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Utah Business

Businesses For A Post-Mormon World

Businesses For A Post-Mormon World

I  grew up in Utah County during the early 1990s, in a typical “Utah County in the early 1990s” family. My dad spent his career at BYU while my mom stayed home to bake bread and sew dresses for my five sisters while reminding my brother and me to mow the lawn before Sunday.

We didn’t watch The Simpson’s (would you have that on if Jesus came to visit?) or drink Postum (avoid the appearance of evil!) and we didn’t spend any money at 7-Eleven.

That last rule wasn’t obvious to me, either, until one spring afternoon when I took a detour after school to buy a Pepsi. With caffeine. It was delicious and completely verboten, and when I relieved my conscience that night my parents told me that drinking caffeine wasn’t great, but shopping at 7-Eleven was worse.

“7-Eleven is open on Sundays!” my dad explained. “If you give your money to businesses that don’t share Mormon values, you need to think about whose cause your money is helping.”

I fell asleep that night wondering how the Devil would spend my 75 cents.

By Mormons For Mormons

The 7-Eleven debacle of 1991 marked the beginning of my senselessly complicated relationship with caffeinated soda, and it changed the way I looked at local businesses. Everywhere I went, I looked for those two words that represented my inherited and unexamined values: Closed Sundays.

Deseret Book and Mr. Mac were obvious. As was ZCMI, the original “by Mormons for Mormons” business, which, as far as I knew, was where stake presidents and other wealthy Mormons went to buy expensive shoes. Eventually, I noticed network marketing companies like Nuskin seemed particularly successful in Utah’s fertile Mormon soil, and more recently, so were the dozens of soda shacks with weekday-morning lines that could rival Seattle’s busiest Starbucks location.

I counted five of these soda shacks as I drove through Utah County one morning to meet Kristin Hodson, a licensed therapist, and founder of The Healing Group. We met in Draper at a coffee shop, which, curse my Mormon upbringing, I felt I had to acknowledge.

“Is it weird for a man in his forties to think so much about what this means?” I ask, gesturing toward my latte.

“I’m pretty sure if it is weird, we’re all weird,” she answers. “And if we’re all weird, that sort of means we’re all normal, doesn’t it?”

Ms. Hodson has a kind of calm-but-engaged vibe that makes it hard to imagine her as anything other than a therapist―and hard for a writer to want to call her by her last name, even for a formal article in a business magazine.

The Healing Group has three offices and fourteen therapists who specialize in maternal mental health, sexual identity, and couples therapy, with a recent bump in clients who want to talk about pornography. Throughout all of these groups, the conversations share a common thread.

“Shame is a huge problem in this culture,” Ms. Hodson explains. “We’re so used to accepting external authority―someone to tell us what’s right, what’s wrong, what it means to belong. So anytime we don’t fit in―and nobody fits in all the time―we assume something must be wrong with us. It’s hard to navigate Utah’s high-expectation culture.”

Maybe driving by all of those soda shacks had pricked my 7-Eleven guilt, so I jumped right in.

“Do your therapists see a lot of clients who are struggling with changing beliefs?” I asked. “Maybe they’re outgrowing the religion they grew up in and they’re feeling a little lost?”

She seemed hesitant to discuss specifics. Leave it to a trustworthy professional to quash speculative gossip.

“People tend to reach out to professionals before they understand the reasons they’re hurting,” she says. “Shame isn’t unique to Utah or LDS culture, but I spend a lot of time in Costa Rica, and I think it’s fascinating that when I explain what I do, what The Healing Group is about, to people outside of Utah culture, they just don’t get it. When a culture doesn’t do shame the way our culture does shame, all of these fears just seem irrelevant.”

I thanked Ms. Hodson for the latte (there’s no way to know how the Devil spent those four dollars) and took a different route home to avoid those pesky soda shacks, keeping the radio quiet so I could think.

By Ex-Mormons For Ex-Mormons

Utah culture is noticeably shifting―especially in Salt Lake City, which has enough tattoo parlors, coffee shops, and vegan cafes to rank third―just behind Portland―on The Hipster Index. Sorry, Dad, they’re all open Sundays.

