Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Friday, December 22, 2006

Gift Return

I'm afraid this post may come across as if I'm complaining about people doing something nice for me, so I want to reiterate at the outset that I have nothing against the church members I know, and that most of them both in my current ward and the ward I was previously in strike me as basically good and decent people, many of whom I hope to retain friendships with even after I eventually do "come out" as an atheist. I'm sure that nasty and hypocritical Mormons do exist; as it happens, however, I've been fortunate enough to avoid meeting many of them. My reasons for leaving the church, as I've said before, have absolutely nothing to do with any dislike of any of the members or church leaders; it's entirely a matter of my coming to terms with the complete absence of any factual basis for its doctrines.

That being said, while I know there were good intentions behind the events I'm about to relate, it still puts me in an awkward situation, and I wish it hadn't happened.

First of all, a little background--only tangentially related to the story, but still something I may as well explain at the outset. There is, in the LDS church, a concept known as "home teaching". To every active male member of the church is assigned a group of individuals or families they are expected to visit monthly, to check up on their welfare and share a spiritual message. (There's a similar program among the female members, called "visiting teaching", but they only visit the other female members--and, not being female and thus never having been involved in the visiting teaching program on either end, I don't know as much about it as I do about home teaching, though I gather it works more or less the same way.) Sometimes "less active" members are also assigned families to home-teach, but they're generally paired up with active members who will encourage their participation--home-teachers are always assigned in pairs.

In practice, home teaching is one of those principles that church members don't live up to as assiduously as they're supposed to. Pretty much every month, the last week or two before the end of the month, the priesthood leaders remind the men to do their home teaching, if they haven't already. Pretty much every month, a large proportion of the home teaching doesn't get done.

In fact, I don't remember the last time I had my home teachers visit me--if any of my previous home teachers ever visited me in the six years or so I've been in my current ward, I don't remember it, and it certainly must have been years ago. (Not that this is likely to have had any bearing whatsoever on my disenchantment with the church--after all, I was a regular church attendee with a fairly significant calling; it's not as if just because my home teachers didn't visit I didn't have plenty of exposure to the church. In fact, it may have been in part indirectly because I gave every indication of being a faithful member whose "testimony" was in no jeopardy that my home teachers didn't visit; generally the most diligent home-teachers are assigned to the families who are judged to need that contact the most, and faithful members may end up with unreliable home teachers, since they're not expected to require that contact as much anyway.) My current home teacher, however, has shown himself a bit more dutiful than his predecessors, in that last month he actually did make an appointment with me and show up--albeit without his assigned home-teaching partner, who was unavailable; he brought his wife to substitute. Said home teacher is also, incidentally, my successor as ward choir director, which really has nothing to do with the story that follows, and the ward clerk, which does.

That background being gotten out of the way, on to the story...

I answered a knock on my door Wednesday night to find nobody there, but a gift on the walk in front of the door; given that I thought I heard something fall just as I opened the door, I assume it had been balanced on the doorknob. Looking around but not seeing those responsible for having left the gift, I took it inside and took a closer look.

There was no immediate indication of the identity of the gift-giver. It was a smallish gift, with an envelope attached; the envelope bore my name (well, my first name and last initial), and the greeting "Merry Christmas!" Inside was a card (which, oddly enough, was more or less a generic holiday card that made no reference to Christmas, though among the imagery depicted on the card's front was a small Christmas tree), with no signature or writing inside. Enclosed in the card was, however, a gift card for Trader Joe's.

My curiosity as to the origin of the gift still unsatisfied, I turned my attention to the wrapped present itself. And I noticed attached to the present a Post-it note that more or less gave the game away. On the Post-it were my initials and the words "Adult Male".

So...this wasn't a personal gift; clearly it was one of a number of gifts given out by some organization, impersonal enough that they needed to be labeled with the ages and genders of the recipients to ensure an appropriate enclosure. I gave some thought as to who might possibly be behind this, but I could only come up with one reasonable possibility: the ward. It had to be from the church. But why give me a Christmas gift? I was sure the bishopric, or other church leadership, couldn't possibly just be giving everyone in the ward a Christmas gift. In fact, having been on the ward council before, as Young Men's President, I knew enough about how such programs worked to have a pretty good notion that this was probably something given to a handful of specifically chosen needy families. Which...I wasn't, really. Oh, sure, I've had my share of financial troubles; getting by on a student loan and the meager supplementary income I made teaching one class at a community college wasn't easy, especially with the credit card debt I'd managed to rack up over my time in college and was still paying off. But, while I certainly wasn't living in the lap of luxury, I had more than enough to get by. I didn't need this.

