My bishop in our new Rhode Island ward (congregation in Mormon-speak) accosted me in the foyer and asked if I had a minute to talk to him. I nervously answered ‘yes’ and we walked back to his office. He sat on the edge of his desk and spoke kindly to me. “We have a calling for you…” I cut him off “before you do…there’s something you should know.”
I waited for my anxiety level to rise, but it did not. I simply squared my shoulders and said, “I no longer believe.” He leaned back, and crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes seemed to tear up a little as he gently asked me why. I told him a little of my story. He asked questions and just listened. He didn’t judge. He just wanted to understand. I told him that I wanted to attend because my husband still believes, but that I would not pretend to be something I am not.
I braced myself for what he’d say next. I had heard horror stories of bishop’s condemnation from people who will never set foot back into the church. Tears flowed as he said, “While I hope you will come back to a testimony of this church and of the Book of Mormon, I want you to know that we just want you here, no matter what. The church needs more people like you, people who think for themselves.” Crying now too, I shook his hand and walked out.
What he did was invite me to stay in the church as I am. What he did was show compassion over condemnation. He could have given the apologetic responses I’ve heard for my issues, and we could have had a lively talk about church doctrine. We could have fought over feelings and history. He could have told me the things I had heard from others: “You’re under the influence of the devil.” “I feel so bad for you. Your family is going to pay for your choices. How could you do that to your family?” “You’d seriously give up the blessings of eternity over gay marriage?” and the like. But that good bishop realized that those tactics do not work. Inflicting pain does not make a person want to stay in the place where the pain is felt.
This weekend was General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I still listen to all of the meetings. My husband believes, and I want him to feel that his beliefs are as welcome in our home as he has made my beliefs. Some of the talks given were beautiful and necessary. Some made me angry and sad to the point of tears. I wonder if the brethren know how much what they say does to the members who are on the edge or even members like me who are on the outside. Some talks were given with the same compassion as my bishop displayed that day. Some, while true to the doctrine the church believes, will push people away. It makes me sad.
Today, I’m most sad for the women who were turned away at the doors to the Priesthood Session of the conference. They are a group of faithful Mormon feminists who seek to have equal standing in the church as the men. Contrary to what was said in a certain talk, they do not seek to be just like men. They don’t seek sameness. They seek the ability to serve in positions equal to men. To have an equal voice. They want to do more in the church that they love. These women are better than me. I entertained the notion of agitating faithfully from within the church to change the things that I feel strongly about, but in the end, I could not do it. It was entirely too painful for me. These woman face that pain time and time again with great courage. They’re trying to stay in a gospel that they love and how they are treated in return will have an effect on their relationship with the gospel in the future. I watched in real time as these women who had waiting in line for hours were pushed to the side so that the men in the line behind them could pass them and enter the meeting. Any man, whether a Priesthood holder or not, gained entrance to the meeting. And, unlike meetings specifically for women where men are allowed to attend, no woman was allowed in. I watched as they each took their turn, one by one, and asked for entrance to the meeting. Each time being given a simple ‘no.’
What harm would it have done? Would letting these women in mean concession? No, it would have meant compassion. It would have been akin to my Rhode Island Bishop offering me a seat in the church just as I am and being grateful only that I was there. As these women walked away from a church building they were just one-by-one denied entry to, a talk was being given inside…
“So my brothers, it is your duty to reach out anyone who appears at the doors of your church buildings. Welcome them with gratitude and without prejudice.”