I confessed to being Mormon at a cocktail party recently. The startled expressions of my coworkers indicated that I had either said too much, or was clearly not in good standing with my religion, or some combination of both. I wondered if I had once again failed at small talk. I valiantly attempt to admire necklaces or recall the weather, but inevitably I end up asking a question or revealing some piece of information that veers the conversation way beyond customary topics and into “Here be Dragons” territory. I had brought up religion. In the Midwest. At a work function. I was courting exile.
An offhand mention of a construction assignment at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints church building had elicited my proclamation. Much to my surprise, after the initial reaction, my two female companions eagerly started discussing their own religious upbringing and current involvement. We chatted about families, attendance, and what had shifted for us over the years. Then one of them looked me in eye and asked what I believed in now.
I paused. I am not asked this question very often, even from my friends in the Church. I am inactive and don’t have the opportunity to share in a sanctioned, communal way and even before this, to bear testimony at a social event could be perceived as unwelcome proselytizing. At best the whole situation was teetering on being too personal, at worst, I could offend someone. I should have opted for a casual response, thrown out a few safe homilies about being nice to people and moved on. But, as it often does, reason passed me by and I answered without a strategy. In brief, but honest terms, I described my belief in seeking out a rich spiritual life, using words like vision, prompting, conversion, ways of knowing. There was thoughtful quiet, more questions and layered insight.
Then we were talking about our children, Lent, awkward dinners at our parents’ house. I was called away to another conversation.
Later that week I unexpectedly saw one of the women again in a more official work venue. We chatted about the issues at hand and then she pulled me aside and asked if we could speak privately. She told me that she had been thinking about our conversation at the party. She then related a past experience when amid a scene of unbearable fear and chaos, she felt an undeniable presence comforting her. She knew at the time that there was no explanation for this feeling other than a spiritual one. This memory offers her solace and she believes that God was with her then and continues to be. As she told the story, she became quite emotional and admitted that she had never shared this experience to anyone outside of her family but wanted to tell me because I would understand. We embraced and went on our way.
Two conversations that according to social protocol should not have happened. Most of the time we are expected to reveal only part of our complex selves. At church we can be spiritual, but not too intellectual. At work we can be practical, but certainly not too touchy feely. It is extraordinary to feel truly integrated and we yearn to express ourselves with a sense of wholeness and authenticity. In forgoing small talk, I may have nudged the door open a wedge, but the invitation was mutual. We offered each other a space, a holy space, to be and share whatever came to our minds and hearts.
True community happens one interaction at a time. A moment of acceptance that transcends context or rules. When we show up as multifaceted, potentially messy but real humans, we are more familiar to each other, there are more points of connection and we recognize and reach out in ways we may never have imagined.