Chapter 10: Mutual and Seminary

In chapter 7 I addressed the schedule for church every Sunday. On top of those three hours, Mormons typically have activities throughout the week, especially for the teenagers. Every week, typically on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, all the youth will go to the church for what is called Mutual. I’m not exactly sure why they call it that, and I actually think they may have discontinued that name, but that’s what I grew up calling it and that’s is how I’ll refer to it in this chapter.

I really enjoyed going to Mutual and typically looked forward to it. Mormons start going to Mutual at the age of 12 and continue until age 18. They participate in various activities in their respective classes. Up until recently, the Mormon Church always put a big emphasis on scouting. I am an Eagle Scout and a large chunk of my merit badges were earned at Mutual. I remember we once went to a city council meeting for the Citizenship in the Community badge. I earned my Cycling merit badge going on 10 - 25 mile bike rides with the rest of the boys for Mutual. While I currently do not support the Boy Scouts of America, I do have very fond memories of working on these achievements with other boys my age at Mutual.

Once a month, there was a “combined activity” which consisted of all the classes of boys and girls participating in an activity together. For me, and many others, these were always highly anticipated. I remember one particularly memorable one. Someone had made a typical scavenger hunt all around the city. We went to all sorts of places such as the park and Wal-mart in search for clues. Little did we know, at every stop there was a stranger planted that was supposedly in need, or at least acting like it. The real test was not to see who finished the hunt the fastest, but to see who took time to help those strangers. My group, with some help, had figured out the secret and we were intentionally looking for people in need, but other groups remained completely oblivious to the fact. Apparently one group found the clue they needed in Wal-mart and began to run back out to the car when a woman had “spilled” a bag of apples in their path. They were so determined to win that rather than help the woman, they all jumped right over the apples and hurried to their next destination. We still laugh about that to this day.

Service projects were also very common for Mutual. Every Sunday, the Mutual activity for that week would be announced in class. Whenever it was a service project, the leader would try their best to avoid the using the words “service project” because if he did, over half the boys wouldn’t show up. These projects typically meant work like weeding a garden or helping someone move. Mutual was often viewed as a place to have fun with your friends and not work, so to actually exert yourself was quite the deterrent. That said, there were some very meaningful opportunities for service that impacted me as a kid. Once the entire ward, not just the youth, got together and helped fix up the yard of a man who was paralyzed from the waist down. We mowed the lawn, weeded the garden and flower beds, fixed the sprinkler system, washed the windows, and a variety of other things. The yard looked completely different by the end of it. I remember being touched by the amount of people that showed up and how we were able to help this family. Another meaningful experience was going to the Utah State Developmental Center, a facility that houses mentally and physically disabled adults in Utah county. One Sunday a year our ward was assigned to take the residents to church and also take them to a dance at their facility the following Wednesday. The dance consisted of us pushing them in their wheelchairs while they danced to the music. It was always so fun to see them having a good time, smiling, laughing, and dancing. Later in my life, I was employed at the Utah State Developmental Center and the individuals I cared for always looked forward to the dance every week.

Some of my favorite Mutual activites were “mission prep” activities in which our adult leaders would attempt to prepare us for our future, two year missions. Growing up, I always looked forward to going on a mission and would proudly declare that I was planning on serving. As such, I always loved hearing stories and experiences my leaders had while on their missions. I remember one particular night, each of our adult leaders — there were about 4 — prepared a dish from the country or region where they served their missions. The majority of them served in Latin America and most of the dishes consisted of beans, rice, and tortillas. While we were eating, they shared stories that made us both laugh and cry. Stories of struggle, heartbreak, and joy. Us boys listened intently in absolute amazement. Having now served my own mission, I can relate with all of the stories shared that night. Up until I actually left the Church, my mission was the hardest thing I ever did. When it comes time in the series, I’ll share a lot of my own mission stories.

Mutual is an important part of a Mormon upbringing. I made a point to go every week, that is, until I could drive. Driving opened up a world of so many possibilities. Why would I be at Mutual when I could drive myself to go hang out with my friends. I also think that as I got older, Mutual became less cool and I was more prone to a desire to be elsewhere. This would come and go in phases of course. When I was in a leadership position, as discussed in chapter 8, I felt much more a responsibility to go. And, in all honesty, I think the most frequently I ditched Mutual was once, maybe twice a month. If I did miss twice, it was likely because I had work.

When I was in those leadership positions, I was by default a member of what is called the Bishop’s Youth Committee. It consisted of the boys’ quorum presidents, the girls’ class presidents, their adult leaders, and the bishop all in a room talking about young members of the ward that we thought were troubled. Many topics were addressed in this meeting, but one that was often of most concern was low Mutual attendance. We would constantly bounce ideas off of each other about how we could motivate others to go more frequently. I won’t go into too much more detail on that topic, I only bring it up to illustrate the rhetoric around Mutual attendance.

I remember one particular time I decided to ditch Mutual. I had a big test coming up and some of my friends were going to study for it at the same time that I had Mutual. I used the test as a good excuse when asking my parents permission to skip Mutual and take the car. I also really wanted to pick up the latest Matt Costa album, so I decided to swing by Best Buy and pick it up on my way to the study session. I was cruising in the car with my music up really loud. I was passionately singing along as I always did. I was coming to an intersection and the light turned yellow. I stepped on the gas a little more to make the light and a car turned in front of me. The cars collided and, this being my first car accident, it was the most force I had ever felt in my entire life. I can still remember the dull, blunt crashing sound and then immediately thinking “I should have gone to Mutual”. I took it as divine intervention. The person in the passenger seat of the other car was knocked unconscious and had to be rushed to the hospital. It’s my understanding that everything turned out fine, but I remember feeling very guilty that night and I don’t know that I ever missed Mutual again after that.

