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Marginalization

I am a Mormon. You cannot tell that just by looking at me, but it is very much a part of who I am. I could even argue that it is everything that I am. But you cannot really see it.img_5762

There are plenty of Mormons who like to think their Mormonism is visible, that we glow, but this is simply self-affirmation. You can’t see it. It isn’t like Orthodox Judaism or some forms of Islam with proscribed hair and clothing. We don’t even have any actual symbols to announce our faith. No crosses, no Star of David, no half moon and star. Some of us have created symbols, like Angel Moroni lapel pins, but these came “from the streets” not from God. But we know our own. We know who we are because we are obsessed with ourselves.

This is arguably why many people do not like us. We do not sit quietly in a corner, we let you know who we are. We knock on your door and ask you to join us. Odds are, if you want to be left alone, we still won’t leave you alone. This is one reason why, even if I am personally leaving people alone, they still might throw beer bottles at me, swerve their motorcycle to run me off the road, mock my faith loudly during board meetings, accusingly tell me what I believe in job interviews, misrepresent me in classrooms, sing songs mocking me in bars, spit chewed food at me, or the ever hard to really pin down- deeply ignore me. I have experienced all of these things personally.

Sometimes it happens without the other person knowing my faith. They say something negative with no intent to upset me because they don’t know. But most people I know, know what I am, and when the digs come they are intentional. It will not happen, but theoretically, I could always choose to simply not be Mormon. People leave the faith all the time. It isn’t like my last name ties me to an ethnicity like say, Lifshitz or Austerlitz, though I should say that names are how I know Ammon Bundy and Manti Teo were born Mormon. I could hide if I really wanted too, but odds are if I ever became somebody I would get outed. We out our own all the time.

For instance Derek and Julianne Hough, Aaron Eckhart, Ryan Gosling, all born Mormon. Roseanne Barr’s family joined when she was a kid and thanks to my favorite Pop-up Video bubble, the singer Jewel was Mormon till the age of 8. This was my favorite insider Mormon joke because we all know you cannot officially be Mormon until you turn 8, but the point is we are self-obsessed enough that even if you leave us, we will find and claim you. Just the other week I got a text while sitting in church informing me that the real life Rudy, the guy the movie portrayed, had just been baptized a Mormon.

There are some good explanations for this obsession; both historically and due to what it is like to live as a Mormon day-to-day. For example the governor of Missouri signed an extermination order in 1838 authorizing the use of deadly force to remove all Mormons from the state. During much of those years Mormons lived as refugees fleeing from place to place relying on each other for survival. Identifying and sticking with our own was critical. Then we went and founded a city. Then we went and founded a whole bunch more. Salt Lake, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, all Mormon. But manifest destiny couldn’t be stopped and in 1857 the United States declared war on the Mormons in Utah and occupied Salt Lake. As a kid my family regularly drove past the army base originally established by federal forces to keep us Mormons in line.

But that was forever ago, everyone who lived in those days is long gone. Yet this era is such a part of the Mormon cultural legacy that to this day every congregation across the United States send their youth on small summer “treks” where they dress in 19th century clothing and pull rickety human powered wagons called “hand carts” for a week in the woods to ingrain in these kid’s minds what their predecessors endured. If you visit Utah in July you will learn that July 24th, “Pioneer Day” commemorating the arrival of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley is celebrated bigger and louder than the 4th. We refuse to forget.

But it isn’t just history, being Mormon today does draw some attention. While you cannot see my Mormonism, the fact that I have never tasted coffee, or alcohol, or that I was willfully a virgin at my wedding, have put me in some serious spotlights over the years, especially in high school and college. I weathered that storm, but even in the professional world I have had bosses question whether or not I could be an adequate host to important accounts if I was unwilling to drink at the bar with them or share a good glass of wine. I was of course willing to host clients at a bar, but I have learned through repeated experience, I repeat-much experience, that most people are uncomfortable drinking with a person who isn’t doing the same. Yet this one little thing which is such a miniscule part of my faith and an even smaller aspect of who I am as a person, has become my defining characteristic to a huge portion of my associates; clients, rugby teammates, neighbors, colleagues. It becomes rather annoying having that same conversation time and time again, “No not even a little bit. Nope never have. No it isn’t really that hard. Yes hats off to me and yes I still like karaoke.” My religious views on sexual expression influence what I watch in movies, television and online. I love movies and television, and the internet, but every Oscar season there is a large swath of nominated productions that I have not, nor will ever see. This makes me different than other cinephiles and makes me almost unable to meaningfully communicate in those circles.

