Among the Believers
Growing up in Utah, I wanted to be Mormon. I wasn't.
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.