Going through my email address book, trying to figure out a guest list for a small party, I came to a few conclusions that caused me a bit of consternation. First, as I compared the marrieds and singles columns, I realized that many of my good friends are getting married off. Not that I want this trend to stop. Quite the contrary, but I won’t bore you with those details. Second, I realized that everyone came from an LDS faith tradition. And third, I intuited that if I were indeed to invite someone who was not intimately knowledgeable as to LDS culture, they might feel very excluded in this particular circle of friends.
I was reminded of a conversation with an old friend who was an Air Force officer. We were talking about the plethora of activities in the YSA ward, and how lucky it was that there was something to do almost any night of the week. He said, “You know, the church is a lot like the military when it comes to social circles.” When I quizzed him about this remarkable statement, he clarified by stating, “Both the church and the military are very exclusive worlds. Self-sustained and perpetuated. Officers and their wives generally fulfill all the social needs of their peers, with little need to venture very far.”
Fast forward to three years ago, when I serving penance for past wrongs by being the activities chair in my family ward. Being a newly transplanted YSA ward reject, without a co-chair, I was easy fodder for a ward where the mentality seemed to be that singles had loads and loads of free time because they didn’t have kids. Never mind that I worked full-time, had to be my own “wife”, and was trying my best to date around and be social with people that I didn’t already live with. (Note: I’m not trying to demonize, I’m merely quoting). Anyway, so there I was. An activity once a quarter, then the weekly summer picnics with end-of-summer chili cook-off, and the ward reunion party in December. Doesn’t sound like too much, does it? But getting ward members to come to activities was like pulling teeth. Not that I blamed them … what with church Sundays, FHE on Mondays, boy scouts, YW and YM activities, church sports, primary activities, and Enrichment activities. I felt that the average member was activitied-out. So I was never really suprised when the turnout at activities was abysmal, even when they were tailored to support the talents and abilities of those we were trying to “reactivate.” Most of the time I managed to pad the numbers out to twenty people by pleading with friends to come and support me. (Note: I did learn to find dependable people to delegate certain things to, and was very lucky to get some help from some dynamic ward old-timers who flogged the rest of the ward into helping with the reunion dinner)
So, being concerned that I was getting trapped in an LDS bubble, I decided I’d try to be more social at work, and attend the Critical Care Christmas Party this year. Got dressed up and drove out to a ritzy country club for the Hawaiian luau themed party. And it was fun to see everyone dressed up and on their best behavior, see spouses and significant others, eat some island food and let loose on the dance floor. But as the night grew older and the drinks flowed more liberally, I felt out of place again. By 2300, when the dancing had more grinding than side-stepping (sadly, no swing or salsa dancing in view … and I looked), I’d had enough of trying to socialize and drove home and finished a good book.
So what is this inability to mix two worlds? I’ll be the first to admit that I am an introvert, and like to be approached rather than approach in any social situation. Are LDS people less able to socially interact with non-members because our social needs are more than met with members? Does the Word of Wisdom prohibition on strong drink make us leery of spending time with those who imbibe? Do members show up late to activities and parties late because we don’t drink? Anyone who would refute this has yet to feel the pain of being one of the first five or ten people to a party (sans significant other). Would non-members be as awkward at parties if they didn’t drink?
And I would like to clarify that I do think that a small degree of insularity is a good thing. Especially with children and teens. During formative and tumultuous years, it can be comforting to be surrounded by those who believe and act according to an agreed upon set of cultural constraints. However, even then I would argue that there are amazing opportunities for growth and learning when we’re able to interact and appreciate and learn from those who differ from ourselves. I went to church a handful of times with some of my very good non-member friends, who in turn came with me to countless church youth dances.
So, as much as I appreciate the ward-level social services, I have reservations. Would fewer activities give members a bit of breathing room to enjoy life? Would more interfaith and community-based service projects help integrate LDS congregations into their geographic boundaries, and maybe make missionary work easier? And does anyone have any helpful hints about making small talk?