Faithful Mormons are largely expected to marry other Mormons.

This can make things a little tricky if you don’t live around a critical mass of other Mormons. This is one of many reasons why so many Mormons want to live in Utah, or send their kids to BYU. They want some options, they want to fit in, and they want to be part of their people. Some of us feel this desire to be among our own very strongly, some of us are annoyed by the idea, but we all understand it. I am an American to the core, but having grown up in Utah, I have felt very much the expatriate living in other states. Looking back, at both my youth and my home state, I am a bit amused at how much I, and we, felt like ex pats even when we were living in Utah.

This is why the local Deseret News regularly prints lists of every identifiable Mormon playing in the NFL, the NBA, NCAA, Olympics, or on TV, or in congress. We take a special pride whenever one of our own does anything. I never watched the old MTV show Real World, till a Mormon named Julie went on the show and embarrassed me. I watched every episode of that season. There is a website, www.famousmormons.org that attempts to list every Mormon doing anything, the church puts out an official portfolio of monthly magazines (Ensign, Liahona, New Era, the Friend) yet you can find all sorts of extra Mormon themed magazines not published by the church, but more just published for Mormons by Mormons (LDS Living Magazine). We have created our own books, book stores, television stations, network of blogs (the bloggernacle), music, schools (SVU), all above and beyond what our hyper organized church produces and we cling to such even when we are already living amongst our own. We are self-obsessed.

But I get it. Sometimes I get tired being different and just want to relax with a group of my “brothers and sisters”. Sometimes I want to watch something like Napoleon Dynamite with hard to explain inside jokes. Sometimes I would like to see a doctor who understands why I might be a couch potato yet have this health nut styled prohibition on tobacco and alcohol, yet won’t drink green tea. I would love a dance company for my daughter to join that understands why she won’t train on Sunday. But I also want to live in New York.

So I get it.

Because I get it, I refuse to listen to any white Mormon who makes the complaint that black people think too much about race. I reject any critique coming from people like me regarding black colleges, black television, a congressional black caucus, or a black history month. It is hard being an “other” in America. I know this because I am one. And as one who has experienced how “hard” it is to be Mormon in current society, yet only glimpsed what it might be like to be black, I testify that America is harder on black people than it is on Mormons.

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Black (Family) History Month

I can trace my paternal family line back to a pair of brothers who left Ireland for America in the 1730’s. Our surname goes back past the Battle of Hastings to a Roman who settled in Normandy. I can follow my mother’s line back to the Mayflower.

A year ago my wife could only trace her line back to her great grandmother who was alive in the 1980’s.img_4337

Family history is hard for many black people in more ways than some might expect. First it is hard because there is a dearth of records, which is a lesson in and of itself, but it is also hard because so often there is stuff in there that can be hard to deal with. Sometimes digging up graves only exposes more questions than answers.

My wife and I are okay with questions. Asking questions is a good thing. Unfortunately we don’t have Skip Gates at our disposal so digging up those questions is largely up to us. We started with DNA.img_1105

It is pretty easy. You order a kit online, then they ship you a tube that you spit in and send back. About a month later they send you an email.

There were no Earth shattering revelations, but there were some small surprises. For instance my wife has often been stopped on the street by expatriated Ethiopians who were excited to see one of their countrymen. Not knowing of any roots past New Orleans in the 80’s, Ethiopia sounded pretty cool. DNA killed that idea. Nope. No Ethiopia. The test results came back showing her lineage to be 61% West Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Mali. The other 38% was white people. 10% Ireland and dribs and drabs of everywhere else, Italy, Spain, etc. This wasn’t really surprising. Most African Americans know there are white people back in the chain somewhere but it isn’t usually celebrated. In fact, quite often, as Skip Gates has illustrated time and again, these white folks get paved over in family legend by the myth of American Indians. Such was the case with her family. Both sides swore there were Cherokee or somebody like that in there somewhere. Her Dad was adamant that his grandfather was full blooded Indian. Her DNA said zero.img_2337-2

