Moving up, moving out

September 5, 2006 | 14 comments
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Since getting married eleven years ago, my wife and I have moved eight times. Mostly we’ve taken care of moving by ourselves, or we’ve asked a couple friends to assist, but often ward members have volunteered to help. Once we were in a bind during a sudden and unwelcome transition and had to ask for help on short notice; a friend with a trailer helping for a few hours was all we needed. Moving out of our home this July meant a month of heavy labor for me, but I kind of enjoyed the challenge of packing everything we own into a 10×20 storage unit–so that when I was done I could drive a Dodge Caravan right into the middle of everything and park it. Moving into our new home involved much less stuff: eleven suitcases and five carry-on bags.

Americans are mobile people. We go away to school in order to move up into the middle class or to secure our position in it. We move to take better jobs for higher pay. If you believe in creative destruction, losing your job is the market’s way of telling you that your labor would be more productively employed elsewhere. Moving often involves physical exhaustion, financial disruption, and emotional turmoil, but the prospect of long-term unemployment or a wrenching career change followed by diminished circumstances usually trumps all other considerations.

Mobility is a problem for Mormonism, although not in a theoretical-theological sense. It might seem that there’s a bit of friction between geographic mobility and the notion of gathering to Zion, but our idea of Zion has enjoyed considerable geographic freedom for a couple generations at least, and we’ve been sending out missionaries and colonizers and earnest young people in search of an education for as long as the church has existed.

The bigger problems are organizational and pastoral. It’s hard to keep callings filled, and it’s hard to find a calling for everybody, when you don’t know who all the ward members are. It’s hard to meet the needs of people under your care if you don’t know what those needs are. President Hinckley has said that new members need a testimony, and a calling, and a friend. When you move, you immediately take two strikes. When the ties of family and friendship that connect you to the church are attenuated by distance, it’s easy to start giving yourself Sundays off.

As summer ends, a lot of Mormons have just finished moving or are nearly finished, and a lot of other Mormons have sore arms and sore backs from helping them. In some cases the moving crew has been rendering Christian service: moving is exhausting and expensive, often a greater burden than one family can bear by itself. In other cases they are mourning with those who mourn: leaving any home behind is a sad affair. What the Elders Quorum Moving Company really is doing, though, is performing a ritual to bind the mobile members back into the community. As people leaving their former home enter the liminal space between Point A and Point B, help from the elders quorum says: you may be leaving us, but you will always have a claim on the helping hands of Zion. As they settle into a new residence, the help with moving tells them: we barely know you, but already you have a debt of service towards the community of Zion.

As with any ritual of Mormonism, our first instinct is to put the priesthood in charge of moving, although there’s freedom for delegating part of the job to other organizations. As with other rituals, rational organization is necessary to prevent the task from becoming overly burdensome, and closing the solemn event with refreshments is always a good idea. If the most important aspect of helping people move in and out is its symbolic significance, though, then getting every last box loaded or unloaded is not essential. Two guys helping for an hour can do an awful lot, and two guys helping for an hour might just be enough to get the point across: your residence and your ward have changed, but your home is still in Zion.

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14 Responses to Moving up, moving out

  1. Proud Daughter of Eve on September 5, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Good thoughts. ^_^

  2. Mark IV on September 5, 2006 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve always been pleased with how quickly our family has been assimilated into a new ward when we have moved. Within a month or so, somebody from the bishopric calls and wants to chat. Then they ask us to be nursery leaders or primary teachers, or a clerk, or compassionate service leader or scoutmaster. Nobody offers much in the way of training or orientation. It’s amazing, really, that it all works as well as it does.

    Samuel W. Taylor said that Mormons are like parts on an old Ford. We are interchangeable, and can be taken off one car and put on another without missing a beat. I think he was mostly right.

  3. Stewart Foss on September 5, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    I guess since we are moving on the 15th, I better get a hold of the Elders Quorum in my new ward and start the zion building … and get some refreshments ready too.

  4. Ardis on September 5, 2006 at 10:41 pm

    Even when I haven’t had home teachers or visiting teachers or other visible signs of being accepted in a ward, somehow the elders always get wind of my moving in or out and show up to help. They must get tired of it all — my loads multiplied by hundreds of other move-ins/outs over the years — but I’m always extremely grateful for the help with something that as a solitary person I cannot easily take care of myself. Thanks, guys.

