Utah is a unique place. It is distinctly American. Yet its makeup, around 60% Mormons, is its biggest cultural identifying factor. It’s not just Utah that has its quirks though, plusses and minuses. I have lived in several states. Each had its own flavor. Everywhere I have been has things I liked more than others. These experiences helped me understand how to write “Sterling Bridge,” my novel based on the true story of Sterling Harris, who is credited for bridging to rival communities, making them as one despite stark differences, during the Great Depression. Living among Mormons is not as different a challenge today as you might think.
I have lived in California with its sunny coasts, active lifestyle, spendthrift exuberance, and frantic pace. It is a little too much city for me, but that’s just a personal preference as much of the rest of this paragraph will be. I liked Indiana more than I expected I would. The country life isn’t my style either, but I learned to enjoy the casual laid-back pleasures. I was in the minority there, being a part of the only Mormon family in town at first, still Christian but not of the predominant protestant born-again persuasion. What kind people they are in the heart of America’s farm country, who embraced us as one of their own. “Once a son of Covington always a son,” as my friends tell me when they beckon me to return and visit. We loved Texas as everyone does if you are there for any amount of time at all, but I was a little young. I just remember “the stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.” It seemed everyone we met there wanted us to love Texas as much as they do. Great branding! I have also lived briefly in Idaho, a more frigid “little Utah” with very down-to-earth people and great outdoor vistas. My favorite state is Minnesota. Yeah, I know the first thing you think is that it is way too cold there. But the people in Minnesota embrace the unique differences of their setting. They are progressive. They get out and enjoy every distinct season. They celebrate winter with ice festivals and snow games, but they know spring and summer will come with hotter days–more than most realize–to go camp in its forests and enjoy its 10,000+ lakes. Oh, I also lived in the Philippines for two years serving a mission for my church. I love those people with a charity beyond all explanation, but I suppose it mostly originated out of serving them. They are a humble people. They have a distinct culture in their food, their climate, and their ways. They are a happy people. They taught me much to know about coming together as a people to love life and friends and family (and food), under any and all circumstances.
“Sterling Bridge” tackles the challenge of living among Mormons in a time and place where I imagine Mormons made up more than 80% of the people. If they could figure out how to get along back during the Great Depression when the disparity in people and practices was even greater, we most certainly can overcome any difficulties we face now. If you don’t live in Utah, as I didn’t spend much time here, myself, until about the last 15 years, it would be largely a mystery as to what it is like to live in Utah, based on the random information and stereotypes thrown about on the internet or in the media. Although the gem that is Utah is being discovered, for more than just its skiing, after the olympics, and other highlights of the area, such as its thriving start-up business environment, and known spotlight figures ties to Utah, such as Mitt Romney.
When a film group made “Meet the Mormons,” they set out to the other side of the country, New York, with a simple question. What are Mormons? The main connecting word that came to mind was “Utah,” but there were very differing ideas about what goes on in the life of a Mormon and by extension in the land of Utah. Let’s face it, most do not know much about who Mormons really are. Fret about why Mormons serve missions if you believe its not right for Mormons to try to convert Christians to their religion, seeing how we are all Christians to begin with, but maybe getting to know Mormons is about getting to know something more. Maybe when Mormons get out of themselves they are sincerely answering the call to be less exclusive. It kind of boggles my mind that Americans know so little about a religion that can easily claim to have benefitted the most from the religious founding of America. In our short few hundred years of history as a country, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has developed out of the religious freedoms the land of the brave and home of the free engendered. That climate led to meteoric growth for a church claiming to be a restoration of a fulness of truths, tenets, authority, and ordinances of the actual ancient church our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ established himself. That’s a bold claim. I would go as far to say that it could be attributed as the main cause for both the origins of the said church’s success as well as its toughest criticisms.
How does a people establish a unique culture that both sets them apart and is all inclusive, anyway? Answer: It can’t. But the state of Utah can do a lot more than it is. We can do more to share in each other’s unique ways, respect different beliefs and views, and if we cannot be as one when it comes to religion, perhaps as Utahns, we can be.
