* This is a letter examining faith, written for my children–though they currently lack the attention span and the adolescent angst to get through such a long discussion. I hope someday they will find it useful. In the meantime, perhaps others will find it useful now. I’ve changed the personal names of people who aren’t already public figures speaking about Mormonism, or Chinese revolutionaries.
2 July 2017, Auckland, New Zealand
Since I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been writing letters to you. The prognosis is pretty good, but I believe in backup plans—the literary version of food storage. I don’t think that you will really be interested in these letters for at least another few years, but if the can of wheat will keep, so will words. I want to tell you about my Sunday at church yesterday (you are all at family reunions in the United States, but since I’ve just had surgery, I’m here by myself). Recently, I have been thinking about reasons why people decide to stop being Mormon, and why people decide to keep being Mormon. Being at church today brought these questions to mind, and I’d like to tell you what I think.
There are many reasons why people decide to stop coming to church. Demographically speaking, as scholar Thomas Murphy has recently observed, most people experience Mormonism as a phase, but not as a lifelong identity. Sometimes new members are surprised to find that being Mormon is a bit much. They were used to having interesting conversations with the missionaries about the meaning of life. Then all of a sudden they have all of these different time commitments, and everyone is speaking a weird Church-Language, and it is hard to make new friends or fit in to the ward. Sometimes they have already strained relationships with family or friends in deciding to get baptized, which is a difficult situation to continue. Sometimes they find that they joined the church in response to something that was going on in their life, but now that stage has passed and they feel differently about God, the Universe, and Everything.
Sometimes Primary children grow up to be young adults and as they’re developing their own ideas and their own priorities, they start to think that Church isn’t as awesome as it used to be. Leaders aren’t as perfect that they thought they were. Teachings they learned at church seem full of contradictions and dilemmas. They find that some—or many—church members are capable of bigotry, racism, unkindness, and dismissive ignorance. They find that church leaders have on occasion made mistakes. They find that the scriptures, which are records of God’s dealings with people, sometimes tell troubling stories. They wonder: Who put that story in there? What on earth was the point of that!? This is what we call disillusionment. It means that once people thought something was awesome, but later they realize that this awesomeness was just an illusion—like a dream, or a vision, and not reality. If you always think that something is pretty good but not necessarily perfect, you won’t be too sad if you later on find out that it is, in fact, not perfect. But if you always thought that something was the greatest, and later on you find out that it is terribly flawed—well, then you might feel moved to dump it in disgust. (On this topic, read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s essay, “Lusterware.”)
Finally, sometimes people just get tired. They have already gone through a painful process of living with disillusionment—discovering that the Church isn’t perfect, but trying to keep contributing just the same—but after a while, going to church and being Mormon feels like going around with a backpack full of bricks. Or like having to always carry a large sheet of plywood, making it hard to go through doors and turn around in the kitchen. In college I once told a friend that being Mormon was like trying to fly with an elephant on your back. Some people did it so beautifully. But could I?
This Sunday, I had a full experience at church which reminded me of why I love being a Latter-day Saint. First, I came late so that the youth could play hymns in sacrament meeting, which reminded me of Mormonism’s beautiful culture of amateurism. Second, I listened to members in testimony meeting express gratitude for an American missionary couple, which reminded me that while “American cultural hegemony” certainly exists and lack of diverse perspectives at church is a real problem, our global, cross-cultural project can also be transformative. Third, in Primary’s Sharing Time lesson on fasting and prayer, I reflected on the various disciplines which I have learned at church, which have been a source of power in my life. Fourth, in Relief Society, as the Relief Society leadership renewed and extended their organizational structures, I felt how grateful I am for the human infrastructure that the Church creates, through the mouths and actions of imperfect but willing leaders trying to follow Jesus.
MUSIC IN SACRAMENT MEETING
It started with sacrament meeting. I came late, on purpose. Because of my surgery and my upcoming chemotherapy, about three weeks ago I told the bishopric that I was going to have to stop playing the organ in church and that it was time for the youth to step up. I met with the youth in a “coaching” session and told them that I was merely doing to them what my piano teacher, who also happened to be the ward organist, had done to me.
