Zelophehad’s Daughters

Communities

Posted by Lynnette

I don’t remember where I was when I first heard about the September Six. However, I do know that I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I read about it obsessively, trying to make sense of what was happening with my church. But there was only so much to read. There was no internet, no friends posting on Facebook, no storm of blog posts. I was just starting my freshman year at BYU, and leaving the church didn’t feel like a viable option. I don’t think I even really wanted to leave. But I felt like I had nowhere to go to process the anger and disillusionment I was feeling.

When I read the first NYT article about Mormons facing church discipline, by contrast, I immediately starting texting and emailing friends, who shared the shock and outrage that I was feeling.  I’m finding it impossible to keep up with even a fraction of the online discussion. At church on Sunday, I skipped Sunday School with a couple of friends to discuss the situation.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about communities.

I love my local church community, where there are stake and ward leaders who take seriously concerns about things like the place of women. I love that when I moved into the ward and was open about being less orthodox, far from being shut down, I was called to teach Relief Society. I love that as an openly gay person, I feel accepted. I love that so many people in my ward read this blog and are not horrified by me.  I love that while you will still hear the conventional answers to the conventional questions, there are other voices as well—and that when I am frustrated by things, I will not be alone. I may struggle with church attendance, but church is not a source of dread and anxiety, as it at has at times been in my life.

This is not to say that we do not have our problems and challenges. But I feel like my ward serves as a buffer. I hear the anti-gay rhetoric coming from Salt Lake, for example, but I know that many of the people in my ward see things differently. I don’t worry about my church membership being called into question.

But I can’t escape from the realities of a general church which is less sympathetic. And I think I’ve felt more and more distant from the church community as a whole over the years. When I find out that people are Mormon, far from feeling a common bond, I am often wary of them—worried that they will assume all kinds of things about me, that they will take for granted that the particulars of my beliefs match theirs. I listen to General Conference with trepidation rather than excitement. I avoid church magazines, because I usually encounter something that makes me want to tear them up. I think the distinction between culture and doctrine is often greatly overstated (“culture” is what you don’t like; “doctrine” is what you do). But regardless, when it comes to the broader church, I frequently find myself alienated from both.

As a friend in my stake recently put it, we are caught between a local community which wants us, and a church that doesn’t. Another friend frequently asks, is that enough? I do not have a good answer to that question. Because no matter how much I like my ward, we are still part of a church which subordinates women, a church which is utterly unfriendly to gay people, a church which valorizes obedience. A church which is currently threatening people who have publicly raised questions with excommunication.

And I don’t want to just hide out in my bubble and say, well at least it’s okay here. Because that’s not enough. Because so many of my fellow church members are not in spaces that feel welcoming or safe. Because the bubble is far from airtight: we might have our quirks, but we are still bound (and sometimes stifled) by the policies of the church. And what does it mean, I have to ask, to continue being a member of a church in which a ward like mine is not typical, but is an outlier?

Several people have recently asked me why I stay. It is certainly a question that I have asked myself in the past week. I have a profound belief in God, but I also have pluralist tendencies—I do not think God is to be found exclusively in the LDS church. I have a deep belief in and commitment to the basic doctrines of Christianity—but again, I could find those elsewhere. And there is so much in the church that is so hard.

Right now, though, I can see a couple of reasons why I’m not going anywhere. When it all comes down, I’m a believer—I find God in a particular way here that I do not elsewhere. And juxtaposed with the doctrines that make me crazy are doctrines that I love. I also feel stubborn: when I am told that I am not wanted in this church, a part of me bristles and responds: oh, yeah? I’m not leaving. But I think I say that all from a perspective of privilege. Because I might be in a very different place in the absence of a positive local community.

12 Responses to “Communities”

  1. 1.

    Lynette,

    I have been thinking about this, too, but unable to put words to it. Sometimes I feel like I should use my privilege to its fullest extent to make up for others’ lack. For example, one of the driving reasons behind me going to the October and April conferences was that I knew that going wouldn’t cost me my calling or temple recommend or harm my marital relationship. I was also in a place financially that being gone for a few days wouldn’t hurt my career or hurt our budget. Meanwhile, I knew there were other people who I knew really wanted to go, but had to hold back because of their family, ward, or job. The only thing in my way was working out logistics of travel and housing. I felt like not going was a waste of the resources at my disposal that others don’t have. I had to do it for them, at the very least. Someone had to represent and I could be that someone.

    But then you’re right about being comfortable in this place- it can mean that I don’t have to think hard about the sacrifices people make. I can look at these disciplinary councils and think, “Well, that’s never going to happen here,” and ignore my contribution to others’ perception of the Church. I’ve had lots of people, members and non-, tell me they are impressed that I keep going, that I work from within. When people ask me, “How do you stay?” half the answer is, “Location privilege.” Where I am, I don’t have to face the hurt from being ostracized at church. I don’t fight with a spouse over philosophical differences. I don’t have to wonder if I’ll be permitted to go to a family member’s sealing. So it’s easy to stay. And I know it’s not like that for everyone.

