Though Mika Graviet (N ’21) grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints, the first time she’d ever read the Book of Mormon and prayed with a “sincere heart” was during her freshman year at Penn.
She remembers reading a particular verse—Ether 12:4. “Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God,” Mika recites.
As a freshman, she read this verse in her dorm room and started “crying, crying, crying.”
Mika—a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church—grew up in Emmett, Idaho, a town with a population of around seven thousand, 18.5 percent of whom are also members of the Church. Many Latter–day Saints also come to Philadelphia from Utah and Idaho, states in which Church members respectively make up 67 and 26 percent of the population.
In this way, Mika admits, coming to Penn was particularly difficult. “Hearing about the Jewish religion and how they didn’t actually believe Jesus Christ was the savior of the world” challenged her faith. She’d never met people from so many different backgrounds.
“Was I just brainwashed by my parents? Did I just grow up in this podunk town?” Mika laughs. “I’d never known anything else.”
Freshman year, she personally rededicated herself to the faith. This moment—reading Ether 12:4 in her dorm room—marked a “turnaround point,” one where she felt “so much faith and peace and hope,” specifically the “hope for a better world and a better situation.”
For Mika, coming to Penn has not only led to her affirming her personal faith, but also allowed her to experience the diversity inherent to the University, Philadelphia, and the UPenn Latter–day Saints Student Association (LDSSA)—an undergraduate group made up of around 10 to 12 students on campus.
This diversity deviates tremendously from that of her hometown, which has a prevalent culture in which people marry “really young, all the stereotypes. You have a lot of kids—they're all white, too. We're all kind of educated, but not really liberal—everyone's super conservative,” she states. “People's—even mine when I was growing up—their perspectives are very limited.”
When she moved to Philadelphia, Mika’s world opened up. “I met LDS people on the East Coast who were very liberal and who believed in a lot of different things, but we all shared a common faith in God,” she emphasizes.
The faith of Latter–day Saints on campus is personal, but it’s showcased in the ways they live their lives—from traveling abroad for missionary work to embracing spirituality on a campus with a proportionately small Church population. Ultimately, their relationship with the Church boils down to one thing: they trust God to uphold and uplift them, even when the answers are unclear.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who “was given a divine mission as a prophet of God” to restore the “gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church to the earth,” according to the Church’s website.
Members of the Church, who make up a total of around two percent of the U.S. population, follow scriptures of the Bible along with the Book of Mormon, which is described as “another testament of Jesus Christ” in the Americas. The Book details God’s dealings with the ancient people of the Americas.
Currently, the Church is still upheld and led by a living prophet, Russell M. Nelson, who’s perceived as the “prophet, seer, and revelator—the only person on the earth who receives revelation to guide the entire Church,” according to the Church’s website. The website warns against ignoring the words of the prophet.
Latter–day Saints on campus, however, haven’t always had an uncomplicated relationship with faith. Logan Flake (W ’21), who was also born in Idaho and raised in the Church, recounts how issues with his family resulted in doubts early on in life. “I just had a lot of questions and I kind of rebelled against the teachings and church, everything,” he says.
His girlfriend, Caitlyn Pearson, experienced a similar “faith crisis.” Caitlyn—a 26–year–old therapist who completed her undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University and master’s degree in family and marriage therapy at Drexel University—grew up in the Church in Los Angeles, where there aren’t many Latter–day Saints. Ironically, she took a break from the Church for a few years after starting college at BYU, a university that’s owned by the Church itself.
Since most students at BYU were also members of the Church, Caitlyn wanted some distance from it. “I think just feeling like I was in such a homogenous community made me kind of freak out a little bit.”
During this period, she “attempted to believe that God wasn't real just to see if I could do that,” she says. “I just couldn’t fully buy into it, as hard as I tried—and I did try pretty hard.”
But when both Logan and Caitlyn reread the Book of Mormon, the peace they experienced inspired them to return to the faith.
Logan recalls feeling “sensations that logically didn't make sense.” To him, God was the only explanation for those emotions—otherwise, there’d be “no reason why, if I was reading the words of some dead guy from a thousand years ago, that I would feel a certain peace.”
For Logan and many others, this newfound passion prompted him to serve on a mission in Arizona, something he didn’t originally want to do. “I could not not go and help serve people and give them an opportunity to learn about this, cause it's changed my life in such a drastic way.”
He was called to serve in May of his senior year of high school, after which he deferred admission to Penn for two years. “I left three days after I graduated high school,” he says casually.
It’s very common within the Church go on a mission in order to proselytize and do service work—over 65,000 missionaries are currently serving across the world. Men generally receive their mission calls around the age of 18 and serve for two years, while women receive their calls around the age of 19 and serve for 18 months, according to the Church. The Church particularly encourages men to serve.
Mika, who served as a missionary in Japan after her sophomore fall, says “it was the most joyful experience of my life,” though she acknowledges its tradeoffs. The work was unpaid, she couldn’t access phones, books, or any form of media besides the scriptures, and she didn’t see her family and friends for almost two years. Still, Mika doesn’t express any regret serving.
In Japan, Mika spread the gospel by building off of similarities between her culture and Japanese culture, specifically beliefs in receiving protection and guidance from their ancestors. “I mean, they have a different name for [God], but a lot of those elementary principals are the same, right?”
While Mika didn’t experience outward backlash in Japan, others had different experiences. Caitlyn, who served a mission in Montreal, notes that since missionaries wear badges with the Church’s name on it, citizens often weren’t receptive. “Someone once spit on the ground next to me,” she recalls.