So last week, four youth, including [Son #1], covered all the hymns in sacrament meeting. Afterwards people remarked on how special that meeting was. They felt the young people’s participation brought the Spirit to the meeting. How might this work? Some of them made mistakes (so do I, of course). Some played a bit hesitantly. None of them played the organ, which is the loud, rousing, get-the-whole-congregation-together instrument. But it was this endearing newness which invited the Spirit. (When I make mistakes on the organ, it’s not endearing; it’s just loud.) The four young pianists invited care and reciprocity from the congregation, which in turn invited the Spirit. Yesterday was the second week of the New Youth Order. I showed up late because I didn’t want to be a reliable backup. I wanted the youth to feel that now it’s their time to carry the meeting, and if they don’t do it, nobody will. I walked in to the chapel to hear the final strains of “I Am A Child of God” and was happy.
Throughout the rest of the meeting, as we sang the hymns, I felt that this culture of amateurism is one of the great strengths of our church, with its pattern of lay ministry. No one at Church is perfect, from the youth pianist to the Prophet. We’re all just trying to do a job that we’ve been asked to do, as best we can. Sometimes this is a bit limiting (for instance, I think the range of hymns that the congregation will be singing for the next several weeks will be quite narrow until the youth expand their repertoire a bit), but growth is always ongoing. I have faith in this.
This Sunday was fast and testimony meeting. I almost didn’t come, actually, because I was worried about ongoing pain at the site of my incisions. I thought: I have a perfectly good excuse not to go to church. Moreover, fast and testimony meetings can be the worst because you never know what people are going to say. Sometimes they get up and say the craziest things. But anyway, I was fasting, so I decided I might as well go and take the sacrament. The first person to get up in testimony meeting was Brother Hamilton. As you know, he and Sister Hamilton are a senior missionary couple from America. They’ve been here for two years, and now they’re going home. Brother Hamilton teaches Gospel Doctrine and Sister Hamilton used to co-teach Gospel Doctrine until she assigned herself to be the Primary chorister. She is also the sacrament meeting chorister. In Primary, she is a real professional. She gets through six or seven songs in a sharing time. She includes a mix of old songs and new songs. This takes confidence, experience, and much preparation time. Now, Brother Hamilton and Sister Hamilton, like us, are very American. As you know, Americans are a minority group in New Zealand. Do you remember when kids at school made fun of your American accents? However, there are lots of Americans in the Church because the Church was founded in America. I often get uncomfortable at the way in which American culture shapes Church culture, no matter where you are in the world. I think: Jesus was not an American! This is Jesus’s church, not an American church! Go easy on the Americanism!
However, following Brother Hamilton’s and Sister Hamilton’s testimonies, many women and men got up to thank them, quite emotionally, for their contributions to the ward. It was quite clear that their major influence on the ward was not that they had represented American styles of being Mormon—which they certainly had—but that they were two generous, loving individuals with a great deal of life experience who had come to live and serve in our community. They are just wonderful people. This is why [Daughter #1] likes to sit with Sister Hamilton in sacrament meeting. I think Sister Hamilton reminds [Daughter #1] of Grandma. Have you also noticed how your friend from Primary also likes to sit with Brother Hamilton? I think Brother Hamilton is kind of like another father for him.
This is what we get at church: other mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends. We have many teachers. As you already know, in our big extended families there are so many people who love you and want to help you learn. People at church are just like this, too. Teachers and leaders like Brother Greaves, and Brother Aupouri, and Sister Eveni, and Sister Hamilton, are there to help you learn to be like Jesus. Where we come from matters—and we need to be aware of how our cultural or national background can give us different instincts about what is right or wrong—but what matters most is the relationships that we build with each other.
