felt like I belonged in day-to-day Mormon-centric activities, I’d never really be part of the club. In December 2020, McKay Coppins, a staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote a piece that weaved LDS Church history with his own personal experience of growing up as a Mormon kid in Massachusetts. He wrote, “I aimed to cultivate a reputation that sanded off the edges of my orthodoxy—he’s Mormon, but he’s cool.” I felt the exact same way growing up in Utah. I wanted my friends to look at me and think—she’s not Mormon, but she’s cool. But that also meant I lived under pressure all the time, a feeling of wanting to belong, but in the end always being on the outside looking in.
At the same time that my sister and I were learning about Joseph Smith and Baptisms for the Dead and going to birthday parties at the Lion House (Brigham Young’s old residence downtown), my parents were getting us more involved in Orthodoxy. Utah has a huge Greek community. A wave of Greek immigrants came to Utah in the early 1900s, mostly for mining jobs. My dad is Italian (as you can probably tell from my last name) but his family lived across the country, so it was my mom’s side of the family, the Greek side, that helped raise my sister and me. We were raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, celebrating Greek customs and religious holidays. And if you know Greeks, you know our culture and religion are important. It’s who we are. We went to church and Sunday school every week. We spent summers with my mom, aunts, and the church ladies who made pastries for the yearly Greek Festival. We went to Greek Orthodox Youth of America church camps and Greek basketball camps, and we joined the Greek folk dancing troupe (which I was a part of until my early 20s). Our Greek community existed in its own insular world.
After my time at Carden came to an end in eighth grade, my parents sent me to Judge Memorial Catholic High School. It was the last place I wanted to go, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go to East High, the local public school a few blocks away from my house, with all of our neighborhood friends. But when I got to Judge, it was the first place, besides church, that I’d ever been where I wasn’t “the other.” As a result, I gradually stopped seeing my neighborhood friends. It wasn’t an active decision, it just happened. We lived in separate worlds now.
Like many teenagers, I tended to follow the crowd. We all connected over the same experience of growing up in Utah, which meant we easily fed off each other’s pent-up frustrations. I joined the chorus of mockery every time someone brought up Mormons or Mormonism. Pioneer Trek? Ugh, boring. Family Home Evening? How dumb. Mormon missions? What a joke. These people were clearly brainwashed and all they wanted to do was go overseas and brainwash everyone else. We all adopted an “us vs. them” mentality. It was a mindset that stayed with me for years. And throughout high school, and even into college at the University of Utah, it intensified. What used to be a desire to join the LDS church turned into a full-throated effort to put distance between myself and every facet of the faith and culture I had grown up around.
I went through a very long period of not only wanting to get as far away from Mormonism as possible, but actually hating the entire institution and what it represented. I started looking back on my upbringing and recalling memories that drove anger and resentment. I remembered that time at Carden when I was told to take off my Cross because we weren't allowed to wear jewelry, and yet, it was ok for my Mormon friends to wear their CTR rings; or that time my friend from school couldn’t come to my birthday party because my parents had alcohol in our house. I realized that lots of little things over time had added up to a sense of subtle alienation.
But with life comes experience, and with experience comes the ability to add nuance to one’s belief system. It wasn't until I moved away from Utah permanently after college that I was able to see the state, its predominant religion, and my upbringing there more clearly. And since the pandemic started, I’ve spent over eight months back home in Salt Lake, hanging out with my parents, family, and catching up with friends I hardly ever used to see. These days, probably because I was away for so long, I've become extremely protective of my home state. I find myself saying how great Utah is, and how nice the people are. Its good friends; good neighbors; good citizens.
Today, the first question I’m inevitably asked when I tell someone I'm from Utah is: "Are you Mormon?" I politely say no, just like I did when I was a child. But then I almost always follow that with, “I’m Greek Orthodox.” Not because I want to double down on the fact that I’m not Mormon, but because I feel so close to my Greek heritage. I think that feeling is a direct result of growing up in Utah, where I had to think about both who I was and who I wanted to be. I’m thankful for that now, and I understand what my parents were doing. When I was young, I would have given anything to run outside the door and join our friends as their parents walked them around the corner to the Mormon church on Sundays. But my parents wanted my sister and me to feel like we had the same sense of belonging that my Mormon friends did, the way their lives flowed so effortlessly between church, school, and social life. To this day, the Greek community in Utah is still the one I feel closest to, even though I live on the other side of the country.
Wallace Stegner, one of my favorite authors from the American West, also spent part of his childhood in Salt Lake City. His paragraph about growing up there, in an essay called “at Home in the Fields of the Lord,” has stuck with me ever since I first read it:
Whether it says with the Anglo-Saxon poet, “that have I borne, this can I bear also,” or whether it says, “there, for a while, I lived life to the hilt, and so let come what may,” my hometown, late discovered, is not a deprivation or a loss or a yearning backward. I recently had the experience of recognizing, and with pleasure, what the city meant to me, but I was not heartbroken to leave either it or that youth of mine that it embalms, and I do not necessarily yearn to return to either. It does not destroy me with a sense of lost green childhood or of any intimation of immortality long gone and irrecoverable. There is only this solid sense of having had or having been or having lived something real and good and satisfying, and the knowledge that having had or been or lived these things I can never lose them again. Home is what you can take away with you.
Identity is a tricky thing. Whatever complicated feelings I had about Mormons and Mormonism—and the state as a whole—have left me a long time ago. I used to shy away from telling people I was from Utah. Now, I don’t hesitate. I identify with all of it. When I’m in Utah, I might be “non-Mormon” or “Greek,” but when I’m away, I’m a “Utahn” above all.