I wash dishes and think about Mormons. I get a great towering pile going, sling on my headphones, grab a sponge and contemplate the Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith in Western New York, in my neck of those vast American woods. At this point I wonder, “How can anything holy have happened there?” Smoke-belching industry and lake-effect snow aren’t altogether conducive to divine epiphanies, breeding instead a cellular nihilism and sense of defeat. I wonder what trick of history made Utah the territory of choice for trailblazing Latter-Day Saints rather than where the Angel Moroni first struck down on the earthly plane. Already populated by too many Catholics, I suppose, staunch, with deep set roots. Same as the Philippines.
I don’t wash dishes and think about Mormons on purpose, really. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers universally speak of how Peace Corps service changed them. What subtle shift in paradigm, in priorities, differentiates them in the present from them in the past? The Peace Corps Volunteer must expect that the foundation on which his or her character is built to crack, but must not try to anticipate the cause or the pattern. The fractures I unexpectedly find myself straddling involve an involuntary but compulsive deliberation on Mormons.
Mormons, I think, Latter-Day Saints. I think about the missionaries who live next door, who pass my apartment in their clean pressed clothes, how they sometimes wave, sometimes don’t. I think of the church beyond my school, the wide empty expanse of it, the few people who enter and exit. I think about my landlady’s smile, a permanent fixture on her face, beaming out from behind the desk in the funeral home showroom. I think about my dad saying “they were persecuted,” I think about all the long talks I’ve had with my LDS batchmate, and I think about how no matter how many talks we have, or whether or not I complete my own mission to befriend the missionaries, I will never understand the history, the culture, the context of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
This expands, as I lean into particularly stubborn food debris with the force of my various arm joints, as I squeeze more soap onto the task, into a wider contemplation of moral philosophies, personal ethics, those structures of organizing the internal that some people call religious belief. That I lack formal religious education in any faith is not a testament to a lack of personal integrity or moral code; I feel that I have those in abundance, and that they are fast and rigid. I know too the difference between belief in theory and belief in practice, whether one’s belief is religious, philosophical, political, or otherwise uncategorized.
Before Peace Corps, I would have said that I accepted all people of any religion or lack thereof. Not tolerate, but accept. I would have said that people’s beliefs are their own, and as long as they did not push them onto me, and I didn’t push mine onto them, that everyone is free, encouraged, to have diverse belief systems. My hypocrisy was that I inwardly disdained of certain religions; I’d fiercely defend the right to ascribe to them, get my hackles up if others displayed intolerance, yet I’d scoff at the reality of our differences.
I’m not sure it’s possible to live long-term in the Philippines and not spend a great deal of time deeply contemplating religion. The Spanish were wildly successful in their conversion of Filipinos to Catholicism; those who are not Catholic are still largely Christian, with a good percentage of them Mormon. The Muslim minority is marginalized and almost invisible, only mentioned with a sneer, pushed into spaces of poverty and disenfranchisement. The story of religion in this country is one fraught with colonization and resentment, but the conclusion I have come to in my long hours in solitude, scrubbing pans, surfing Mormon websites, is not a condemnation, or a manifestation of my previous religious superiority complex.
My personal revelation is this: I respect religions.
It may seem simple, or simplistic, but it’s a deep fissure in my foundation. Maybe that’s the wrong metaphor. Maybe there was a divisive fracture in my character before, broken, uneven ground, and the Philippines, with its Catholic baby saints and one of forty-seven worldwide official LDS temples, healed that fracture, made me whole. Made me see that religion is not a collective delusion but a set of beliefs as valid as my own to live one’s life by. I may not believe it, I may not agree with it or the political presences of individual factions, I may still be struck dumb by some outwardly religious individuals’ personal corruption, but I can see now the strength of community, of faith, that religious beliefs cultivate. And I think faith is a beautiful thing.
I am still trying to become better at accepting. I am still repulsed by some of the atrocities done in God’s name, or the policies and practices that some religious leaders espouse. I don’t think I have to accept those things to accept the basic fact that all religions, at their core, encourage their followers to treat each other and themselves with love. I think my becoming better is an ongoing personal struggle that will never be completely won, but now I am not fighting my words like I was before, when I spoke only what I knew I should believe. Now my gut is aligned with my mind.
The saturation of my Philippine life with various permutations of Christianity has also made me contemplate more seriously my own religious and philosophical orientation, which I was rather unwilling to do in the beginning but have, obviously, become more comfortable with. I don’t feel the need for an organized institution to give credibility to my own personal moral compass, but one of the powers of religion that I had hitherto been blind to was a sense of community. I would not be averse to finding affirmation with like-minded people in the distant future when I return, beaten, bruised, but triumphant, to the land where the Angel Moroni first lit the night.
So, for your enjoyment, the Belief-o-Matic, which, I assure you, is much more comprehensive and genuine than any quiz currently inundating Facebook with its inanity.