Posted: January 24, 2012
I lived in South Africa for half of my junior high years, and while I was there I became quite the little patriot. I missed my friends and didn’t know culture shock was normal, and I guess I just assumed that my problems stemmed from the fact that the U.S. was inherently superior to this uncomfortable country in which I found myself. I didn’t exactly choose a great time to, say, start defending American foreign policy in my history classes (yes, this happened)–this was just months after 9/11, and the Bush administration was beginning to launch the war on Iraq. Needless to say, America didn’t look too good overseas. But America was home, which meant it looked great to me. So I refused to use British spelling in school. I stubbornly articulated the “R”s that so lazily tried to drop out at the end of my syllables, delighting the English teacher who always had me read the dialogue in To Kill a Mockingbird so it would sound more “authentic.” I did everything I could to stay American, and to defend my country’s hallowed ground.
Now I cringe when I remember the extent of my nationalism during those years, but somehow my classmates didn’t find me overwhelmingly obnoxious. I was pretty popular at school–if only because I was a novelty–and I built good friendships, some of which continue to this day. On my last day of school before returning to “the States” almost everyone I knew presented me with a handmade card, South African souvenier, or lovingly crafted scrapbook. I was touched. But the most surprising parting gift came from a friend who had been one of the most outspoken critics of The Motherland. As we were hugging goodbye she said to me, “Kat, you make Americans look good… and that’s saying something!”
That comment has stuck with me for almost ten years. As I returned home to California I was inevitably disillusioned with America and Americans (who could have lived up to the idealized image I crafted in South Africa?), and, especially once I began my studies at Westmont, I began to question the place of nationalism in the Christian faith. Let’s just say I’ve been known to start ranting about deism, syncretism, and idolatry while visiting Thomas Jefferson’s church in Williamsburg with my Fox-News-watching relatives (note: this is not the best way to preserve the peace at a family reunion). And, still, my friend’s comment looms large in my memory, sometimes encouraging, sometimes convicting. It’s great that I left that kind of impression with my South African friends, but shouldn’t I be primarily trying to make Christians look good, to make Christ look good?
So that’s what I set out hoping to accomplish at Institute. I would waltz in, win everyone over with my charming personality and “exotic” beliefs, and do it all in the name of Jesus. Easy enough, right? But now, eight months after I first started attending, I’ve made a grand total of two friends, both of whom are now living in Utah.
Most weeks after class I kind of awkwardly roam the “social hour,” maybe engaging in small talk with a few acquaitances, maybe hanging out with the teacher. It’s pretty discouraging. I don’t think the rest of the ward knows what to make of me–it’s clear that I have some kind of reputation, because every time I get introduced to some visiting member of the bishopric he seems to know who I am. But I can’t figure out what that reputation is, except that I think a lot of my classmates are confused as to why I’m there. I know what I’m doing is unusual: I have no interest in converting to Mormonism, but I’m taking their classes and hanging out at some of their events. They don’t really know what to do with me, and I’m sure traditional Christians just aren’t as exciting to Mormons as Americans were to my South African friends (who would sometimes ask me to talk just so they could hear what a movie star sounds like in person).
I’m think I had some unrealistic expectations of what friendships at Institute would look like, and I’m also beginning to think it’s alright that I’m not universally beloved within the Santa Barbara LDS community. I’m not talking about the idea that “Christians should never be popular! Resist peer pressure!”–I simply haven’t earned the right to be an insider in the group. I’m sure part of the reason it’s hard to make friends is that I’m entering–for only a few hours a week–a fairly insular community that seems to do everything together. I don’t have the same context with these people that I had with my friends in South Africa. I certainly don’t think I’ve earned the right to, say, challenge teachers in class about the heterodoxy of Mormon doctrine, something I might have been quick to do in those junior high days. I tried that once at Institute–one week when we were learning about the early Church “apostasy” I raised my hand to set the record straight a little (no, early Christians didn’t worship saints, and, no, they weren’t gnostics–that was a condemned heresy!). But I’ve wondered how helpful that was.
I don’t have the right to be at the center of attention. It’s okay to listen more than I speak, to learn more than I teach. That’s part of what’s interesting about being a student at Institute: to, in a strange way, submit myself to the authority of a teacher I believe is teaching wrongly. And I’m not the same person I was in junior high (thank goodness!). I have a more nuanced understanding of my identity and beliefs, and less of a propensity to be contrary for the sake of being contrarian. I fully identify with the Church, yes, but I also know that our history hasn’t been spotless and I don’t pretend that it has been. I don’t think it would be right to defend Christianity in the same way I once defended the U.S.: with a blind eye to its problems and the blanket assumption that Christians are just better people.
So how do I represent Christ and Christians well? How do I give them a good name without shoving that name in everyone’s faces? I’m still trying to figure that out. But maybe that shouldn’t be my primary reason for going to Institute, at least in this season. Or maybe Christ can be represented well even through relative anonymity, through someone who chooses the more humble position of a student, who accepts the limitations of being a religious minority within a group so accustomed to being minorities themselves. Maybe now’s not a good time to stalwartly defend my own people–we Evangelicals have a reputation of religious aggression among Mormons. Maybe now’s the time to learn more about my Mormon classmates and their faith–not just so I can better anticipate their arguments, but so that I can actually learn from and be challenged by their beliefs. Good interfaith relations leave room for holy envy.
Tonight I will walk into class and awkwardly find a seat next to someone who will greet me with a forced smile and secretly wish they didn’t have to engage with the non-member. And I’ll pray that God somehow allows this weirdo in the corner to be a good learner for His Kingdom.