Yesterday my wife and I were listening to RadioWest’s interview with two filmmakers about their latest project, a profile of Utah poet laureate Alex Caldiero called “The Sonosopher.” It was a fascinating hour, mostly discussing poetry and the poet, and their place in society.
At one point the filmmakers mentioned that they had been surprised by Caldiero’s discussion of Mormonism. They had asked him if he missed the church, and he had said, “Of course I miss it. Of course I miss the community. I miss worshipping, singing. It’s sad, but the people I hang out with I can’t pray with, and the people who would pray with me I can’t hang out with.”
My wife said what she has said many times, that it’s the sense of community that seems to be the biggest loss for ex-Mormons. She said that many ex-Mormons gravitate towards recovery and post-Mormon communities because they need to fill a void left by the loss of the LDS community. That is an astute and accurate observation. A lot of former Mormons who don’t deal with the church at all in their everyday lives nevertheless still hang out on message boards, go to conferences, and even have picnics and parties with their ex-Mormon friends.
This seems to be a result of the success of Mormonism as a community as well as a religion. It’s difficult to think of a religion that so heavily invests its members in the larger community. The organization of the church mostly around lay members is one of its great strengths. Even on such trivial matters as cleaning the chapel, members feel invested, like the church is theirs. And the programs of the church are designed to foster interconnection of community. Home teachers, for example, come to know families and build ties with them of friendship.
The tight organization also allows the church to do some kinds of service that other groups are not capable of doing. Anyone who was in Louisiana and East Texas a few years ago saw how well-organized the church was to help with hurricane recovery. It really was amazing to walk into a stake center and see rows of new chain saws, pallets of food and water, tents, and fuel. Recently the Houston Chronicle, in an article about lessons learned from Hurricane Ike, mentioned that some private charities were better organized than the state and federal governments. They singled out the 7000 LDS volunteers, particularly the men of College Station (I still claim them as my ward), for their service in helping Galveston residents clean up.
When a person leaves the church, he or she of necessity separates from that community. As Mr. Caldiero said, you really don’t have the same relationship anymore; you can’t pray with the church members anymore, as he put it. There are no more home teachers, no more callings, nothing to tie you to the community. It stops being “your” church because you are no longer heavily invested in it.
It may even be worse for those who are “in the church but not of it.” These people are still connected in a superficial way but may feel a bigger disconnect with the larger community.
So, many people seek out what my wife calls a “surrogate community” (she was always the smart one). Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the new community is defined by being “not” the church community. These folks may idealize their current community while finding nothing good about the church. Hence the constant anger and harsh criticism some people dish out regularly (for some reason, Dan Peterson’s mention of those who complain about Mormon soup-slurpers comes to mind).
Realistically, people who leave the church are not going to find a comparable community because there is no community quite like the church. The trick, then, is to find something positive and uplifting that, although it doesn’t completely fill the void, can give meaning and purpose and, yes, a sense of community.