Sacrament meeting is definitely NOT the best place to come out of the closet. But by the time I made the announcement, I no longer had any misgivings about my identity or how I was going to live my life. I had even come to believe that God had led me to this point and was pleased with my choices. I knew there would be repercussions for going public at church--that if I didn't have sense enough to be filled with shame, others would take it upon themselves to heap some, along with a generous portion of righteous indignation, upon my head.
The bishop had asked me to speak on the Word of Wisdom. I sometimes struggle with assigned topics, but this one felt like pure inspiration. Feeling passionate about the subject, I easily put together a talk made up of scripture, quotations from the Brethren, anecdotes, research, and statistics. All of that set the stage for my rather shocking disclosure. "Brothers and sisters, I'd like you to know that these things are true. I've tested these principles in my own life, and have been blessed by doing so. That's why I can stand at the pulpit today and use the 'V' word in front of you and your children. You may have heard the rumors. I'm here to confirm that I've become...a vegetarian."
Feeling as if I was armed with a carrot in one hand, a banana in the other, and suited with dark, leafy greens, I had thrown down the gauntlet and challenged the nation's and the Church's culture of unchecked carnivorism. My challenge went unanswered during Sunday school, but I sensed a tension that hung in the air. Before priesthood meeting officially started, a devout brother announced that according to the apostle Paul, the church had been warned against celibates and vegetarians. I was an apostate. The bishop rose to my defense. Another brother, siding with the first, made his statement by storming out of the chapel.
Since that fateful day in 2003, I've often considered what it means to be a Mormon vegetarian. Who are we? What motivates us? Why are we sometimes viewed suspiciously from within the church? And on the flip side, why is it that, in spite of the Word of Wisdom and the benefit of numerous supporting scientific studies, the vast majority of our church family continues to eat as much or more meat than our non-member neighbors? What prevents us from seeing the disastrous consequences that often result?
Thanks to the Internet, I've been blessed to associate with LDS vegetarians from around the world. I've learned a bit about that little sub-subculture along the way. Of course we're still diverse people with individual motivations and doctrinal and political ideas. However, I've noticed some predominant characteristics. A few years ago, I composed a survey and asked members of three online support groups--MormonVeg, LDS Raw, and LDS WoW (Word of Wisdom) Talk--to share their motivations about their dietary choices and how they see themselves in the larger church and community.
Nineteen women and five men responded. Most identified themselves as both politically and religiously conservative with few providing an unclear or no response. About ten percent identified themselves as liberal. Several self identified as Conservative, Republican, Libertarian, or Constitutionalist. None chose Democrat. Additionally, respondents generally disliked the quality of school lunches, thought highly of or practiced home schooling, were opposed to or were cautious about vaccinations, and supported alternative health care options. Of course, this small sample does not represent all LDS vegetarians. I am, nonetheless, intrigued that vegetarian eating has apparently gained ground among our more conservative members, while secular vegetarians more often identify themselves as being politically liberal. Perhaps my ward brother who considers me apostate may see the common diets of Mormon vegetarians and non-Mormon liberal vegetarians as proof. I, however, believe that it shows that diverse people sometimes arrive at the same truths along different paths.
As a questioning, liberal, and sometimes agnostic Mormon, I'm not the best representative to speak for LDS vegetarians. In fact, some fellow LDS vegetarians may consider my doctrinal doubts just as "dangerous" as certain Mormon meat-eaters may consider my flesh deficient diet to be. But my experience has shown me that most of my LDS brothers and sisters, plant-eater and meat-eater alike, have room enough in their hearts to comfortably rub elbows with a vegetarian wanderer like me.
That said, what exactly is a vegetarian? There may be as many varieties as there are flavors of Mormons. The most common are: Ovo (don't eat meat but do eat eggs), lacto (no meat but do eat dairy), lacto-ovo (both dairy and eggs are OK), pescatarian (will eat fish), raw foodist, vegan (no animal based food or other products), flexitarian (will occasionally eat some meat), or some combination of the above.
Of course, food choices are merely part of the larger belief systems for most vegetarians. Here are some subjective generalizations I've observed in LDS vegetarians I know. We tend to see the Word of Wisdom as a spiritual law and our living it fully as a spiritual expression of our love and appreciation to God, and gratitude that He packaged the best nutrients in a dazzling assortment of tastes, smells, shapes, colors, and textures found within the plant kingdom. And many of us prefer food in its most natural state--whole, fresh, raw, organic, locally grown, and straight from the garden whenever possible. We view our bodies as our primary stewardships--as physical and spiritual temples. Our daily food choices honor our temples. We view life as sacred but not only human life--also the lives of animals, plants, and the Earth herself. We try to treat all creatures respectfully. Some show that respect by abstaining from the taking of animal life all together. Others eat meat (and thus kill) only rarely. Most see a whole foods plant-based diet as consistent with the diet of The Garden of Eden and the one that will prevail in the Millennium. Our food choices therefore reflect our willingness to live a higher law and to prepare for a brighter future.
