At nineteen years old, I was itching for adventure. (Weren’t we all?)
I signed up for a summer program in London, and then—armed with a change of clothes, a stash of peanut butter bars, and plenty of pluck—I backpacked from England to Ireland to Scotland to France to Austria to Italy and back again. . .all in one whirlwind month! With a fresh batch of sights, sounds, and experiences at every turn, I might easily have become overwhelmed by the newness of it all. Thank heaven for Sundays! (Literally.) No matter where I was in Europe, I knew I would always find something familiar on the Sabbath: a solid community of Latter-day Saints. We would sing together (in German, French, or Italian), teach each other from the scriptures, and draw closer, as a community, to Christ. And for that three hour church block, I would be home.
Two years later, as an LDS missionary in Ukraine, I witnessed firsthand the way a community of believers can influence society for the better. The Ukrainians who joined our church discovered a sense of peace, place, and purpose. This gave new importance to the concept of the family unit. As families drew together to form support networks, church programs and auxiliaries began functioning more smoothly, and the effects were soon evident in the larger community. For these church members in Ukraine, conversion had facilitated an internal value shift that radiated outward in ever-widening circles. It succeeded where large-scale protests and political events had failed. In a country that has struggled politically, economically, and socially since the fall of the Soviet Union, our church promises to rebuild from within rather than imposing from without.
This promise holds true across cultures and geography. When I first moved to Boston after my mission, I found an immediate church family in my brothers and sisters in our congregation of young single adults. Humans have an innate desire to understand their individual roles–to actively participate in something larger and more lasting than themselves. In Boston, the organization of our church allows me to contribute to a cause in which I feel personally invested. It helps me connect in meaningful ways with those around me, and it gives me the tools I need to shape my own future proactively.
In Sheena Iyengar’s acclaimed book, The Art of Choosing, she describes the unexpected results of a study involving six hundred people from nine different religions (ranging from very structured to completely unstructured). “To my surprise,” she writes, “it turned out that members of the more [structured] faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity, and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts. The presence of rules didn’t debilitate people; instead, it seemed to empower them. They experienced a sense of control over their lives.”
According to Elder Charles Didier of our church, “The beginning of the 21st Century may be considered a time of religious transition. Throughout much of human history, people have worshipped together and affiliated with a church. Today, in contrast, many consider religion to be a private matter and do not feel the need for organized religion. Thus people commonly say that they are ‘spiritual’ rather than religious.” He goes on to assert that “it is not possible to be truly spiritual without being religious. The Church was established to help us become one, united in faith and in our commitment to build up the kingdom of God on earth through our personal involvement, participation, cooperation, and testimony.”
From a Mormon perspective, we’re all living in a home away from our true, heavenly home. Have specific communities at work or in your personal life helped you feel at “home” in an unfamiliar place? How do you approach the concept of organized religion? Do you believe that collectivism enhances individualism (and vice versa)?