One of the overarching themes that I see reiterated throughout the bloggernacle – or perhaps, one of the pervasive subtexts – is that LDS people are in need of pastoral care. They seek a space to voice their doubts, to bring their honest concerns and deepest hurts; to ultimately come and find the succor and peace of God. And, because we are a church run by laymen, we struggle to find that space. We are not always, despite our best intentions, able to serve one another. We cannot always see each other’s hearts. We cannot always offer love as we should, or compassion as we should. Most often, I believe, people seek mercy and understanding. They want to know – they need to know – that despite their stupidity, their arrogance, their mistakes, despite being petulant and petty, despite sometimes being mean and cruel, they are and can be good enough. They can change. They can grow. They can purge themselves of the ugly parts. It’s worth trying again. They are worth it.
I have thought often and long about my ability to provide pastoral care. As a missionary in a predominantly Catholic country, I was frequently shown immediate, automatic respect by those around me. Many would make the sign of the cross when my companion and I walked past them, and would say “¡Qué Dios te bendiga!” (“May God bless you.”) Women would talk to me of their relationship to the Virgin Mary, conversations that left me coming up empty in terms of comparisons and corollaries within the LDS church; their spiritual experiences relating to the Sacred Mother were not something that I could speak to. I emerged from those conversations feeling muted and also deeply touched; I could sense that through these discussions they were seeking the Divine Feminine in me. They saw me, as a woman and as a “monjita” (little nun), to be an embodiment of those who have been called like Mary to offer Divine succor as a woman. They embraced my power as a woman.
Women talked to me, a virginal young LDS woman, about births, about affairs, about abortions, about sex and lovers. About pain. Men told me about ventures to strip clubs, and about their shame in their own lust. And all I could say to them was that yes, Jesus loves you, Jesus wants you. It is never too late. Your sins are not too great. Jesus extends his hands to all. We would kneel in prayer. I was respected for my power as one called of God. It was overwhelming.
One night, after such a day, talking to people whose lives had carried them far beyond the realm of my limited experience, my companion spoke to me of her struggles with depression. With tears in her eyes, she said “How can I tell people that if they pray they will find peace, when I have spent hours on my knees and I feel nothing? Does God hate me?”
I wish I could describe how my heart broke when I heard her say that. I didn’t often feel spiritually guided on my mission – a fact that plagued me, and plagues me still – but in that moment I felt a strong sense that God loved her, that God was there, wishing to offer her comfort and peace. It filled me to the brim. And I felt that somehow, through whatever fog was clouding her mind, I was meant to help her feel that.
I believe that women have a role in offering pastoral care as well as men. It has been one of my consistent concerns about the way that the LDS hierarchy has come to structure itself. The token female speakers in the main sessions of General Conference most often speak of things that are considered uniquely the province of women. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; yet it is a quiet indication that, as a culture, we do not ascribe to our female leaders the ability to offer us pastoral care. We do not turn to them for the comfort, safety, and peace of God. Generally speaking, we do not look to women, either at the General Conference level or at the local level, for spiritual guidance and advice. We may look to them for help with childcare, for casseroles and help cleaning when there is death or serious illness – all of which are important – but we don’t go to women when we need to know that we are good enough, clean enough, OK enough before the Lord. We don’t go to women to clarify points of doctrine. It is rarely women to whom we weep and ask for help finding the solace of the Divine.
I learned through my mission that women are indeed called to do this work. We are not only capable of it, but it is part, in my mind, of what we are meant to do. Yet our current church structure, by intertwining leadership and hierarchy and male-only priesthood, has somehow left women out of the grand picture of pastoral care. It is my belief that it is inadvertent, a gradual happening that is an unintended byproduct of correlation. But it is also my belief that part of the hunger for pastoral care that we hear voiced over and over again throughout the anonymous safety of the internet is a hunger for a service that women can assist in providing.