Currently in the Church, there is a huge need for more relationships that cut across cultures and other differences (including differences between men and women), especially at the top levels of leadership, but these kinds of relationships definitely do exist already. As these relationships connecting different people continue to spread throughout the Church, we will have strength to overcome sins such as racism, cultural arrogance, ignorance, and pride. Joseph Smith’s prophetic gift was to receive from God a way of organizing the Church that cultivates these human entanglements. Just like the different seeds for bak choy and swiss chard and beets that you planted in the garden strip, these kinds of relationships are like money in the bank. They make life richer and full of nutritious variety. Mormonism’s audacious universal claims are peculiarly wonderful in this regard. Since we are a global church, we aspire to a global fellowship. This contributes to our culture of language-learning, boundary-crossing, and powerful unity through shared covenants.
After fast and testimony meeting was Primary. Sister Seu taught the sharing time lesson on fasting. There were only seven kids in Primary today. Sister Seu taught the law of the fast, which you already know. Actually, she taught a hard-core version of the law of the fast, which is 24 hours, no food and no water. But she also taught that the law of the fast can be adjusted to our strength. For instance, she explained that she tried to get her aging mother to not fast for meals but to simply forego snacks, so that she could take her medications and keep up her energy. She acknowledged that fasting could be hard.
I think of how Papa and you three older kids fasted for me on the day of my surgery. At the same time that you were fasting, members of our family far away, on the other side of the world, were also fasting. The great thing about fasting is that it helps you to remember to pray. We all theoretically want to “pray always,” as the scriptures tell us, but it is easy to get distracted and forget. But when we fast, every time we get hungry, we remember: Hey! Something is important! Time to ask God for a special blessing! I thought of all of you as I sat cross-legged on the hospital bed, naked under a flimsy gown, waiting to be wheeled in for surgery. I thought how you were hoping for me, not just with your brains, but also with your bodies.
Does fasting “work”? If you mean “work” in terms of, “if no one fasts for me then I will definitely not get better, but if 100 people fast for me then I will definitely get better,” then I don’t think so. God’s grace is not a popularity contest. I do think that fasting has power. We know from the Scriptures and from history that sacrifice has great power. Prayer, concentrated through fasting, focuses the mind. It helps us to order our priorities. It demonstrates to Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother that we are open to revelation and willing to receive their inspiration and guidance. It also shows that we are hungry for whatever blessings they are able to send our way. It is kind of like signaling that our hands are open, ready to catch. If we aren’t paying attention, even if God is constantly slinging blessings our way, they will fall into the grass.
For an eight year-old kid (this is the age when we start fasting in our family) to forego two meals shows a lot of discipline. I am so grateful that as a child I was also taught this discipline as part of being a member of our church. When we exercise control over our body’s needs, wants, and hungers, we gain power to see the world as it really is, outside of ourselves. We also come to appreciate the extent and degrees of our agency. Mormonism is full of commandments, of thou-shalt-nots. The more you try to live the gospel, the more you appreciate the process of negotiating between competing imperatives in a thoughtful and sensitive way.
As we saw from Sister Seu’s lesson, there are different ways to respond to commandments depending on your situation and your understanding. Jesus said that the Sabbath was for people, not people for the Sabbath. This means that commandments like keeping the Sabbath are designed to help us, but we are not their slaves. When we were living in Hong Kong and Papa was in an urban jungle six days of the week, the thing he most wanted to do on Sunday was to get outside and be in nature. We started going on hikes in the mountains on Sundays. For our family at this time, this was the ultimate rest. Other families do things differently. Our family doesn’t watch TV or “screens” on Sunday, but other families do. The Word of Wisdom is also rather arbitrary. Mormons used to drink alcohol at ward parties, but now they don’t. It’s not the alcohol or the coffee that is bad. It’s the discipline that is good. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee because this is a symbol of my religious identity and commitment. The point is that commandments and rules exist to force us to separate from the world and remember what is most important—being disciples of Jesus Christ. If we really care about following Jesus, we will care enough to exercise discipline (which comes from the word “disciple”) in our daily lives.
