Katherine Brown has been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints her whole life, but today she’s the only person in her family who’s still practicing.
Since starting college, the University of Minnesota graduate student learned about many different religions and viewpoints, made friends outside the church and married a man outside her faith.
“It’s a time when you have to decide, ‘Do I really believe this? Do I really believe that?’” Brown said. “You need to build up what you believe for yourself, not for anyone else.”
As a very small population on campus, many Mormon students find themselves branching out into new territory in college, where they are commonly misunderstood.
Brown said it was fun attending school with students who had many different opinions and beliefs.
“I see a lot of similarities between myself and a lot of people from other religions,” she said. “It’s just a matter of people being able to talk about it.”
University of Minnesota-Duluth sophomore Jordan Rock said being one of a handful of Mormon students in his college has been a character-building experience.
“It’s definitely challenged me and tested me,” he said.
Rock goes to parties with friends outside of the church, but his religion prohibits drinking and smoking, so he usually serves as the designated driver.
Avoiding alcohol on campus can be tough — more than 80 percent of University students said they had drunk alcohol in the last year in the 2010 Boynton Health Service College Student Health Survey.
But Rock found comfort in connecting with the Mormon community in Duluth and now in the Twin Cities during his summer internship.
“It helps being surrounded by people with the same values,” he said.
Many Mormon college students from the metro area attend services at the Latter-day Saints Institute of Religion in Dinkytown, which serves more than a dozen local colleges as well as other single adults under 30. Married adults and children attend wards — local congregations — for families.
About 60 University students are involved in the institute’s single young adult ward, and about 110 members attend weekly services, said Bryce Gardner, one of the church’s elders.
Brown said being part of the ward “was an awesome experience, because you’re meeting people who are really close to your own age.” She transitioned to the family ward after getting married.
On Friday nights, students from the young adult center plan activities like bowling, golfing or grilling.
College-age Latter-Day Saints members — and non-members — held a game night on Friday at the Dinkytown Institute, playing Mad Gab and table tennis as a storm flooded University Avenue Southeast just beyond the building’s front steps.
When cars stalled in the flooded street, the young church members went outside to help drivers restart their cars and offer warm cookies to appreciative drivers and passersby.
A history of misunderstanding
Student Latter-day Saints members often have to get used to being a smaller community on campus, Brown said.
“You’re kind of the oddball out sometimes,” she said, “and that can be a little tough.”
Many people have common misconceptions about the Mormon faith, Rock said — that it’s just a scam to sell timeshares in Utah, for example, or that it’s not a Christian religion.
“That’s something that I personally disagree with,” Brown said, “because I have a very strong faith in Christ.”
Church members have a long history of being ostracized for their beliefs. Early Latter-day Saints missionaries in Minnesota were assailed with eggs, stones and threats in the late 1800s.
The current church population in the state is more than 31,000, spread across 75 congregations.
Brown said many people believe Mormons practice polygamy — or having more than one spouse — although it’s not allowed in the church.
Rock added that the church is also misinterpreted as a cult or a form of brainwashing.
“It’s never anything like that,” he said. “Everyone’s self-aware about making the right choices.”
Finding a community
For University doctoral candidate Dennis Chu, the church was an opportunity to find religion for the first time.
As an international student at the University, Chu said he didn’t feel connected to American culture after his arrival from Taiwan.
“I am in America, but I don’t feel like I have an American life,” Chu said. “After joining the church, I can know my neighborhoods and know what American life should be.”
Since attending church services and getting baptized in April, Chu said he feels part of a stronger community living in the United States.
“I feel like they love each other,” he said, “and they also love me.”