Saratoga Mormons live by a faith often misunderstood by outsiders

May 12, 2022 — by Selina Chen
Photo by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The temple in Oakland, Calif., is where Saratoga members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints go to for sacred ordinances.
Long subject to persecution and misconceptions, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cherish their standards and histories

Tucked into the plastic sleeve outside senior Leslie Robinson’s AP Government binder is a detailed family tree featuring her ancestors going back six generations. One name in the topmost layer, John Lowe Butler, is hidden among the 126 others but holds special prominence in Mormon history.

In July 1838, Butler arrived at the polls at Gallatin, Missouri, for the Daviess county seat elections. Butler and his fellow Mormon citizens came to vote against a prominent citizen named William Peniston, who — upon realizing the Mormons’ plans — verbally attacked the Mormons with abusive and inappropriate language.

“[Peniston claimed that if the county allowed] the ‘Mormons’ to vote, the people would soon lose their suffrage,” wrote Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism and translator of the religious text “Book of Mormon.” 

After Peniston’s speech, a citizen perceived by Butler as a “drunken brute” began beating a Mormon preacher, and fighting broke out. Seeing the injustice in “four to a dozen” men battering a single Mormon, Butler found a stick and helped his fellow Mormons, taking “great care to strike none except those who were fighting the brethren.”

The Election Day Battle at Gallatin incited what became known as the first Mormon War. It was a prominent chapter in Butler’s eventful life, detailed in his biography.

Today, seniors Leslie and Emma Robinson, Butler’s great-great-great-great-granddaughters, are two of the several Saratoga High students and staff who are part of the Mormon Church, formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The community surrounding their faith is essential to the lives of teen Mormons like the Robinsons, who say they are sometimes misunderstood and whose faith has faced persecution over the decades.

The Robinsons’ devotion

In 2020, the Robinsons’ father, Colin Glenn Robinson, was called to be president of the Saratoga stake, an administrative unit that includes approximately 1,000 people from seven wards — local congregations headed by a bishop and separated by location.

Within the Saratoga stake, Emma’s calling — a request or assignment from the church — is Young Women’s President, a role which entails planning fun or spiritual activities for young women in the Saratoga ward every Wednesday, with Leslie as her First Counselor.

Each weekday morning, the twins attend seminary class from 6:45 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., focusing on a different scripture each year. Unlike their cousin in Utah who has seminary as an elective at school or their Southern Californian cousin whose seminary is divided by grade level, the Robinsons’ class combines all four high school grades, totaling about a dozen students.

“[Seminary class] brings a spiritual start to my day,” Emma said. “It makes me really happy, especially with the social aspect where I get to see my friends from other schools.”

Additionally, they go to church weekly for Sunday school, and to the Oakland Temple occasionally for sacred ordinances. Unlike churches that allow entry to everyone, temples are only open to those who receive a recommend — an approval of a member’s worthiness —  from stake or ward leaders, Emma said.

For Leslie, school events held on Sundays such as musical performances, pancake breakfasts and this year’s prom have always been ones she must miss out.

“It’s not that we’re not allowed to do things on Sundays, but I choose not to because I’d rather spend the day at church with my family and honoring my faith,” Leslie said. “When school events are on Sundays, I feel left out.”

Taking pride and battling misconceptions

The inaccessibility of Sunday events is only a small part of the difficulties Mormons face. Although the historical persecution of Mormons no longer tends to manifest in violence, a lack of understanding persists.

For example, Leslie said that the musical “The Book of Mormon” is “filled with a whole bunch of jabs at my church,” because people frequently bring up Mormons’ history with polygamy even though it’s not accepted anymore. People perpetuate such stereotypes, joking, “You’re Mormon, so do you have like 10 wives?” she said.

 People also poke fun at Smith and Mormon standards because they don’t understand why Mormons follow them, she said.

“There’s always going to be people that bash on and hate on other groups,” Leslie said. “I try to stay out of it, but I do my research and feel pretty comfortable with my faith. I just wish people would find more solid and trustworthy sources because there’s a lot of misinformation online.”

Leslie finds it “a little nerve-wracking” to talk about the standards she follows because stereotypes may misconstrue them, such as viewing all Mormons as “uptight.”

Some of these standards include dressing modestly — such as refraining from crop tops — and social restrictions, such as waiting until after age 16 to date. Also, she doesn’t swear or drink coffee and certain types of tea.

“The standards I follow for my life help me not question a lot of things teenagers tend to feel anxious about,” Leslie said. “They give me a sense of confidence and have been a really good foundation for my life. Even though there are some things I still have questions about, overall [my faith] has been really beneficial.”

Another common misconception involves gender roles. Emma said the church views women as equal, but with separate callings. This means women are unable to become priests, even though they can still access the power of priesthood. Also, while both men and women are called to raise their children righteously, women tend to be called toward rearing children while men are called to protect and provide for them.

“From an outside perspective, it may look like there is a hierarchy, but members of the church understand that we’re equals,” Emma said.

She has seen a lot of incorrect information about her religion. Most people have heard of it briefly in history classes, but many don’t really think about it.

Sophomore Scotty Rich, who is related to the Mormon Hulme and Cole families in Saratoga, agrees that the community doesn’t really understand his religion, but the best way to foster more understanding is to ask questions.

“[I care about my religion because] it helps me choose the right decision and think about how I can strive to become more like Heavenly Father and Jesus,” he said. “When people have questions, I’m happy to answer them.”

Rich aspires to attend Brigham Young University (BYU) in Salt Lake City, Utah — the center of the Mormon religion.

