I meant to go to mass this morning—I actually trekked through Montpelier, Vermont yesterday, to seek out a Catholic church and to find out what time mass was this morning. But instead, I found myself consorting with the Mormons of Montpelier.
I’m in Vermont, getting my fourth master’s degree—I just can’t seem to leave school—an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults. It’s a low-residency program so I’ve been here for ten days, studying with a group of fellow children’s writers, some who happen to be Mormon. When two of them said they were going to church in the morning with a group of other Mormons at the college, I figured here was my chance. I’d never go to an LDS church alone—yes, I’m chicken, mostly because I don’t want the good people in the congregation to think I’m an “Investigator,” a term I heard from the LDS pulpit today, which I took to mean as someone Investigating the idea of converting to the church.
And maybe I wouldn’t go alone because I didn’t know what to expect.
There was a big group of us from Vermont College who were going and not everybody knew I wasn’t Mormon. Martine, a well-known writer of y.a. books, and a sweet lady, saw me in the van and said, “I didn’t know you were LDS, Jessica,” and I said, “I’m not, so y’all will have to hold my hand,” and she very sweetly said, “We will…and we’ll kiss it.”
When we got there and saw the service bulletin, Amy groaned and said, “I’m sorry, Jessica, a brother from the High Council is speaking today. We call them the ‘Dry Council.’ They are not known for rousing sermons.”
And boy, were they right. His sermon was a real snoozer, all about the duties that President Hinckley had recently reminded church members to do. He focused particularly on the importance of missionary work for young men ages 18-24 (I think I remember the ages correctly.)
His sermon wasn’t the only snoozer. So were the two sermons by members of the church—a 12-year-old boy who spoke on the duties of the deacons (which, as it turns out, are positions held by 12 & 13-year-old boys) and a brother in the church who spoke on the importance of using the newly provided blue envelopes for “fast offerings.” Mormons fast one Sunday a month; the offerings collected from fasting (which is the money you would have spent on food that day) goes to the poor and needy in the ward.
Anyway, despite the dull sermons, the service itself was interesting to observe, partly because of how similar it was to a Baptist church service—for example, we opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers,” a hymn every good Protestant knows, and continued singing hymns I was familiar with—but also how different it was. For example, for communion, they passed around bread—and then water. I have seen grape juice substituted for wine in tee-totaling churches like the Southern Baptists but I have never seen the next step removed from grape juice.
Amy asked me if I’d told Chris I was coming to a Mormon church today. I said no, but added, “He won’t be surprised, though. I’m always doing things like this.” I didn’t mention it to her, but I was reminded of the time I camped out for a few days with 5000-6000 Zulus who follow the Way of Shembe, a church that provides healing to followers with Vaseline which Shembe blesses, and which they use as both a prophylactic and a cure.
Afterwards, Martine asked me if I’ve always been a seeker. She wasn’t referring specifically to the Mormon church, simply asking me where my interest in matters of faith lies and why I would choose to spend my Sunday morning going to an LDS church service in Montpelier, Vermont.
“That’s a really complicated answer,” I told her, “and I’m writing a book about it right now. But the short version is that I really care about the injustice in the world, and I think anybody who cares about injustice also really wants to know if redemption is possible, and if there is such a thing as justice, grace, and mercy in the world.”
“Mercy and justice,” she said, shaking her head. “Those are two really different things.”
“True,” I said. “If it came down to it, I’d rather have mercy without justice than justice without mercy.”
“Me, too,” she said. “Me, too.”
I look for grace, mercy, and justice in the world, but I struggle with institutions, and the church is an institution. I understand that most people who seek redemption need some kind of structure in which to seek it and, hence, the need for churches. But I believe the structure distorts the redemptive message as often as it transmits it. And that’s not okay with me.
As we were leaving the church, Martine said, “Well, Jessica, I think God really loves seekers.”
“I sure hope so,” I said. “Because I’ve been seeking for most of my life.”
It was an interesting way to spend the day. I want to thank Amy and Lindsay for graciously telling me it was okay to come when I said I wanted to, and for not making fun of me when I asked all my questions about appropriateness, like, “Can I wear makeup?” and “Is my denim skirt okay?” etc.