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Op-ed: What we do makes us 'Christian' Mormons

People leave the 187th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 1, 2017.
People leave the 187th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 1, 2017.
Laura Seitz, Deseret news

Editor's note: This essay is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

As a freshman, I was invited to perform at the annual large-donor dinner for the Jesuit University I attended. Over the course of the meal, my seat-mate asked about spiritual life on campus. “Oh. Well, it seems very nice, but I’m a Mormon.”

He looked violated. “You people aren’t Christian,” he asserted.

Having heard the accusation from evangelical friends, I was all too familiar with the charge. I explained our official name and the foundational role Jesus plays in our theology.

“No. I’m not talking about that,” he interrupted. “I lived in Utah for years. Once people realized we weren’t becoming Mormon, they didn’t give me or my kids the time of day. Your church’s name doesn’t make you Christian. What you do does.”

I tried to improve his impression of our community, but the damage was done. He said while I was nice, he knew Mormonism in action better than I did.

That night, disappointment lingered in my thoughts. In my congregation, we worked with the local Catholic parish, stocking their food pantry and gathering gifts for kids in the children’s home at Christmas. We cleaned riverbeds, painted schools and playgrounds. We participated in an inter-faith network to provide housing for homeless families as they found their feet. What was most upsetting about his assertion was I knew exactly what he was talking about, and it had little or nothing to do with our actual doctrine.

The interaction escaped my thoughts until last week when I happened upon this blog post by a woman who lives in Gilbert, Arizona. In it, she pleads with her Mormon neighbors to stop excluding non-Mormon families, just as hers was excluded growing up.

As a community, we often bond over our peculiar sameness: Large families, choices in entertainment, clothing, beverages and weekend activities are only the beginning. While many of these cultural habits are sanctioned by doctrine or policy, many more have sprung up from the largely common shared heritage of members in the Mountain West. Moreover, the cultural memory of mobs and forced migration predisposes us to rely heavily on one another. When people stray from that sameness, many in our ranks willingly label what is different as unwelcome.

We are not alone — majority communities frequently struggle to welcome newcomers. But an impulse to exclude by some, whether conscious or not, isn’t just reserved for those not of our faith. Sometimes it's done within our ranks. We might struggle to include those Christ felt most important to minister to: people who, for whatever reason, are different from ourselves or marginalized in society.

LDS Church members of color, women without children, gay Mormons, those who struggle with physical or mental illness, liberals, stay-at-home-dads and single parents can feel isolated in our congregations. But all saints and neighbors are deserving of love and fellowship.

Failing to love others makes us less worthy to bear Christ’s name. Today, Latter-day Saints no longer have the burdens or the benefits of being isolated or insular. It is incumbent upon us, as Christians and as members of a global community, to reach out in sincere displays of love and friendship, uplifting those around us unrelated to church membership, political party, ability to have children or racial and cultural heritage. The integration of musical, culinary, cultural and even spiritual traditions that do not conflict with our doctrine strengthens us as a community.

In the Book of Mormon we read that God’s wisdom has been disbursed to “… all the nations of the earth.” While we enjoy the blessings of the restored gospel, this is a productive faith based on an open canon. We benefit from new ideas, traditions and insights. Those of diverse backgrounds and faiths add depth to the well of knowledge held within Mormonism. At this time of uncertainty, we will add greater stability and joy by welcoming in those who are different — whether or not they share our pews.

Like my seat-mate so many years ago realized, many of our challenges aren’t doctrinal, they’re cultural. We should all minister as Christ ministered, not always among the clean, comfortable, safe and familiar but among those marginalized and forgotten. Opening our hearts and embracing the “other” shouldn’t be an act of condescension. We must recognize that God has given the “other” experiences, perspectives and challenges that can illuminate who we truly are. True Christianity demands it.

Charity Tillemann-Dick is a best-selling Billboard classical artist, writer and presenter. Her memoir, "The Encore," will be released by Atria Books and Simon & Schuster this fall.