Relief Society began with Sister Samuelu introducing the new Relief Society secretary, Stephanie, and the Special Assistant to the Relief Society Presidency, Karen. Both Stephanie and Karen are young women in their early twenties. They looked a bit bemused as Sister Samuelu called on them to stand in front of a group of mostly older women and be recognized as the newest members of the Relief Society leadership. Sister Samuelu is a natural leader. She recently finished a post as Dean at the University of Auckland and she knows how to hold a meeting together. You have to have the right combination of enthusiasm, realism, self-confidence, and confidence that what you are trying to get the group to do is what they want to do (deep down). Sister Samuelu said, brightly, looking out at the two young women: “Now our Relief Society leadership can be dynamite! A model of efficiency!” Everyone laughed, but the fact that she said it this way went a long way toward making it true.
Everything I learned about being a leader, I learned at church. Whether it is in Primary (the most difficult place of all to lead), or at the organ, or in Sunday School discussions, or speaking from the pulpit, I have been learning all along how to hold a group of people together. It isn’t easy. One set of criteria is found in Doctrine & Covenants 50, verses 17-22. Amid competing desires to lead and competing interpretations of how the Church should be, the Lord asks: How can you know whether a person is preaching by the Spirit, delivering the message that God wants people to hear? The answer is that both those who preach and those who receive “understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.” So, while ordinary leadership can involve coercion, intimidation, and even violence, spiritual leadership (leading people to be more like Christ) has to be mutual and reciprocal. You can’t just lay down the law and tell people to get in line, because you’re more important and you say so. Instead, you have to get people to want to follow you, or listen to you, because they feel, through the Holy Spirit, that you are helping them do what Christ would do.
In the past, for well over a century, the Church had an unkind and confusing policy which banned black people from receiving the Priesthood or temple ordinances. For example, if this ban were still around today, it would mean that Brother Victor, who came over the night before my surgery to anoint my head with oil and help Papa give me a blessing, wouldn’t have been able to do that simply because of how much pigment he has in his skin. Even prophets and apostles held racist views and justified their racism with explanations about how black people had “the curse of Cain” (which totally goes against the scriptures’ teaching that all are alike unto God and that people will be judged for their own individual actions). This racist policy didn’t change until 1978, the year before I was born. Some people left the Church because of it, and I don’t blame them. Many people I love and respect, including your grandparents, and including many black members of the Church, stayed with the Church despite this policy.
I have never lived in the Officially Racist Mormon Church. Unfortunately, the era of Official Racism planted seeds of Unofficial Racism which still flourish today. This flourishing Unofficial Racism (rude comments, bad jokes, name-calling, treating someone based on how they look as opposed to who they are inside) is not like bak choy, swiss chard, or beets. It is like weeds. It’s growing in our church garden, stealing the nutrients from the crops we actually want to grow. Will you please pull it out wherever you see it? This is not just the job of leaders who speak from the pulpit, but everyone’s job.
You ask: How can a church that was Historically Officially Racist, and which still struggles with racism, be led by Jesus? This is a great question. It’s a complicated question, but I think the basic answer is related to what I’ve said above about kids playing in sacrament meeting (we aren’t perfect, but we still try) and about the Primary lesson on fasting and prayer (ultimately the burden is on us to prepare ourselves to receive light, knowledge, and blessings from God). God speaks, but we can only hear if we are receptive to the Holy Spirit. If we keep trying to do what’s right, despite our sinfulness, God can keep trying to lead us in the right direction. Now is the time for confessing that sin, asking for forgiveness, and trying to make amends to those who have been harmed. Goodness knows that racism is just one of the many sins that plague us members of the body of Christ. The saying that the Church is not a country club for the well-off, but a hospital for the sick, is true. Having just come out of a hospital, the image sticks with me: frail people in non-slip socks walking unsteadily round and round, carrying their catheters and IV lines.
All the great world religions have histories which include unseemly mistakes and grave misunderstandings. In different times and places, people have had ideas about how people “are,” which we now see as clearly wrong, but which they felt were clearly right. There was a time in American history in which nearly everyone believed that black people were inferior. There was a time in Chinese history in which nearly everyone believed that girls were absolutely not as good as boys. These ideas, and others which contradict the gospel teaching that each person is a beloved child of Heavenly Parents and that all are alike unto God, still circulate today. Certainly in 100 years, people will agree that some of the ideas that we have and the things that we do now were clearly misguided. What will it be, I wonder? It goes the other way, too. Don’t get me started about Donald Trump.