First, let’s identify the challenges that existed during the time period of “Sterling Bridge,” that covers, Tooele, Utah from 1926-1934. It was a simpler time (as far as lifestyle goes), which makes it easier to pull out the common basic factors that are at the center of it all, still today: 1) Mormons are the majority; 2) Mormon activities make up a large part of the cultural offering in Utah; 3) Mormons often know what is going on in the area first; 4) Mormons take it for granted that others may not have been informed; 5) Mormons don’t always know their neighbors. They don’t often see them at the activities they attend, in order to really get to know them. 6) Mormons are busily engaged with church obligations as their church is a lay ministry (not a paid clergy so members must volunteer a lot of time to serve in administering the church). 7) Mormons occupy most of the political, school, and other community positions. 8) Mormons worry about either coming on too strong or not strong enough. We want to share what our lives are about and what we offer, if others want to hear it and can respect our place in the world. 9) Fear, not faith, unfortunately is a driving force where some Mormons sometimes fear their neighbors values will rub off on them or their children, more than their desired way of life will influence others for better. 10) Hence, other citizens struggle to find ways to be involved in the mainstream playing, planning, and execution of interactions with the community as a greater whole. But not all. Some jump right in. Naturally, the main factor in all of this stems from number one. The majority makes the rules, written and unwritten. And I would argue that this is the case whether you live in Portland, Utah, California, or Iceland. When in Rome, they say…But let’s not just say that is all that is needed!
We could say it is what it is, which in some ways is how it will always be in a democratic society that favors the majority (I’m even sure some extreme Mormons might wish that they could keep Utah all to themselves forever in every way). We could say as I have heard from an extreme frustrated minority voice (shall we say anti-Mormon) that we should ban Mormons from having any involvement in civic anything. Or both groups can look for ways to live alongside each other and maybe even find important common ground to not just tolerate each other, but rather enjoy each other for those similar aspects of who we are, as I found was very possible when I was the minority in Covington, Indiana. The good news is that Utah has been trending this way for a long time. Most of the difficulties are not because Mormons and their neighbors do not want to be friendly with each other. When there is a problem it usually comes from not realizing that we are not including each other in like-minded functions and pastimes. In other words, it comes from an oversight, not from apathy or malicious intent. Both the inviter and the invitee can do better to make it successful between parties involved. Rather than blame, let’s take credit to do something about it.
In “Sterling Bridge” the main character doesn’t care if you are Mormon, Catholic, or Atheist. It doesn’t matter if you just came from Herzegovina or your great grandpa was one of the first to cross the plains and settle the frontier. Can you learn? Will you play football for him and your team, give your best, and rally around a common cause? He could care less if your accent sounds funny as long as you are trying to communicate the language of the land so that others can attempt to understand you. You see it takes a little on our part to try to fit in and a little on other’s part to accept us for what we bring to the table. Are you easily offended? You like to stir the pot and make offense? Or are you the type of person who not only can fit in where others can’t, but you lead the way to embracing others, even making others feel welcome around you. You can build a bridge of respect, genuine concern, and care and love for people of any caste, clique, or cast-off crowd.
Does it take a hardship such as the Great Depression for people to realize they need each other? Or can we learn from the past, and not let history repeat itself. A common theme in the Book of Mormon: Another testament of Jesus Christ is the pride cycle. When we prosper as a nation under God we are on the verge of a fall, unless we listen to the lessons to be learned, humble ourselves, and give credit to our maker for the opportunities, the abilities, and the blessings that have brought us to where we are. When we think we are better than others we are the ones placing ourselves on a pedestal, and the comparison could not be more far off when we see clearly–being silly in the eye’s of God who knows all men have a long ways to go. When we get complacent and don’t work on improving we are not progressing, which by the way is the whole point of life anyway, to become better. Everyone has unique strengths and weaknesses. It is up to us to see each other as we are, accepting our imperfections, but also not expecting no better, in the future, from one another. We can build each other up without giving or taking offense if both people choose to encourage such behavior. We should be forever learning and always implementing those improvements. Who we are now is not who we should be a thousand tomorrows from now. We are children of an eternal God who sees endless potential in us, His handiwork. He cannot fail, if we give ourselves over to Him by having a love of God and of all men, but we can fail Him. Let’s not fail each other! Let’s see the good in the world, help each other out by lifting our sights and our heights, and be the good in the world.