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Old People

Rusty - September 10, 2010

I’m forming a hypothesis. (this is my escape clause in case you find it lacking signs of intelligence)

I just returned from SLC where I had wonderful visits with old friends, new friends, and blog friends. John Dehlin’s family exceeds the definition of graciousness and delight. MCQ and ARJ’s mountain biking prowess (and bikes!) are my new source of jealousy. And Silus Grok continues to charm and captivate us blubbering posers.

But it was in the presence of old people that I had my epiphany. You see, in New York, the land of stairs, crappy weather and busy, loud streets we don’t have Old People™ (they all go to Florida), just old-er people. Like Mark B, one of Brooklyn’s finest people who happen to be a smidge older than the median. It’s not something I ever really thought much about until last weekend when I attended church with my friend in Salt Lake, whose ward had probably 40% old people. That’s like, 100% more old people than are in my Brooklyn ward. And lemmetellya, our wards are different.

Which brings me to my hypothesis: it’s because of old people.*

Let me explain. I’ve recently told a few people that a symbol for why I love the Church so much in Brooklyn (not WHY, but a SYMBOL for why) is that I was 4 years in a bishopric and now over a year on the High Council and never once has anyone ever mentioned my beard (in connection to the Church). Again, it’s not the beard I’m talking about, but rather the culture that cares about beards. It’s not even on our radar. And I suspect it’s largely because we have no old people passing that traditional/non-doctrinal torch to us young-ish folk who make up the majority of the membership here. Other torches that aren’t passed down:

  • issues with non-white shirts
  • strict definitions of a woman’s “role”
  • offensive 2-3 generation-old terminology for non-white ethnicities
  • “so-called gays” or “the gay agenda”
  • the specific order in which women can pray and speak in Sacrament Meeting
  • assurances of polygamy in heaven
  • politics at the pulpit

Sounds great, right? Well, it is. When I read accounts in the ‘nacle about these issues in various wards I say a prayer of gratitude that I don’t deal with them in my own. We have a wonderful church culture of acceptance, sensitivity and non-judgment. In my opinion, exactly as it should be.


Old people also provide the foundation of strength upon which this church sits. In my calling I often feel like the little kid wearing adult clothing. And for good reason. These old people have devoted their lives, 65, 75, 85 years of service. They have served in multiple bishoprics, Relief Society presidencies, scout leaderships, primaries, activities committees, ward missions, stake presidencies, etc, etc, etc. Each one of them represent decades of experience. They have been doing their visiting teaching for the last 65 years. I’ve been alive for half that. Which means there are other torches that aren’t passed down to us in Brooklyn:

  • leadership with significant experience
  • a culture of Family Home Evening
  • High Priest group
  • a culture of home/visiting teaching
  • Solid youth program (though I suspect this is due to neighborhood demographics more than lack of old people)
  • interest in family history
  • a general sense of strength, confidence and longevity

That last one is especially true for me. There is something extremely comforting about being surrounded by people who have been doing this their whole lives and are sure of it all. I miss that. A lot.

* I’m talking in generalities here, don’t get your undies in a bunch.


  1. So you have to leave New York to experience this kind of diversity? Interesting.

    It’s also interesting that your list of torches not passed down made me (as a 27 year-old Utah Mormon) wince a little bit. Not that I have any special affection for those things, just that I have affection for the people that hold them. If you made me take a side, I would be loathe to dismiss those with elderly points of view, even if it made sense.

    Comment by Thaddeus — September 10, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  2. Well, it gives me pause to be officially old, but since I have now been retired for several years it must be true. We are also lifetime residents of the Wasatch Front and in our present ward for almost 50 years. My present ward is like the one you describe demographically, and while I do know people who care about all the items you list, they do not play very big in our ward. White shirts– my husband hardly ever wears one to Church and he has a Stake calling and is a temple worker. Women’s roles and women speaking or praying in Church are non issues. (And I have my antenna way out on these.) It is as common as any other arrangement for two women give the prayers in Sac Mtg. and within the last month two women from our ward were the only Sac Mtg speakers, and no, they were not part of any presidency. Further one was single and the other married to an active husband. Their assigned topic was using the scriptures in their lives. Last month my husband and I spoke on temples and at one point I said, “As this ward’s resident feminist……” and the Church didn’t fall down. Ethnic slurs–occasionally. However last Sunday, a relatively new and older (than us) member of the ward said he was “proud” to have never read the Quran, but felt qualified to bash it and all of Islamic culture generally. That is the most outrageous thing I have heard in our ward, since I can’t remember when. We have virtually no politics from the pulpit, even on the 4th of July Fast Sunday, and I can’t recall the last time I heard polygamy mentioned. So while I know what the stereotype is, don’t paint us all with too wide a brush. (You will note that we haven’t been translated however, and I recognize our own idiosyncratic problems, but in truth we do not fit these stereotypes.)

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — September 10, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  3. “interest in family history”

    Yeah, and retired people to staff the Family History center!

