Since getting married eleven years ago, my wife and I have moved eight times. Mostly we’ve taken care of moving by ourselves, or we’ve asked a couple friends to assist, but often ward members have volunteered to help. Once we were in a bind during a sudden and unwelcome transition and had to ask for help on short notice; a friend with a trailer helping for a few hours was all we needed. Moving out of our home this July meant a month of heavy labor for me, but I kind of enjoyed the challenge of packing everything we own into a 10×20 storage unit–so that when I was done I could drive a Dodge Caravan right into the middle of everything and park it. Moving into our new home involved much less stuff: eleven suitcases and five carry-on bags.
Americans are mobile people. We go away to school in order to move up into the middle class or to secure our position in it. We move to take better jobs for higher pay. If you believe in creative destruction, losing your job is the market’s way of telling you that your labor would be more productively employed elsewhere. Moving often involves physical exhaustion, financial disruption, and emotional turmoil, but the prospect of long-term unemployment or a wrenching career change followed by diminished circumstances usually trumps all other considerations.
Mobility is a problem for Mormonism, although not in a theoretical-theological sense. It might seem that there’s a bit of friction between geographic mobility and the notion of gathering to Zion, but our idea of Zion has enjoyed considerable geographic freedom for a couple generations at least, and we’ve been sending out missionaries and colonizers and earnest young people in search of an education for as long as the church has existed.
The bigger problems are organizational and pastoral. It’s hard to keep callings filled, and it’s hard to find a calling for everybody, when you don’t know who all the ward members are. It’s hard to meet the needs of people under your care if you don’t know what those needs are. President Hinckley has said that new members need a testimony, and a calling, and a friend. When you move, you immediately take two strikes. When the ties of family and friendship that connect you to the church are attenuated by distance, it’s easy to start giving yourself Sundays off.
As summer ends, a lot of Mormons have just finished moving or are nearly finished, and a lot of other Mormons have sore arms and sore backs from helping them. In some cases the moving crew has been rendering Christian service: moving is exhausting and expensive, often a greater burden than one family can bear by itself. In other cases they are mourning with those who mourn: leaving any home behind is a sad affair. What the Elders Quorum Moving Company really is doing, though, is performing a ritual to bind the mobile members back into the community. As people leaving their former home enter the liminal space between Point A and Point B, help from the elders quorum says: you may be leaving us, but you will always have a claim on the helping hands of Zion. As they settle into a new residence, the help with moving tells them: we barely know you, but already you have a debt of service towards the community of Zion.
As with any ritual of Mormonism, our first instinct is to put the priesthood in charge of moving, although there’s freedom for delegating part of the job to other organizations. As with other rituals, rational organization is necessary to prevent the task from becoming overly burdensome, and closing the solemn event with refreshments is always a good idea. If the most important aspect of helping people move in and out is its symbolic significance, though, then getting every last box loaded or unloaded is not essential. Two guys helping for an hour can do an awful lot, and two guys helping for an hour might just be enough to get the point across: your residence and your ward have changed, but your home is still in Zion.