  2. 2.

    ^^ Clarification for people not knowing my history of trips to conference- In October and April I was going to the OW actions during PH conference. I wasn’t clear about that and wonder if readers are thinking, “Lose a recommend over going to Conference?”

  3. 3.

    “that they will take for granted that the particulars of my beliefs match theirs” This bothers me every Sunday when people make comments over the pulpit and in class about what “we believe” when I personally believe the exact opposite. The casual assumption of uniformity makes me feel like the unwanted other, even though I am standardly orthopraxic.

  4. 4.

    Lynnette, I really like your local church community too, and I’m super glad you have a good one, not least so that I can steal them eventually.

    I think staying active (or a member at all) means you have to negotiate what you think about the doctrine, what you think about the institutional church, and what your ward is like. I, at least, can deal with a lot of slings and arrows from the first two as long as going to church is still a positive, uplifting, friendly experience. Unfortunately I think it’s really hard for things to work in the other direction–no matter how passionately you believe in the gospel, or how intently you’re committed to the church as a whole, if your ward is unwelcoming it’s going to be really, really hard to stay in the Church forever.

  5. 5.

    This is a really interesting contrast to bring up, Lynnette. Echoing you and everyone else who commented above, I know I’ve heard John Dehlin say several times that in his experience with people who are undergoing a faith crisis/transition/whatchamacallim’, whether people feel comfortable in their ward is a strong predictor of whether they end up staying or going. Sure, we can argue over doctrine that we do or don’t find appealing, but what happens on the ground makes a huge difference.

  6. 6.

    Yes. Last week I realized that my last tenuous emotional tether to the institutional church has been finally cut. I am unable to answer the recommend questions in the correct way anymore, and therefore can’t in good faith use or keep my recommend.

    Sunday I went to church, sat by my mother-in-law while taking the sacrament, listened to loving, Jesus-focused talks about how important fathers are in families. I scurried off to Primary to play the piano, as I do each week.

    My (Provo) ward is very loving and accepting. I love going to church, taking the sacrament, and listening to my neighbors bear testimony of Jesus. I have the fantasy that I can have my spiritual life in my little mormon neighborhood and church – I can see the spire from my front porch – and just ignore anything beyond the ward boundaries.

    But my nephew has a temple wedding coming up, and there’s always tithing settlement at the end of the year. Sooner or later I’m going to have to tell the bishop. I feel like I’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness that I haven’t had to tell anybody about yet.

  7. 7.

    I’m sorry, CRW. That negotiation sounds so tough!

    By the way, I loved your comment on the latest BCC post. Sorry I didn’t get to tell you so before the thread was shut down. I loved that you put a human face on the issue that so many people were arguing about as though it were some fascinating abstract problem.

  8. 8.

    I’ve often felt the same wariness that Lynnette describes. I feel this when meeting other mormons in unexpected places: work and social situations not connected with church. I am also often uncomfortable with hard pushes for missionary work. I feel like I am an outlier. How can I advocate for people to join my church, when I have deep reservations about some of the practices? It’s such a sticky mess.

    And yet, I do like an idea that I came across some years ago, here. Just like all dating is interfaith dating, all relationships are interfaith relationships. None of us thinks or believes in exactly the same way, even with all this correlated material. I just hope that the local communities can stay open, and continue valuing us outliers.

  9. 9.

    geography (usually) has a lot to do with it – may the odds be ever in your favor

  10. 10.

    I empathize with all of your thoughts. I currently have a pretty great ward. Sometimes things get said in classes or over the pulpit that hurt me, but the people are nice and the bishop is incredibly accepting of people who are different. When I told him I was a feminist, he gave me a calling teaching Relief Society. The acceptance I feel there helps me negotiate some of the more painful rhetoric coming out of Salt Lake. I am afraid that if I ever moved, I would begin to lose my battle to stay in the church.

    Sometimes even local acceptance doesn’t outweigh what’s coming out of the institutional church, however. I had lunch a few weeks back with a friend who is gay and absolutely loves her ward–but in the wake of General Conference, I could see her grasp slipping. I want everyone to do what is best for them, but I will admit that every time one of my unorthodox or different friends leaves, I feel more alone.

    I want to stay so that others like me don’t feel alone. For now, my environment is peaceful enough that it’s okay.

  11. 11.

    This is just how I feel. When I read the first NY Times article, I wanted to quit my calling so I can stop being complicit in an organization with such a horribly patriarchal leadership system. But then I remembered how much I love and believe in my ward, and that doing my calling is really about playing my part in that community that I’m already totally invested in and happy with.

    This is the part I’m still not sure how to do: “And I don’t want to just hide out in my bubble and say, well at least it’s okay here. Because that’s not enough. Because so many of my fellow church members are not in spaces that feel welcoming or safe.”

  12. 12.

    […] Zelophehad’s Daughters as an example, they’ve posted everything from oniony satire to personal consideration of precedent to why-I-stay-esque essays (I’m oversimplifying, obviously). I’ve chosen ZD for my […]

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