Last week my Visiting Teachers were here, and one of them told one of those stories that becomes typical if you are around Mormon culture very long--somebody that she knew was a friend to somebody else that turned out to be the roommate of her cousin and this connection led to some kind of wonderful and miraculous occurrence. This wasn't exactly the situation, but you get the drill.
The inevitable, "It's a small world," comment arose from her companion and I could practically hear the music begin in the background.
But, in echo of an uncle of mine from many years ago, I contradicted, "No, the world is large. It is the Church that makes it small."
She asked me to repeat what I'd said, and then to explain it. I shared with her one of my favorite instances of this phenomenon that makes Church members often much closer than six degrees of separation. It is also the story that prompted my uncle to make the above statement that I have thought of many times since I first heard it nearly 20 years ago.
My father's family is very large: he is the oldest of ten kids. About half of them have stayed close to their small town where they all grew up; the other half have gotten "out." However, getting out only meant leaving Utah for one of them. My Uncle Sam. (I actually have an uncle Sam. Not Samuel or Samson, just SAM.) He happened to be in town one weekend when the following story was told.
Another uncle and his wife won a trip to Europe. This is the uncle that wins everything. Really. If you need someone to guess how many jellybeans are in a jar to win the hot air balloon ride at the fair, he's your man. The problem is that he and his wife had never really been outside the western US, (other than trips to Okalahoma or Iowa to watch the National College Wrestling Finals) or had much desire to do so. Still, a trip to Europe is a trip to Europe and they went. When they returned they were filled with stories of bizarre and unfriendly cultural practices. They had little positive to share from their difficult 10 days, but one shining moment stood out above all others.
Tired and hungry, they had gone to a small restaurant in Italy. It had come recommended and looked promising, but ordering was difficult. They noticed, sitting just a table or two away, a couple who looked very American, sitting with their son who was obviously finishing up a mission. With nothing to lose, and desperately hoping to hear some friendly English-speaking voices, my aunt and uncle went over and introduced themselves. They were immediately asked to join their table and enjoyed an evening of pleasant conversation, with all meal ordering done in perfect Italian.
Typical questions (Oh! You are from Utah? Which part?) became more detailed when they learned exactly what city the family was from. It turned out that the returning missionary had been on my brother's soccer team all through high school and they were quite good friends.
In a random restaurant in a small town. Thousands of miles from home. In a foreign country.
It was my turn that day to say, "It's a small world." It was a dumb thing to say, really. My world was small. I'd never spent more than a few days together outside of Northern Utah in my whole life. To which Uncle Sam, who really had seen something of the world, and knew just how lonely it can be when you leave home, told me that the world was big. Very big. The Church made it small.
I understand better now.
Like mentioning to someone we barely knew in Logan that Plantboy and I would soon be moving to Houston, only to find out that his father was the bishop of the ward into which we were moving.
Like meeting a wonderful family in Houston who had lived in one of my wards in Australia, and we spoke of people we each knew.
Like having two dear friends from very different places in my life but finding that they knew each other through a study abroad program.
Like running into friends from our Houston ward at my in-laws house in Denver. They were staying with a family member--across the street.
Like needing to obtain a last minute temple recommend while Plantboy and I were temporarily living in Parker Colorado one summer only to find out that the Stake Presidency member interviewing me was the brother of a woman I had visit taught in Texas.
Like finding friends from high school in my current city, even in my ward.
Like the man in our ward who is doing business in China over the next few months, but found a branch there because his girlfriend (in New Zealand!) happens to know a woman who attends it.
I could go on, but I won't, because if you are reading here and you are LDS, you no doubt have a story of your own. Or many stories.
I also don't mean to imply that you have to be a Mormon to make such connections. I only know that I have never been a part of any group that allows me to make such broad connections among people. Though I have lived in many different parts of the country, it is always through being LDS that I am able to find the most "coincidental" connections with people.
Maybe this is why I feel so comfortable moving as often as I have? I know that when I enter a new city and ward, I'm creating a new "family." A new circle of connections that will make me a better person if I am willing to step up and take my part in the group. I know that I will find a wonderful camaraderie of people that have common cultural bonds despite being composed of unique individuals.
It is true that I'm white and Anglo-Saxon and all of that, and probably carry my fair share of prejudices and quirks because of my racial background, but I think I am mostly LDS. It is the first culture with which I identify myself. The Church makes the world small because I have brothers and sisters in dozens and dozens of countries. Like any large family, we have our share of problems and we need to keep working on our unity and charity, but it is a pretty great thing to be a part of too.