By Stephen Carter
Stephen Carter is the director of publications for Sunstone, host of the Sunstone Podcast, and author of Virginia Sorensen: Pioneering Mormon Author (Signature Books).
It was the middle of April, and the beginning of the pandemic. My friend Anna and I were standing, six feet apart, in the middle of a soccer field watching our eleven-year-old daughters feed some goats through the fence. We were wrapped in jackets and the wind stung our eyes. We wouldn’t have chosen to stand out here on this chilly, overcast day, but we were trying to be safe as our daughters spent their last day together.
Anna and her family were moving to California.
Eight years ago, my family had moved from Wyoming into a very Mormon neighborhood in Orem, Utah. It was so Mormon that the women in the neighborhood had no idea what to do with this stay-at-home dad who followed his energetic toddler up and down the street day after day. There was a ward playgroup, but no one ever invited us to it.
One summer day, after a year of this solitude, I was opening my front door to go inside when I happened to glance down the street to see a woman walking with her little blonde daughter. I vaguely recognized them from Nursery but hadn’t really seen them around otherwise. I started to close the door, but then I stopped, envisioning another lonely year ahead of me. I decided to override my introverted nature, walked back out my door, and said hi. My daughter came into the front yard and started playing with the little girl. Then Anna and I sat down and tentatively tried out a thing called “neighborly conversation.”
After a few unofficial playdates, Anna told me that the leader of the ward playgroup had recently let it go inactive because her children were all in school now. So Anna was going to put together a playgroup of her own. And she invited me to join.
The first one was at my house, but Anna couldn’t attend for reasons I can’t remember. I was expecting at least five families and spent all kinds of time whipping my house into shape. But only two families showed up. And one was brought by a dad whose wife had made him take the morning off of work so she wouldn’t have to come.
We had a tiny backyard lined with rose bushes that were just waiting for some small child to fall into their thorny clutches, so, soon the kids wanted to go inside and play. But the dad had to head home with his brood so he could get to work, and the mom of the other family wouldn’t let her kids go in with us. She was pretty blunt about why. “I’m married, so it would be inappropriate for me to be alone in a house with another man, even if there are kids around.”
I could hear the echoes of a story church president Spencer W. Kimball once told about driving alongside a Relief Society president who was walking home in a rainstorm, shouting out encouragement to her, because even being in the same car for a moment or two with a woman other than his wife would be inappropriate.
Despite this disastrous beginning, Anna kept plugging away. She arranged for every playgroup to be in someone’s yard so that my daughter and I could attend.
Then winter started creeping up and I knew our playgroup days were numbered since we’d have to play inside each other’s houses—and I knew what the women in the ward thought of that idea. But Anna started scheduling the groups at the local malls, indoor playgrounds, and other public places. She had decided that she would make room for me.
My family soon moved out of the ward, which is usually the death knell for any Mormon friendship. But we actually stayed connected with Anna’s family. We went to the duck pond; we went to the mall; we went to the park and the pool. She came into my house, and I went into hers.
And during those long stretches, we got the chance to talk.
More often than not, we talked about Mormonism. And she started saying things that made me realize she was going through a faith crisis. It wasn’t too surprising. She was smart—she had a master’s degree in microbiology. She was a Democrat. She was a quiet feminist. And, as demonstrated by her insistence on including me in her playgroup, she was unconventional.
But you know what it’s like to go through a faith crisis when you’re embedded in a ward. Especially when you grew up in that ward like she did. Especially when, on average, your fellow ward members are forty years older than you are and ultra-conservative in everything except watering their lawn. Anna really needed someone to talk to.
She didn’t know it, but she had made friends with the editor of Sunstone. I was more than happy to go with her on that journey for the next few years.
Fast forward to that last spring day. Anna’s moving truck was pulling away from the curb and, despite all warnings, our daughters were tearfully hugging each other goodbye.
“Thanks for making room for me when I wasn’t cool,” I said to Anna.
“Thanks for helping me feel like I wasn’t crazy,” she replied.
Just before she got into the car, we said goodbye by making the only physical contact of our entire eight-year relationship. We bumped elbows.
It was very inappropriate.