    (And I’ve never moved more often than 5 years, with the last move being after 16 years, so it’s not like I abuse the help …)

  5. Russell Arben Fox on September 5, 2006 at 11:51 pm

    “As people leaving their former home enter the liminal space between Point A and Point B, help from the elders quorum says: you may be leaving us, but you will always have a claim on the helping hands of Zion.”

    Jonathan, I’ve thought a lot about mobility, community, Zion and so forth, but honestly, this possibility had never occurred to me before in this way. That many of the characteristic habits and rituals of contemporary Mormonism are either conscious or unconscious attempts to make the old, communal Zion ideal applicable to our present-day, modern, highly mobile lives, is something I’ve long recognized; that helping people move into their new ward is an example of such isn’t. I’m going to be thinking about helping people move in a new way now. Thanks.

    “If the most important aspect of helping people move in and out is its symbolic significance, though, then getting every last box loaded or unloaded is not essential. Two guys helping for an hour can do an awful lot, and two guys helping for an hour might just be enough to get the point across: your residence and your ward have changed, but your home is still in Zion.”

    Very true–and, in light of what you say above, quite revealing. Our move to Wichita was assisted primarily by, not the elder’s quorum, who were a complete no-show, but by three people from my new job at Friends University, a microbiologist and a couple of football players whom the coach had rounded up and sent over. (The microbiologist is also a member of our ward though, who we got to know through church connections rather than faculty ones, so basically we got two communities covered at the same time.)

  6. Naismith on September 6, 2006 at 6:08 am

    A couple of comments…believe it or not, high priests also get into the moving business, if someone from their quorum is moving. Sure, it may take a few more phone calls to find guys with the knees and backs to pull it off, but they’ve handled a couple of moves in our unit recently.

    Also, I found that being moved was a great way for people to get to know you. When we moved from a rental into our new house, the elder’s quorum was a local redneck/good ol’ boy (in the very best sense) who had viewed us as ivory tower academics. He was surprised and pleased when he plugged in our stereo and it was tuned to a country music station! Later, he was setting up a bookcase/cabinet in our livingroom, and he looked at it carefully, because it’s unusually good workmanship for being made of cheap pine wood, and I said, “Yes, my husband made it.”

    Again, he was surprised: “You wouldn’t think that a man with an education would know how to use his hands.” That later got my husband an invite to go do hurricane relief, because they knew he had a well-stocked carpenter’s belt and knew what to do with it.

  7. Not the Elders Quorm President on September 6, 2006 at 11:14 am

    Am I a bad person for thinking that when you move, rather than having the elders quorm help youmove, you should buy a house that costs $10,000 less and hire professionals?

    Perhaps I am lacking in charity but I always get annoied when I am asked to help someone move into a 4bed/3bath fully finished basement starter mansion and not only do they need help, the want the EQ president to try and round up a truck to help. Not all of those have happend on the same move, and I don’t mind when I am moving people into a reasonable house for their situation, especially when they are renting. But come one, at least pack some boxes before the elders show up!

    And am I denying the quorm service by conspiring to hire professionals on my next move?

  8. lamonte on September 6, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    Not the Elders Quorum President – I’m right with you on your thoughts about those folks who ask for your help and then don’t do their part. When we first moved into our ward 18 years ago, I went to help someone move. When we arrived the kids were still in their beds with dirty socks on the floor and all.

    On the other hand, I think that having a policy of helping folks move in or out of the ward is a good way to allow us all to provide service to others – part of our training to be more like the Savior. I know that sounds a bit hokie but I have found in all of my years in the church, and I’m pretty sure I’m much older than you, that service to others is the most gratifying thing there is. I ALWAYS complain, usually subconscieously, when I’m asked to help but when the task is done and I’ve done my part, the rewards are great. The “move-in” is often the first association between the new ward member and the old guard of the ward and it sets a wonderful tone of brotherhod (and sisterhood)

    And just a word about High Priests, our HP Group has participated in most of the moves in our ward. A good friend of mine, a HP who was retired from the military, was THE master packer. Unfortuneately he passed away a few years ago from a sudden heart attack. Give all the service you can now – you never know when your opportunities might come to an end.

  9. Ahna on September 6, 2006 at 2:50 pm

    We moved 8 times our first 9 years of marriage, twice across the country. The ward helping was nearly always a given, almost never requested, but always greatly appreciated. Now we’re semi-settled, and have the chance to help others. One of my fondest memories is when my 10-year-old held her own with the elders. She was the talk of the ward the following Sunday. She’s learned how to work on moving day through osmosis. I guess 8 times teaches ya something.