But even away from downtown, in suburban and rural families, more Utahns than ever before are trying on new ways of navigating the state’s dominant religious culture. I love a good metaphor, but changing religious beliefs is a lot more painful than changing shirts, and a lot more likely to damage an important relationship. Where can new-shirt Mormons, living in Utah, find a community where they feel like they belong?

To find out, I sat down with a man whose business, like his name, is wrapped up in Mormon culture.

I met Thomas Worthlin McConkie, the executive director at a foundation called Lower Lights, at a cafe in Salt Lake City’s very hip 9th and 9th neighborhood. He has the kind of features that would be easy for an artist to paint: large, sanguine eyes beneath a moderately unruly crop of curly hair. He’s tall, too, and has a voice that would be perfectly suited to delivering bad news or calming a nervous horse.

When your name is two parts Mormon royalty and one part Christ’s apostle (the doubting one, no less), you get used to people in Utah asking you about it, so he didn’t seem surprised when I did.

“I come from a long, proud line of Mormons, absolutely,” he says. “I felt a lot of pressure in my family, and I decided [at a pretty young age that] it just wasn’t for me.”

Mr. McConkie quit attending church at 13 and struggled with the culture of his family and home state for six years before starting a journey of study and work that would lead him to China. He had studied meditation before leaving Utah, and in China, he enlisted the help of a Zen teacher.

“I had a sort of epiphany that cracked me open,” he says. “I realized there was an entire culture back home, including my family, who really had no idea how to handle these challenges to faith. They were hurting just as bad as I was.”

Mr. McConkie came home and started integrating pieces of his upbringing into his life, blending his Buddhist practice with aspects of Mormon theology. His favorite Mormon ideas―that humans develop eternally into more complete versions of themselves, for example―complement his professional work in adult development.

He would attend church on Sundays and host meditation groups each Wednesday in his living room. When the group got large enough, he decided to create Lower Lights and expand beyond once-weekly Wednesday meditations. “Lower Lights is an expression of my Mormonism,” Mr. McConkie says. “But that’s because Mormonism is where I started. It isn’t about theology or doctrine, and it isn’t a way to categorize or separate. It’s a support structure for people to go inside and find what resonates. To keep learning and growing―without leaving anything good behind. ”

I’m skeptical by nature, but I decided to attend a Lower Lights sangha to see what it was all about. I arrived a few minutes late (I’m not used to parking downtown) and I walked into a room with more than 100 people sitting, eyes closed, listening to the voice that could have been delivering bad news to a nervous horse but was, tonight, inviting the room to breathe.

I found a seat and breathed. Then he led us through a thought exercise to clarify what we really wanted from our lives before encouraging us to tell a neighbor what we had been feeling.

My nearest neighbor was a young woman who had, like Mr. McConkie, rejected Mormonism as a teenager. But something happened―she called it the dark night of her soul―and she had been craving spiritual connection, devouring books, attending seminars, ever since. The Mormon religion of her childhood felt incompatible, and she had come alone tonight, for the first time, to see if she would find community.

“People are often drawn to Lower Lights because they have worn out their world,” Mr. McConkie says. “They need some kind of scaffolding that can support the internal work of building something new―of accepting and embracing the next steps of their evolutionary journey―without asking them to abandon any part of their being.”  

The 90-minute sangha passed quickly, a blend of guided meditation and insight and group discussion. Mr. McConkie wrapped up by reading part of this poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi:

For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.

From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.

Unable to see, I heard my name being called.

Then I walked outside.

My neighbor gathered her coat and left just as soon as the meeting ended, apparently hoping to make it to the hallway before crying. She almost made it. Most of the room stayed in their seats, talking quietly, but even on a good day I’m too introverted for that, so I walked outside.

Maybe our culture isn’t so unique I wondered, and this quest for community is something that everyone feels. But there are reasons why The Healing Group is always looking for great therapists, and reasons why a sangha like this would fill a large room, just a few blocks east of Temple Square, with people who need space to try on new ideas and connect with the old ones we never wear.

I got to my car and started toward home, passing another soda shack. I slowed down. It was getting late, but the line was long―full of minivans, SUVs, and college-aged kids, all contributing to the state’s quirky Mormon culture. I turned into the parking lot. What the hell, I thought. I still have a long way to go, and I’m thirsty.

Utah Business has updated its style guide to reflect the desire of the church to be referred to as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, due to the nature of this article, our editors felt it best to keep the words of the author and his sources intact.