By Michael H. O’Donnell
When I first moved into a neighborhood in Pocatello three decades ago, the first thing that struck me as odd was the “Mormon check” that took place.
It came disguised as a paper plate loaded with cookies.
Holding that plate was an older woman with a pleasant, inquisitive smile.
She said she had noticed we were new to the home on the corner of the block, a mere stone’s throw from the Portneuf River. Her probe came early in the exchange of pleasantries.
“What ward are you from?” she asked.
Of course the only ward that seemed familiar to me was Montgomery Ward, but I doubted she was interested in my shopping habits. My puzzled look probably sparked a note of realization inside of her, but she persevered.
“Are you LDS?” she asked.
She left the cookies – along with a tinge of disappointment – as she exited my rental house and retreated down the sidewalk to her nearby home. It wasn’t the first time my ignorance would reveal itself among a culture flavored heavily by Mormonism.
After securing my first job in the Gate City I was having a conversation with a group of other young men about college, careers and catching the wind into the future. One of them mentioned that a longtime friend was going on a mission.
“What branch of the service?” I asked.
The guys at the table looked at each other with a shared look of puzzlement and laughed. They assessed the situation and informed me it was a church mission. Another elder had decided to share the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints with the rest of the world.
Now I had two more terms to add to my understanding of the local religious culture — ward and mission. I had already learned that stake centers had nothing to do with medium rare sirloins. Relief Societies did not deal with headaches and being sealed was not a reference to safe packaging.
It took a few more years before I realized “Jack” was not a nickname for the guy who drank beer on the golf course on Sunday instead of spending half the day inside a ward.
Another surprise was a summer event that took place in late July — Pioneer Day. At first I assumed July 24 was a strategic date in the formation of Pocatello, having something to do with the railroad driving its first spike or some forefather of the frontier building a shack north of the Portneuf Gap.
“It’s a Mormon thing,” a longtime gentile of the area told me.
After I purchased a home in the old Alameda section of town and received another Mormon check, I witnessed first-hand the festivities that surrounded a memorable Mormon day in the 19th century when Brigham Young and a band of followers first set foot in the Salt Lake basin.
The city park located a few blocks away became a mecca of merriment. Softball games, booths and food filled the space with a throng of people. The intersection of Jefferson and East Poplar became a logjam for one day each summer. Times change and the quaint park with limited parking was swapped out for larger digs.
Now it appears leaders in the local LDS Church are going to swap dates. Members of their faith who want to participate in a parade this July will join forces with the community-wide July Fourth festivities. The news has generated mixed reviews.
Among them is the cry that July 4 is all about patriotism and independence, not the arrival of Latter-day Saints in the West. There have been expressed fears that the “Mormons are going to take over” a celebration of national pride.
“Them” and “us” are at odds once again.
Those are the labels that distinguish the people who are just like you and those who are not. Race, politics, incomes and even occupations tend to pin people to these two general categories – them or us.
There is no denying suspicion festers in both camps, Mormons and non-Mormons. Members tend to be close-knit and have strong allegiance to leadership in Salt Lake City. Unlike other faiths who declare themselves Christians, the LDS have their own books. And it’s an American-born religion.
The product of Catholicism, I’m not free to lecture anyone about strange rules and odd beliefs. As George Carlin once said after the Catholic Church changed its mind about the sinful nature of eating a hamburger on Friday, “I’ll bet there are still guys in hell doing time on a meat rap.”
Faith is tricky business.
But maybe we need a little faith in the notion that Mormons and others in Pocatello and Chubbuck can celebrate July Fourth together — as Americans.
Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.