Mormon for a Morning: Peter Meets the Local Mormons
Peter Tatara - July 21, 2006
Not long ago, maybe on a Tuesday, there was a knock at my door. I wasn't expecting anyone nor did I hear anyone being buzzed in. Looking through my keyhole, I saw two women. I've lived in my apartment building for just over a year, but with new tenants always coming and going and my general antisocial disposition, there are a good number of faces I don't recognize. I figured the ladies at my door had just moved in and were inviting me to a building-wide potluck dinner, wine tasting, or orgy. I'd be game for any of the three.
"Hello," I said, opening the door.
"Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?" the taller women smiled. The shorter woman held up a copy of The Book of Mormon.
Shit. Mormons. There were Mormons at my door. I talked with the two ladies for some time. They wanted me to go to Mormon Church with them on Sunday morning. I wanted to sleep. And as interesting as it was debating whether my immortal soul will or will not go to hell (depending solely on if I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), there was a rather pressing World Cup game going on in the other room.
The taller woman, I learned, was from Los Angeles. Whenever she spoke, her lips twisted up into a painfully excessive grin. It looked fake, but I felt it would have been rude to ask if she smiled as she did because she loved Jesus that much or if standing on the doorstep of a heathen brought her such shame she had to hide it was a faux grin. The shorter woman came to my door from Mexico City. She didn't talk much.
The women were nice, and their promise of eternal salvation was tempting, but I imagined there was more to Mormonism than the sunshine and puppy dogs they were letting on. I spent my adolescence studying up on the batshit insane inner workings of the Church of Scientology (please google "Xenu"), and I was similarly suspicious there was a catch to becoming a Mormon like castration or worshiping the Demon of Lesser Light, Itzpapalotl.
However, I figured that if I'm going to eventually have a showdown with Scientology (and I am), I should practice every chance I can get. I accepted the Mormons' invitation. After a moment of disbelief, the taller woman said she'd be waiting outside the Church for me. The Mormons left, I locked my door, and I pondered if I should have invited them in and offered them a Coke or something, but I didn't know if I had anything Mormons could drink.
The football game, Germany vs. Argentina, ended 4-2 after two overtimes and penalty kicks. Germany won.
As the week reclined into the weekend, I asked friends and neighbors if they'd like to come with me to Mormon Church. I got silence, sighs, and stares. My girlfriend warned me we'd be through if I converted. My grandmother warned me she'd have a heart attack. My search to find a theological wingman wasn't going well; however, at the same time, my research into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was proving to be as fruitful as a fruit basket in the middle of a valley filled with fruit in the middle of fruit-picking season. (That is to say, quite fruitful.) I learned that Mormons believe in polygamy and that by following The Book of Mormon's teachings, you get mystical, god-like powers. I also learned Mormons believe drinking coffee and tea is a sin and masturbation is a crime which should be punished the same as murder. Now, I'm all for Jedi Mind Tricks and harems, but the price -- no Arizona iced tea after a mid-morning JO session -- is pretty steep.
I was divided, but I told the women I'd come to Mormon Church with them, and while I may be a latte-drinking mass murderer, I keep my promises. So, come Sunday morning, I put on a nice shirt and some clean pants and went out to face the Mormons.
Their Church was twenty or so blocks away, located in an impoverished, crack den area of Queens. I wasn't exactly sure where the Church was as the taller woman had scribbled down multiple addresses and told me, "It's one of these." But, surrounded by quaint, boarded-up hovels, it wasn't hard for me to find the decidedly unhovel-like Church of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But, as I neared, my eyes focused on a large notice posted on the building's door. Was this the Mormon equivalent to Martin Luther's 95 Theses? Did I bear witness to the founding of a dissenting faction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which split off because of its love of coffee and/or the bliss that can only be described as holy that accompanies one after masturbating to the point of exhaustion? Nope. Rather, an unknown party recently set fire to the Church, its services now being held at the Mormon community center located across the street. Huh. While the Mormons believe some pretty crazy things, they seemed to be pretty nice people. The gravity of the fire made me reconsider writing a stilted recollection of my encounter with them. Temporarily.
Stepping up to the Mormon community center, I didn't spy anyone at the door. Neither the taller nor the shorter woman from earlier in the week stood ready to greet me. Moving on, I found the interior similarly barren. I checked my watch. The service was scheduled to begin at 9:00 AM. It was now 8:49. Wandering about, I came to a gymnasium, its only occupants a series of chairs set up before an empty stage. Turning about, I figured I had won. No women greeted me, and even more, there were no Mormons at all in sight.
But, as I headed back toward the door, I found a man in a suit approaching me. He introduced himself as a temple elder, although he was no more than 30, and began to question why I was there. I introduced myself and explained a tall Mormon woman from LA invited me. He, no longer sensing a violent, pale loner with a intimacy with the components of a Molotov cocktail, looked at me with new eyes, seeing a soul to be saved. He handed me some literature, encouraging me to sit down, and went on his way to prepare for the morning's Mass. I picked a folding chair cautiously not too close to the stage, but not too far away as to give the impression I was going to bolt at 9:01 AM.
