Nonmember Friends: The Richness of Diversity


Our lives are touched daily by the quiet joy of good friends. Too often, though, in the bustle of meetings, Church assignments, callings, and the business of everyday life, we limit our circle of friends to members of the Church—probably because we have been cautioned, “choose your friends wisely” since we were knee-high to a Primary teacher. Unfortunately, some of us have taken that counsel to mean that we should choose only members of the Church as friends, and by doing so we have robbed ourselves of the richness of diversity.

When Jack and I married, we made our home in North Carolina where he was attending school. There I recall that my Jewish boss, after I handed him a nice hand-made clay mug as a remembrance at Christmastime, chuckled for weeks at the thought of a Mormon giving a Jew a coffee cup for Christmas!

Twelve years and five states later, we moved to Salt Lake City. In all the intervening years, we were never neighbors with members of the Church. We lived anywhere from two to forty-eight miles from the nearest Latter-day Saint, and though we certainly had warm friendships in the wards and branches we attended, our lives would have been pretty empty without our nonmember friends and neighbors. To let my mind run back over the years through some of those friendships is a delight.

Some of our best friends have been non-Mormon relatives. My husband, Jack, a convert to the Church, was the only Mormon in his family when we first met. Over the years his oldest sister, three nephews, two cousins, and their spouses have joined the Church. Although Jack baptized some of them, their membership did not come through pressure from us. They knew of our activity in the Church, and we answered questions, sometimes discussed, and occasionally argued (which never accomplished anything), but each one came into the Church in his or her own way, finding needs filled by the gospel.

My husband was converted to the Church by the example of a college roommate who lived his religion, and Jack noticed. Six years after their initial meeting, this friend baptized him. Perhaps because of Jack’s own conversion experience, we have never tried to push our values onto our friends, though we do delight in sharing our religious values when the circumstances are right. At the same time, we have found that we have gained immeasurably from allowing friends to share their own life-styles—and what a smorgasbord of memories that has become!

In New Hampshire we rented our old rustic farmhouse from Roger and Justine Leighton. They lived just around the bend in the road, and we tobogganed with them down the slope between the two farms. Justine loved music, and when the Laconia Branch choir gave a concert in our branch, we invited her to join us. On another occasion we went to her church to hear an Easter cantata she was directing. As we shared countless Maine lobsters around our dining room table, we also exchanged thoughts on many subjects, including religion. I saw Justine again last fall, and again we talked of religion. She is searching now. “While you are looking,” I said, “why don’t you look into our Church?” Perhaps she will.

Jack’s return to graduate school took us from New England to his native Ohio. Of all our wanderings, our experiences in Ohio were among the most gratifying.

When spring had burst the buds on the plum tree in the backyard I saw Jack leaning on the handle of our rake, small-talking with Muriel and Fred Frank as they cleaned the winter’s clutter from their yard. There is no stereotype mold into which one can stuff the Franks, with their avant-garde outlook on life encased in a middle-class white frame house.

Muriel was finishing her Ph.D. at Ohio State. Each morning our husbands biked the three miles to campus, where they shared offices. In their marriage Fred and Muriel were partners in the housework, the care of their two school-age girls, and the cooking. Fred, a gourmet cook, was fascinated when he learned that I made my own bread, especially when I told him I also ground the wheat on a grinder in our wardhouse kitchen.

That’s what the conversation over the fence had been about that morning—bread! Fred wanted me to teach him to make bread, and Jack passed along the word that I would be starting a batch later that day. At the appointed time I glanced out the window. There was Fred, a large bowl clutched against the man-sized apron that covered his stocky frame.

“Come on in,” I called. The screen door banged and he poked his head into the kitchen. His brown eyes literally danced, and somewhere under the moustache that always reminded me of a warehouse push broom, there was a huge grin.

With Jack perched on the orange stool in our kitchen where he could be close enough to sample the product at various intervals, Fred got his first lesson in breadmaking. How memorable those hours were as the three of us talked of everything from politics to painting, Fred’s thick New Jersey accent mingling freely with our own from the Midwest and West.

During the two years that we shared a back fence with the Franks, there were many such conversations. Sometimes we talked about the Church and answered questions, but we respected each other’s differences. I don’t ever remember Fred’s bringing one of his huge eight-inch-long cigars into our house lighted. We could even josh him about them, and when he’d tease us about our cache of food in the basement, I would send over a jar of home-canned peaches or jam as a friendly silencer.

The Franks do not drink, and they appreciated the fact that we didn’t either. Once we talked about the whys. Fred thought the world exciting and challenging and he would rather handle it with a clear head, he said. Muriel had lost four close relatives in two separate car accidents—all were killed by drunk drivers. We discussed the Word of Wisdom, but there was no need to preach. Their reasons for abstaining were valid, too.

Fred, a gentle, kind man with a keen sense of humor, had no limits to his interests, nor to his friendship. His enthusiasm for life was contagious, as was his love for people. He had a darkroom in his basement, and his omnipresent camera snapped continually around the neighborhood. He delighted in giving the prints he made to each of his subjects. When it was time for us to leave Columbus and the “For Sale” sign was pounded into the grass, Fred Frank knew how to make bread and we had the beginnings of our own darkroom. But more important, we had formed a lasting friendship and our lives are richer for it.

