A couple Sundays ago in our singles ward, we were reminded on no uncertain terms that if we were not currently enrolled in a BYU religion class, then we should attend an institute class. I have finished all my BYU required religion credits, and as such, fell into the speaker’s target audience. I figured he was probably right and I could benefit from an institute class, so I looked around for what was available. Apparently there was a Stake institute held at the stake center, and also the Orem Institute, located on UVSC campus.
I was able to get a hold of an Orem Institute course catalog, and was surprised to see the variety of classes offered—this wasn’t just the Sunday school rotation curriculum, they had classes like “Dating and Courtship,” “History of the Church part 1 of 3,” “Women of Faith” (which specifically noted “Men Welcome”) and many others. I figured I would go check it out.
The following Tuesday at 7:00 I made my way to Orem and found the institute building. I parked, got out of the car, and headed in. As I was entering, I was surprised by the unexpected environment and atmosphere I encountered. To explain my reaction, let me give a little background:
I should first say that I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy my experience at BYU and have a great deal of respect for the institution, its role in the community, and the positive influence it has on those who attend. BYU expects a great deal out of its students, and to standardize things, has established a collection of standards and rules regarding ethics, behavior, and dress and grooming known as the honor code. There have been countless discussions on and off campus about the pros and cons of the honor code, and my purpose here is not to attack or to defend its existence, but I would like to point out an interesting side effect. Because BYU is a church sponsored institution, it often acts as a quasi-representative for the church. In a matter such as how one should dress or behave, dictum originating from BYU can sometimes be construed to be church or gospel mandates.
Let me illustrate. I had a non-LDS friend who was attending BYU. He knew the basics about the church, he had read and signed the honor code, and seemed fine complying with it and co-existing with Mormons as long as he was attending. One day, I was showing him some pictures of a trip I took with some friends. One of the friends, a University of Utah student and returned missionary, was shown with some facial hair in one of the photos. My non-LDS friend looked in shock at the picture, asking, “Is he not Mormon?” I glanced at the picture again, verifying that there wasn’t a beer bottle or cigar in his hand, and seeing that there was not, replied, “Yeah, he is… what makes you think that he’s not?” “He’s got a beard!! Mormons can’t have beards, I read it in the honor code!” I burst out laughing out loud, as I instantly remembered that pre-David O. McKay, your Mormonism lacked legitimacy if you didn’t have a burly beard to match your top hat. I explained that the beard thing was simply a BYU policy, not a commandment.
But it gave me pause; as a community, BYU abides by (for lack of a better phrase) a “hedge around the law.” Again, steering away from the debate regarding whether this is a good or bad thing, the fact is that either by ignorance or by subconscious conditioning, the BYU environment has a formative effect on one’s sense of determining what is “appropriate,” what is “decent,” and what is “unacceptable,” in a realm that remains untouched by scriptures, or even modern Church pronouncements.
So, as I entered the Orem Institute, I saw people with beards, with hair that covered their ears, sideburns that went down to their cheeks, and overall images that did not seem congruent with what I understand BYU’s vision of student image to be. A few double-takes later, I had a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment, and had to remind myself that I’m not in a BYU building. As I shuffled around the building to find the registration, some skater-styled guy with shaggy hair came up to me, grinned, and said “hey bro, you lookin’ for the registration office? It’s over there dude!” I thanked him, and found that his grin was contagious. I quickly shook off the initial culture shock, and was very pleased to verify that the LDS young adult culture does indeed expand beyond the bound of honor-code conformity.
I didn’t feel any need to conform to anyone else’s concept of acceptability, but rather felt surprisingly in accord with the Church Educational System’s original slogan “I Belong.” In fact, I found myself having a perticular esteem for those at the Orem Institute, many of whom were UVSC students. They did not need to be enrolled in order to graduate, it was entirely voluntary. And based on the interactions I had there, I found they were much more concerned with maintaining a welcoming environment than they were with determining the length of my whiskers.
Before this experience, I certainly wasn’t naïve enough to think that the whole LDS community was an enlarged carbon copy of BYU, as I have spent considerable time abroad, experiencing the Church in multiple cultures. However, being a BYU student, the BYU snow globe is the reality that I interact with on a daily basis. If nothing else, it was very refreshing to see a sanctioned LDS environment that harbored a more colorful rendering of LDS young adults than I was used to. I plan on continuing to attend the Orem institute this semester, and I think I will very much enjoy it.