Amid the historical churn of shifting values and mores, hold to what Jesus taught: love God; love your neighbor as yourself. Even throughout turbulent changes in our understanding of who our neighbors are, we can follow the charge of the prophet Moroni at the end of the Book of Mormon (Moroni 7:48): “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ . . .” If this pure love of Christ is truly what our people desire, we will get closer to Zion: the pure in heart, one heart and one mind, no poor among us. Christians have been trying to “follow Jesus” for thousands of years now, and I have to say our track record is spotty, but we can keep trying. This is why it’s great that Mormons believe in ongoing revelation. According to the Ninth Article of Faith, we believe that there are many “great and important things” about the kingdom of God which have yet to be revealed. Christ’s atonement for our sins never changes, but the ways in which church members get together to live the gospel and deal with the world’s problems definitely change. Sometimes we don’t change fast enough. Sometimes we change too fast. The core of our church community is our collective attempt—fumbling and stumbling though it is—to receive Christ through sacred ordinances and to be his disciples.
I have felt the sacredness of this project, and it’s enough for me to stay. One fellow Latter-day Saint woman who is black and who joined the church in 1984, Alice Faulkner Burch, said to a group at the Mormon History Association meeting in 2016: “I am often asked why I’ve stayed in the church and how I was able to. I always reply: I know the ordinances that this church offers are true and of God and that the priesthood power that administers them is a direct line from God. I stay for the ordinances and the blessings they are to my life.” I felt the Spirit powerfully as she spoke these words. It is a transformative, soaring, somber feeling. I hope you have occasion to feel and recognize the Spirit many times throughout your lives, but just a few times is enough to make a lasting impression. God is real, and God’s power can be felt among us.
So if church leaders, even apostles and prophets and General Relief Society presidents, sometimes say things or make rules that are mistakes, can we still trust them to lead us closer to God? If we go back to the marvelous example of Sister Samuelu in Relief Society on Sunday, I think we can. Sister Samuelu has been called of God to lead our ward’s Relief Society. This doesn’t mean that she has become a mindless, mechanized, God-puppet. She is who she was before her calling—funny, chatty, warm, competent, very busy—but she is now trying to do her bit, just like the kids who played the piano in sacrament meeting. Of course, not every word that she speaks before our ward Relief Society is straight dictation from God to me, especially since everyone in Relief Society is so different. But she is someone who is willing, and trying, to hold our community together by protecting what we have in common: Scriptures, history, time spent together. I trust her because I know that she is sincere, and I feel in my heart that the community that she helps to shape is inspired.
I don’t have the same face-to-face relationship with the top church leaders like President Monson, the president of the Church, or Elder Renlund, an apostle, or President Bingham, the General Relief Society President, or President Jones, the General Primary President. However, on numerous occasions I have felt the Spirit testify to me that counsel that a church leader is giving is something that I personally need to receive. Some stories have stuck with me, like the story that Elder Dube from Zimbabwe told about hoeing in the field with his mother. I felt a prophetic call to repentance when the Relief Society leaders and other leaders in a recent General Conference called on us to help refugees. Church leaders speak in many different voices, and they interpret the gospel according to their individual backgrounds and experiences. Taken as a whole, however, they hold the Church together, just as Sister Samuelu holds our Relief Society together. I trust that God does work through them and through the structures of authority that they inhabit. It’s not easy to keep a large group of people together, as you know from our family reunions. But that togetherness is a source of great strength and blessing, and the leaders who bear the burden of keeping it together must work through God’s grace, or not at all.