    About helping those who don’t appear to need the help: I also believe the Mormon Moving Company fosters community and true charity. Some people just don’t know how much work it is to move and are shocked to find out they should have started packing a month ago. So it’s not usually that they’re lazy. They just don’t realize it’s not really possible to pack all your stuff in one day. A lot of the work is in the packing, not really in the hauling. The only time I’ve been annoyed about helping (and this didn’t happen to me, just heard about it after the fact) is the mom who sat on the couch reading bedtime stories to her cute kiddies as ward members packed and hauled into the wee hours of the morning. But still, gotta just shake your head and keep packing.

    Oh, and we just bought a truck, not the new shiny kind people are nervous about using, but the beater kind. Yeah, now we’re the moving company of choice. Not sure this was wise…

  10. Mike on September 6, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    I helped move over 150 families during the 1980′s. I was the EQP in a military ward. I had it down to an art. Our motto was: Strong Backs and Weak Minds. If you didn’t pack your own stuff I could pack a house in about 2 hours, with a pitch fork and a coal shovel. If you didn’t get your own truck, I knew this guy with a junk yard who would give you an old pick-up truck and we could get Lamar to tune it up and we could stack your stuff up 30 feet high. I’ve seen pictures of how to do it in the National Geographic magazine. If you didn’t clean the place properly, I had this famous clean-anything concoction of chlorox and strong ammonia which forms nitric acid and chlorine gas. Members’ food storage was what really got me. It often cost more to move it than to just buy more of it after you moved and you could always give it away and you are suppose to rotate it one way or another. Overall, though helping those many people move was a great experience.

    We all knew (the military guys) that we could pick up about 3 thousand dollars on a DITY move (do-it-yourself move) and save the American taxpayer some money to boot. So It was not hard to get enough volunteers in a military ward. What I found most useful was skilled help; a couple guys who had experience were worth a dozen guys with big guts and loud mouths. Although sometimes even the worst help was better than doing it alone. I always tried to get the movers to bring their wives, kids or girlfriends and turn it into a social event with some food and especially fluids in the hot Mississippi summer. This would often draw in the non-LDS neighbors and then I felt perfectly justified involving the missionaries. When you looked at it from a social perspective, the guys who liked to talk often did a greater work fellowshipping and helping smooth some of the emotional feelings, even if you had to direct them away from the truck and the boxes. Might prevent a heart attack too.

    When I moved from there, I only invited a couple of trusted friends to help me, because I wanted it done right and I didn’t want my stuff busted up. We had the truck, which was at least one size too big, about 90% packed when the rest of the gang showed up unexpectedly. I had about 200 one gallon plastic jugs filled with chlorinated water as part of my food storage that I was going to throw away. I also had 6 of these 50 gallon drums of water that I hadn’t emptied. They packed all of that water onto the truck. Then they loaded my favorite palm tree which was growing in this planter box that weighed over 1000 lbs onto the truck. It took 6 guys to lift it and they would not allow me take it out. I was emotionally attached to that palm tree and I saw giving it away as sort of like putting one of my kids up for adoption, but this was ridiculous.

    I think the Mormon moving program is a cultural carry-over from pioneer times, when you had to work together to get across the plains and you often arrived in Utah broke with only a worn-out shirt and pants to your name. I had this one Cuban friend (he should have been Chinese, it would make the story better) who asked me why we helped with moving, of all things? He suggested we do something else, such as laundry. He thought it might be easier and more equitable and possibly quite a bit more interesting.

    I actually tried his idea on this one guy when he called to tell me he needed help moving in. I told him our ward didn’t do moves, we did laundry instead. I offered to come over and pick up his laundry. He really did need help and so after making him beg for about 20 minutes, I told him I would sneak over. But he was not to tell anyone else. He told me later that he felt like he really didn’t fit into a typical Utah ward and he had been considering just going inactive as soon as he got out of Utah. But with a EQP as outside the box as me, he knew there must be plenty of room in that ward for him.

    Another theory I have developed about moving around so much is this: Sometimes the ward prefers the devils they don’t know over the ones they do. A new family moves in and the ward doesn’t know about their faults and the shenanigans they have pulled. It is pretty easy to put up a good front for a few months and the new family quickly moves to the top of the social ladder. After a few years when people start to know them better, they are not so well-liked. Why is it that we are always praying for new dynamic families to move into our ward and at the same time we are always praying for certain families to move out, or at least saying prayers of thanksgiving when they do?

