Monday, March 14, 2005

Convert Soul

I am a convert to Mormonism. I joined the Church at the age of 16 while living in Salt Lake City. I'm that ward basketball baptism you sometimes hear about.

I've been thinking about the fact that I'm a convert lately. I'm so thoroughly Mormon now, 17 years later, that I sometimes forget that this is not the life I was born into. I'm a returned missionary, a father and husband, a bishop. But I'm also the son of an agnostic, Catholic-raised father and a feminist, Unitarian-Universalist mother, both of whom opposed my decision to become a Latter-day Saint.

I was asked about my decision to join the Church recently, and I took the time to recount the story in brief. I may tell some of that story here in a future post, but for now I want to consider the convert's journey in a more abstract way.

On and off, I've been reading a book called The Global Soul. It's subtitled Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home and is about the emotional impact of globalization, particularly on those who are from more than one place. The author, a travel writer named Pico Iyer, is a Brit of Indian descent, raised in California and educated in the UK, who currently lives much of the year in Japan. He has spent a phenomenal amount of his life in airports and on airplanes, and finds that even when he's home, he's not really home. Not in Britain, not in the United States, not in India, and not in Japan.

This book resonated with me on many levels. I spent my childhood shuttling back and forth between my divorced parents, my mother in Utah, my father in Wisconsin. I travel with enough regularity to feel more at home in an airport than I'd like to admit. But more than anything as I read this book I found myself thinking about my place as a convert in the Mormon Church and how my continued commitment to the Church has impacted my life outside of it.

Growing up a "non-member" in Utah was not always easy. I was acutely aware of my otherness. I wanted to fit in, of course, but found that I couldn't really find a place where I felt at ease and comfortable. I wasn't LDS. My parents were divorced. I went to Wisconsin by myself every holiday starting at the age of 7 to see my dad. I didn't know anyone else like me.

I found a home in the Church. I felt accepted when I began to participate in Church activities. I felt loved by my new community when I joined the Church. I became a model Mormon in many respects, serving a mission and then marrying in the temple. But I was still... different. "I'm the only member in my family," I said in explanation often.

Pico Iyer describes his existence as a global soul like this:
A person like me can't really call himself an exile (who traditionally looked back to a home now lost), or an expatriate (who's generally posted abroad for a living); I'm not really a nomad (whose patterns are guided by the seasons and tradition)... the Global Soul is best characterized by the fact of falling between all categories. The country where people look like me is the one where I can't speak the language, the country where people sound like me is the place where I look highly alien, and the country where people believe like me is the most foreign space of all.
I've now been a Latter-day Saint longer than I haven't, but even with a Mormon wife and family and a distinctly Mormon life, I retain a different perspective and a different relationship with the Church than those who were born into it. I see culture where others see doctrine. I retain bits of my mother's feminism and my father's skepticism. I lack a heritage in the Church any deeper than my own 17 years in it.

But I can't go home either. My Mormon identity has created distance with my family. Even as my parents opposed my decision to become a Mormon, they supported my right to make it, and they continue to be supportive of the path I have chosen. But we now live in different worlds philosophically, and the theology in which I have chosen to make my spiritual home puts my parents and family in an uncertain -- even undesirable -- place. Simple things like a cup of coffee can separate us.

The irony of this is that even though I'm a convert, I find myself sometimes struggling to connect with other converts. Here, too, Pico Iyer's experiences as a global soul resonate with me. He writes of often encountering Indians in different parts of the world and being unable to connect with them, despite a shared heritage. But he is often equally incompatible with Brits and Americans, the people he spent the most time with as he was growing up. I share the convert's experience with many, but that shared experience doesn't trump differences in culture, life experience, and family life.

The church is growing at a quick pace. There are more and more people like me, presumably, who will become deeply committed Mormons, who will view their interactions with God through the lens of Mormonism, but who will feel different in the larger culture of the Church, even many years after they have made their spiritual home in it. A few years ago, the late Eugene England wrote about the challenges the Church will face as it grows from an isolated and provincial church centered in the American West into a world religion. They are struggles of culture and priorities -- and they are struggles that we must face not just in wards and branches on the other side of the world, but, for many of us, within ourselves as well.