I arrived at law school early in the morning just like any other day at law school. The building was packed with students as we all headed in every which direction to get to our various classes. I was heading up the stairs of the law school with one of my friends who also happened to be from Utah. That’s when I noticed another law student coming down the stairs with a smudge on his forehead. It looked like he had been checking the oil in his car and then unknowingly rubbed his forehead, leaving a smudge of black grease where his fingers had touched.
The only thing that prevented me from pulling the guy aside to let him know the spot was my natural inclination towards being an introvert. I don’t tend to be the guy who lets the person in front of him know the tag on his shirt is hanging out.
Anyway, as I continued on to class, I started noticing other people with similar smudges on their faces, and I wondered if it was some weird project a teacher had thought up. I asked my friend if he noticed the smudges as well, and he said he had, but he didn’t know what they were for either.
It wasn’t until I got into class and sat next to another student who wasn’t from Utah that I learned the smudges on these people’s foreheads was part of Ash Wednesday. I also had to do a Google search in class and look up Ash Wednesday to know that it was a Catholic holy day and the smudges on the foreheads were actually part of a religious ritual.
Welcome to the sheltered world of someone who grew up in small town Utah.
My town was mostly comprised of a population that was, and still is, vastly Mormon. Everyone in my family is Mormon, and everyone in my extended family is Mormon. In fact, my great, great, great, something grandfather was the first person to be baptized into the Mormon faith in England. My Mormon roots run deep, and it was all I knew while I was growing up.
I knew a few kids here and there who weren’t Mormon, but I knew nothing about their religion. My best friend in high school grew up Catholic, and one of his biggest complaints was how few of his Mormon classmates understood his religion — myself included. He didn’t drink alcohol, which is something Mormons do not do either, but he was constantly asked by Mormon friends, “If you don’t drink alcohol, why don’t you just become Mormon?” That type of question reeks of religious ignorance. But, many Mormons in my small town, including myself, were ignorant when it came to other religions besides our own.
My wife grew up in Utah without religion. Her school years in Utah were miserable, because people treated her differently. She wasn’t allowed to play with other Mormon kids. She wasn’t allowed to date Mormon kids. She wasn’t allowed to go to Mormon kids’ houses. It wasn’t that her parents didn’t want her associating with Mormons, it was because the Mormon kids’ parents didn’t want their kids associating with her — the non-Mormon.
Now I live in Indiana where Mormons make up a very small percentage of the population, and I send Addie to school where she might be the only Mormon in her class, and that makes me happy. I will continue to raise my kids in the Mormon religion because, well, I believe in my religion and I want my kids to as well, but I don’t want them growing up ignorant of others’ religious beliefs and customs like I did.
Religion can be a wonderful thing that can guide a person down a path that will lead to success in life — both physically and spiritually. However, religion can just as easily have the opposite effect and cause misery and oppression. Just look at the fight for gay marriage equality as an example. Many religious communities are fighting against gay marriage equality, and the manner in which they have done so is born out of ignorance. Instead of fostering an atmosphere of love, which is what I believe religion is all about, it fosters an atmosphere of fear and hate where certain members of society are treated differently and judged as sinners.
The more my kids are exposed to other religions and other beliefs, the better they are going to understand the world and the people who live in it, and the chances of them fostering an atmosphere of hate and fear will be much smaller. My kids are hopefully going to be able to be understanding when Ash Wednesday comes around when they see people with black cross marks on their foreheads. They are going to be more sensitive to those who do not celebrate Christmas, and they will hopefully understand social issues better than the current generation of adults do now.
Addie is finally at an age where we can start actively exposing her to other religions. When I lived in Salt Lake City, I attended a variety of church services, and it was interesting to see how other people worshipped, in addition to the buildings that they used for their services. I think Addie would find the same experience fascinating, and it would help her to see some of the differences between people’s religions. Hopefully getting a taste of other services will instill a sense of respect for other people. We have also tried to do our best to explain some of the religious ceremonies she hears about from friends at her local school. Now it’s time that she gets a chance to witness some of these ceremonies in person, rather than just hearing about them from us.
Being Mormon means a lot of different things, but hopefully my kids learn that one of the most important aspects of being Mormon is the importance of learning to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
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