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July 9, 2009
In The Village
Mormon 'tribe' feels like home
by Orson Scott Card

Back when personal computers stood alone on your desk, not connected to anything, you couldn't download anything from the internet. The equivalent of freeware on the web was the computer magazine with BASIC programs for you to type in manually.

I worked at one of those magazines for a while -- it's what took me to Greensboro, North Carolina. After I went back to freelancing, I bought a program called PC-USA, mostly so I could write a review of it. It consisted of maps of all fifty states, with facts about them.

Computers were so primitive then that the maps weren't much. In fact, I wrote a much better one myself -- as a type-in program for the PCjr. Remember that one? The book I wrote the program for was as dead as the PCjr before it even came out.

When I installed PC-USA on our computer at home, my kids gravitated to it, and that was a good sign. We left them alone with it.

After a while, though, my wife and I noticed something odd. The kids had been dinking around with it for half an hour and they still hadn't looked up North Carolina.

Instead, the looked up Utah, and then sat there arguing with the software (which didn't answer, making the argument rather one-sided) about the things they did and didn't say about Utah.

I don't remember there being anything overtly anti-Mormon in the "facts" about Utah in that program, but certainly they got things wrong. The kinds of errors that you get when you rely on encyclopedias or almanacs that didn't bother to do their research.

Our third child had been born in North Carolina; the two oldest had been born in Utah before we moved away. But they were so young when we moved that neither of them remembered much about living there. Just a few family visits -- that's all Utah was to them.

Except it was way, way more. It was, to put it plainly, our tribal home. Not our family home, but the homeland of our people.

These days it isn't politically correct to talk about "tribes" -- we're supposed to say "ethnic groups." But those are not exact synonyms. A tribe is considerably more than a mere shared ethnicity.

A tribe commands your loyalty -- often more than any other community you belong to. When you're in a place where your tribe is in a minority, you feel like a sojourner; you look to the tribal homeland as the center.

When our fifth and youngest child died on the day she was born, my wife and I knew at once that her grave would not be in North Carolina. While we had (and have) no intention of moving away, we knew that our children and grandchildren probably would not live here.

So we purchased a burial plot in a cemetery in a town overlooking Utah Lake. It was not a town where we had ever lived. But we knew that because it was located between Provo and Salt Lake City, it would always be much likelier for us and all our children and grandchildren to visit that grave from time to time.

North Carolina was never our children's homeland, not even the ones who were born there. To southerners, their state and region is a vital part of their identity. But without our ever saying so, our children picked up the idea that for Mormons like us, the tribal home is in the tops of the mountains.

My point is not that every Mormon is a de facto native of Utah (though I remember when Robert Redford griped that when Orrin Hatch moved to Utah from Pennsylvania to run for office, he was treated like a homeboy, while Redford, who had lived in Utah far longer, was still treated like an outsider).

What matter is that when people join the Mormon Church -- really join it, accepting callings, making it the center of our lives -- it becomes more than our "church of choice."

In the Book of Mormon, when social order broke down, the system of judges vanished. What took its place? Tribes. Though the tribes were barely mentioned in a hundred years of history, there they were, ready to come to the fore -- the loyalty and organization that persisted when the political system went away.

Does anyone have any doubt that Mormonism would function as a tribe under such circumstances? There are fans of the Yankees and Cowboys all over the country; there are watchers of Lost and Law and Order in large numbers; but in a breakdown of social order, it would be absurd to think of even the most passionate of such affiliations as a basis for reorganizing society.

We know that wherever we go, if there's a Mormon church, we can find fellow-members of the tribe. We'll walk in and know immediately what's going on. We'll speak the same language -- even if it's not English -- because we have scripture and ritual and calendar and worship services in common.

Recently some good friends moved to Greensboro from Africa. They had a lot of adjustment, getting used to American food (bland!), American weather (cold!), and the way everything is so far apart and you can't walk anywhere useful.

But they had little or no problem adjusting to our Mormon ward. Coming from Africa to America changed nothing, except that here they had to get used to the southern drawl. They got up and bore their testimonies the first time the occasion arose and there was nothing strange about it, to them or to us.

They knew how to talk to fellow Mormons because, even though they had been converted in a faraway place, and lived in tiny branches where their family sometimes held half the callings, they had joined the same tribe as the rest of us.

They might be foreigners in America, but they were citizens of the Mormon Church.

Ours is a demanding religion -- we expect each other to perform service far beyond what is expected of anyone but the priest or minister in most other churches.

The result is that we create a network of mutual dependence. To put it bluntly, we're in each other's faces all the time.

And it's a separate world inside the meetinghouse. Here in North Carolina, where we only occasionally run into each other while going about our business, we often have no idea what half the people in the ward even do for a living.

What we know is their role in the ward -- their tribal history, if you will. The former bishops, the clerks, the people who teach, the people who lead -- we know what all those jobs entail, and what it means that a person has held one or more of them.

But what difference does it make, inside the tribe, whether somebody is an actuary or a novelist, and accountant or a carpenter, a professor or a fireman?

We may not be blood relations beyond the sense in which all human beings are. But as we face the outside world, we feel keenly our difference from other people, even relatives who haven't yet joined the Church. Because we have the whole tribe behind us and inside us, wherever we go.


Copyright © 2022 by Orson Scott Card Printed from NauvooTimes.com