Editor's note: Chrisy Ross is the author of the book "To Mormons, With Love," a memoir recounting her family's non-Mormon culture shock upon moving to Utah Valley. This is a personal essay, followed by an excerpt from the book.
My husband, sons and I are not Mormon. After being fully immersed into LDS culture when our family moved to a small town in Utah County, I could have either allowed loneliness, misperceptions and irritation to consume me, or I could choose to learn about the LDS Church (from reliable sources) and enjoy the journey.
I wrote my book, "To Mormons, With Love", because the member-nonmember divide is real. The topic is difficult to discuss in religiously mixed company without a few tail feathers ruffling. Objectivity and diplomacy morph into defensiveness and posturing even among the most skilled conversationalists. "Duh!" you say, "Religion, silly woman!" But it doesn't have to be a debate. It can be a discussion -- an opportunity to heighten awareness, learn about others and ourselves.
"To Mormons, With Love" was a way for me to answer how we, a nonmember family, landed in our LDS community. The book invites people to examine their own generalizations and misperceptions while exposing my own and reminds people how very much alike we all are. Being human -- while taking as many trips as possible around the sun together -- our emotional core is connected. I hope the book sheds light on divides that we all have the ability to widen -- or narrow -- and expresses love and gratitude to my community while promoting fair-mindedness with gentle humor and love.
Reaction to the book has been positive. The word-of-mouth buzz has made the book's traction and reach more meaningful. The grassroots support from both members and nonmembers moves me. Generosity, respect and laughter have filled the rooms of the majority of book clubs, Relief Society and other meetings I've attended. Occasionally, someone is still licking wounds from a prior hurt, or moving through anger and needs to vent. I continue to receive emails, all lengthy and thoughtful, none that disparage the LDS Church, and each sparked by something different in the book. What a gift.
I continue to learn and stretch with each email and conversation. Just when I think I'm walking in fair-mindedness, I'm given the opportunity to try a little harder.
Hi. My name is Chris. I live in Mayberry, Utah County, Utah, and I'm not a member of the Mormon Church. I'm happy living here. They say admission is the first step.
My husband and I have lived in our small Mormon community since November 2002. We have three sons, a dog, a bird and a fish. After a job-related move brought us to Utah, we purchased a home in an area that was less religiously diverse than we had anticipated. Everyone was Mormon. Everyone.
I thought I knew more than the average non-Mormon about the faith, but I was wrong. I didn't know what a "ward" was, "member" made me think of Costco, and "LDS" sounded like the drug I was afraid to try in college. I assumed all Mormon mothers stayed home with their well-mannered, attractive children and pondered what healthy meal they would serve for dinner. I quickly learned the only consistently true words in that last sentence are "attractive children." I'm still looking for the neighborhood ugly child.
Since our arrival in Utah County, I've learned that there is no secret handshake (or is there?), there is not a CIA-type file on our family at the church, members do not receive points on a literal scoreboard for attempts to convert us and there is diversity within Mormonism. It's true that Mormons don't drink alcohol, coffee or tea (cough), and they never use foul language (double cough).
We gradually assimilated into the community, but only after working through subtle culture shock, which included irritation at all things new and different. I counted steeples, rolled my eyes at Costco's food storage items and shamelessly stared at the arms and thighs of strangers, searching for garment lines. All of them -- steeples, giant cans of peaches and garments -- were reminders of the pervasive religion of which I was not a part. Paranoia that I was only a missionary opportunity made me suspicious of every person's attempt at friendship.
The culture shock, paranoia and loneliness I experienced morphed into an understanding and appreciation of the Utah County culture, my community and home. The stories, experiences and perspective in this book are mine only and are based on cultural, not doctrinal, observations. My humble research has revealed that the church does not support, endorse or encourage intolerance of others' beliefs, shunning or naughty behavior in general.
What You Need To Know
1. I am not LDS.
2. My intention is not to debate, dissuade, persuade or change any person's faith or belief. Who needs a poke in the eye?
3. I have read the Book of Mormon (twice-ish) and sections of the Doctrine and Covenants.
4. I strive not to be a basher. Of anything.
5. I love living where I do and am thankful for my Mormon peeps. Although culturally not for everyone (including some LDS families), life in a small, Utah County town has been -- dare I say -- a blessing.
We're frequently asked, "How did you end up here?" and "What's it really like living here for you guys?" Read along and I'll tell you.
Mayberry By Accident
In the fall of 2002, my husband, also named Chris, accepted a job in Provo, Utah, that required us to relocate with our two young sons from Castle Rock, Colo. I had never been to Utah and was excited to visit the state on our house-hunting trip. Chris shared how beautiful the Salt Lake City and Provo areas were. He said, "Utah's more like Colorado than Colorado is."