To understand why anyone’s whiteness would be something to cover, we should understand that most African American’s European lineage didn’t get there in some interracial romantic way. Not at all. I remember learning about the horrors of slavery in high school but said horrors were mostly whips, chains, and bondage. I don’t recall rape being mentioned. I suppose the idea of rape is something salacious enough that many teachers prefer to gloss it over, but I have since learned that cases of rape weren’t really outlier events. In slavery rape was normal. It makes sense that many would rather claim to be Seminole.

DNA gives data but only hints at stories. Knowing that there are more pieces to the puzzle we have begun looking for more. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Mormon volunteers, the entire Freedman’s Bank records have been digitized and made available online- the same with census records. There is now more promise of finding out who was who then we would have thought possible 50 years ago. Now begins the work of connecting broken links of a chain. It is a work of in-home black history.

Happy Black History Month.

Also… I am 9% Asian.img_4328

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Because We Vote Next Week and I Cannot Stop

I saw recently that Ammon Bundy and his cohorts were all acquitted, found innocent, of any crimes related to their armed takeover of a federal facility. There was no question as to whether or not it happened, they held press conferences, it was just a matter of whether a jury was willing to vote that they should suffer some consequences for doing so. The jury, a representation of us- we the people- let them go (not completely as two of the acquitted have other charges in a different state). I respect the idea that laws, due process and common consensus should rule society; it is part of our “American-ness”, but this instance highlights some things I find deeply troubling.Processed with Snapseed.

Ammon Bundy was set free. Brock Turner got a slap on the wrist. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president. These three may not truly be related and we could dissect the notion of fairness related to any and everything related to each instance or individual. We could do that. But I want to just stand back and take in the view for a minute. Because when I stand back I see other things too.

I see Officer Johannes Mehserle found not guilty of murder when he shot a hand cuffed Oscar Grant on camera at a subway station. I see George Zimmerman being found not guilty of chasing down an unarmed Treyvon Martin and shooting him dead. I see no charges filed at all when Officer Timothy Loehmann shoots and kills a 12 year old Tamir Rice who was carrying a toy gun. I see no one charged with anything when 2 officers shot and killed John Crawford as he carried a BB-gun he picked up off the shelf in Wal-Mart. I see a jury fail to agree that Michael Dunn had committed murder when he fired his gun 10 times at Jordan Davis, killing him, for playing his car stereo too loud. I see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev setting off bombs at the Boston Marathon, shooting police officers, and being brought to court alive. I see juries fail to convict six officers of anything when they put a live Freddie Gray into a van, only to have him emerge from the vehicle in an injury induced coma.

When I stand back and look at the big picture I do not see an America where black and white people are treated the same. I should mention, or make clear, that when I say “America” I mean two things: we the people as a day to day society and the official systems through which individuals interact with government and laws. Both of which are America and it appears that on the whole, something is off. I feel a lot of things are off, but when it comes to race, this offness, no matter the situation or subject in which it begins, bleeds over into and onto everything. Take murder for instance. Murder cases are inherently troubling without regard to anyone’s racial identity, it is hard to prove who did what and why, and due to potential severity of the legal consequences, convictions and punishments get tricky. But it really does appear that when a black person is involved, the tricks normally go against them. Then there is rape. Our deeply sexualized culture and country make accusations of rape a bit tricky. He-said she-said, facts and intentions, all things any individual- let alone system, could easily get wrong. Yet when black people are involved in any way, it appears that more often than not, they are thought of or treated as if they are wrong. Politics and partisanship is full of all sorts of wrong. It would be so if everyone and anyone involved were exclusively white- yet when anyone is black, there is something special in the attack.

