The beautiful thing about religion, and something I believe is often a misunderstanding about Mormons, is that the outward appearance does not always accurately reflect the goodness or worth of the soul. I know a lot of strong, faithful Mormons who look and live nothing like me, and I think that is a good thing. But this is a small glimpse into what it looks like to be me, Hannah Panek, as a Mormon. This is my story.
“Wait, you’re Mormon?!” is a question I occasionally get from strangers and acquaintances alike. It’s like people are surprised to see me in normal clothes talking about normal things. Yeah, I’m Mormon, and I’m about as Mormon as it gets. I was born and raised in “the church” as we like to say, my parents both faithful and lifelong members as well. I grew up listening to Scripture Scouts in the car and playing soccer in the church gym on Saturday afternoons. My Sundays have been filled with church meetings for as long as I can remember, kicking the back of the pew with my feet and hiding under tables in Sunday School. The prayers over meals and before bed have been constant, sometimes routine. I have not once cursed in my life, and I don’t think that’s a badge of honor but more of a product of my insane guilt complex. Once, I told a boy to “go to hell” and then I cried, because how could I be so mean? Mormonism is not a culture of “don’ts” or “won’ts” as it is so often categorized to be—it’s a culture of “do” and “be.” It is a culture of doing, a culture of knowing, a culture of camaraderie. I was taught the value of education and self reliance, and that what I choose to do is just as important as what I choose to believe.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Mormonism, some of them silly and some of them valid. And I’m not saying we as a religion are perfect or even normal, because we’re not. There’s a lot to make fun of in our culture, like the horrendous baby names Utah is quickly becoming famous for and the families with 20 kids that fill our chapels. Sometimes Mormons can be weird or hypocritical, and I’ve been told on more than one occasion that we often come off as judgmental or egotistical. So sure, I get where the questions of, “Can you drink soda?” or “Are you allowed to dance?” come from. It’s human nature to question what we don’t understand, but it is our right and privilege to try and ask. But for the record, I do drink soda. I’m also an obnoxious dancer and you’re all invited over for a Taylor Swift dance party after this.
Just weeks after graduating from high school I left California and went to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to live out the Mormon dream. I studied philosophy and lived by the Honor Code and drank caffeine for the first time because I am a rebel. College was the first time I had to define myself as something other than “the Mormon girl.” While many of my friends in high school were Mormon, I waltzed through the halls of Concord High defined by my faith and not much else. I was the girl who wore long shorts and did not play sports on Sunday and had no interest in drinking or experimenting. But then I graduated and moved to my little college town where 95 percent of the student body was raised just like me, and I could no longer hide behind my faith. Who was I besides youth group and Sunday school? I struggled with this at first; I wasn’t really sure how to define myself. I used to play soccer, but quit. I was in color guard but didn’t make the college squad. Who did I want to be? As college freshmen we’re all trying to figure ourselves out, to claim new identity as we begin our foray into adulthood. The high school social structure we grow accustomed to is gone and it’s up to nobody but ourselves to decide who we want to be. Feeling like I needed something to continue to hide behind, I quickly became “the Harry Potter girl” and never really looked back.
I spent my time at Brigham Young University studying philosophy and theology, trying to understand faith and reason. Can we make a rational religious commitment? What makes a believer tick? I used to sit in the back of my Sunday school class writing down all the heretical things that were being preached from the front of the room in the name of “learning together” because I thought I was smarter than everyone else. I wondered why we didn’t rely more heavily on our theology, one that holds its own against ancient conundrums. We are wasting our time and squandering our most valuable asset, I thought. And then I moved to the heart of Baltimore, Md. I spent a lot of time in Baltimore with the Mormon missionaries, visiting apartment complexes straight out of The Wire and witnessing hardship and poverty that I had never even imagined growing up in my middle class white neighborhood in Northern California. I spent a lot of time with the youth, driving teenage girls to and from church activities and hoping that someway, somehow I could make the smallest difference in their lives. I quickly learned that all it takes is a little Justin Timberlake blasting while the windows are rolled down to connect to any young girl, regardless of the gap. On those spring evening drives I realized that people do not need Christology or debates about whether or not God exists within space and time: People need charity and love and service. And that’s where the Mormon church thrives—in giving, in helping, in lifting up our peers. This was a big lesson for me to learn, and one that completely changed the way I viewed myself as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My interest in theology no longer defines my faith, instead I like to think of it as an added bonus.
More than once my humble testimony has been shaken and tested. The summer after I graduated from high school I remember laying on the floor of my hotel room in Canada, crying into my party dress while all my friends got drunk and I felt sad and alone and weird. I wished so badly that I could erase my conscience and let all of it go. I was sick of standing out and I wanted to be just like everybody else. This was a small moment and by no means earth-shattering. I was not struck by lightning; it was just the quiet pleas of an 18-year-old girl. But the biggest test of faith came my senior year of college. I was at a crossroads, and for the first time in my life I imagined what it would be like if I stopped going to church. What would non-Mormon Hannah look like, sleeping in on Sunday mornings and ignoring the endless phone calls from the local congregation trying to fellowship me back? I started piecing my life together without my faith, but the brief moments of liberation I felt were quickly followed by guilt. My earthly longings could never stack up against the foundation of faith I’d spent my whole life building upon. After many months of tears and a broken heart, my crisis of faith was resolved and I once again felt peace. Belief is inconvenient. All those hours of church and evenings spent studying scripture come at a cost, even if it’s just a temporal one. It’s hard to see past the material and focus instead on the eternal, because what if none of this matters and my righteous longings were a waste of time? Even if that’s true, and we all die and there is nothing but empty space, I’ve decided that it’s OK. I’d rather live a good life grounded in faith and principle than throw it away because it’s too inconvenient.
We are all here on this earth to do the best that we can and to be the best we can be. Who isn’t lost, searching for boxes they can fit their beliefs and feelings into? I’ve had my fair share of slip ups and embarrassing moments, but it’s human nature to be clumsy and to fall. The important thing is that I am trying. We all are. Perfection is not an absolute thing, rather an act of progression. Mormons are not perfect, people are not perfect, but God is. Mormonism has allowed me to think for myself, to reason and wrestle and succeed and fail, and to pray, in my own words to my own God, about real questions and real issues. As I stumble through life I’ve been able to take solace in my religion and my testimony.
Mormonism is a faith, a church, a denomination. It’s a community and it has defined my entire life. I like philosophy and Hogwarts and marathoning “West Wing” on Friday nights. I’m a sinner and repentant and a wife and hopefully a decent friend and neighbor. And, I’m a Mormon.[divider] [/divider]
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