I recently attended a religion and faith conference at Harvard Divinity School, where I heard Dr. Laurel Thatcher-Ulrich define frontiers as a place where two cultures merge and create tension. Pioneers, she said, are the people who forge a new path out of this cultural blending.
Over the last four years, I have felt like one of the pioneers described by Dr. Ulrich. In 2013, I packed up my stuff and moved from Salt Lake City, UT, to Washington, D.C., to begin a JD/MBA program at Georgetown University. Every single day since that move I have stood on my own personal frontier as my religious and cultural heritage began to merge with my academic training, often creating conflict as the leanings of my professors and classmates clashed with prophetic guidance from Church leaders. Through this merging and clashing process, I have had to forge my own pioneer path by deciding how to combine my faith and trust in the Prophet with the academic and social expansion of my worldview. This is not an easy task. Looking back over my time at Georgetown, I have often reflected on what it means to be a pioneer both socially and in the classroom.
The Classroom – Learning How to Stand on an Ideological Island
Last semester I enrolled in a course titled “Bioethics and the Law”. The purpose of this course was to discuss policy and legal arguments for controversial topics like abortion, patient autonomy, and physician-assisted suicide. Many times throughout the semester, I felt like I was on an ideological island, separate from my classmates in thought and opinion. I spent a lot of time wrestling with these concepts, trying to figure out how to translate deeply held moral and religious beliefs into sound legal arguments. Whenever possible, I tried to use Church teachings as a guidepost for my thoughts, combing Lds.org or Mormonnewsroom.org for official Church policy.
Sometimes this guidance came on a real-time basis. A week or so before our class discussion on physician-assisted suicide, the First Presidency issued a letter to members in Colorado, urging them to vote against a bill that would legalize a death with dignity act in their State. I read this letter several times and used it as a reference when debating with my classmates.
Similarly, I have followed closely the Church’s emphasis on religious liberty over the past few years. Even though my chosen practice area is corporate law, I decided to take two courses this semester on religion and the law – one dealing specifically with First Amendment rights in the United States, and the other looking more globally at how nations constitutionally define “religious freedom”. These classes are also very policy-focused, and I feel on an island here as well. But by taking these classes, I am choosing to arm myself with the arguments and background necessary to join in the larger public conversation if and when it is required.
Social Settings – Balancing Friendship with Standards
Every Thursday, my MBA classmates would head down the hall to our weekly “Kegs” mixer while I headed out the door to begin my shift as an ordinance worker at the Washington, D.C. temple. The reassuring peace and comfort of the temple were a necessary antidote to the stress and fatigue of graduate school, and with no scheduled classes on Fridays, Thursdays were a good time to go. But because I was prioritizing the temple over Kegs, I often missed out on much of the socialization that went on without me.
And Kegs wasn’t the only social event I missed. I felt very uncomfortable in bars and clubs – places where people regularly go to socialize. I didn’t feel the Spirit in those places, and I didn’t like watching my friends get drunk while I sat there awkwardly with my ginger ale or Sprite. A couple of years ago, I decided to attend a formal masquerade ball at a club downtown. It was my attempt to show support for my friends by attending one of the bigger functions for the year, and since it was a formal event I thought it would be a little tamer. When I got to the club, however, I was shocked at how drunk everyone already was. After an hour or so of watching people stumble around and spilling alcohol all over my dress, I looked around the room and had a distinct thought, “The Spirit is not here. It’s time for you to leave.” I immediately grabbed my coat and walked out the door.
Not every event is like that. Many of them are completely normal things I would do with my LDS friends. And over time I have grown more comfortable in various happy hour settings by learning to set time limits and make the most of the non-alcoholic beverages. But because of my choice to abstain from some of these social events, I have had to find other ways to build bridges with people. And throughout the process, I have repeatedly asked myself the same question – how do I reconcile the guidance to avoid the appearance of evil and to stand in holy places without ostracizing myself from genuinely good people and giving off an air of indifference and Puritanical piety?
We’re All Going to Face These Kinds of Frontiers
Many of us face challenges like these, no matter where we live. The world is an increasingly challenging place for religious observers, particularly when strong doctrinal tenets run afoul of the issue du jour. And most of these issues are not easy to resolve.
But I have also found that standing for what’s right may be a source of strength for the minority, even if it ostracizes you from the majority. My openness about not drinking has given others the strength to do the same because they know they won’t be alone. Similarly, my commitment to stand up for traditional values in the classroom has resonated with others who did not speak out before. Sometimes all it takes is one voice willing to make the first move and ease the way for others. I still have not figured out the perfect balance to socializing and maintaining my standards, but the efforts I have made have created some really strong friendships with people of wildly different backgrounds and worldviews. And even though many of my classmates and I don’t agree on matters of policy, we respect each other and understand each other a little better, which makes us more compassionate as human beings.
With graduation just around the corner, I now look back and appreciate the painful but powerful merging process of my education and my religion. I also look forward with anticipation to the next frontier that lies ahead. What comes next assuredly won’t be easy, but at least I know I am prepared for it. I am stronger in my faith in God, stronger in my testimony of living prophets, and better prepared to fight for the rights I believe in.
Erin Rider is a fourth-year JD/MBA student at Georgetown University. She lives in Washington, D.C. and loves to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that come from living in the nation’s capital. As a mid-single, Erin is part of the growing demographic of single adult women in the Church. When she’s not doing homework or studying for finals, Erin enjoys spending time with her friends and traveling and exploring the world. She also loves to read, run, and participate in pretty much any sport that involves water. Check out her blog at www.ridinginfront.com.