By David Carlson
“Brother Carlson, you’ve been called to be the softball coach.” The announcement was from my neighbor, Dave Dahle, who had phoned on a Sunday evening to report that agenda item of the ward elders’ meeting. The message was two-pronged.
It indicated that I was to coach the ten- and eleven-year-old girls softball team, but it also indicated that my neighbor trusted me with an inside joke. By jokingly calling me “brother,” a term otherwise reserved for his LDS brethren, he was acknowledging that I had been accepted by my LDS neighbors, my fellow ward members.
Brother Carlson, you’ve been called to be the softball coach.
It was a high compliment. David Dahle and his wife had been assigned by the LDS church (the Mormons) to be our shepherds when we moved into the neighborhood in Logan, Utah. Of course at the time we didn’t know this. We just assumed they were being good neighbors.
And they were good neighbors. Their oldest daughter was the same age as Krissa and they had become friends. I had heard that there would be a meeting to discuss organizing softball, and I had informed David that if needed I was available to coach. Hence the phone call.
Perhaps this all sounds odd. The Mormon Church (in Utah at least) leaves little to chance. Very nearly every decision is filtered through the church. If you’re not a member of the church (we were only one of two families in our ward that were not) it leaves you a bit out of the loop. My neighbor was representing my interest in this case. It was not always so.
The Mormon Church (in Utah at least) leaves little to chance. Very nearly every decision is filtered through the church.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church was the only Lutheran church in town. Pat and I saw it for the first time when the Dahles were giving us a tour of our new home. We were driving around Utah State University, where I was to pursue a graduate degree, when we drove past the church, just across the street from the USU campus.
Our fears were confirmed. It was Missouri Synod. We had both been raised in the “other” Lutheran church and had inherited all the incumbent suspicions of Missouri Lutherans. But we were stuck with it–it would become our lifeline for the next six years.
We had both been raised in the “other” Lutheran church and had inherited all the incumbent suspicions of Missouri Lutherans.
There were other Christian churches in Logan. The Catholic church was not far down the street from Holy Trinity. There was a small Assemblies of God church not far from where we lived. The largest was probably the Presbyterian church. And then there were the Southern Baptists.
Maranatha Baptist met on the campus of USU when we first arrived. They were later to purchase an old Mormon church which had been vacated for a newer one. The old church was located on Main Street and the Baptists proceed to construct a very large cross on their front lawn. You will never see a cross in a Mormon church (this is another story) and the Maranatha Baptist cross was representative of their attitude.
Whereas other Christians often took a lower profile (the Presbyterian church was the community church for non-Mormons), the Baptists chose to be visible. I would get to know many of them as they opened a Christian bookstore in town that I often visited. I loved the Baptists.
Holy Trinity was small. Most of the members were associated with the university and most were relocated from the Midwest. We had a smattering of ex-Mormons; mostly they had married in.
Holy Trinity was small.
So we were a small flock. We pretty much did everything together–out of necessity, as we were largely isolated from our neighbors who did virtually everything (from softball to PTA to local government) within the LDS church. Logan was more than 90% Mormon.
I loved Holy Trinity. I had never before and have not since experienced a church so tightly bound together. As I said, we had little choice. Of course, it was not without its conflicts.
I had never before and have not since experienced a church so tightly bound together.
We had our squabbles and we were led by a pastor who was in the process of sabotaging his marriage–which before it was done would include adultery, divorce, and dismissal from the pastoral ministry. But we were bound together by something greater.
C. S. Lewis has described being a Christian as being an outcast living in enemy-occupied territory. If you were a Christian living in Utah you knew exactly what he meant.
C. S. Lewis has described being a Christian as being an outcast living in enemy-occupied territory.
This is not to say that the Mormons were not good neighbors. They were very good neighbors and I learned to love them mostly. But we were excluded.
If you were a Christian living in Utah you knew exactly what he meant.
There is something liberating about being an outcast. If you were a Christian you had to make a choice. You either proclaimed it boldly (modeled by our Baptist brothers and sisters) or you submerged it.
In Utah wearing a cross was a statement. If you met someone on the street displaying a cross you acknowledged them, and they you. It didn’t matter if they were Baptist or Catholic. And having once self-identified as a Christian it was easier to be the follower Jesus intended us to be.
And having once self-identified as a Christian it was easier to be the follower Jesus intended us to be.
What do I mean? We all know–we hear from our pastors regularly–that we are ambassadors for Christ. This charge is rarely convenient. In Utah a self-identified Christian couldn’t avoid it.
In Utah, if one began a relationship with anyone–a coworker, a student, a neighbor, whatever–it was imperative to establish whether one was or was not LDS. If it wasn’t obvious they would ask.
Mormons have a very clear sense of mission. They are regularly told from as early as they can remember that they are a people set apart. It took me at least three years to get past this but at some point I began to see that this simply was the way it was, and I began to develop relationships within this context.
When I did, I discovered what an enormous blessing it was to be a people set apart. Almost inevitably my neighbors would bring up the topic of religion. They wanted to know what a Lutheran believed.
I discovered what an enormous blessing it was to be a people set apart.
They wanted to know why we would not acknowledge them as fellow Christians when we did acknowledge Baptists and Catholics. This, of course, drove me into Bible study and conversations with my pastor and fellow Christians. My faith multiplied.
My faith multiplied.
It was hard moving back to the Midwest. My prayer for St. Luke has always been that we see ourselves as a people set apart. Strangers in enemy-occupied territory. The lines are less clearly drawn here, but they are real nonetheless.
My prayer for St. Luke has always been that we see ourselves as a people set apart.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, emphasizes the need for fellowship with other Christians. It is absolutely imperative that we regularly meet to support one another, to pray for each other, to confront one another, to provide sanctuary for one another.
But he warns that the greatest threat to the church is that we come to see the church exclusively as sanctuary. It is God’s intention that we not stay within sanctuary but that we learn to be strangers in enemy-occupied territory.
It is God’s intention that we not stay within sanctuary but that we learn to be strangers in enemy-occupied territory.
In Utah, the Mormons guaranteed that you be prepared to give a defense. In the Midwest, the culture asks us to keep it to ourselves. Too often I fear this is a compromise I am willing to make.
Lord, that we had clearer enemies. Lord, that circumstances required us to learn to love our enemies. Lord, that our neighbors demanded a defense and that our sanctuary in proportion increase as blessing.