The press from the 2002 Winter Olympics, hosted in Salt Lake City, had demystified some of the misconceptions associated with the Mormon Church and answered many questions. I was confident that not only would we be able to purchase alcohol and coffee in Utah, but we would also find a nice neighborhood with a smattering of diversity.
Since our arrival in Utah, we had been asked several times if we were LDS or "members." I wasn't offended, but the question surprised me. In a day and age when asking someone's religion is generally considered inappropriate and should be irrelevant, I wasn't sure how to answer. I felt like there might be a right or wrong reply depending on who was asking. I wanted to say, "I am if you are," or "I'm not if you're not." I was convinced the social norm in the area deemed the question OK and relevant. And frankly, I wanted to know also.
I continued to ask people, when appropriate (which was probably never), if they were LDS. And guess what? The majority of people were, or they had been raised LDS and were taking a sabbatical (more on that later). On our weeklong house-hunting trip, I didn't meet many people, but I don't recall meeting one nonmember.
The Bottom Line
The fact that Salt Lake County is more religiously diverse than Utah County is common knowledge in the state. We were aware of the general Mormon migratory patterns, but we were not aware of the literal Point-Of-The-Mountain-Boundary and what it signified. Loosey-goosey Mormons (politically blue) on one side, by-the book Mormons (politically red) on the other.
We began our home search in Salt Lake County knowing it is considered more diverse, but we didn't find a place that excited us. We broadened our search to Utah County. Because Chris' job was in Provo, we chose to look at homes in a small town his co-workers recommended. They said the community was beautiful, clean, located equidistant from Salt Lake City and Provo, and because we love biking, running and hiking, we should check it out.
The town was beautiful! We found a great spec home and the school district seemed solid. Realtors avoid questions about religious demographics, and I didn't want to offend anyone, but I was concerned that our family might be the only nonmembers in the area. My attempts to uncover percentages of the member/nonmember population -- were we looking at 80/20, 70/30, 60/40? -- were handled with kid gloves. I expected to find more members of the church than nonmembers but I wanted a SWAG at some numbers.
"So, just out of curiosity, are there many people around here who aren't Mormon?" finally asked.
The Realtors, both the seller's and ours, looked at each other and took turns speaking.
"This is a lovely community!" "The arts are so valued." "You won't believe the elementary school concerts." "The high school productions are practically professional." "This is a special place." "There's no other place like it." "Oprah Winfrey is building a house here."
Because of the diplomatic answers to my question, we believed that although heavily LDS, this community was one of the more diverse in Utah County. We had found a liberal arts-loving, broad-minded, unique pocket of life. Even Oprah, apparently, recognized the specialness of our little Utah County town.
NOTE: Mayberry, where we live, is not religiously diverse. Unless you consider diversity to include the fact that within the 99.99 percent LDS population here, there are a few families with only three children (by choice), there are two single mothers in the area, and I've occasionally seen people in church clothes at Costco on Sundays. Chris and I certainly wouldn't have avoided buying a house in our neighborhood had we known, but I would have let go of my plan to find enough friends to start a monthly wine-tasting club. (Something I'd enjoyed in a prior neighborhood.)
Regardless, we found a lovely home in a stunningly beautiful setting. We were aware of the "predominant faith," but were excited about the diversely blended culture described to us: the culture that focused on the arts, the love of outdoor activities and the appreciation of nature. Our personal values and parenting style are "old fashioned." My prior experience with LDS friends in other states -- friends who came from large, loving Osmond-like families with polite, well-behaved children who did their homework and who enjoyed lots of laughter, success, and all-around good looks -- led me to believe the community we found would be the perfect place for our family. A quasi-urban-granola couple, with strong family values and an appreciation for purposeful and vigilant parenting should fit in well, even if only 40, 30 or worst-case 20 percent of the population were nonmembers.
The neighborhood was new and slowly filling in. More transient families, like us, would be arriving and I would surely make new friends: both LDS gals and the wine- and coffee-drinking gals, too.
We purchased the house, and the boys and I returned to Colorado for a month to prepare for the move. I showed friends and family photos of our nearly finished home and the gorgeous surrounding mountains. I couldn't wait to join Chris and begin our lives in Utah.
So, the short answer to the question "How did you end up here?"--a community well known for the 99.99 percent LDS demographic?
We didn't know it was that Mormon. It was an accident.
• Chrisy Ross blogs at chrisyross.com.