A non-Mormon’s guide to Utah

Posted by on Aug 27, 2012 in Religion | Comments Off on A non-Mormon’s guide to Utah

Several months ago I received a fantastic opportunity: a dissertation fellowship at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center.  The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation Fellowship in Mormon Studies is intended to support my dissertation work on evolving LDS identities in the internet age.  I’ll be in residence at the U in Salt Lake City for a year.

I arrived in Utah late Wednesday night, unpacked all day Thursday, and became acquainted with my new office on campus on Friday; but– since today is Monday — I’m considering this my “first week” in Utah.  I am not Mormon, and I’ve not spent time in Utah (nor elsewhere in the intermountain west) for more than a couple of days at a time (for academic conferences on two occasions) so to say this has been a new cultural experience so far would be a laughable understatement.  My plan is to blog my experience to keep track of interesting cultural and religious happenstances– my own “Mormon moments”.

On Thursday, I took my daughter to the local public elementary school for enrollment (she’ll be starting kindergarten next week).  At this point we’d been in Utah less than 24 hours.  The office staff was bustling in preparation for the start of a new school year, but took time to visit with us briefly.  One nice woman, hearing we had just moved to Utah, asked with a smile: “Are you LDS?”  The question might have been surprising, but when my husband had called the school weeks before to ask about enrollment, he’d been asked the same thing. Even in Bible-belt Tulsa, where we’re originally from, I cannot imagine a public school administrator asking such a blunt question about religious affiliation. If our apartment staff had asked the question, it would have been illegal– a violation of fair housing laws. And the school is, again, a public one.  At the time, I answered that we’re not LDS but had moved to the area for work.  Still… I continue to wonder what my “no” answer signified in this particular moment.  Will my daughter’s teacher ask the question?  Will it have implications for her first experience of school?

Later that day, as we filled out paperwork for enrollment, my daughter was given a bright orange nylon backpack containing various school supplies and a card identifying it as a donation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This was less surprising; the school is a Title I school, and I could imagine a parallel, say, from Catholic Charities or some other religious group in a different cultural context.  My husband remarked, tongue-in-cheek, “Well, this isn’t Kansas,” paralleling the donation with one given to students in one particular school district in Kansas, where students receive $100 Visa check cards from the local casino.  The impulse, I suppose, is the same.

Our other Mormon moments thus far involve driving blindly through one SLC suburb looking for somewhere, anywhere, open on Sunday for lunch (we stopped at two places with “Open on Sunday” signs, and both were closed!); shelves of Books of Mormon and other books written by LDS authorities in the local Sam’s Club (where mainline Christian devotional books had been in New Jersey or Oklahoma); and an entire aisle at the local grocery store dedicated to food storage and “Emergency Preparedness”.

Looking forward to many, many more Mormon moments…