Venetia Greenhalgh has become weary of reading third-party accounts of what Mormons believe, since she finds it so rarely aligns with what is followed by the local Mormon population here in the Berkshires.
"I don't know why people don't want to ask an actual Mormon," she said. "Why read books by non-Mormons to find what Mormons believe? If you wanted to know what Jews belive you'd ask a Jew, or Christians, you'd ask a Christian. People have the idea that there aren't any Mormons around here, but we're here, we're just quiet. Which is funny; we're the ones that have full-time missionaries. In other places of the country, people think we're too vocal."
Here in the Berkshires, Greenhalgh estimates that roughly 70 fellow Mormons attend church with her every Sunday. Previously, the church had split to include those members in Williamstown who couldn't get to Pittsfield, holding some services in a space in the Holiday Inn.
But after those few families with no transport left the area, the group reconsolidated six months ago at a building in Pittsfield, now serving people from Williamstown down to Great Barrington.
"Our normal Sunday service is a sacrament meeting," explained church counselor Robb White. "The main focus of that meeting is to partake of the sacrament. We have bread and water --we don't partake of alcohol -- to remember Jesus died for our sins. In addition we have an opening hymn/prayer, closing hymn/prayer, and after sacrament, two or three different
White estimates that there are 3500 Mormons in Western Massachusetts, and is quick to praise their community service. "When we had the tornados that came through," he recalled, "because of the way we're organized, we were able to organize instantly. We went through communities in the Springfield area with chainsaws, rakes, all sorts of tools, and for almost a year we helped peopel clean up their yards and communities free of charge, may have logged over 3000 service hours."
White notes that other organizations were also out helping out, from Baptists handing out lunches to the Knights of Columbus offering a grilling wagon, but says that the Mormon church's Relief Society is the largest women's service organization in the world. In addition, the church has an organization called Helping Hands which organizes various relief kits, give away food, etc.
The commandment to tithe, White explains, means that members of the church give 10 percent of what they make to the church, which covers all overhead for their humanitarian groups, and allows 100% of any subsequent donations to be directed to those in need. With Mitt Romney now on the national stage, Mormon ism has recently been getting more attention than usual. Greenhalgh doesn't mind the attention.
"It's amazing how many articles there are about 'I knew a guy who read a book about Mormonism, and here's crazy stuff they believe.'", she said. "I think that there have been misconceptions, but by and large it's been positive."
"We send missionaries throughout the world, but we haven't done so well with public affairs," White admitted. "I think maybe one of the bigger misunderstandings people might have is whether we're a Christian religion or not. That's something I can answer unequivocably, which we are. We believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world. We believe the bible, have the old testament and new testament in addition to the book of mormon which we believe is another book of Jesus Christ."
When it comes to Romney, White referred to a strict policy of political neutrality, where church leaders don't tell people how to vote, and simply have them vote their conscience.
"But we're happy there's interest in our religion, and happy to answer questions people might have," he added. Greenhalgh likewise doesn't see Romney's candidacy as an issue for the Mormon church. "I would hope that people would be over that," she explained. "I don't know why it would make any difference. I can't speak for the public at large, but he is what he is; I don't think that has much to do with his politics."
Meanwhile, Greenhalgh doesn't mind the attention if it gives her a chance to correct what she sees as common misconceptions. "I can't imagine how anyone could reach the conclusion that we're not Christian," she said. "I'm not sure what parameters there are aside from believing in Christ and living your life like him."