Barack Obama won. He would surely have been hated no matter his skin, just like Bush before him. But remember back when his pastor was questioned? Called a racist? Accused of hating America? In that ugly campaign the candidate’s love for country was questioned because he attended a church where the pastor questioned America’s love for black people. Standing back looking at the big picture I wonder the same thing and share that pastor’s question. Back then, those who cared about churches were offended at Jeremiah Wright. In isolation, perhaps the offense would be fair. But I am not isolated and today I see those same church caring people excusing a candidate whose whole premise is that America is currently bad. Trump’s America loses everything is bad at everything is currently failing and those who accused Barack Obama of hating America, currently fail to accuse Trump of the same. But that is not race that is politics. Right? But then there was also Skip Gates and Treyvon and Michelle’s convocation speeches and  shootings in Charleston and then Obama talks about race and is sub sequentially accused of seeking to divide America, we the people and our system, along racial lines. So much so that Glenn Beck goes on national television and declares that Obama hates white people. Kanye did that to Bush so Glenn had a precedent, but where Kanye was referring to a cataclysmic disaster where black people were left to die without resources, Mr. Beck was referring to the President criticizing the police for arresting a black Harvard professor with a cane who was trying to break in to his own home. Kanye also snatched the mic from a harmless little blonde girl on stage at an awards show so I suppose it’s the same thing right? But you see, Kanye, and folks like Kanye, have been saying what Kanye says for decades, centuries really. But people like Beck weren’t going on television and saying things like Glen said so openly, till Obama.

No. That isn’t true. People like Beck have said that stuff all along but now people who say it are nominated for president. Now, today, someone who has questioned the sitting president’s nationality, his religion, his dedication to America, and who has himself been sued-as in federal court- for racial discrimination, and bragged on tape that he sexually assaults women, and publicly mocks those who are protected by Title IX (an act of congress), is not only excused, but nominated for president.

Now Trump is not a nominee without trouble. Many in his party are against him. Yet from back here with this big picture view, it still feels odd that the Republican Party sticks with him through mockery of the handicap, refusal to disclose tax records, accusing Mexican immigrants in general of rape and murder, encouraging violence against protesters, insinuating the need for violence to protect against alleged minority voter fraud, and all of that is tolerated for this man? He is touted for speaking his mind and pushed to the front? The President makes mention of racism and he is dismissed as racist?

I find it troubling that the election of a black man, with an almost spotless pre-election personal record, has apparently led us directly to the nomination of the most scandal ridden candidate in history to succeed him. Those who support this candidate would consider Trump an improvement. He is their hope and change. I am taking time, while back here looking for perspective, to look inside myself as well. Am I too much an apologist? Am I blind to the dark side of those with dark skin? Blind to Barack’s faults?

I understand those incensed by Obamacare. Insurance continues to be largely unaffordable. I get those who are disgusted that under his watch the Wall St. disaster went largely, or completely, un-punished. Those in power were “bailed out” while average people continued losing homes and jobs. I appreciate those who are enraged at the record number of immigrants President Obama has deported. I even understand those who look to his failed leadership or abilities in regards to our legislative grid-lock. I accept those critiques. I get that anger. But those are in large part, excepting the Obamacare complaint, not the issue I hear being shouted. No. I hear of his hate for this nation, his weakness abroad, his complete lack of character. He is called Muslim, or evil, or socialist, same diff and he must be replaced. Perhaps I could find this trajectory more palatable if Trump was less repugnant. But he isn’t. He isn’t and this shouting against him in this vein is not coming from the obscurity but from the party of Lincoln. It looks and sound like a lascivious white lunatic is preferred to black man.

But then “they” prefer him to Hillary as well. She is most definitely white. So I must be seeing this wrong.

And then Bundy gets off.

After one lonely New Black Panther at a polling place with a stick goes to court, is prosecuted for two years and major political players step down. After all of that, the new candidate encourages vote patrolling and a militia of white men with machine guns invade federal property and a jury acquits! In this current mass shooting climate they are acquitted? No one doubts they were there and they did it but the jury simply says its okay? I wish I was confused but sadly I’m not. I think I see something. Right in front of us. Why do so many who look like me not see it too?

And here is what hurts me even more.

