Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Scattering (Diaspora?) of Mormonism.

Maybe Diaspora is too strong of a word. But most wards of which I have been a member are made up of a mix of people who have moved from the west (Utah, Idaho, Arizona) and a few who were baptised locally. My current ward (outside Nashville) has only 1 in 10 who joined the Church locally.

My parents were born and grew up in Salt Lake City. My father did his best to remedy that fact, taking a job, and my mother, away from Utah. He seldom visits, and when he does, it is for two days at the most. They raised five children away from Deseret. But in the end all five of us attended a university in Utah. None of us live there, but we feel the pull. Is it pride in our heritage? Is it the longing for extended family?

A religion professor of mine, Joseph Fielding McKonkie, described it as another scattering of Israel. "Get out of Utah" he would say leaving no doubt of his feelings on the matter.

It reminds me of a phenomenon with architects in New England. Joel Garreau described it in his book Nine Nations of North America. Architecture students would get admitted to prestigious New England schools. But when it came time to enter their careers, they found they loved living in New England so much they could not leave. The result was an economy with an abundance of architects. This of course made it easy to find architects willing to work on a teachers’ salary, so the cycle perpetuates itself.

I didn't choose the military like my father did, but I didn't stay in California where my parents ended up either. I lived in DC and Baltimore for 14 years after I met my wife. But I still consider myself a part of the scattered.

The Chinese expression for it is 原籍 yuán jí, ancestral home. You don't have to have lived there, but you are from there nontheless. Taiwanese passports until the 1990s would list your ancestral home even if you were not born there and could never visit. It defines who you are.

I recently moved to Tennessee. When I meet someone new, the question is always the same. Where are you from? What they really want to know is who I am. Sometimes I say Maryland. Other times California. Sometimes I even admit to being born in Wisconsin, with the caveat that I have never been back. The most curious, or perhaps just those who really need me to fit into their preconceived notion of the world, aren't satisfied until I explain that my parents were born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. And with a silent nod, they change the subject.

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