Togetherness takes organization, and structure. It’s not spontaneous, but it’s solid. At the end of today’s Relief Society lesson, Sister Samuelu asked people to let her know if they were willing to be called upon to bring a family a meal, or provide transportation, or be generally available for service—“so we can start building an infrastructure for service and support,” she said. “Infrastructure” means real, solid things that make a larger system work. For instance, motorways and tunnels and the airport are part of the Auckland City infrastructure. In the Church, infrastructure includes not only physical things like church buildings, but church meeting schedules, and the kinds of callings that exist, and, most importantly, church members who serve in callings. These kinds of structures, built out of people instead of concrete, are so powerful. Some people nowadays say they’re fed up with “organized religion.” I think that organization is one of the best things that religion has to offer, fraught though it is. I’m an Organization Woman. I just love how people, working together, can do so much.
BREAKING THE FAST
I returned from church and broke my fast with a handful of macadamias from our own backyard tree, along with some banana muffins which I made out of the massive stack of blackening bananas in the fruit bowl. (Now that you are all in America, food disappears much more slowly.) As I felt once again the pleasure of food and felt the energy moving into my bloodstream, I reflected on the day’s fast. All day today, I have wrestled with the desperate uncertainty that comes with having cancer. I have struggled to make sense of the gap between God’s omniscience and omnipotence on the one hand, and our own human understanding and petty, sometimes futile actions on the other. I have silently carried this struggle through the routine meetings of our little congregation. It has been in my mind as I sang the alto line in hymns, and bent my head for prayer, and read the 1 Corinthians 13 verses on charity.
I have previously felt and commented on the fragility of Mormonism’s balancing act between charisma and organization, but today in the midst of my own fragility, I felt our community’s strength. In Primary, a parent who happened to be there because she was coaching her son through a short talk in opening exercises asked about my prognosis. She told me, confidently, “You’ll be fine. We’ll all pray for you.” This woman is my visiting teachee—someone I am officially supposed to serve. But through this orchestrated relationship, in the midst of my uncertainty, I received a jolt of strength. Having cancer, and recovering from surgery, creates all sorts of opportunities to fear that one is not as awesome as one had originally supposed. Her confidence bound up some of my raggedness. And in Relief Society, amongst my sisters, who had collectively endured cancer and addiction and loneliness and the death of loved ones, I felt a reservoir of resilience and patience.
I write all of this to you, my kids-who-are-probably-too-young-to-make-it-through-this-entire-letter, to explain my commitment to Mormonism, the religious community in which your father and I have chosen to raise you. As Uncle Charles had said, it’s not the only game in town–not the only Christian game, not the only deist game. There are many other communities, religious and areligious, working to take care of people and make the world a better place. I admire and appreciate the work that my friends do in these communities, and the various worldviews that hold them together. I acknowledge, with pain and deep regret, that for some people in some places, Mormonism is not the familiar haven that it has regularly been for me. Right now, it’s quite difficult to be a gay or lesbian Mormon. It’s hard to be a black Mormon, or an immigrant Mormon, especially in white, conservative, American church communities that cannot recognize their own ethnic and cultural differentiation. Now that I think about it, sometimes it’s really quite difficult to be a woman Mormon. I haven’t delved into that issue here, but I’ve written about it elsewhere, at length. Historically, Mormon women have been movers and shakers, despite patriarchal constraints; today, the Church is in the process of rethinking gender roles, with some encouraging progress; yet we still have a long way to go. I pray that our global community of women and men will be able to reach its full potential as an extraordinary force for good. To paraphrase Sun Yat-sen on his deathbed: “The Restoration is not yet complete; Sisters and Brothers must still work diligently!” (See also a talk by Elder Uchtdorf.)
In sum, Mormons aren’t necessarily the best people, or the most correct people, or even the nicest people in the world. But they are my people. Despite its flaws, Mormonism has given me so many gifts—not just as a religionist, but as an individual, a woman, an athlete, a scholar, and a member of a global society. Perhaps most of all, Mormonism has given me the opportunity to be of some use in other people’s lives, despite my amateur abilities and natural selfishness, on a scale that far exceeds my petty professional production. I value this. I see in it the hand of God. I value it enough to hope that when you are old enough to form your own worldview and do your own work, you will find that the Church–or what the Church is on the way to becoming–is still home for you, for the divine presence, and for many others you will have learned to love.