So many don’t know that Ammon is a Mormon name. Distinctly so. I am one too. The thing that I am most, above all others, is Mormon. I suspect someone named after such a prominent character in our faith’s foundational scripture sees himself that way too. I see Bundy over there, and me over here, and I sometimes wonder where the rest of “our people” stand. I am no prophet so I understand myself not being completely surrounded. I have not intentionally, though I am open to the possibility, that I have drifted somewhere off kilter, setting myself aside. Maybe it is me. But then there is him, and while he is definitely not in the center, he appears to have much more of a posse. Ammon Bundy, Glenn Beck, Donald Trump, Republicans, Libertarians, all appear to have more of my people than not only Obama, but they have more of my people than me. Not me as a person but me where I stand. Seeing what I see. Not in this party or that but looking at the same view. My perspective. I cannot help but imagine that if our current election was Trump vs. Obama, my people would still pick McMullin. They, we, would vote for a third-party-nobody because he is one of us, and still complain that Obama is preferred by blacks because of race. They would understand why Ammon would take up arms, but then not have sympathy for Treyvon being pursued by an armed vigilante.

 

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Philly Skyline: a new addition

It felt like going home. I didn’t grow up there, I don’t live there now, but it still feels like my home.

Philadelphia has a new spire in its skyline and the weekend I spent there recently was one of the more “Philly” sorts of weekends I could have imagined.

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It was full old friends, old buildings, new buildings, and new restaurants. But mostly it was that one new building.

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What once required a lot of car pooling and a three hour drive to DC is now a subway trip for them… and an all day flight for me.img_7283

it was worth the trip.

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Missionary Misadventures: Olympics

The ’96 Olympics in Atlanta brought out crowds like we had never seen and we had to capitalize. We called our display “Big True”, an 8 foot tall display of Arnold Friberg’s illustrations of the Book of Mormon. We set up this wall of images and used it to strike up conversations with the crowds of revelers. We thought it a great tool.IMG_5937

A Black man wearing a tunic and kufi walked by, paused, and then began looking closely at each individual image. He stood back a moment, then turned and looked me in the eyes.

“Excuse me, but where are all the Black people? How do you have images of hundreds of biblical people and not one Black person?”

Every one of the other missionaries took a big step backwards. They all looked down at their feet. No one was prepared, nor wanted, to field this question or deal with this man. A crowd of Judases.

He was looking right at me. He wasn’t smiling. Why me? Judases.IMG_6011

“Um… Well… You see these are images from the book of Mormon which happened thousands of years ago in the ancient Americas. It’s the story of two groups of people, one brown and one white. The two groups found it hard to get along. Eventually the brown folks killed off all the white ones, because the white people were wicked, leaving only the ancestors of the American Indians. The Black people didn’t show up till a couple thousand years later when the Europeans brought them over against their will.”

My companions looked at me in terror. The man looked at me, back at the images, then smiled and asked, “How much to buy one of those books?”

The other missionaries told me it was the worst answer they had ever heard.
I’m not convinced it wasn’t the best answer I had ever given.

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For Christmas I Want More Christ-like Behavior: from everyone

I like stuff, especially nice stuff. Sometimes I focus on “stuff” or things, because inanimate objects can be subjected to scrutiny without rebuffing the scrutinizer. People, or society, do no such thing and not only despise scrutiny, but too often dish it out in inhumane ways. I may be guilty of this myself, but for today’s Christmas wish I’m ignoring my own faults and look at others.IMG_1647

For Christmas I wish people with money would stop complaining about those with less.

Even those of us, especially those of us, who work hard yet still struggle to almost hold on to middle class, should stop complaining or worse yet blaming poor people for the problems of the world.passed out subway

I wish we, all of us, would stop that. It isn’t Christ like. This is Christmas.

Those in poverty are not without their faults, nor are the middle or the rich. What the poor are without is comfort and power. Why would those of us with something, no matter how little, resent those with less? The idea that the poor are the source of modern American troubles is not only false, but in my mind, a morally indefensible idea. WE, the collective we, including the rich and the middle are all guilty of moral corruption and I am tired of the demonization of those who inhabit the bottom rung of society.couchontheblock

I can think of nothing crueler, nothing as polar opposite of charity and kindness, than to abuse (in any way) those who suffer in poverty. For Christmas I wish we as a nation would be more Christ-like.