Speaking of the time, it was now 8:53, and I was alone, save the elder, in the room. A number of thoughts went through my head, concepts and scenarios which resulted in me being the only person in the gym. Tossing out two dozen schemes I deemed unlikely due to their reliance on the Monkey Man who terrified India throughout 2001, I concluded that the Mormons were holding a special Mass just for folks who had been invited over the week -- and I was the only infidel to show up. It made sense to me.
I reviewed the pamphlets the elder handed me along with some paperwork given to me by the women who invited me here but were now nowhere to be seen. The booklets explained the basic tenets of the Mormon religion, something I probably should have explained back when I was talking about Jedi Mind Tricks. See, Mormons believe Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, came to Earth and died for our sins. Through Him, Saint Peter established the Roman Catholic Church and all was good. Then, as centuries passed, the Church lost its way, becoming more concerned with life on Earth than salvation in Heaven. God stopped giving the Papacy divine instruction. New Christian denominations -- Methodism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism -- were established as the faithful tried to find their way back to God. None, though, succeeded.
The Mormons teach that God creates Churches upon the Earth but that every Church will eventually fall deaf to God's voice. Actually, this whole thing about pure faith turning into a fatty institution isn't too crazy. Of course, this is where things start to get crazy. It's into this world without God's guidance that young American explorer Joseph Smith meets two angels who instruct him to found a new Church -- the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Smith is then guided by the angel Moroni to discover a series of golden plates buried over 1,400 years ago nearby his home in Palmyra, New York that contain the further teachings of Jesus Christ, recorded by Israelite prophets who traveled to North America around 600 BC. Smith can't read the tablets, but with the help of two magic stones, he's able to divine their meaning and publishes an English translation, The Book of Mormon. Smith later returns the plates to Moroni, leaving no actual evidence of their existence, marries 33 women, and founds the city of Nauvoo, Illinois. When the city's non-Mormon residents publish a newspaper critical of him, Smith has their printing press destroyed and declares martial law. Smith is soon killed by a mob of men frustrated with his repeated advances toward their wives. The Mormons leave Nauvoo and found a new city, Salt Lake City, outside the territorial United States.
The Mormon flyers were filled with hefty excerpts praising their founder and faith; however, looking at their citations, I came to find their quotes were cherry picked from throughout The Bible and rearranged to apply to Joseph Smith. It all looked mighty convincing until I realized every excerpt was out of context. It was all fake.
I pondered sending the papers to some professor friends for review and asking them to forward the flyers, each adorned with a large, red F, to Salt Lake.
It was now well past 9:00 AM, and I was still the only one seated in the gym. I flipped though a Mormon hymn book, reading a passage about how hymns should be sung at work, on the road, during picnics, and before and after meals. I also learned hymns should be sung whenever temptation is near -- which I can only imagine means when passing a Starbucks or after seeing Keira Knightley dressed as a swashbuckling pirate wench in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. I started thinking about Keira Knightley dressed as a swashbuckling pirate wench.
"It's pretty hot here in the Caribbean," I told the Keira in my mind. "Why don't you lose your vest?"
"And why don't you lose your pants?" she, with a cat-like grin, replied.
Tragically, it was at this moment, just as Keira was leaning in to walk my plank, that Mormons began to trickle into the gym. While they may claim to be God's chosen people, they knew nothing about punctuality. It was 9:07. I shook hands with various elders, bishops, wizards, and prophets who all took to the stage as well as men, women, and children dressed up in suits, ties, and prom dresses.
Further, tapped on the back, I turned around to find the grimacing face of the woman responsible for me being here. The woman from LA was ecstatic to see me and immediately sat down to my right. Another Mormon woman quickly took up the seat on my left. Both spoke, giggled, and smiled at me, absolutely giddy that I was there. I couldn't help but feel there was something overtly flirtatious about the chatter, as if displaced sexuality was being funneled into the women's faith a la 1984.
Around 9:19, the Mass began. No crosses, tapestries, robes, or rarified incense. No reading from The Bible nor The Book of Mormon. No lectures. No sermons. No homilies. Nothing religious at all, it was a civic affair. The first half of the Mass was composed of a reading of announcements, a laundry list of events including youth group meetings, ice cream socials, and a community picnic. The second half of the service was occupied by men and women of the congregation taking the stage to testify how Mormon Jesus changed their lives. Then, at 10 AM, it was over.
That's it? Nope.
After the Mass had ended, various Mormons approached to speak with the outsider. The Mormon woman who invited me beamed and beamed.
"Are you married?" a man asked.
"Huh? No. Why?" I replied.
The crowd gasped and turned to the woman at my side.
"I didn't go into his apartment!" she screamed. "I stayed at his doorstep! I didn't go in!"
