In my latest post I shared my words from my ward’s latest fast and testimony meeting. It was intensely personal to me; I sniffled through some of it, something I almost never do despite my good Mormon upbringing. Even so, I posted my testimony because I wanted to give encouragement to those members who, for various reasons, love the Church in spite of the sometimes painfully large, angry-red, pus-filled warts that they see. I wanted to provide support to Mormons who desire to be themselves at church, in a church where being yourself can make you undesirable if your beliefs are not mainstream.
In the past I have avoided sharing some of my concerns about the Church with my TBM friends. If the Church is working well for them I do not want to give them difficulty. If they are deriving strength and hope from our community and its teachings, if they are comforted by the certainty of belonging to the One True Church and are learning to know God and love their neighbors by participating in it, I do not want to rain on their parade.
On the other hand, I rebel against the idea of being chased away from the Church because I can no longer tolerate the cognitive dissonance of pretending to be someone else while I am there. In addition, I know I am not the only one who feels alienated at times. I know gay people, feminists, divorced people, and others, who experience church as something to endure rather than treasure because policies, practices, and teachings leave them out in the cold—a curious, pitiable, or problematic afterthought.
So call me a Woolleyite. This is as much my church as it is anyone else’s. As I told the bishopric counselor who greeted me after sacrament meeting, “This is who I am, so I guess y’all are going to have to deal with it.”
I’m a Mormon feminist who loves and admires Kate Kelly and the Ordain Women movement, who loves my gay friends and marches with Mormons Building Bridges, who thinks Joseph and Brigham were hot messes who had wondrous visions anyway, who thrills to King Benjamin’s soul-building insights and weeps at the Book of Mormon’s racism and sexism. Mormonism is my heritage and my home, where I dream of Zion establishing itself within my heart and within my community. To paraphrase Brother Brigham: This is my place.
Now, on to the response from testimony meeting:
Three people during the meeting seemed to disagree with me in their testimonies. All were people I know well, and all of them were respectful, or even kind. One mentioned, among other things, that we should not presume to tell God what revelations he should give us, and that we need to obey our leaders. The other two mentioned that they would not like to have the priesthood for themselves. I am glad that these members felt like they could take a position that was different from mine.
In contrast, no one seemed to directly agree with me or support what I had said, though I think one person alluded to the importance of inclusion in our ward. This did not surprise me, because I really don’t think our wards are yet places where most people feel safe expressing support for off-the-script ideas, such as new revelation on female ordination.
Afterwards, however, Zion kicked in. One of the bishopric counselors closed by stating that he felt the Spirit with the testimonies. He shook my hand warmly and asked me if I was doing OK. He told me that he is OK with me the way I am. He and I are so very different; sometimes I feel like knocking him upside the head (and I’m sure the feeling is mutual). But he has a heart of gold and I have been moved by his willingness over the years to hear new things and remain open to the different experiences of others.
One woman came up to the organ where I was playing postlude and gave me a hug, thanking me for my testimony. Another woman who was visiting shook my hand and thanked me for my testimony. Then a friend walked me to Primary, commiserating about what I’m sure he knew was a stressful experience for me. During Primary a stake leader came up and told me that she thought it was OK that I believed the way I do, and that she was happy that I was willing to share my testimony. Other friends in the hallway gave me hugs and said that they appreciated my testimony. One friend—seemingly perplexed—said he wanted to discuss Ordain Women with me some time so that he could understand better.
And then it gets better (I’m telling you, we live in Zion!). The missionaries brought us cookies and so did the Elders quorum president (my kids tell me we should have public faith transitions more often). He stayed and chatted and, as he is wont to do, made us feel welcome in the ward.
I suspect that most people in the congregation don’t share my beliefs on female ordination, but I was impressed with how many were willing to look past their own beliefs and see me, their friend and fellow member, and just say, “We’re glad you’re here with us.” If there has been a negative response, I have yet to discern it.
But it gets even better! Several days earlier I had written a letter about my feelings on Kate Kelly’s excommunication to two apostles I used to work with and Cc’d the stake presidency and my bishopric. The stake president responded by asking if I’d like to chat about the issues with him. We met for 90 minutes and he was incredibly warm and gracious. I probably talked for 80 of those minutes and he just listened, sometimes restating to make sure he understood. At the end he asked me twice if I had any more thoughts to share. No judgment, no mansplaining, no justifying doctrines. Just listening and trying to understand. He made me feel valued as a member of the stake, in spite of my heterodox beliefs.
Then there’s my stake counselor. He responded with multiple e-mails, trying to better understand where I was coming from, thinking through possible ways to make things better, reiterating that I was loved. Again, I’m sure he doesn’t agree with me on many issues, but he did not let that get in the way of trying to listen.
Finally, the other counselor in the bishopric sent a very kind e-mail in response, expressing appreciation for my efforts and explaining that my insights were valuable for him to understand.
I’m telling you, if this isn’t Zion, then I can at least see it from here.
Now, I understand that I am in a privileged position. As a man, I think the male leaders tend to listen me more than the women. I don’t think their bias is intentional or even conscious; it is simply the air we breathe in a sexist society and a benevolently sexist church. As a man it is easier for me to know them personally, to talk about soccer and bar-b-cued ribs and to go out to lunch together. I also feel that it is less threatening for members to hear about female ordination from a man. No worries about it being a self-serving desire; it’s more like the disproportionately positive response that a dad gets when out alone with his toddler—aww, how sweet that a man can manage to keep his child breathing all by himself—what a great guy! In the same way, a man desiring ordination for women is seen as benevolent and generous. Not so for most women.
I also benefit from having lived in the ward for so long. Most people know me well—together we’ve trolled the neighborhood collecting canned goods, loaded up members’ U-hauls, taught one another’s children about Noah’s ark and the First Vision, and sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” in choir. Those who are newer to a ward are not so privileged. It is easier to give the benefit of the doubt to someone you know than to a relative stranger.
And yet, I think my experience shows the capacity of local leaders and members to show charity, to accept a heterodox member as one of their own, to ensure that we are no more strangers, but fellowcitizens with the saints.
So I say: God bless you my dear local leaders and members. In spite of the problems, you make me feel that we are approaching Zion.
“And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart, and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness…”
- 14 July 2014