Although I was raised on plenty of garden fresh fruits, beans, and vegetables, my favorite meal was pressure-cooked roast beef, whipped potatoes, and gravy. As a child, I didn't understand the central role food and drink plays in the human culture. As an adult, I have learned that my own culture is largely invisible to me until it bumps up against other cultures. For example, I discovered that in much of the world, everything grinds to a stop in the absence of a coffee grinder and percolating pot. Neither did I realize for many years how rich and fat the American (and, by extension, the Mormon) diet is compared to that of the rest of the world and how much it contributes to our collective waistlines. When I first married Kris, I told her I would still love her even after she grew fat. She was far from flattered. But from observing my church and community culture, I didn't think there was an option. Her mother was overweight as was mine, and so were many of the women around me. I associated fat with pregnancy and motherhood.
Shortly after we married, we moved to Japan and gradually adopted the food culture of the world's longest-living people. I learned that obesity is more a result of our food and lifestyle choices, and not so much a result of genetics or motherhood. That fact would have been much more difficult to grasp had we not lived in Japan and partaken of their culture.
Occasionally, a few of our more outspoken Japanese friends commented on the obese state of Americans. Initially, I was amused but a bit offended. However, after living among the Japanese for a few years, Kris and I returned home and upon our arrival at the Los Angeles airport, we were both shocked at the sight--enormous people virtually everywhere, some being carted about the terminals in wheelchairs and golf carts. Our friends were right. Many Americans ARE fat. At my parents' home, I loaded a plate with my mother's delectable roast beef, potatoes, and gravy, but my stomach rejected (in no uncertain terms) my favorite childhood meal. Now it was my mother's turn to be anything but flattered. Our bodies had grown accustomed to our Japanese diet. We hadn't given up meat, but it had come to play a much smaller role on our plates. One of our most memorable culinary experiences in Japan was at a mountain restaurant operated by Buddhist priests. In a serene and unrushed setting, we enjoyed their vegan offerings. I remember that meal as an almost spiritual experience. And why not? Food is God's offering to His children. The attitude with which we partake is our offering to God.
After living in Japan for over five years, we returned to the Wasatch Front with an adopted food culture, and we followed my father's good example by planting a garden. Many meals consisted of nothing but fresh fruits and vegetables, and we felt good for doing so. When we connected to the Internet, I discovered the book "Diet for a New America" by John Robbins who had renounced his family inheritance, running the Baskin Robbins ice cream empire, and had done so for spiritual reasons. He wrote of a stewardship and partnership with the Earth, animals, and his fellow humans. I sensed truth in his writings. Later, when I came upon an online essay entitled The Word of Wisdom: The Forgotten Verses, I was surprised, pleased, and ready to hear that many prominent church leaders had voiced opinions similar to Robbins'. Their statements provided church approval for my further shift away from meat, and I made the conscious decision to no longer partake of factory-farmed meat.
Through additional research, I become convinced that milk, the drink touted as "The Perfect Food" in my seventh grade health class, was indeed the perfect food for calves, but was far from perfect when consumed by humans. I gave it up and found myself freed from intestinal problems that had plagued me since my days at the Missionary Training Center, where I had dealt with stress by gorging myself three times a day on the standard American diet.
Giving up meat and milk set me apart both from the majority of my American associates and from the majority of my LDS brothers and sisters. But that was okay; I felt cleaner, leaner, faster, happier, and younger as a result. When I began to experience personally the benefits I'd heard so extensively reported by others, I felt compelled to share my knowledge and experience with family and friends. Surely, I thought with missionary zeal, they would want to enjoy the same benefits I had. I had limited success in my proselytizing efforts but usually only with those facing severe illness or even imminent death. Those who abandoned the lifelong food choices that had caused their health crises experienced almost miraculous improvements in as little as a month. Amazingly, their health care providers didn't seem interested in learning about the simple dietary changes that produced such profound results. Some were incredulous. Could inexpensive garden vegetables be more effective than their pricey pills, potions, and procedures? I'm convinced that the culture of the American medical system has blinded many of us to the healing power of plants.
Western cultures sometimes hold a smug attitude of disregard as we consider others that supposedly "worship cows." And yet, I wonder how different are we who believe that meat on our plates is some kind of proof of our piety. It's almost as if we partake of the sacramental emblems at church, the symbols of Christ's flesh and blood, and then return home to bless, pass, and partake of an additional emblem, the flesh of beasts--beasts that lived short, tortured and crowded lives standing in their own excrement and subjected to unnatural foods, hormones, pesticides, and chemicals.
