My time in Central America is over and now I am onto the next adventure in Salt Lake City (SLC), the land of the Mormons. During lunch with my aunt Laura who I am staying with I told her that I wanted to go to a Singles Ward while I was here. A note for all non-Mormons who may be reading this, this particular blog is filled with Mormon jargon but I will try to clarify. A ward is a congregation of about 200 people that meets together in a church on Sundays. Who is in the ward is determined by the geography of where you live. Just to give everyone an idea of how many Mormons there are in SLC I will draw some quick comparisons between here and Victoria where I grew up. In Victoria I always thought of the ward boundaries like this: 1st ward was for the people who lived in Victoria, 2nd ward was for the people who lived in the suburbs, and 3rd ward was for the people who lived in the boonies. In SLC you can find 34th wards, or 367th wards. While driving, especially in the suburbs, it is common to pass at least one Mormon church every five minutes.
Now that I am an adult and am not married, I have a special group that I go to church with called YSA (or young single adults). In both Victoria and Montreal, there are not enough people (roughly 200) to make a YSA ward, so we have what we call “branches” which are basically tiny wards. Usually around 35-45 showed up on Sundays to my YSA branches. In my neck of the woods in Canada, the YSA never really tire of complaining about the lack of people (and by that they mean other Mormons) to be friends with and date. However now I am in Mormon land, the state where places are named Brigham City, Zarahemla, Bountiful. It is a place where Victoria Secret banners make the news because the advertisements show too much skin.
So I asked my Laura how many people she thought would be in my YSA ward (it was even crazy for me to use the words ward and YSA together). After some consideration she said, “not sure, maybe 600?”
Woah. Is that even possible? One thing that everyone should know about Mormon churches is that usually if you regularly attend you have what is called a “calling” which simply means a job of some sort to do to help the ward or branch function. I asked Laura how there could possibly be enough callings for people and she replied telling me that there were lots of committees. Lots.
With all this in mind, I walked into what is soon to become my first YSA ward. I saw people my age everywhere. I mustered up my courage and asked what room the meeting was going on in.
“Which ward are you going to?” asked the guys.
“The singles ward”
“Ho ho,” they knowingly laughed and then informed me that three YSA wards met in that building. So in other words, while there wasn’t 600 people in my ward, there were over 600 young single Mormons in that building at that moment. They told me to go upstairs and that one I was going to had already started. When I cracked open the door to the chapel, I had a horrifying moment where in the midst of everyone singing in this big room I didn’t see any empty spots on the cue. Feeling eyes on me I quickly made room for myself at the back. While I listened to the talks, I counted over 170 people in the room.
At the end of the first hour, the bishop (or leader) of the ward announced that he wanted to meet all the new people today, and that, indeed, there would be a special meeting where all of us new people would introduce ourselves. There were just under 30 people in this meeting although not all of us were newcomers. I initially wanted to sit at the back but we sat in a giant circle instead. The bishop, his two counselors and secretary plus their three wives made up the first eight people. Then there were people from the Relief Society (the women’s group in the church), the Elders Quorum (the men’s group), plus representatives who various committees who in their mutual introductions told us about the many activities to seduce us into being happy about being there. There were people from the service committee, activities committee, welcoming committee, and family home evening committee.
Family home evening is supposed to be a special time on Monday night that church leaders have asked us to spend with our family. Since many young 20 somethings live away from home, YSA wards and branches hold family home evening for it’s members and it usually consists of a gospel lesson, an activity, and a snack. The bishop informed us that several YSA wards would be gathering tomorrow to have family home evening (or FHE) together. Several wards? The idea of several wards, or in other words over a thousand YSA gathering to have what is meant to be “family time” sounded a bit odd to me. Besides, the logistics of a gathering like that are crazy; how would they provide a snack to so many people? And what activity would they play, a giant game of human knot?
My final hour of church was spent in Relief Society, the meeting where the men and women split up. The girl next to me informed me that they had a “big” Relief Society in their ward. I wondered what that meant to people here. By this point nothing could surprise me. When everyone finally filtered in she was a little disappointed at the 60 or so people that turned up, telling me there is usually over 90. As I sat listening to a lesson on perfection, I recognized that apart from my terror at being in an entirely new social situation with no one I know, I was also completely and utterly culture shocked.