As I prepared to head home from my LDS mission 14 years ago, the members of the Neath Branch sang a traditional Welsh song called “We’ll Keep a Welcome”. The words of the chorus went as follows:
We'll keep a welcome in the hillside
We'll keep a welcome in the Vales
This land you knew will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales
We'll keep a welcome in the Vales
This land you knew will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales
I remember the looks on their faces as they sang it to me. Emotions were high and I truly felt their love and assurance of acceptance and hospitality should I ever return to Wales. The sweetness and sentiment of that song has stayed with me through the years. The words speak of an unconditional “love that never fails”.
As a continuation to my last entry, I’d like to suggest that there are many members of the LDS Church who choose not to attend weekly meetings. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have testimonies. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t want anything to do with the Church anymore. I dare say that my brothers and sisters still cry out to the Lord and strive to do things that please Him. For a whole variety of reasons, some of us are just not in a place where we can attend with you. I can only speak for myself when I suggest that I haven’t made a final decision on this front. My heart is open, even broken and contrite.
I get that there are some who have left the Church and will never return. As I listen to their explanations as to why, my heart is moved with compassion and I totally understand. I am not at that place. I still want involvement and identity as a member of the church. There are many others like me who may not be prepared to worship with you each week, but whose memberships mean a great deal to them.
While we work out our salvation before God, may I humbly make the following 5 suggestions to active members of the Church:
1. Be a citizen of the world. Some of us In the Church have taken on a “be in the world, but not OF the world” approach. I get the sentiment, but I think we take this way too far sometimes. We exclude others and shut ourselves off with the intention of not getting caught up in the world. We pit our 1% against the 99% as if to say “we’re too good for you”. In doing so, we rob ourselves of some amazing, potentially life-changing opportunities and associations.
God has billions of sons and daughters with an incredibly diverse array of backgrounds, beliefs, cultures, ethnicities, traditions, priorities, challenges, interests and passions. I’ve chosen to surround myself with a variety of people, to see the beauty that exists in ideas and beliefs that differ from the ones I was raised with and still hold dear, and to remember that their existence and purpose in life matters just as much to God as mine does.
2. Don’t be so afraid of disagreement. I should mention, in all fairness, that most of the active LDS people I have in my life are full of love and compassion. They are prepared to be understanding, kind and non-judgmental. They are willing to have a conversation where differences of opinion are freely and lovingly expressed. They truly understand the 9th Article of Faith where we purport to believe that God will "yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom", that we don't have ALL of the answers. However, I should also express that after a recent Facebook post (the one about Caitlyn Jenner), I had approximately 28 people unfriend me, including a family member or two. I shared those thoughts last time as lovingly and thoughtfully as I knew how to and still, some decided that they just couldn't continue to be my friend. What I presented was just too challenging or offensive or different to even consider having contact with me. I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me, who am I to expect such? But is it too much to ask to continue familial and friendly relationships even after disagreements occur?
I’m happy to report that since those 28 people unfriended me, I’ve had 35 new people request friendship since the launch of my blog. This is encouraging. Some of them I’ve known but we lost touch, and others are new friends.
I think we can be scared to allow others to speak up and share their beliefs. We’re quite ready (well, some of the time) to knock on doors or to invite our non-member or less-active friends to church or an activity or to meet with the missionaries, but when others want to share their beliefs, it’s a scary thing for us.
As I look back at what I’ve shared on this blog and my previous blog, I’m not sure I consider anything to be scary. It’s just honest. Some have approached me and just expressed nothing but love. No other agenda or motive. Others have felt the need to teach me or call me to repentance. I’m certain their motives are nothing but good, but it really comes down to fear. Fear of something they’ve regarded as a dear friend who thinks about things a little differently. I imagine a world where all can take a turn and share. I imagine a gospel doctrine class where we can share openly, without fear of rejection.
I should challenge my LGBT friends in this area as well. We become so convinced that if a member of the church speaks up and says they support traditional marriage, that they must be a hateful bigot. I’m convinced that most active LDS who support traditional marriage are not hateful or vindictive people at all. They’re just trying to adhere to what they believe with their entire hearts and souls. Does it cause pain to us in the LGBT community? Sure, it does. But I’m learning to be less afraid when a TBM supports traditional marriage. Instead, I take a deep breath, consider their life and come to an understanding as to why they support traditional marriage. And then I move on.
3. Accept that not everyone is having the same experience in the Church that you're having. My experience has been that active members of the Church can sometimes look down upon the less-active with attitudes of "that's just an excuse to shirk their responsibilities", "haven't they read Bednar's talk on being offended?", "I don't base MY activity with the Church on whether people offend me or not", "they just lost faith and stopped praying", "the devil led them away carefully, over a period of time", etc. The truth is, people fall away from the Church for many different reasons and we need to be more prepared to mourn with those that mourn. I currently do not attend church regularly. I miss many things about it and I reserve the right to come back into full fellowship. But for reasons that are very painful and difficult to describe, I have decided not to attend at this time. I know that some of my brothers and sisters in the Church will never understand why and that, to them, there is just no excuse. But I'd ask those brothers and sisters to consider that the Church means different things to different people.
In a future post, I plan to share my story in more detail in an effort to help my active brothers and sisters understand why someone like me chooses not to attend for a season. In the meantime, I'll just plead with you: Don't be the guy that makes the ridiculously offensive comment in Sunday School or Elder’s quorum. Try to show love before you feel the need to preach exact obedience. Be the girl who is willing to entertain a conversation where not everything is black and white. There's a lot of grey area (God will yet reveal many great and important things) and, as members of the Church, we don't always deal well with uncertainty. If someone in the Church isn't at the same level of activity or testimony, it doesn't mean they're less than. It also doesn’t mean that they’re done with the Church. It means that they've had a very different set of experiences and trials that have led them to that place. They need your love, not your judgment.
