BYU of the East

The Olympic games always foster cultural understanding one way or another. This year in addition to maudlin background video pieces

The Olympic games always foster cultural understanding one way or another. This year in addition to maudlin background video pieces on NBC, the cross-cultural sharing extends to the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Utah has beautiful mountains for skiing and is 63 percent Mormon. So TV viewers everywhere, or at least TV viewers captivated by the new sport of “skeleton” racing, have found not only top-notch winter athletes in Salt Lake City, but also glimpse at the culture of the clean-living, fast-growing Mormon religion. This juxtaposition of Mormonism, a relatively unassimilated religion in America, and the diverse ranks of Olympic competitors and viewers, is a familiar one for the Mormons at Harvard who deal with clashing cultures every day. Salt Lake City’s position as the stage for amateur athletic glory means that more people are talking about what it means to be Mormon. For their part, Harvard student members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are eager to engage in the conversation.

“I’m hopeful that discussion of the LDS faith during coverage of the Olympics will encourage people to more fully investigate our doctrines and teachings rather than rely on general stereotypes and popular myth,” writes Robert R. Porter ’00-’02 in an e-mail. “I’ve discovered that knowledge of the LDS church is very individual,” Porter says. “Some students know a great deal about our doctrine and history, while others are familiar with little other than our name.”

“This is an exceptionally strong community” says Susan K. Davidson ’02. “The members are coming out on a limb as it is, to be Mormon in such a diverse community,” Davidson says. “It doesn’t make sense to shirk questions about religion. If you believe in the faith, you should be able to defend or explain it.”

Believing in the faith is a key element of Mormonism at Harvard, because coming to Harvard over the more traditional route to the Mormon-run Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, necessarily forces students out on the limb Davidson mentions—and the choice is deliberate. “I came to Harvard to have exposure to new ideas and different perspectives than what I got from my parents,” says Benjamin W. Jarvis ’00-’02.

By virtue of being at Harvard, most Mormons here have taken a relatively more liberal or unconventional path than most college-age Mormons. Perhaps none so unconventional as that of Davidson, who did not convert to the religion until the summer after she graduated from high school. Davidson is from Butler, Pa., near Pittsburgh, and was raised in a Presbyterian home. She was crowned America’s Junior Miss in 1998 and, as a result, participated in a community service program in Hawaii. Davidson remembers that the leader of her program leader was a Mormon, and Davidson was intrigued by the woman’s faith and impressed by “the consistency between her doctrine and her actions.”

For Jarvis, who was born into a Mormon family, the Harvard experience has reinforced the importance of the Mormon faith in his life. “I was genuinely trying to figure out what I thought about the world,” Jarvis remembers of his first year. He identifies his first-year self as “pretty agnostic” but through conversing with his roommate, an evangelical Christian, he was prompted to evaluate his own faith and get interested in philosophy. Jarvis says he realized the only way to find out about faith in God was to “go do something.” So Jarvis completed his first year and left for a mission.

There is substantial pressure for young men in the Mormon Church to go on missions. For many Harvard students, this can mean leaving for a mission site after their first year or their 19th birthday. For Jarvis, this was not an entirely pleasant experience. After a month of training in Utah, he left in the summer of 1997 for Spain, a country notorious for anti-Mormon sentiment. Two years of knocking on doors to offer prepared lectures on the Mormon doctrine was “really difficult a lot of the time,” relates Jarvis. “I couldn’t help thinking how irritated I’d be if someone did the same thing to me.” But if his faith felt challenged by the confrontations he faced and the fact that, like most young missionaries, he was not able to convert more than a handful of his targets, the ultimate effect was only to reaffirm his beliefs as a Mormon.

Returning to Harvard in 1999, Jarvis rejoined many other Mormons in a community that has exhibited sizeable growth in the past several years. Harvard’s Latter Day Saints’ Student Association (LDSSA) consists of about 60 active members. Social activities are centered around frequent retreats, Sunday services, and weekly Family Home Evenings. These meetings, held on Monday nights in Adams House, include a gospel lesson, games, treats and even a joking and lighthearted “Moment of Glee.”

There is also a well-established LDS institute, where students may take classes on the scriptures or on church history. According to Davidson, the strength of the community lies in the desire of members to congregate within a population as large and diverse as Harvard.

The Mormon community has had a history of struggling with outside perceptions. Within the Harvard setting, however, many students will agree that the level of knowledge about the faith is higher than average. “They have more intelligent questions, at least, than ‘are you a polygamist?’” says Davidson. She and other Mormon students say they welcome questions as a positive way of dispelling misconceptions about their faith.

The Mormon tradition includes a considerable number of lifestyle restrictions, but the LDS students at Harvard don’t seem to miss much, though drinking, smoking, caffeine and premarital sex are against the rules. “I’m in University choir, and party-planners for the group always make sure to mention that they’ll serve ‘Mormon-friendly’ drinks” Davidson says.

At the same time, there can be a lot of pressure from the older generations to marry early and start a family. While the marriage age is generally older for Mormons in college than those living in their home environment, and Davidson refers to Harvard Mormons as “unconventional,” she proudly displays her engagement ring.

While the Church encourages marriage, she says, it is very much a personal choice for Mormons at Harvard. Jarvis explains that “Mormons here get married earlier than the general population, but later than traditional Mormons. Once, when I was a freshman, this high official in the church came to a service [at the church they go to here] to tell us that we weren’t getting married enough. We make fun of the situation.”

And if more traditional methods don’t work in that regard, there is always the Mormon Am I Hot or ( that Jonathan S. Daniels ’99-’02 maintains from the LDSSA website. But there are other, more substantive ways to gain self-knowledge for Mormons at Harvard. “The Mormon community at Harvard has taught me a lot about my faith. This has been my first chance to really interact with many other Mormons my age,” says McClain. I have gotten to experience the varied ways in which Mormons can view our religion.”