It’s been three years since we left Ohio. Our house had been the first home of Jack’s parents as bride and groom. I loved it because I had loved Jack’s mother and it had been hers. We bought it from the family estate when she died.

Aunt Louise, a universalist who saw nature as the hand of God, had loved Jack’s mother also. They were sisters, and she understood how I felt about the “For Sale” sign in front of the house. “It’s nature’s way,” she told me. “You have to let go. The trees let go of their blossoms so the fruit can form; the clouds release their weight in soft snow. It is your time, Linda. You have to let go, too.” For over ninety-two years she had done a lot of letting go.

Hard as it was to sell the house, it was even more difficult to leave Aunt Louise. I cherished the mornings we spent together once a week when I stopped by her retirement-home apartment after my piano lesson, and we visited until lunch. We sometimes talked of family history. My love for genealogy let me soak up her stories. It delighted her that I knew of her grandmother, Kathryn Schramm, and why she eloped with the handsome German army officer.

But Aunt Louise by no means lived in the past. She devoured the daily newspaper and we talked often about local and national events. Each week, as soon as we had exchanged greetings and a bit of small talk, she pulled out a big manila envelope with my name scrawled across the outside. In it were items clipped from newspapers and magazines that she wanted to discuss with me. She never missed an article on the Mormons, no matter how small or buried in the paper it might be, and that gave us many opportunities to exchange our ideas on theology. To others she usually talked of “nature” rather than God, but with me she talked of God, because she knew I understood. “I don’t know why God is letting me live so long,” she would say, her large cataract-damaged eyes looking even larger through heavy lenses. “It isn’t nature’s way. But as long as I am here, there must be a reason, and I pray every day that God will let me know that purpose.”

In the multistoried retirement home Aunt Louise fulfills that purpose. She “blooms where she is planted”! Little old ladies and aged men have taken me aside to tell me the joy that she has given to their lives. Though confined to a wheelchair since losing one leg at age eighty-five, she never complains, her laugh is infectious, and her many interests permeate the entire compound. She is chairman of the board at the youth recreation center that was her late husband’s dream and bears his name. She corresponds with politicians, civic leaders, newspaper editors, family, and friends. She is a member of the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. She is a lover of flags and people.

From her I have learned much about love, about forgiving, and about living life to the fullest. What a privilege to know such a great soul!

With mixed feelings we settled into our new home across the street from the meetinghouse in suburban Salt Lake City. For the first time, we had Mormon neighbors, and they welcomed us and brought in dinner, just as our non-Mormon neighbors had in other states.

We like our comfortable ward and the people in it. They are good, friendly people. We have also found our lives properly spiced with a sprinkling of non-Mormon neighbors. The Jacobses live next door. She is an Indian princess from Oklahoma and he is a Mohawk subchief from New York. Both have sat for me in their native dress while I painted their portraits. We have sampled six kinds of corn soup and Indian fried bread at their table. We have sat in their living room and listened to David and his friend Gilbert chant their native songs as we felt the powerful throbbing of the drum pound in our chests.

Both the Jacobses teach at the University of Utah. They are good neighbors, the kind you can chat with over the back fence or borrow potatoes from when you run short. We are not friends because we are trying to convert them. We are friends because they are fascinating people and we are learning from each other.

The Gunnes came into our lives shortly after we arrived in Utah. Manny and Jack also teach at the University. Like us, they are eastern transplants, so we found much in common from the start. Marilyn is now one of my closest friends—and what a friend she is! If I need help, she sometimes knows it before I do! If I am sick, she and another non-Mormon friend, Mary Nichols, are immediately on my doorstep with dinner.

The Gunnes love Salt Lake and they have seen more of it than most natives. Open and friendly, they have won the hearts of “their” ward. Though they are active in their church, they still attend ward functions in the LDS Church. Being a wife and mother is important to Marilyn; she likes to sew and cook. When her Mormon neighbors tell her she should be LDS, she is not offended (I have told her that myself). She just flashes that grin of hers and thanks us for what she feels is a compliment.

“Socially,” she says, “I could easily be a Mormon. The Word of Wisdom wouldn’t be hard at all for me and I like the family orientation of the Church. And you know I like the people! But,” she continues, “theologically I could never be LDS.”

Having lived for twelve years as a Mormon minority in the mission field, I understand Marilyn’s occasional frustrations living as a non-Mormon in Utah. We talk about them candidly. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we do not. We both know that part of being friends is respecting each other’s differences.

Our contacts with these people—the Leightons, the Franks, Aunt Louise, the Jacobses, the Gunnes, and many others—have broadened our understanding of others and of ourselves. Thus, when a nonmember expresses hurt over finding that friendships with some Latter-day Saints tend to cool when it becomes clear that conversion is not likely, it hurts me as well. And when non-Mormons become frustrated because many Latter-day Saints seem to feel no need to be involved in community affairs outside of their church, it causes me to look at my life and consider what I am doing with my time.

When I hear of LDS parents and children who include only Latter-day Saints in their circle of friends, I ache for them, knowing what they are missing. Our lives and those of our children are richer because we have had neighbors and friends of a variety of races, religions, and backgrounds, and we know that the Lord loves them, too.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

Linda King Newell, a homemaker, recently moved to the Garden Park First Ward, Salt Lake Bonneville Stake, where she serves as the mother education leader and a gospel doctrine teacher.