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Holiness in Unholy Places

I received word that a member of the church was being held at the maximum security federal penitentiary in Philadelphia. This brother had received special permission from Salt Lake City to receive the sacrament, an ordinance not normally administered to people while imprisoned. This facility was within my congregation’s boundaries so the regional authorities asked me to make arrangements to minister to him. I submitted my ecclesiastical credentials to the prison, underwent a federal background check, and had my name submitted by the prisoner as a formal request for me to be listed as his minister of record. This process took more than a month.trainstation

When arriving at the facility for the first time, stopping by on a Sunday after church, I was asked to fill out additional paperwork. I turned over all my personal belongings, only being allowed to retain scriptures and any money on my person. I had none. My hand was stamped, my photo was taken, and a warden escorted me first to a waiting lobby, then into a large visiting room. I was there on the assigned women’s visiting day so all the inmates in the room were female, sitting in rows of plastic chairs on one side, with families in matching chairs facing them, and a series of low plastic end tables in between. I waited off to one side till another warden led in a smallish white man with glasses and graying hair. We shook hands, hugged, then were shown to a side room with two chairs and a desk, usually reserved for visits with lawyers. The chaplain, who had previously told us he would provide communion wafer and cup for the ordinance, was unreachable being engaged in worship services of his own, so we were denied the proper equipment to have the sacrament. We talked instead.

He explained to me the details of his white collar crime. He told me he had struck a deal that he did not know was illegal. Once he did know he backed out and returned all the funds previously exchanged.This didn’t stop the indictment. He was convicted by a judge this brother described as antagonistic, and has been locked away for a year. His case was pending appeal. We talked for quite a while and parted ways, intending to attempt the sacrament again the next week.IMG_0434

That next week I was denied access to the prison. I was told by the guards that I was only listed as a social visitor and could only visit on one pre-scheduled day per week, and this was not the day. Being rebuffed I again contacted the chaplain who apologized and said there was a misunderstanding and to try again. I tried again and was this time rebuffed saying I could only visit before 1:30 on any given day. Our church services ended at noon so I could not get to the prison before the prescribed time. It was 12:45. I haunted the waiting room till the chaplain was summoned. He informed me there was another misunderstanding and that I could in fact visit any day, but that it did need to be before 1:30. He reiterated that if contacted in advance he would provide supplies to be able to administer the sacrament. I thanked him and we parted ways.

The next day, Monday, I received an email from the imprisoned brother that his mother had passed away that morning and he was not in good spirits. He repeated his request to receive the sacrament. I emailed the chaplain that I would be at the prison by 9am the next morning and rearranged my schedule to be there.dealers

Upon my arrival the next morning I was denied access. I argued with the warden who after several phone calls began the process to allow me access. I was brought back into the large waiting room with all the chairs while they processed the brother for visitation.

Every time an inmate receives a visitor they are strip searched both before and after the visit. On his arrival we found ourselves alone together in the large visitation room, being denied the private side rooms this time, and again were denied by the authorities any access to supplies to be able to administer the sacrament. By now it has been many months since this process had been initiated and this brother had yet to receive the bread and water.

We went to a far corner, I invited him to sit, then I went over to the vending machines and purchased a bottle of water and a “lunchable” package of crackers, cheese, and cold cuts. I also collected two white napkins and a white paper plate. We sat facing each other, me in my white shirt and tie, him in his prison jump suit, and I prepared this sad meal to be the sacrament.

He sat and watched as I filled the bottle’s cap with water, set it on one plate and covered it with a napkin. I then placed one cracker on the other plate and also covered it with a napkin. I invited him to say an opening prayer, which he did.

Afterwards I uncovered the cracker, broke it, knelt down and with a military issue of the Gospel Principals book I recited the blessing on the bread. I handed him the plate and as he took and ate the cracker he began to cry. No sobbing and sniffling, just a straight, sad, silent face. His tears continued on through the water and the conclusion of our small and humble service.

I cleaned away our setting and sat down. He could not speak at first. Here in this place filled with those who society has deemed dangerous and punishable, I felt the spirit.

As we parted this brother thanked me again and again. I accepted his thanks filled with the warmth that comes with service and a holy ordinance.

 

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