Kimerly Biesinger (E ’24), who’s from Salt Lake City, feels that people don’t seem to understand the urgency of her mission calling at Penn and in Philadelphia, where there aren’t many Latter–day Saints. When Kimerly told her advisor she was taking a leave of absence to do missionary work, her advisor responded by saying, “can’t you just wait until you graduate?”
Though Kimerly says the Penn community has mostly been receptive to her faith, she feels that some students don’t understand her deep desire to become a parent.
“I feel like my call—more important than maybe even work—is to be a stay–at–home parent, just because of the vitality of raising good children and contributing people into the world,” she says. She adds that Penn’s competitive and career–focused culture likely incites criticism against this viewpoint.
Given the prioritization of family within the faith, there’s a strong dating culture within the Church, Logan and Caitlyn say.
“Less here, but there’s a big culture out West. People go on dates, like a lot,” Logan says. “And it's more about getting to know somebody instead of just having someone to hook up, because that's not really something that's available,” due to the Church’s law of chastity, which prohibits sexual relations before marriage.
In fact, Logan and Caitlyn met at their church’s own young adult congregation soon after they both moved to Philadelphia.
“There was a dance activity,” Caitlyn says. Logan interrupts her, “and she thought I was strong.”
“Oh my gosh,” Caitlyn rolls her eyes. “I did. It was a swing dance activity and so people were doing flips and lifts and stuff, and I was like, ‘whoa, this is intense.’”
Despite their lightheartedness, Logan says the eternal importance of families truthfully puts a lot of pressure on dating, “because it has such long–lasting consequences.”
Considering the relative sparsity of Latter–day Saints on campus, some members feel like they have to be a representative for their entire faith. Kimerly says, “I’ve experienced an incredible pressure to be a perfect example and reflection of my belief as I live and share things … I might be the only Latter–day Saint any of these people ever meet.”
In the same vein, Logan says he’s noticed how some people feel self–conscious around him, so he doesn’t tend to showcase his faith. “I'm a big advocate for just living what you believe quietly.”
Though members of the Church follow a law of health, which requires they abstain from substances like coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, Logan is careful about not broadcasting it to everyone else.
“Sometimes I worry when I'm at parties … that people think my like lack of drinking or my behaviors means that I'm judging them,” Logan says.
Over the years, the Church has been subject to many controversies. Their “worthiness” interviews, in which Church leaders interview children as young as eight years old to discuss their commitment to the faith, have been criticized for involving sexually explicit questioning. Racism within the Church—which only began admitting black men to the priesthood in 1978—has also been highlighted, as has the role of women, who cannot be ordained as priests. Logan and Caitlyn emphasize how the low concentration of Latter–day Saints in Philadelphia has led to misconceptions regarding their beliefs—specifically their ties to polygamy.
In 1840, Joseph Smith instituted polygamy within the Church—Smith himself had up to 40 wives. The practice ended in 1890, in adherence with U.S. law. Currently, polygamy is forbidden in the Church, though the Church affirms that “the faithfulness of those who practiced plural marriage continues to benefit the Church in innumerable ways.” Moreover, some fundamentalist groups still exercise polygamous relationships, though these groups are unaffiliated with the Church.
Nonetheless, Logan says people mix up the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints with these fundamentalist groups all the time. Caitlyn echoes this experience, recounting that people will still ask if she believes in polygamy.
Kimerly believes that certain instances of polygamy in the past were authorized by God, but she’s not sure why. “I have enough faith in Him to really believe that's the truth.”
As with other religions, LGBTQ+ rights within the Church has been contentious. In 2015, it adopted a policy that denied children of same–sex couples admission into the Church until they turned 18. The policy also dictated that these children needed to leave their parents’ home and disavow all same–sex relationships.
Mika says, “one of my very best friends here, who came with me, actually from Idaho, turned out to be gay and he shared that with me while he was here.” They were both Latter–day Saints.
“I became very empathetic towards people who identify as gay or lesbian or queer,” she says. “I discovered that you can be liberal and LDS, you can be gay and LDS.” This marked a pivotal point for her—especially since she grew up thinking that “being gay was bad.”
Last April, the Church rolled back the policy, allowing children of same–sex couples to be baptized. Kimerly admits it’s hard to fully understand “the struggle about gay marriage.” But, as she’s grappled with it, she says, “I've been able to find peace in knowing that the direction [LGBTQ+ people] are walking is still okay and that further light is going to come, even if it's not now.”
Responding to the ways in which the Church has dealt more negatively with the LGBTQ+ population, Mika says, “I see the church as full of imperfect people who are trying their best to follow the gospel in the ways that they can.”
Mika remains hopeful that the Church will change and progress. “I've seen that even the way the organization approaches sexuality has broadened,” she pauses. “And I'm so grateful that my best friend was able to help open my heart. And I hope people can keep opening my heart.”
In times of unrest and ambiguity, Mika looks to the power of personal revelation, which she says is something that’s encouraged by Nelson, their current prophet. “We have questions and we have doubts, too. Absolutely. But doesn't everyone in every faith?”
She is hopeful that people at Penn and beyond will remain open minded about her faith—and about different religions too.
“I just wish everyone could feel the same sense of love and belonging towards God that I feel in whatever way that they need to, because everyone's different and the way that they find spirituality is different,” Mika says. “But I would hope that everyone, in some way, can feel a spiritual peace.”
A previous version of this article misidentified the Book of Ether as the Book of Esther. It was updated Oct. 23, 2019, at 5:16 p.m.