Monday, December 8, 2008

'Misfits' add diversity to singles branch

By Beth Palmer
Monday, Dec. 08, 2008

One of the most reassuring aspects of the gospel is the fact that the church is fundamentally the same everywhere you go. What's perhaps even more beautiful, though, is the reality that no two LDS wards have the same fundamental character. Some are marked by a vigorous missionary spirit, some by intellectualism, some by service.

Then there's mine, which happens to be distinguished most by our striking resemblance to a population that exists only in a beloved Christmas special.

We stumbled upon this realization when a group of friends from the singles branch I attend gathered for dinner one Sunday after church. One astute member jokingly compared us to the Island of Misfit Toys, which prompted one of those moments usually only seen in sitcoms: Everyone stopped mid-bite, looked up at one other and glanced around furtively. Then, simultaneously, half the group laughed, and the other half groaned.

Yes, as unglamorous as it is to admit, the Chicago 8th Branch is the living embodiment of that arctic outpost from the stop-motion "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Only instead of a Jack-in-the-Box named Charlie and a train with square wheels, we've got an eclectic mix of characters you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, all of whom have somehow managed to land on Chicago's Island of Misfits together.

Why this happy confluence in Hyde Park? Well, our stake draws from the entire South Side of Chicago, but our congregation meets just a mile away from the University of Chicago, a school so devoted to its lofty ideals of academia that its students wear T-shirts sporting slogans like "If I'd wanted an 'A' I would have gone to Harvard" and "That's great in practice, but how does it work in theory?"

Throw those students in with the Chicago natives in the branch, plus the random smattering of students at other schools and working professionals, and you've got one of the most intellectually, economically and racially diverse congregations I've ever witnessed.

And then there are the characters.

One branch member spent weeks slowly moving his possessions out of his apartment on his bike, often hauling two backpacks at a time, with extra cargo balanced across the handlebars. He then squirreled them away in various locations around the neighborhood, including an unused office in our church building, just to avoid what he saw as the injustice of his building's move-out fee.

Another is a student at one of the top-ranked medical schools in the country, yet spends his spare time responding to e-mails from international fraudsters for the express purpose of toying with them.

Rudolph's Island of Misfits had a cowboy who rode an ostrich. We've got a South Side native who drives a truck and works odd jobs in construction, but is just as likely to be found attending the opera with his mom, at home baking a fantastic loaf of bread or dressing up as a wizard to teach chess lessons. Another Chicago misfit used Excel to determine the critical mass of Branch Boringness -- measured in "borons" -– necessary to field a pickup football game after his fellow branch members failed to turn out in droves for a Thanksgiving-weekend game.

Remember the misfit bird that didn't fly, it swam? Well, we've got a graduate student in marriage and family therapy who has no qualms about filing his nails while watching college football and who possesses that specific brand of chivalry that involves telling female friends that if their cars break down, they should call him so he can call AAA.

We've got a Sunday School teacher who's considered to be having a tame day when all he does is launch into a lengthy tirade on the ridiculously long time it's been since an American won the gold medal in the 100-yard dash. There are farm girls from Canada who talk about their family's hail insurance in the context of Sunday lessons, and a Relief Society president who, confused by the story gaps created while watching a movie on a ClearPlay DVD player, was heard to cry out for "more smut!"

We're the type of people who make a wish on a Thanksgiving wishbone and pull, only to see the top inexplicably pop off and shoot across the room, leaving both with a "no-wish-for-you" bone left in their hands. If that's not the quintessential misfit moment, I don't know what is.

We meet in one of the few Mormon meetinghouses in America where it's not unusual to find an "Obama '08" hat in the lost and found, among people who aren't surprised to learn that a fellow branch member, a graduate student in his late 20s, also owns an NGO based in India. This same student is also infamous for adopting the role of "Dad" at branch FHEs, insisting that every one of his grumbling "children" tell everyone the best thing that happened to them that day.

It was in the midst of this very ordeal that a relatively new branch member remarked, "It's like we really are a family -- we're all awkward, but we're all awkward together." Exactly. We've found our fellow misfits, and we're sticking with them.

Of course, our comparison isn't a perfect one; the original Island of Misfit Toys had a boat that couldn't float, and that's where the analogy breaks down. You see, every misfit in Chicago will do whatever it takes to keep the rest of the misfits afloat. This is a congregation sincerely devoted to one other, in which virtually every member is willing to reach outside the busyness of his or her life to help out a fellow misfit in need.

Ultimately, that's probably the real beauty of the gospel's social organization; however off-center we may be, we all have somebody to care for, and somebody to care for us. So what if my crew happens to be a bit more off-center than most? Like Rudolph and his wannabe-dentist elf friend proclaimed, "What's the matter with misfits? That's where we fit in."