We’ve now reached October in our story. In Mormon world, it was about time for General Conference. I didn’t know much about it except for what I had been reading on Feminist Mormon Housewives. I was afraid to ask the missionaries about it because I didn’t want them to think I was even a little bit curious. I knew if I asked them about it, they’d invite me to go watch with them and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
Instead, my plan was to read all of the conference talks and to write them a letter/essay (I was still in grad school, okay?) about how wrong they were and use the words of the Prophet and Apostles as evidence of such wronginess (sociologists have been granted the right and authority to make up words as they deem necessary). My goal was to show the missionaries that I knew more than them about their religion and could use doctrine to disprove doctrine. I tried to out-mormon the Mormons. I thought I was a freaking ninja.
Here is an excerpt from the e-mail I sent MoBoy after the conference:
I am only going to comment on the talks that really stood out to me, for better or for worse. I’ll start by saying that Elder Holland, Elder Cook, and President Uchtdorf were three of my favorite speakers. I feel that they spoke thoughtfully of the experiences of members and non-members and validated all of those experiences as real and worthy. They demonstrated to me a kind of humility and humanity that I’m looking for – either in the secular or religious world. I’m still — man, I don’t have a word for it right now — I’m still struggling with this. If the conference was packed full of these men, I think it would have ended a really beautiful exploration of your church. Unfortunately, Elder Packer’s talk made me want to turn around and run wildly from even considering what religion might mean in my life.
Okay, so reflections:
Elder Holland: I was really touched by the story he told about his mission savings. Those quiet acts of service and support from his family, and church members generally, are beautiful examples of community and goodness. I also really appreciated how his comment about “the legions of good people not of our faith” tied together the Mormons and non Mormons as good people who do wonderful things and that no one of us is insignificant. I think a lot can be learned from his talk and I was very glad for it.
Elder Cook: I feel that this was one of the most powerful messages I read from any of the speakers. He recognized the many other people of faith and not of faith (but of morals), who stand for the same things. He even emphasized that “all voices need to be heard in the public square,” and that his religious viewpoint should not be given preference. Wow! That’s a bold statement to make, especially in a politically charged time for this country. It was honest and humbling – it isn’t very often I hear of conservative Christians arguing for equal space for political discourse in the public square (this is also true for the most radical of us liberals). It’s also a powerful reminder that, while I’d like to believe that my politics are always right, they aren’t and that my voice isn’t the only one to be heard. Does this at all change my world view? Well, not really. But this does open the door to friendlier conversations with people who think differently than me. If ever a talk to promote bridge building and community between the religious and the secular without condemning or privileging one side, this would be it. High five, Elder Cook!
President Uchtdorf: If I ever needed a lesson on returning to the basics and the benefits of living a simple life, now is the time. His talk was relevant, useful, and relieving. It was a breath of fresh air during a time where things feel overwhelming and out of my control. Grad school, while I love being a student and teaching, has the ability to suck the life out of you. My frustrations and struggle with religion and politics and identity is, well, frustrating and demanding of a lot of mental and emotional enegery. His talk basically granted me permission to slow down and take stock of things that matter in my life. I’ve been evaluating my life as of late and considering options for my future, and his message felt like a gentle hand to help guide me to a good decision.
Elder Packer: Basically, I feel like his talk not only stood in complete contrast to the love and compassion and humility that were expressed (and so very much appreciated) by the three I mentioned, but was so inappropriately untimely considering September’s devastating loss of 10 young men who were tortured and bullied to suicide by people who could not extend even a simple act of kindness. Instead of condemning and blaming the gay youth who are simply living a life of loving someone differently than with what we are familiar, let us instead focus on teaching each other how to be good people and to serve, not torture, each other. I felt like his talk was nothing more than implicating these victims as the wrong doers and validating the evil work of bullies who know nothing more than hate towards difference. It’s a talk like this that makes me run screaming in the other direction and telling everyone I meet on the way to never look back. I’m so not good PR for religion.
I was pissed. I felt like I had been lied to by my friends and fooled into thinking they actually cared about what I believed in. For me, this was the piece de resistance in my quest to defend myself against religion. I thought that this was all the evidence I needed to show them how stupid and hateful and vile religion was. I even thought to myself that if they believed in the things Elder Packer said, I wouldn’t be able to be friends with them. I was ready to let the words of this man, who, a few days prior, I didn’t even know existed, end some very important friendships.
For reasons I don’t know I could explain, I still went to church at Plymouth (the UCC) that week. As I sat in the parking lot crying, I thought to myself, “You got your answer. If these men are men of God, then God hates you and your family. You don’t need any of this. You know you’re better off without it.” I don’t know what it was that got me out of my car, across the street, into the doors of Plymouth, and in my tuckaway seat in the sanctuary. And yet, there I was. Hurting and pissed off at everyone.
I had been going to Plymouth for about a month at this point, and every week, the sermons were exactly the words I needed to hear when I needed to hear it. This week was no different. Although I had walked in expecting yet another reason to never go back to church, I heard these words instead:
It is the story of a magnificent defeat. It is a story that reminds us what real struggle in life is all about, the essence of what it is. It is that you are starved and yet you are transformed. You are chastened but you are also deepened. You are defeated but you are also blessed. You are spent, but you’re also graced.
It’s not what we want, is it? The disciples said to Jesus, “Can we sit at your right hand?” The disciples want success; they want victory. Jesus says to the disciples, “It is not mine to promise you, but can you drink the cup that I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” It reminds us that our struggles are the struggles in the lives of all of us, and that we’re part of one common struggle for liberation of humanity, for justice, for peace, for overcoming evil with good.
This morning it’s the struggle for young people in this country who are struggling to understand their sex orientation. They are being bullied and some of them are taking their lives. That is a worthy struggle for us to be in with them and support them, because unless all of us are free, none of us are free. That’s the struggle I’m talking about. It’s a worthy struggle but it’s a hard struggle.
I added the bold italics, because before this, I was choking back tears. On these words, I started sobbing uncontrollably in church. I felt so defeated. I felt like I came to the battlefield with valiant intentions of being an example of “good person doesn’t need religion.” I felt like I tried to stand up to God, who I thought was a big bully, and was knocked down and out. In Peter’s sermon I heard the things I needed to hear to get me through even just an hour: “I know you’re hurting. I don’t have any advice or direction or wise words. But I know you’re hurting and I know it sucks.” Sometimes, those are exactly the words we need to hear.
After the sermon, I went up to Peter Lucky (the minister) and hugged him and thanked him. His words were the antidote to my broken heart suffering from religious politics.
Knowing who I am now and who I was only a few months ago, it would have been very safe to assume that this is where the story ends. It’s a neatly wrapped ending, topped with a tolerance ribbon. It was safe and it made sense to me, even if I was still figuring stuff out. I even told the Elders, “Hey, so thanks for everything. You helped me find a church. It’s not your church, but it’s church and that’s cool. Okay? Thanks a bill, guys.”
It would have been so much easier if this is where the story ended.
I had to carry on being angsty and stuff.
With so much love,