Within six months of my moving to New York, the local ward had found me. I was diligently reading Friedrich Kittler, a German theorist and historian of the impact that media have on psychologies and social networks, when the phone rings.
"Your files have arrived here at the Manhattan ward, and I'd like to know what we should do with them."
It should be said that I was totally blindsided by the call. As far as I knew, the church had NO reason to know that I was in New York. I had changed addresses at least three times since I last attended church or had a visiting teacher.
The options, I learned, were 1) that I begin to take an active interest in the ward's activities, 2) that I have the ward destroy my file, 3) that I do nothing.
I didn't and don't want to participate in the ward's activities or to go to church. I don't particularly want to be wiped off the church's records, which seems to me like a histrionic refutation of my family's culture. My very nice interlocutor even goes so far as to admit that the permanent file, buried in some salt mine in Utah, would likely not be affected by the paperwork shuffle here in NYC. Still, I went for option number 3: keep my file open.
I called around, asking my mother, my grandmother, even my more fanatical aunts whether they'd narked me out to the church. How did they get my phone number? Nobody knew. My non-practicing sister hadn't narked me out, but she'd had, around the same time, a similar, so-what-are-you-up-to call.
A year later, I get a weary-sounding message on my answering machine: "Look, should we list you as an active member or should we destroy your file?" Again, I freak out, despite knowing that the Utah file will remain open until I die or commit some hideous act of apostacy, like publishing on Mormon history or maintaining an openly critical blog. Heh. (Hi, Utah!) I never called the guy back, thinking, If they want to destroy my file for bureaucratic reasons, they can go ahead and do so, but I won't ask them to do so since who would ask to be written out of the book of life?
It was a grim either-or, and so I evaded it.
The ward shifted tactics in the following year. I got birthday, Christmas, and Easter cards from the Relief Society (the female branch of the church). These cards moved me; they reminded me of the good memories I hold of sassy, smart Mormon women who, despite the patriarchy of the Mormon theology, manage to appropriate the culture's love of knowledge and self-determination for their own purposes. I never replied, but I was disposed to think more kindly of the religion.
The following year I was away, but the cards continued in my absence.
This last year, however, the ward changed tactics once again, seemingly initiatiating a full-court press.
First, I get a call from my assigned visiting teacher. He seems to be a rational, human figure. I level with him: "I'm not about to come to church." He takes it well, admits to having been jack himself, gives me his number, invites me to call him if I need anything, and leaves me be.
But the on-going trouble has been the missionaries. I don't know what internal process sicced the missionaries on me, but this year I've apparently been on their list. And the trouble is that I haven't really been able to give them a clear message. There is a part of me that wants to communicate with people who are culturally Mormon; maybe it's the depaysage
, maybe it's a perverse desire to see my fears confirmed, but I was really tempted to hang out with two Elders who, I learned over the phone, were both native Utahns.
I knew it was a bad idea. I put them off for months with excuses about deadlines. Then I made an appointment with them--was I mad?--and missed it due to a scheduling crisis. You can't call a missionary to cancel an appointment, by the way: they don't have personal phones. A couple months later, we schedule another appointment, and again I miss it: I forgot about it and had other pressing things to do.
Finally, last night, I levelled with Elder E. (who is probably much younger than myself): "Look, my mother's maiden name is Smith; I'm culturally Mormon and will probably be a Jackmormon until the day I die. But I'm not about to come to church, and your job is to get me to come to church. I don't want to feel antagonist about the church, and in fact I'd like to hang out with culturally Mormon people, but I'd prefer my relationship with members to be more like that of my gay great-uncle: a wary understanding of differences sustained by personal sympathies."
Elder E. asked me the name of my visiting teacher. We'll see what happens next.