Mormons carve out niche to practice their faith

Jessie O'Connor doesn't do her homework.

Not on Sundays, anyway. But she swears it isn't a rampant case of procrastination.

"I'm trying to keep the Sabbath holy," she said. "The Bible tells us not to do work, so I try to respect that."

O'Connor, a junior, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints-better known as the Mormons-and is one of about 10 undergraduates who are practicing members of the Church.

It is a diverse group; one that includes a pre-med varsity athlete, a backpacking engineer, a chess-playing aspiring writer, and, yes, a couple of straight-laced kids straight out of Utah.

But they all have a few things in common. On a campus that sometimes appears to subsist entirely on coffee and Busch Light, none of them drink caffeine or alcohol. In the midst of Duke's hookup culture, they have dating and marriage on the brain.

And then, of course, there is their religion.

Mormons are Christians, with a twist. In addition to the Old and New Testaments, they subscribe to another scripture called the Book of Mormon-a text they believe was delivered as revelation to their first prophet, Joseph Smith, on gold plates in upstate New York in 1827.

"I'm not afraid to tell people but it's not like, 'Hi, I'm Mindy and I'm Mormon,'" said Mindy Vawdrey, a freshman.

Before coming to Duke, she didn't spend much time explaining her religion either, but for a different reason: Her high school in Highland, Utah was 95 percent Mormon, she said. Students received time off during the day for Bible study, and after graduation, her classmates flocked to Brigham Young University, a sprawling school of 34,000 in Provo, Utah, that is owned and operated by the LDS Church.

An estimated 98 percent of BYU's students are practicing Mormons, and the school adheres to a strict code of conduct that includes prohibitions on drugs, alcohol and pre-marital sex. Some classes are preceded by a professor-led prayer.

But Vawdrey wanted something different, and she is not the only one.

"BYU has too many Mormons," said sophomore William Barlow, who added that he was looking for a diverse school where he could meet people both in and outside of his faith.

And Duke had something else going for it too.

"In high school I was working so hard and I didn't want to settle when I picked a college," said sophomore Chalette Lambert. "BYU is a great school, but I really wanted somewhere top."

Prestige also brought sophomore Laurel Gray to Duke, but unlike other LDS students on campus, BYU never even crossed her mind. The reason? Before she came to college, she was not Mormon.

"I had never really met a Mormon," said Gray, who was raised in Canton, Ohio by a pair of lapsed Quakers.

That is, until the summer before freshman year, when she engaged in the time-honored pre-college ritual of Facebook-stalking her future roommate. A few clicks around the profile revealed something Gray found intriguing. The roommate, sophomore Rebecca Harbuck, was from Salt Lake City, and she was a practicing member of the LDS Church.

When the two girls met in August, Gray didn't know what to expect, she said. But she and Harbuck became fast friends, and when her roommate invited her to attend a Mormon service, Gray eagerly agreed.

And somewhere between the hymns and the Bible study and the welcoming church members, Gray discovered something she had been seeking for a long time-a spiritual community.

After that first Sunday, she said, she threw herself into investigating the church.

"I started sucking the poison out of my life, fixing all the little things that weren't right," she said.

Soon, with the help of Harbuck and other Mormons she had met, Gray made a life-changing decision: She would convert. And on Oct. 13, 2007, she was baptized as a member of the Mormon Church.

Back home, she said her parents watched the change supportively, but with a little apprehension.

"I feel like sometimes as teenagers we do things like get our nose pierced just to see what our parents will say, so I think at first they thought I was like, 'Oh I'll just become Mormon to see what they say,'" Gray said.

But within the Duke LDS community, Gray found a strong backbone for her new faith. The group met about three times a week for Bible study and social activities and carpooled to Chapel Hill on Sundays for church services.

Gray grew so close to her Mormon friends, in fact, that she decided to room with Harbuck and O'Connor this year.

The three girls share a narrow triple in the Wellness Dormitory, where the walls are papered with photographs of Mormon leaders and paintings of biblical scenes. There, the trio works and studies the Gospel and sometimes just hangs out, talking late into the night. And like their peers, their conversations seem to gravitate towards one topic in particular. Boys.

Dating in the Mormon world is a game with serious repercussions. One tenet of Mormon faith holds that one must marry another Mormon-either in this life or the next-in order to achieve the highest level of salvation.

In other words, the stakes are high-and for college-age Mormon girls, the odds are pretty low.

When they reach the age of 19, most Mormon males take leave from school and home life to serve a two-year mission for the Church. During this time, they live only with other missionaries-often in countries thousands of miles from home-where they are prohibited from using phones or e-mail to keep in touch with family and friends. In most cases, their only link to the outside world is old-fashioned snail mail.

So, the girls said, they write. And they wait.

"Right now we're just in this awkward gap," O'Connor said. She keeps correspondence with two boys she dated freshman year, who are both in their second year of missionary service-one in Uruguay, the other in Ukraine.

Han Woong Lee was on the other side of that equation. In the Fall of 2006, the Mormon international student from Korea enrolled at Duke and became active with the LDS community on campus. But after the Spring 2007 semester, he packed his bags-not for the next four months, but for the next four years.

That summer he began a two-year missionary service in New York, which he intends to follow up with two years of mandatory service in the Korean military.

"Truthfully, door-to-door or street proselytizing can be frustrating," he wrote in a letter from his mission home in Scarsdale, N.Y. "But it really builds your character in a way that no other experience can."

But despite the centrality of missionary service in the Mormon faith, Duke's Mormon students said they aren't broadcasting their religion or trying to convert everyone they meet.

Gray, for example, is currently dating a non-Mormon boy. She has given him a copy of the Book of Mormon and talked to him about her faith, but ultimately she said it is his decision.

"I'm not out there to flirt to convert," she said.

Junior Spencer Jasper, a varsity wrestler who is active in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, said he feels like it is important for him to form ties with the larger Christian community at Duke.

"Every once in a while [at IV] I'll share my specific beliefs, but for the most part we just read the Bible and try to get closer to Christ," he said. "We know we have different beliefs but we just go on that central theme."

Barlow said he also feels continuity between his religion and the wider Christian community.

"A lot of the difference in my experience at Duke doesn't have to do with me being Mormon so much as me being religious at all," he said. "It's about spending time in prayer and with God, and I think anyone who does that will have a different way of seeing things."


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