When I was in graduate school, I had long hair and a beard. It was, after all, the early 70s. I often wore overalls to class, and Janice and I had a large garden, a large dog, and one small baby and then two. The State College, Pennsylvania, Branch of which we were members was small and very close. Janice and I continue to use our experience in that branch, where what was important was our membership and participation rather than how we looked, what politics we had, what kinds of work we did, how smart we were, or what social stratum we came from as our implicit measure for what our church experience should be like. I am sure that others with experiences in small branches or wards know that same measure.
Though I disliked missionary work when I was on my mission (and still do), the closeness of the State College Branch and the needs of the missionaries meant that I went on “splits” with the missionaries fairly regularly. I could not say no. And it seemed to both the missionaries and to me that we were able to get into homes that we might not have gotten into otherwise because I was with them. Slacks and a sport shirt didn’t hide my long hair and beard, so my presence at the door often eased people’s anxiety somewhat. I was neither narc nor salesman.
One Sunday, the second counselor in the district presidency–a friend and a fellow graduate student–took me aside after the morning block of meetings for an interview. (This was before the three-hour block, the arrival of which was a huge blessing–another post.) “We want to call you to be the ward mission leader,” he said.
I wasn’t happy about the call, but I was getting ready to tell him that I would accept it when he continued: “However, taking this position would require that you shave and cut your hair. We know that you are a grad student in philosophy and that requiring this of you might cause you problems, which we don’t want to do. So, if you tell us no, we will certainly understand. It is important to us that you do well in school, and we don’t want to require something of you that would interfere with that.”
I laughed. I was the only student in the philosophy program who had long hair or a beard. Everyone else was more or less clean-cut, and the most clean-cut of them were members of the National Caucus of Labor Committees, followers of Lyndon LaRouche, at that time a radical Marxist. If I recall correctly, his followers at Penn State spent a great deal of time and energy proselyting for Marxism in front of unionized steel plants in Pittsburgh, which made knocking on doors in Korea look very easy. I recall vividly that they looked forward to the impending collapse of the U.S. in class war, which they were sure would occur in 1976 (because LaRouche had told them it would)–and they had posted in the grad student common room a list of political offices to which they would be appointed “after the Revolution,” as well as a list of “enemies of the Revolution” who would be eliminated when the time came. My name was on the list, as one of the LaRouchites with whom I’d been friendly explained, because I was clearly a danger to the Revolution. I’m not sure why. He didn’t make that clear. Perhaps it was the fact that I looked like a hippie and had the reputation among the other students of belonging to some community that took a lot of my time. Today I wouldn’t, but then I laughed and ignored the list.
In response to the calling as ward mission leader, I said, “I don’t have a problem cutting my hair or shaving, but it seems to me that it is to the missionaries’ advantage if I don’t,” and I described my experience. Since that seemed reasonable to my friend, we agreed that I had accepted the call, but he suggested that before I shave I take up the question with the mission president, Hugh Pinnock (later of the Seventy, now deceased). I gave President Pinnock a call and made arrangements to meet him in his office in Harrisburg. At that meeting we talked briefly about missionary work and I described why I wanted to keep my beard and long hair. He concluded by saying, “I think that makes sense. I’ll ask President Kimball,” then president of the Church. I was shocked at that answer. I had never imagined anyone actually asking President Kimball something, and I had assumed President Pinnock would either tell me that I needed to cut my hair or not. “Perhaps I won’t have to,” I thought on the drive home. A few days later, President Pinnock called me: “President Kimball says to get a hair cut and a shave.” I did and didn’t really mind.
I don’t have any grand, general principles to draw from that experience, but it was formative of my relation to the Church. I had learned a great deal about what it means to be a brother in the Church from my membership in the branch. I had come to love the other members of the branch and to think of ourselves as as genuinely part of each other, as members in the literal sense. This experience added to what I had learned by teaching me that I owe the Church and its members. Though they only asked me to cut my hair and beard, I owe them my life, and I can give what I owe without grudging, something I do not always do, but now know can be done.
With age, my beard has grown too wiry for me to still have it and kiss Janice, so I wouldn’t grow it back even if BYU dropped the prohibition on them. But in the best of all possible worlds, I would have a beard, kiss Janice, and teach at BYU. So this experience didn’t teach me the importance of being close cut and clean shaven. I know that what happened could have happened in an offensive or oppressive way. But it didn’t. Perhaps I could have learned from this that my understanding is inferior to that of the Prophet (and I’m willing to grant that it is), but that isn’t really what I learned. Instead, I learned that I can be asked to do things that I do not want to do and then do them happily.
What happened was a small thing, probably something that only I remember. But in that small thing I learned about consecration existentially; I received a measure for my life, a standard to which I far too often do not measure up, but that stands as a testimony of the possibility of a different way of being in the world.