I'm a white, middle class, married with two kids, Christian, college-educated, home-owning woman, and I am a minority.
That may not make much sense to you at first glance. But here's the catch:
I'm a Christian, and I live in Utah.
It's strange to identify with a faith tradition that holds majority rule and influence in this country and yet be a minority in my state of residence. According to the most recent census, 62.2 percent of Utah's population is composed of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon, in shorthand. The Salt Lake valley exists and is a thriving metropolis of commerce and culture because of the Mormon pioneers who made the trek to Utah from their place of exile, Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1847.
The LDS faith is in the fibers of this great mountain state, and it's grid through which Salt Lake City operates, quite literally: All of the streets in the city are numbered in relation to the Temple. There's no getting around it. This place is decidedly Mormon.
And I am decidedly not.
It makes for some interesting conversations. No matter where I go or who I talk to, when I tell people that I live in Utah, I get the skeptical one-eyebrow look, with the question, "Utah? Really?" Yes, really. "Wow, what's THAT like?"
Truth is? It's great. I love this place. I actually hesitate to write about my love for Utah, and SLC in particular because I like that it's a hidden, underrated gem in the western states. Everyone is always excited about places like Portland and Seattle and Austin, so I don't dare tell them about the great coffee, good food, celebrity sightings, beautiful scenery and active community of Salt Lake City.
But, when people ask me what it's like living in Utah, I know they're not really asking about microbreweries or farm-to-table restaurants. They're asking about the Mormon dynamic. What's it like living where you're the minority? Is there even a Christian community there? Is Utah as Mormon as I imagine it to be?
Many of these questions come from a place of genuine curiosity about the LDS faith, one that can often seem shrouded in mystery. One of the greatest things I've done to help me understand my surroundings as a religious minority is to become a student of the dominant culture in which I find myself.
I've attended Sacrament Meeting (their term for worship service) at a local ward (or congregation). I've attended the LDS General Women's Meeting and watched the entirety of the LDS General Conference. I've asked questions of my Mormon friends, we've had our neighborhood missionaries over for dinner, and I've attended the Open House at one of the local LDS temples and received the full tour. On top of all of that, I've read the three LDS scriptures: The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. Not everyone chooses to do all of this, and that's fine. But, I'm pretty passionate about figuring things out for myself.
I've had friends worry about me. They were concerned that I was flying too close to the sun, that the sole purpose of Mormons talking to me about their faith was so that they could convert me. But, after all of my time investigating the LDS church, the shroud of mystery lifted, there wasn't anything to be curious about anymore, and I still don't think it's the Truth. But even more importantly, I've come to learn that my Mormon friends and neighbors don't always have an angle when they talk to me, they're not always trying to convert me. They're nice to me because they're nice people. They're just like me and their families are just like mine (granted, a little bigger than mine, on average).
The time I've spent learning about the culture here in Utah, and specifically learning about the LDS church has opened my eyes to my own faith and how I perceive myself in the grand picture of global religion. For the last 15 years of my life, I've been an active part of American evangelical culture. It's a culture that can take pride in having the moral and theological high ground, extend its political might to influence policy, and seem to make a living out of drawing lines in the sand.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of beauty and goodness within the American evangelical church, too. But it has its issues. We're quick to dismiss other faiths in their entirety, insisting if they don't follow Jesus, we have nothing to learn from them. As a religious majority, we can afford to be isolationist and individualistic. In other settings, like my home in Utah, it doesn't work as much anymore.
I've learned that I've been conditioned to see people of different religions as "other" rather than looking for the similarities in our humanity. People of other faiths have always been projects to me, something to fix, and I'd find reasons to be around them specifically because they weren't believers and maybe, just maybe, I could get them to see and know Jesus like I did. Being a part of the dominating narrative afforded me that mentality.
But now, sitting on the other end of the spectrum, it's not so easy to do. Suddenly, I'm the one that needs to be reached. It's a 180-degree turn from everything I've known. And one of the most effective ways to connect with people who have a different faith from me has been to listen, learn, be vulnerable and honest. People are much more willing to hear me speak about my story and my Christian faith if I've taken the time to understand their Mormon faith.
More than anything, living in Utah has taught me that people have so much more in common than we think we do. Our lines in the sand are so completely unnecessary, and we lose out on so much by insisting on them. If I wrote off my Mormon friends because they were Mormon, I wouldn't have the privilege and gift of deep friendship. I'd lose out on people that love me, my husband and my kids. I wouldn't be afforded the privilege of getting to pray for them and their needs, and I wouldn't be able to help when I'm able.
Yes, community with Christians is important, but if we only stick to ourselves, we end up being the ones who lose.
Nish Weiseth is an author, storyteller, speaker, advocate, and troublemaker with a serious Dr Pepper addiction and affinity for Texas barbecue. Her first book, Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World, was published by Zondervan and will be released in August of 2014. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband and two kids.