Apparently, it's taboo for an unwed woman in the Mormon Church to enter an unwed man's home. Kinda like vampires. Kinda.
The Mormons settled down. Then, gradually, I noticed that while older men and women were gravitating toward me, the young, single men in the room were orbiting around the woman who invited me. The men asked the woman to go to dinner, to a movie, and to a nondescript motel down the street. Each outing, of course, was to talk about Jesus. The woman was given cards, pictures, and candy. I watched as sexuality forbade by doctrine begged for release in the language of religion.
I came close to whispering to the more pathetic of the flock some pointers to help get into the woman's prayer book. Before I could, though, I was led away to the Mormon's second Mass. None of the pamphlets mentioned this.
Growing up Roman Catholic, I was used to giving one hour to God and being good for the week. It soon became apparent the civic service I had just attended was a warmup for what was to come. Led from the gymnasium into a subterranean meeting room, I was sat down before a long table, surrounded by young Mormons. I was told this Mass, for those new to the Mormon faith, was but one of several, and as one's spiritual journey progresses, one is allowed entrance to new, higher, more holy services. And so I sat for the next hour as acolyte Mormons were instructed in the dogma of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Today's topic was baptism or confirmation or something. I forget. What I do remember is that there was a lot of reading from The Book of Mormon and more dubious, excerpted passages. Everyone was cheerful through the service, smiling and laughing as they spoke about what it means to be a Mormon and how only Mormons go to heaven. Eh?
When the second Mass ended, I planned on making my escape, but my plan was as fruitful as a fruit basket in the middle of a valley not filled with fruit in the middle of not-fruit-picking season. (That is to say, not fruitful.) Instead, I was guided into the morning's third service, this one segregated by sex. I sat in on the congregation's male members' rousing discussion of the minutia of the Mormon faith. I learned some things:
1) Every Mormon man should carry a vial of oil with him at all times to perform emergency blessings, but that oil must be olive oil or it won't conduct God's power. I was told God didn't care if it was virgin or extra virgin.
2) A blessing made "through the power of Jesus Christ" is holy, but a blessing made "with the power of Jesus Christ" is not. I was told that, despite such particulars, God can hear payers in Spanish and French. Probably not Chinese, though.
3) George Washington was a Mormon. No, not in life, but his soul was baptized in Salt Lake City in 1898. See, while the Mormons make up less than 1% of the world's population and succeed in getting doors slammed in their faces rather more than they do in spreading their faith, they have a secret weapon to convert the Earth -- The Baptism of the Dead. No body required, either. A Japanese Mormon who really wanted to screw the woman who knocked on my door spoke of how he was going to baptize the souls of his entire family tree so that all his ancestors could rise into the Mormon Elysium from the inky swamp Buddhists sink to when they die. A bishop reminded the Japanese man to wear white underpants or the baptism wouldn't count.
The clock struck 12. The Mormons gathered in the hall. Most were going off to a communal lunch or private spiritual study. I ducked out and ran home, but nearly the moment I returned to my apartment, I received the first of many phone calls. The Mormons wanted me to come to a Fourth of July celebration. More, they wanted to introduce me to Meredith, a nice, single Mormon girl. I said I was seeing someone. The Mormon on the other end proceeded to give me Meredith's phone number. I was told my current relationship was empty next to the relationship in Christ I'd have with Meredith.
"But I like my girlfriend," I said. "She's cute. And Asian."
I was given Meredith's phone number again.
I started to avoid picking up my phone, but whenever I let it ring, the Mormons left messages. They told me they wanted to see me again. They told me they wanted to know when I was coming back. They told me they wanted to give me a copy of The Book of Mormon and a vial of oil. They told me they were praying for me and insisted that I pray, too. So, I did. I went to Mormon Church to keep a promise, but I had no intention of taking it any further. They were nice people, but it was time to end this. In the middle of Madison Square Park, just before a meeting with Saint Martin's Press, I folded my hands and prayed the way the Mormons told me to.
The Mormons all told me when they prayed to God, they were told the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was their path. When I prayed, God, the Universe, or my subconscious answered. Calling the woman who first invited me back, I told her simply that while she has great conviction and is absolute in her faith, my spiritual journey is down a different road.
"I believe in your belief," I said. "But I have another route to the divine."
I heard her flipping through a book to find a response to counter my words, but because I was more cordial than to pepper my speech with "crazy," "nuts," and "insane," she came back empty, conceding to me. She invited me to come back whenever I felt like it. I said something that sounded like an agreement and hung up.
Thus ends my encounter with the Mormons, followers of a Church which preaches every Church will stray.
Actually, the story doesn't end there. Since the breakup, I've encountered the Mormons twice more, bumping into them at a local carnival and on the subway as I was on my way to buy some cream puffs. They'll probably be waiting for me when I tour Governors Island this weekend. Coincidence? Divine intervention? Cause for a restraining order?