We are counseled to mourn for those who mourn. I mourn for many of my biological and church family because of the heavy price they pay for the short-lived pleasure they find at the dinner table. I mourn when my ward brothers and sisters ask for prayers, fasts, and blessings that they might be healed of unnecessary illnesses. I mourn as doctors enrich themselves by treating symptoms rather than prescribing a diet and lifestyle that can often reverse and prevent disease. I mourn that the American health care system is on the brink of collapse; that we have by far the world's most expensive medical care but rank twenty-seventh in longevity. I mourn at the loss of the Earth's rain forests; thousands of acres cut down annually to grow crops to feed animals to satisfy the world's growing demand for meat. And I believe that God, nature, and the Earth mourn as well.
When we think of the evils and designs of conspiring men, we usually think of the purveyors of alcohol and tobacco. Is it possible that anyone who profits from a product that hurts the consumer might also be conspiring? If that really is the case, extensive modern research proves that the meat, dairy, junk food, and soft drink industries must be implicated as well.
A few people question whether a plant-based diet has more costs than benefits. Some ask me if buying "all those vegetables" is expensive. I invite them to consider the cost of heart surgery, cancer, or diabetes. But their questions are legitimate. Are there real benefits? If so, what are they? Some of my online associates happily responded to such inquiries. One's life was literally saved when she switched to a raw vegan diet. Rachel of the Utah Raw Foods support group she organized writes, "I love the way I feel! I was searching for answers to aid in my healing of bowel and thyroid disorders. Health and vitality have been restored to a state where I enjoy life much more than I ever have." Joan, a raw-leaning flexitarian from Alberta, Canada, writes of "energy, youthful feeling, weight loss, happiness, increased love, and being closer to my Heavenly Father." Wes, an 82-year old Ph.D. and former mission president living in St. George, Utah, switched to a vegan diet about seven years ago. He writes, "Within two months of implementing this new dietary program I no longer needed medication.
Additionally, my cholesterol dropped from 209 down to 131. Over the ensuing year I lost some 35 unnecessary pounds and returned to the weight that I had enjoyed in my younger college days." He was so impressed with the results he helped organize and serves as president of the Vegetarian Society of Utah. Lisa, a vegan from Indiana, writes, "I'm much more healthy, I weigh less, and I feel like I follow the Word of Wisdom better than I ever did in my life before. When I went vegan, it felt like a big spiritual change too. It was an important step in my spiritual development."
Certainly, many of the benefits my friends are experiencing would qualify as the promised "hidden treasures" of The Word of Wisdom. Here's a list of a few of the treasures I've discovered since adopting a more plant-based diet.
1. Our personal and collective food choices impact each other. The Earth has limited water, soil, air, trees, animals, etc. Meat production consumes, pollutes, and destroys huge amounts of the Earth's resources. A plant-based diet is good for my fellow creations, for the Earth, and for me.
2. Life is sacred. When I consider the Great Creator, it is easy for me hear the words, "And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands." (Joseph Smith Translation, Gen. 9:9-11.)
3. Human beings are by nature and design plant eaters. Our bodies resemble the bodies of plant-eating animals, not meat-eating animals. Eating meat is a learned behavior. Our children grow accustomed to the practice before they even know that the meat on their plates comes from dead animals.
4. According to the Word of Wisdom, God is pleased when we abstain from meat. I want to please God.
I think back to that day in sacrament meeting. The brother who accused me of being an apostate now suffers from a debilitating chronic disease--a disease that strikes less often among vegetarians and which can often be held in check by eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet. The brother who stormed out of the chapel continued to suffer from the standard diseases of affluence until he died of a heart attack. One of his close friends, an enormous man, spoke at the funeral and reminisced about the times they shared watching TV and "stacking crackers." I sat mortified in the congregation as this man unknowingly celebrated the cause of his friend's death.
As the years have passed, my coming out at church has become a non-issue. Ward members are accustomed to our family's diet. I did get scolded once for teaching primary children the Word of Wisdom "too well," but overall, we fit in just fine. And we're not alone anymore. Some members of our current bishop's family are vegetarian as well. Vegetarian and meat dishes are served side-by-side at church socials. Occasionally, someone will ask how we stay so thin or what exactly we eat at home, but overall our food choices don't seem to stir any pots. In fact, coming out proved less dramatic than I'd feared. But I wonder what will happen when I speak in sacrament meeting and announce the gift I'm offering at the next ward potluck will be offered in the raw--raw food, that is.
About the Author: Brett Wilcox lives in Sitka, Alaska, with Kris and their four children, Erika, Brittany, David, and Olivia. As a Licensed Professional Counselor, Brett works with Alaskan adolescents in an experiential based wilderness program. Brett suffers from the delusion that his forthcoming fantasy novel will propel him into fame, fortune, movie deals, and the White House. Contact Brett at: firstname.lastname@example.org or befriend him on Facebook.