Maybe I shouldn't have unwrapped the gift; I suppose my reasons for doing so owed more to curiosity than any other motive. But I was curious what was inside, and I opened it. Inside was a wallet, which actually would come in handy for me, since I'd lost my wallet a few months ago (with my ID and most of my money in it, while I was two thousand miles from home and had to somehow catch a plane home the next day--but that's another story) and hadn't gotten around to buying a new one, but I was pretty sure no one at the ward knew about that, so it was probably just a coincidence. Especially given the well-known practice of giving wallets with cash inside--and indeed, inside the wallet was forty dollars in cash. There was also, atop the wallet, a Target gift card, though that was in an envelope the same color as the box interior and I didn't notice it on my initial perusal.

Anyway, now I really knew I couldn't keep this. Forty dollars in cash? From the church? I didn't need that, and I didn't feel I could accept it. Oh, of course part of it was feeling like I'd be taking it under false pretenses, that it was presumably given to me as a faithful church member (as magnanimous as it might have been to do so, I doubt the ward gave any such gifts to neighborhood non-members), and so, not being in fact a faithful church member, despite the part I was still publicly playing, it didn't feel right for me to take it. But even aside from that, I didn't feel entitled to this beneficence; somehow apparently someone at the ward had gotten the impression that I was more in need than I actually am, but I was sure there were people who'd need all this much more than I did.

I did have one suspicion as to how the ward might have gotten such an impression of my condition--from my home teacher. He'd seen my apartment, and, well, admittedly, my apartment is run-down and cheap (the rather obvious mold-surrounded leak in the ceiling, all the more conspicuous for the ice chest placed below it to catch the dripping water, is only the most blatant of its flaws), and might give an impression of hardship which, while perhaps not entirely unwarranted, I think was probably exaggerated--my means are limited, but not so much that I need forty dollars and a few gift cards to stave off severe privation. Still, he seems the most likely person to have brought up my name as that of someone in need.

Knowing who was probably responsible for the gift, though, wasn't of any immediate help in figuring out what to do with it. I really didn't feel right accepting it, but there was no obvious way to return it, especially since I didn't even know for a fact who had given it--even if I did have a very strong suspicion. But...there was one course of action it occurred to me to take.

My home teacher had talked to me on Sunday to try to set up a time for a home teaching visit in December. I'd told him at the time to call me over the next day or two, and we'd set something up, but as it turned out I wasn't home much over the next few days, and was remiss in checking my messages. Still, he'd wanted to visit me anyway, and, even if he wasn't the one who'd suggested me as a recipient of this gift program (and I was less confident of that guess than I was that the gift had come from the church), as ward clerk he'd know who was. So I called him that night to set up an appointment for him to come on his home-teaching visit the following evening. (Since he was the ward clerk, I also took the opportunity to make my appointment for tithing settlement with the bishop, which I had forgotten to do earlier--but that'll probably be the subject of another entry later.)

So, last night he came by (again with his wife, his assigned home-teaching companion still apparently being unavailable); we talked a little, and then he presented his spiritual message (which, as usual for home-teaching visits, was the First Presidency Message from the church magazine the Ensign). I waited till after all this, when it seemed the visit was otherwise about over, to broach the subject of the gift, stating my suspicion that it had come from the church and asking if he knew of any way I could return it--I didn't need this largesse, I explained, and I was sure there were other people in the ward who would need it more than I, and besides the gift cards were completely useless to me, since there was neither a Trader Joe's nor a Target near me and I didn't have a car to make it easy for me to get to one.

He did confirm my suspicion that the ward was responsible for the gift, but he wasn't too forthcoming with further information. Mostly, he encouraged me to just keep the gift. He said that there are two sides to gift-giving--the giving, and the receiving. He met my objections that I wasn't in sufficient need to warrant the ward's giving me forty dollars in cash by hinting that the money hadn't actually come out of the ward's budget, but out of private donations by members. I insisted that I didn't feel right keeping it, and I couldn't accept it. He suggested that perhaps I could pass it on (but to whom?), but finally said that, well, there was nothing else he could tell me, except that I could bring it up with the bishop on the seventh and see what he said.

So...I guess that's where things stand. I don't want to seem ungrateful, but, for the several reasons mentioned above, I really don't feel that I can accept this gift in good conscience. So I guess on the seventh I'll try to talk the bishop into taking it back, or giving it to someone else, or at least telling me who I can return it to--and if that fails, well, I'll just have to take things from there. (I admit there's a bit of appealing irony in the thought of, say, donating the money to the Richard Dawkins Foundation...but it seems a bit mean-spirited to do that with money that the church gave me, after all, with benevolent intentions. Hm.)

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