Connections across geographies

Salt Lake City hosts the headquarters where leaders congregate and hold semi-annual conferences that are broadcast around the world.

The church was started in the 1830s in New York, but moved westward due to persecutions. After a mass migration across the country led by their Apostle and second president Brigham Young, the church settled in Utah and grew from there. Now, it has 6.5 million members in the US and 16 million worldwide.

“I have a deep connection to the history there because many of my ancestors were the persecuted pioneers who made their way across the plains,” Emma said.

This fall, the Robinsons look forward to learning more about Mormon history as they attend BYU, where 98% of the student population is a part of the Church of Latter-day Saints. After a year in college, the Robinsons plan to embark on their missions, an important chapter in most Mormons’ lives. 

As young men turn 18 and women 19, they are encouraged to apply for a mission. They will be assigned by Utah headquarters to go somewhere in the world to “proselytize for the church and share the Gospel,” Emma said.

Their father went to Italy and their mother to Brazil, while Emma hopes to proselytize somewhere “with running water” and Leslie hopes to go to a Mandarin-speaking country.

“I think many missionaries find that [going on a mission] helps them better understand their faith as well,” Leslie said. “It’ll be a really fun experience that will help me improve my Mandarin, which I really want to learn after getting good at it and then losing it.”

Prior to moving to Saratoga, the Robinsons lived in Hong Kong from when they were six months to age 4, then lived in Shenzhen, China, from ages 4 to 9.

Practicing their faith was different and difficult in China, where Mormonism isn’t one of the five state-recognized religions. As a result, the Robinsons met in a house instead of a church and traveled to the Hong Kong temple because Mormons are not allowed to build one in mainland China.

“We weren’t allowed to proselytize to Chinese nationals — only foreigners — and we had to meet with Chinese nationals and foreigners separately,” Emma said. “[The Chinese government] is really strict about it, which is sad because I believe that if they let us be more open about [Mormonism], then they’d have a lot of happier people.”

Religion is essential to Leslie because it created a community and a strong sense of connection with other members of the church, both when growing up abroad and in Saratoga. She said that it’s comforting to be able to spend time with people who have the same standards and background as her.

The role of education

Mormons can also take on domestic missions: assistant principal Matt Torrens did missionary work in Pennsylvanian and Delaware for two years as a young Mormon who’d grown up in the North Bay. He then went to BYU and later taught in Washington, D.C., Japan and Utah with his wife before returning to California.

“I learned the importance of listening to people,” Torrens said about his mission. “As a 19- to-20-year-old young man, you’re pretty much in a selfish state of your life, thinking ‘it’s all about me.’ A mission is very structured, so you have to learn obedience and responsibility — very good principles for me to learn at that point.”

These days, a big part of his understanding of Mormonism centers around education, both spiritual and historical education. Additionally, a major aspect of Mormon culture is personal ancestry and heritage, including passing down stories and keeping genealogy libraries in all of the temples, Torrens said.

“I don’t know if that’s why I’m a history teacher, but history has always been a big part of my life,” he said. “[My religion] is pretty much intertwined with my life, my thinking and my belief system, with certain core values I incorporate.”

Torrens has observed changes in the religion within his own lifespan. There have been 15 prophets who headed the church, and he finds that with each, rules and customs change, albeit minimally.

In the past 20 years, there has been more emphasis on service, helping others and working closely with other religions such as the Catholic Church and the Baptist Church on welfare issues. According to Torrens, the number of times parishioners are expected to attend church has decreased from four times a week to just Sunday.

For Torrens, it’s sometimes a choice between what he has to do for Saratoga High and his church commitments, including working with a group of single young adults at San Jose State University. He said that his Sundays are actually busier than his school days, with church commitments spanning from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. 

“If you’re active in the Mormon Church, you’re going to have lots of activities and meetings, so you have to make choices,” Torrens said. “Sometimes we have a thing referred to as the ‘Family Filter”: Your family is most important, and if something conflicts with your family — whether for church, school or a hobby — you don’t do it.”

Another long-time staff member, recently-retired assistant principal Kerry Mohnike, juggled similar responsibilities. Although she is currently between callings, Mohnike has been a member of the San Lorenzo Valley ward of the Santa Cruz stake for almost 30 years.

Mohnike grew up in Los Angeles, Oregon and the Bay Area, where she attended San Jose State University — and graduated from the Mormon Church’s Institute of Religion — before studying at BYU. She has served many callings throughout her life, including Primary teacher to 8-year-olds, Young Women’s President, Sunday School teacher and her ward’s choir director.

“It was busy,” Mohnike said. “I had a hard time saying ‘no’ to jobs and responsibilities both when I was working and in church. When I went into administration [at SHS], I was not able to do as many things at church that I missed. ”

After retiring at the beginning of this year, Mohnike has found more time and balance in her life, she said. Her days are filled with helping her grandchildren get to work, a little traveling, some writing, gardening and reading.

In her 30 years of working at Saratoga High, Mohnike found that the school was always dedicated to respecting all different faiths and separating church and state. She said that the community leans conservative in general, which fits well with the philosophy of many members of her church.

“I think that some students, both members of the church and those who thought they knew the belief system, would sometimes struggle with some of the changing social landscapes, but in general, anyone in the community who is trying to be a good citizen has shown respect for the faith,” she said.

For Mohnike, being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been foundational to her identity as a human, a parent and a working member of society. She said some of the precepts her religion emphasizes, namely “Man is that he might have joy” and “love thy neighbor as thyself,” made her long career as an educator focused on “growing and celebrating the good in people.”

“I learned through my church membership that we all have goodness and things worth fighting for innate to who we are,” Mohnike said.

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