    Comment by Ben S — September 10, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

  4. I was baptized in a very well balanced ward in Santa Clara, California and I was able to get a sense of the diversity of views over the generations. I haven’t had such a balance since then. Currently here in Manhattan, I would say that in my ward, the average age is younger than my current age. But we get a lot of transient young families who come here for internships and schooling, and who then leave for supposedly greener pastures elsewhere (though not sure why someone doesn’t think they can make lots of money in New York…)

    Rusty, are you going to stay in Brooklyn the rest of your life? Who will be the old people in Brooklyn that can pass down their traditions to the young?

    Comment by Dan — September 10, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

  5. Rusty, your description of Utah wards sounds like wards in Lethbridge.

    Comment by Kim Siever — September 10, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  6. I agree with Kim. We were in southern Alberta earlier this summer, then visiting our son in southern Illinois and our daughter’s young ward in West Jordan Utah. All these wards seemed much more “hidebound” than our Utah ward. The average age in these other wards also seemed much younger than our present ward, especially the West Jordan ward.

    i believe that a few “catalyst” people, of any age, can make all the difference. I can think of about 12 of these types of people over the years. i believe my husband and I have been two of these people. Ironically some of these catalyst types largely conform to the outward stereotype, in appearance, etc. themselves, but they are very accepting of a broad range of people and opinions.

    Finally another example and thought. A couple of months ago a new young couple spoke in Sac. Mtg. He had a beard and hair down past his shoulders. Several weeks later he still had his beard but his hair was short. I don’t know of anyone who said anything to him about it. Maybe he just wanted to see if we would “accept him as he was” and since we did, he had no further need to make a “statement” with his long hair.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — September 10, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

  7. All the old people leave Brooklyn and move to Westchester.

    Comment by Travis — September 10, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

  8. I used to live in a small town in Washington that was a retirement community. Very few young families in the ward–most of the ward were older retired people.

    It was the best ward ever.

    Sure it was hard to keep the Primary staffed, but the Spirit in that ward was so strong, it was amazing. My husband was re-activated while we lived there and he always says he probably would not have come back to church in any other ward. When he started coming back to church, no one made a big deal about it. No pressure on him. Just friendly faces and greetings and open arms.

    He told me once during a F&T meeting that he felt the Spirit so strongly he wanted to stand up and ask people if Christ was in the room.

    I think one of the reasons the Spirit was so strong in that ward was that a lot of the retired people attended the temple weekly. It was three hours away but they carpooled.

    Also, you’d think a ward full of old white people wouldn’t be very diverse, but it was. Because everyone had retired there from somewhere else, we had a rich pool of experiences and backgrounds. It was neat. There was a lady who was so classy and elegant–and she grew up in a shack in Alabama with no running water. Another woman had been a model and hostess during WWII and had entertained celebrities at a restaurant and later worked building airplanes. I loved that ward.

    Comment by Susan M — September 11, 2010 @ 7:37 am

  9. Being one of the “oldies” of our ward, there is much truth in what Rusty said.

    I love our ward and have been in it longer than any other ward member (except my wife). Our ward is well balanced with a strong primary and very strong youth. I think there is a certain strength that comes with a wide variety of ages and backgrounds.

    Part of who Rusty is and what he has become is because of the ward he grew up in. I think that has also contributed to his present viewpoints.

    Comment by Don — September 11, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  10. I’ve been back in the Wasatch Front ward of my youth for three weeks now. I definitely agree that it’s comforting to be surrounded by people with all those years of accumulated wisdom after being in an inner city east coast ward for the past five years or so. This particular ward doesn’t quite have the downside of oldness that other wards have, but it is missing a certain diversity of viewpoint, I think.

    Comment by Tom — September 12, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

  11. The funny thing is, the old people in my ward seem to be less outspoken and judgmental than the younger ones. Of course, our old people are like the ones Susan M describes — they’ve been around and seen a lot, and consequently seem to have decided they don’t know all the answers. They tend to strike a temperate tone in what they say.

    I think the outdated thinking gets passed from generation to generation by the 30-40 year-old parents more than the older people.

    Comment by Martin — September 15, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  12. Marjorie, so this guy’s in your ward:


    Comment by john f. — October 8, 2010 @ 7:01 am

  13. I see the real “problem” as being not with the elderly in wards but rather with the middle-management types, who are invariably the types called into priesthood leadership positions. They are the people interested in having church meetings look like IBM board meetings circa 1955.

    From my perspective, the white-haired 75 year old with a beard in the ward isn’t the one who has an issue with beards. It’s the 45-50 year old Stake President or bishop who works as a management consultant and went to BYU at any time after Ernest Wilkinson’s tenure as the university president.

    Comment by john f. — October 8, 2010 @ 7:08 am

  14. I’ve heard that some temples require people to shave beards to be veil workers. If that is true, would a temple actually ask a 75 year old convert of 5 to 10 years to shave off his clean-cut, well kept white beard (picture Heber J. Grant style beard) in order to be a veil worker? It makes reason stare.

    Comment by john f. — October 11, 2010 @ 5:48 am

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