Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lent, Community, and the Workplace

I was sitting in my car, staring at my reflection in the mirror, looking at the cross of ashes on my forehead.  I wanted to keep it there as a way to claim and hold onto the sense of the sacred in Ash Wednesday and as a physical reminder of the sense of belonging that comes from worshiping together.  I wanted a reminder of why Ash Wednesday is a special day and to contemplate preparing for Easter.  But the bible verses quoted in the service were still ringing in my ears:
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
How do you walk into the office with a face marked advertising that you attended worship services on your lunch break after hearing that?  Sadly, I wiped my jacket sleeve across my forehead, and headed back into work.

There are many ways piety can be publicly displayed, some more quiet, some more loud.  Each religious tradition seems to have its own characteristic ways of building community with visible markers.  Despite being hesitant to walk around with ashes on my face, I have my own religious identifiers that stay visible at work.  I wear a ring with a cross on it to replace the CTR ring I used to wear.  To encourage my coworkers not to speak in tactless ways about other religions around me I have an 8 inch tall glass cross ornamenting my desk and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer.

A few days ago at the office, the head of one of the other accounting teams was walking up and down our row of cubicles with a stack of Ensign magazines.  In preparation for General Conference, she wanted to form a group that would meet once a week on lunch break to focus on different self improvement goals every week.  For the first week she wanted to focus on spirituality and was inviting us all to read the Ensign magazine together as a group devotional activity.  Since I am typically somewhat invisible in social spaces I was at first totally unsurprised that she walked right past me without extending an invitation but invited everyone else in our row, including others I am fairly sure are not Mormon.  I watched, wondering if I was socially invisible enough to escape the whole situation.  As she returned from the back of our row I think she noticed me watching and out of a desire to be inclusive (or at least avoid the awkwardness of having invited everyone but me), she invited me as well.  I had been so busy wondering whether or not to feel sorry for myself for being so invisible again that I hadn't come up with a witty response.  So I just said simply, "No, I'm not interested."  I'm not sure why, but she seemed to grow a touch defensive or confused and stated perhaps she was just weird that she wanted to do things like this.  I cut in and stated that I didn't think it was weird at all, that I thought it was a great community building activity, but I wasn't interested.

I spent a good part of the rest of the day either chuckling at the absurdity of the situation or feeling  stressed that I I didn't know to respond.  The desk cross was in part supposed to prevent weird interactions like this by making it obvious I wasn't Mormon.  Perhaps the desk cross is too small to be noticed and I need a larger one... 😉 Or maybe I should start wearing a cross necklace at the office to make my brand of Christianity much more obvious?  I felt pleased not to have been ignored as so often happens, but at the same time worried that I had rejected this offer of community participation without softening the rejection with more graceful words.  Part of me also pondered that this special preparation for General Conference wasn't too far off of a Lent observance.  Even if the focus of the preparation is a human meeting instead of Easter, the basic concept is still the same, to have a special time of spiritual practice before a special occasion at about the same time of the year.  The similarities are strong enough you could argue that the difference is mostly just that we belong to different faith communities.  Offering to read the Ensign magazine with people is a way to build community with people based on spirituality, not totally unlike what I experienced attending church on Ash Wednesday.  It is worth asking, if building community is such a great thing, what is the problem?  Why did it stress me out?  Beyond not wanting to parade my piety, why else did I feel a need to hide my own signs of spiritual community?  A lot of it comes down to that religion is a subject that involves a lot of social power imbalances.

Some of the power imbalance just comes from living in Utah.  Mormons have a lot of social power.  In an office where most of the staff are Mormon, Mormons to some extent can expect more social legitimacy than non-Mormons and much more than ex-Mormons.  This causes inherent problems for me, not dissimilar to what I'm sure atheists experience in most of the country.  Social power and legitimacy can express itself in a lot of ways.  If there was any conflict connected to religion, the dominant group can be expected to have their concerns taken more seriously.  If someone starts a malicious rumor or spreads speculative juicy gossip about a member of a minority group, it will be believed more easily, especially if it ties in to the stereotypes the dominant group commonly believes about the minority group.  In any kind of discussion of religious opinions, the dominant group will have a harder time understanding when they are behaving in an unwelcome manner, while the minority group's unique opinions or needs might be unwelcome from the start.

Growing up, I was raised to believe that social norms that secularized the work place were somehow a reflection of the degradation of society.  I was given to believe I should be open and often feel defensive about my right and need to pray, proselytize, and visibly practice my religion publicly.  Now that I have the experience of being a religious minority, I have a different perspective.  While I appreciate that belonging to and participating in religious communities can make up a large part of personal well being (or detract greatly from it), the power imbalances between religious communities makes any discussion or assertively public practice of religion in an interfaith space very tricky and time consuming to do right.

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