4. Can we be more careful when we use words like "lifestyle" and "agenda"? Just because someone isn't active in the Church doesn't mean that they have some secret, scary agenda or that they want a lifestyle that's different from your lifestyle. Most commonly, I hear members of the Church use these words with regard to the LGBT community. Can we actually consider that God has MILLIONS of sons and daughters who are gay? Can we further consider that most of them want the same things you want as an active member of the Church? They want to find someone and build a life together. If your "lifestyle" is to work a 40 hour week and watch television in the evening with your spouse and kids, I'm willing to wager that the "lifestyle" of your gay friends and neighbors is remarkably similar. We let one detail justify dismissing someone else's life as an alternative or “counterfeit” lifestyle. Anyone willing to actually make close relationships with their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will learn that we all want the same things.
Is there a negative generalization that exists with the gay man who parties and has unprotected sex with multiple partners and has no regard for his health or the well-being of others? Absolutely, and in some cases, these generalizations ring true. But guess what? Our heterosexual brothers and sisters are just as capable and responsible for perpetuating these stereotypes. But somehow, the gay community at large is accused of living a "lifestyle" that differs from your own.
As for an agenda, the Church has a clear agenda. It's the three-fold mission of the Church: Proclaim the gospel, Perfect the Saints, Redeem the dead. It's a clear, unapologetic agenda. We sent missionaries in masses, door to door to spread the gospel. I did that for two years and even now, I'm in touch with a number of my Welsh and English brothers and sisters. I was happy to be a part of that agenda. But then, we throw the word "agenda" at the gay community. When I've asked a few people in the Church what the "gay agenda" is, few can respond with a specific answer. I'm asking for more understanding and acceptance for our LGBT brothers and sisters.
Just because someone identifies as gay doesn't mean they don't want anything to do with the Church. I have gay friends who are active every week, I have gay friends who have left the Church after devastating experiences, and I have gay friends who are somewhere in between. I'm prepared to listen to them all. I love hearing their stories, their sets of experiences and decisions and how they're striving to be the best person they can be. I'm often told of how close to God these gay brothers and sisters continue to feel. Meanwhile, we have parents disowning their own children, kicking them out of the house. We have leaders of the Church suggesting that their gay sons and daughters would not be expected to be introduced to friends for fear of sending a message that they condone that lifestyle. The suicide rates and hate crimes (even within the Church) are alarming.
Do your homework and please, make the Church a safe place for LGBT members to be. I've had friends and family members ask why the gays don't just start their own church. "Why do we have to have the gay agenda shoved in our faces?" they ask. Can you even imagine growing up as a gay member of the Church and having various doctrines shoved in your face that make you hate yourself and feel at constant odds with who you are supposed to be? My experience is that, in many cases, gay men and women can be much more Christlike, loving, compassionate and understanding than LDS men and women. I'm not trying to be provocative, it's just my experience. Let's allow our LGBT brothers and sisters who want to participate do so in peace and confidence.
5. Be as eager to let others share their experiences as you are to share the gospel. We get so caught up in our missionary zeal that we often don't close our mouths and listen to the experiences of others. When we do listen, we don't allow others to have their experiences be as special to them as our spiritual experiences are to us.
As a missionary, I taught an African man who shared with me his experience of coming to Christ. With tears in his eyes, he told me and my companion about the day he was baptized (in another Christian church). I felt the Spirit as he shared, but then I took away from his experience. It was my duty, after all, as a missionary to explain that while he may have had a very meaningful experience and that it was a step in the right direction, that his baptism was not performed by one who holds the proper priesthood authority. Here, he had this wonderful experience where he dedicated himself to following Jesus as his example. He shared his experience with me in a vulnerable and beautiful way.
I remember seeing his expression change when I basically said "sorry, doesn't count". To this day, I feel bad about taking away from a very personal and special experience he had. In the end, he was baptized into the LDS Church, but I still wonder what kind of damage I did to a very authentic experience he cherished. What if I had asked him to describe his experience and asked him why it meant so much to him and how it helped him be a better person?
Do we really care about the experiences of our non-member friends and family members? Are we truly prepared to listen, uninterrupted, without motive and just let them bear their testimony in their own beautiful way? I think the missionary efforts of the Church would be much more successful if we took this kind of approach instead of the "forget what you've been told or raised with, here's the truth" approach.
In closing, I'd like to express gratitude to my mother and some of my siblings for the great care they've taken to assure me of their love and support. I have friends from all backgrounds who are prepared to love me just as I am. Some of them challenge me to be a better person and consider fuller activity within the Church. That's ok. Others challenge me in other ways. At the end of the day, I've made decisions with a clear conscience before the Lord. I believe that He truly understands my heart.
At present, I may not be meeting the expectations of my active LDS brothers and sisters, and yet, I feel that I'm meeting the Lord's expectations. Food for thought, eh? I'm not sure if I'll ever want a permanent plate set within the Church, but I'd like the option of having a place at the table, should my path lead me there.
May we, as members of the LDS Church, come together and see the beauty and purpose and importance of ALL of God's children. May we not live in fear that 99% of the world's population is going to hell in a hand-basket. May we have confidence in a Father who gave us a Savior to atone for our shortcomings. Perhaps there are ordinances and steps and formalities each of us must take to return to the presence of the Almighty. I'm not asking anyone to change those beliefs. I'm simply asking that we relax a bit and treat each other in the most Christ-like way we can, active LDS or not. People like me need people like you to understand, accept and share our journey. Our paths may differ, but the destination is the same.