The concept of shaming for skipping an activity or event that God supposedly wanted you to attend rears its head in a lot of places across Mormon culture. But no place did I feel it so strong as I did in Seminary.

Mormon kids begin attending Seminary at age 14. Depending on what area of the country they live in, they may have to attend early morning Seminary every day before school starts. I’ve heard stories of dedicated Mormon kids getting up as early as 4 am to make the trip to Seminary and then get to school on time. In that situation, the teacher of the class is typically a member of the ward who has been assigned to fulfill the role. In areas of the country with high populations of Mormons such as Utah, Idaho, and some parts of Arizona, there is a building owned and operated by the Church right next to the high school. Students can work a free period into their school schedule every semester and walk to that building to attend Seminary. In my high school, while I don’t have any official statistics, I feel comfortable saying that close to, if not higher than, 95% of the school attended Seminary, or at least they were supposed to. In this particular arrangement, the teachers are paid employees of the Church. If you would have asked me in high school what I wanted to do with my life, I’d have said I wanted to be a Seminary teacher. I even told my wife that when we started dating. Thank God that never happened.

I loved Seminary. I loved talking about the Gospel and it was amazing to me that I had the chance to do it at school. A term that I commonly used to describe it was “spiritual high”. I’d often come out of Seminary feeling the Spirit and I’d be so happy the rest of the day. I’m not sure how much the curriculum has changed since I attended, but each year was dedicated towards studying one of the major books in Mormon scripture: the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants — revelations and scripture written mostly by Joseph Smith in the early days of the Church. Each year there were 25 scriptures chosen from each of those books which we were supposed to memorize. These were referred to as “scripture mastery” verses. I only memorized the ones from my freshman year, which were all from the New Testament. My other years, my teachers simply didn’t put as much emphasis on scripture mastery. I can still spit off Matthew 5: 14 - 16, Matthew 16:15 - 19, John 3:5, and 1 Corinthians 10:13 word for word without breaking a sweat — ok maybe a little bit of sweat. I can even expand on the Mormon interpretation of each of those verses. Between what I learned in Seminary and the heavy study I did on my mission, I still feel comfortable going into a Bible bash with just about anybody. Ultimately, that’s what the Church wanted to accomplish, teach me, and other teenagers, the scriptures and gospel so well that we could effectively teach it to others.

Discussing topics in the Bible was always interesting to do as 14 year olds. There were many questions like “What does that mean?” or “Why is it ‘shew’ instead of ‘show’”. It seems like most Mormons have a story about the person who asked what circumcision was in Seminary and the awkward answer from the overly cautious teacher that then followed. I wish I had the guts to ask much more pointed and challenging questions such as “Why was God such a jerk?” or “If we need to be married to get to heaven, why wasn’t Jesus married?”. But I was very faithful and didn’t want to upset the teacher. Not to mention, I am not sure I had the intellect at the time to think of things in that way. There were kids in my classes that did. Some teachers would get really frustrated when addressing those kinds of things. Others were understanding and tried their best to help the student see it from a faithful perspective. The students asking those questions were normally seen as less valiant and spiritual by their peers. As I’ve said before, in hindsight, these people were years ahead of the majority of their peers intellectually and I am amazed at their courage to challenge the status quo at such a young age.

My Seminary teacher sophomore year told us on the first day of class that the day we missed Seminary was the day that Satan wanted us to miss the most, meaning it was the lesson we needed most in our lives. I remember thinking that was insightful and powerful at the time and even feeling sad for my friends that decided to miss Seminary for what I felt were foolish reasons. One friend in that same class once skipped to get breakfast with friends. I’m fairly positive I told her that was the lesson Satan wanted her to miss the most. If I didn’t say it, I definitely thought it. It’s often embarrassing to look back at the things I did and said as a Mormon, but especially when I think of these moments when I was so abrasive and forward. But I wasn’t the only one. I remember once I was drinking a Mountain Dew and a friend asking me if it had caffeine in it. When I answered yes, she immediately said “I forgive you”. I’m going to save the caffeine aspect of Mormon life for another chapter, but that story aptly demonstrates the pervasiveness of policing and imposing standards on others. I am not exaggerating when I say it happened everyday.

At the end of the four years of Seminary, there is a graduation ceremony where all that met the requirements are given a diploma. The Church’s official requirements for graduation say that you need to have a good attendance record, read your scriptures regularly, complete a learning assessment, and be endorsed by your bishop for graduation. In my Seminary program, nearly all the teachers would give you an A if you simply attended a participated in class. Because of this, I rarely read my scriptures regularly. The one B I got in a Seminary class was because one teacher actually did care. I think I appealed that grade and got it changed. I now think it’s hilarious that I even cared. Those grades, unless you completely failed, don’t even matter to the Church. Most just care if you graduated from Seminary.

The learning assessment is given at the end of senior year. I remember tearing mine up because I thought it was stupid. Mormons believe in different levels of heaven, and it asked me on what level I would place people based on certain sins they committed in their lives. Even as a TBM I felt very uncomfortable judging somebody’s entire life. Admittedly, the action of physically tearing the exam was more to be funny than to express outrage. But even without the action, I still wouldn’t have finished the test. My teacher just laughed and didn’t make me do it again.

As I said, I enjoyed both Mutual and Seminary. Mutual was a good way to spend time with friends and I usually enjoyed the content of Seminary. Looking back at it, it is staggering to think of how much time I spent in both of these activities. Combined with the total hours I spent in church and the entire two years I spent on my mission, I spent so much of my time thinking about church. No wonder it’s hard for me to stop talking about it.

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