    I am speaking from experience, about myself in particular. But I see this happening to others. It seems that I can put on a pretty good act for a while in a new ward before they find out what I’m really like. People like the fake nicey nice me, but the real me is another story. If I could move every 2 or 3 years, I think I would be better treated at church and have more status. It makes me wonder if our accelerating mobility jeopardizes authenticity?

    My father retired and moved back to Utah at the same time his ward in California was building a new chapel. He bought a few odd items at a ward auction such as a used Sacrament table and a dozen of those old orange Relief Society folding chairs and threw them on the back of the truck. When his new ward members were helping us unload, he told them he was thinking of starting a new church. He was only joking, but they didn’t laugh. I offer this as a counter example of my theory in the previous paragraph.

    When you help with a lot of moves, you end up acquiring junk that people should just throw away but can’t bring themselves to do it or else “valuable” stuff that won’t fit on the truck. Eventually your own basement becomes like an overstocked walmart warehouse. As part of the church moving program I would like to propose a church yard sale program. I used to let people store their stuff in my basement but they paid a hidden price. When they came to take their things away, I always planted a few extra gag items that really needed to go to the dump. Invaribly this would generate the most hilarious phone calls. The embarassment, the guilt; thinking you had stolen some few worthless items from a fellow Saint, who had been so generous as to let you store your stuff in their basement. The best was this huge old broken microwave oven that had several fascinating varieties of mold growing inside of it. That microwave went on at least a half a dozen local moves before someone finally realized that if in the name of honesty they kept bringing it back to me, it was just going to be sent on another “mission.”

    Recently our current EQP asked me if I would store some few little items for someone moving into the ward in my cavernous basement. I told him that the 30 cubic foot freezer the Dudleys left me 7 or 8 years ago had finally quit running. (I swear if the Toyota Scion xB came as a convertible, you could fit one inside that freezer.) If the Quorum would move that old freezer out to the curb, they could use all the space it was occupying which should be more than enough. It required 4 strong guys to haul it into my basement and my entire family currently can’t get it out. (My son, big for his age, is only 13 and I’m hoping that in a few years he will get strong enough that together we can lift one end up on a piano dolley with the help of a couple car jacks. That is the current long-term plan for its removal.)

    The EQP told me he would get back to me on that and I haven’t heard from him since.

  11. Rosalynde Welch on September 6, 2006 at 3:47 pm

    What a wonderful little post, Jonathan, and you got “liminal” in there this time, too! I’d never thought about moving house in precisely that way, but I think you’re right.

  12. Gilgamesh on September 6, 2006 at 9:18 pm

    I moved a couple of times with our family and had no assistance, even though it was promised. I am not bitter about it, because I do not feel I should have somebody else doing the work that I can do. My problem comes from a quorum that assures you they will help you and nobody comes. If helping somebody move assures a connection in Zion, saying you will and not doing it leaves to a difficult assimilation for the new member moving in. Fortunately my wife and I dealt with it, made friends and only commit to be there if we mean it. I also commit to help others move more because I know what it is like to do it alone.

  13. John Welch on September 7, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Great post. I’ve come to think that career advancement is almost always easier by moving laterally (transfer to another university or company) rather than vertically (moving up the cooperate ladder). This makes geographical relocation a necessity of modern career paths and not just a single step required to reorient an otherwise straight career trajectory.

    “Mobility is a problem for Mormonism.� I’m not sure about this. You are exactly right on some of the ways that modern LDS social networks and ward institutions ameliorate the psychic and spiritual stress of transitioning through a liminal space during relocation, ultimately becoming reintegrated into the society and sociality of Zion. Moving events perhaps have replaced the unity developed during community projects like the Church farms and ward canning that seem to have faded. Moving projects, when they go well, feel a bit like Faust’s village out together patching the dike; everyone working in unity, for a common good. This is the one time that Faust finds happiness. For me too, these have been some of my happiest times in church service.

    While mobility does rend community by displacing individuals and families out into a liminal space beyond society—not belonging to any community, but hoping to rejoin society—mobility is what has made 20th century Mormonism fly. We’ve become transformed from a small, displaced, isolated society in the mountains to a burgeoning, mainstream church integrated in diverse cities throughout the world. This couldn’t have happened without a dispersion of the core out into the cities of the world.

  14. Austin F. on September 9, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    Four states and seven apartments in five years!!

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