Dining at the Religious Smorgasbord

My parents were married at the tender age of 19 and came from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and religious backgrounds. My Mom was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and was the first person in her family to marry outside of her faith. My Dad was raised as a Methodist. Growing up in a family with two very distinct religions was interesting and it made me aware at an early age that religious differences can cause conflict.

My parents later divorced and my Mom married a Jewish man. My brother’s wife is also Jewish. Within our extended family, we have many faiths and perspectives including Protestants, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Mormons, Jews, atheists and agnostics. This great mixture makes for interesting dinner conversations and life experiences. I feel like I am continually dining at a religious smorgasbord.

When I was growing up we would travel to Salt Lake City each Christmas to visit relatives. One of the most breathtaking, magical sites at Christmas is the Latter Day Saints Temple in downtown Salt Lake City. It is decorated with hundreds of thousands of brightly colored Christmas lights with various nativity scenes. Visitors are invited to enjoy the lights, watch the story of Christmas outside the Visitor’s Center and to listen to a variety of outdoor musical performances.

The first memory I have about feeling excluded occurred when I was eight years old. I was holding my Dad’s hand as a light snowfall gently fell as we walked in the cool, crisp air admiring the incredible Christmas display at the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City. Some of our relatives went inside the Temple and I began following them. I wanted to see and experience the inside of this beautiful cathedral. I didn’t know that Temples are very sacred and only open to certain church members. I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder as he pulled me back. He told me that we weren’t allowed to go inside.

For some reason, the song that popped into my head at the moment was from the 5 Man Electrical Band:

Now, hey you mister, can’t you read?

You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat

You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat

You ain’t supposed to be here

The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside

Our family didn’t have the membership card to get inside. At eight years old, I didn’t fully understand why I couldn’t go into any building in America that I wanted to see. I understood the meaning and feeling of being on the outside looking in.

This experience generated a lot of questions that I used to bombard my Mom with, especially when our Mormon relatives would come to visit us. My litany of questions consisted of:

  • When our relatives visit us, will they attend our church or will we go to their church?
  • Are they allowed inside our church? (The answer is yes.)
  • Are we allowed inside their church? (The answer is yes.)
  • How did you and Dad decide to raise us as Methodists rather than Mormons?
  • Will we still have ice tea, soda and coffee when they visit? Do we hide these beverages or keep them in plain site? Do we offer these beverages to them?
  • What other customs, practices or traditions do Mormons have?

At a young age, I knew that most of our Mormon relatives did not drink caffeine. But I also knew that some of our Mormon relatives did drink caffeinated beverages so I found the whole thing somewhat confusing. I wasn’t sure if that meant I shouldn’t drink any sodas or tea when I was with my relatives.

The founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, created the Word of Wisdom in the 1800’s which indicates that church members should refrain from coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol. Caffeine is not mentioned, but many LDS members choose to not drink caffeinated beverages.

I grew up, got married (to a Methodist) and had children. When we visit my Mom and her husband for Christmas, my children inundate me with questions:

  • Will we be celebrating Christmas, Hanukah or both?
  • Will there be a menorah and a Christmas tree?
  • Will we be exchanging gifts?
  • What color wrapping paper should we use?
  • Which church service will we go to?

Let me be very clear—my children’s main question is whether or not there will be gifts. That is their main interest. However, I am glad that they were aware of different religions at a very young age rather than assuming there was only one religion in the world. Being aware of other beliefs, perspectives, and opinions helps all of us be more inquisitive and inclusive.

When my children were 8 and 12, we planned a trip to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Utah. It would be their first time meeting their Mormon relatives and there were 12 cousins they would get to know. I made a list of the names of all their cousins and their ages, as well as the corresponding aunts and uncles. I also told my children that there would not be any caffeinated beverages in their homes and they should not ask for tea or soda with caffeine during our visits. They asked me if Dad would be able to drink his coffee since he loves his morning coffee. I told them that Dad would not be drinking coffee in our relatives’ home.

We spent several days in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and in Yellowstone Park before arriving at my aunt and uncle’s home. We had a fabulous dinner and terrific conversation and then went to sleep. The next morning, there was a coffee maker and a can of coffee on the kitchen counter. The coffee maker and can of coffee were symbols of inclusion. Without saying a word, these innate objects said, “You’re welcome in our home. We may have different beliefs and customs, but we want you to feel welcome.”

These symbols of inclusion in their home made me wonder about symbols of inclusion in the workplace. Some symbols of inclusion in the workplace are:

  • Photos of family members, partners, loved ones and friends who look different than you
  • Books, posters, artwork, and artifacts from other countries, different religions, unique perspectives, and different groups
  • The rainbow flag, pink triangle or equal sign demonstrate support of LGBT rights

Words are the most powerful symbols of inclusion. By using words such as partner, loved ones or significant other rather than spouse and family it demonstrates inclusion. Happy Holidays is more inclusive than Merry Christmas because it recognizes that people may have different faiths and beliefs.

As we were driving to the airport after visiting my aunt and uncle, I asked my children what the most memorable part of their vacation was—we had camped under the stars for three days in the Grand Tetons and explored the unique geysers at Yellowstone Park. Both kids immediately replied that the most memorable part of their vacation was seeing the coffee maker and can of coffee on the kitchen counter. To them, those symbols said, “We care about you.”