One of my most familiar childhood religious memories is waking up at the end of the General Conference broadcast, sprawled full-length on the floor with the marks of the carpet in my cheek. “This has been the [ordinal number] conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the familiar voice intoned over the postlude. As the camera panned around the trees at Temple Square, I would pan around the living room to get the lay of the land. My father was asleep. My mother was asleep. My four brothers lay comatose amidst scattered colored pencils and scratch paper.
(To be fair to my parents, especially my mother, they were probably awake for most of the session, but as we all know, even the most faithful and committed Saints may succumb to sleep during Conference. That’s why the talks are printed in the Ensign afterward.)
Perhaps this is why I don’t have a very clear memory of very many General Conference talks that I watched as a kid. And yet I do remember the familiarity of that music, those images, the way that the leaves waved in the wind and the bright sunshine, the people bustling back and forth across Temple Square. I knew that this was the time when members of the church came together to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to listen to the Prophet speak, to fall asleep, and to watch the beautiful leaves at Temple Square flutter in the breeze. These were my people, and this was my church.
I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in a variety of Mormon communities around the world, each of them with its own distinct character. If I had to sort them in my mind by giving them “Best in Class” awards, I might begin with something like this:
The Blondest Church: Spanish Fork, Utah.
The Brunette-est Church: Vashon, Washington.
Church with Best Potlucks: Anywhere in Taiwan, where potlucks are not for amateurs.
The Smallest Church: Xiamen, China.
(Church in Xiamen was a mere 5 inches long. It was a cell phone. Expatriates scattered across the whole country called in to a single conference call. They took turns to unmute the phone in order to fulfill singing, prayer, talk, or lesson assignments.)
Church with the Best Relief Society Room: Beijing, China
(a huge corporate boardroom with giant leather seats around a huge glass-topped table and a stunning high-rise view)
The Most Church, Ever: Hong Kong, China.
(Church services held on every day of the week in order to accommodate domestic workers whose day off falls on a day other than Sunday).
In all of these places, no matter where I’ve been, I’ve had opportunities to teach people, their children, and their friends. People have taught me, my children, and my friends. They have jiggled my fussing babies and captured my escaping toddlers. I’ve renewed sacred covenants with them, partaking of the sacramental symbols of Christ’s body and blood. I feel comfortable in the chapels and homes of members of the Church wherever I go. These are my people, and this is my church.
Once again this weekend, General Conference will come to Latter-day Saints around the world. Just in the course of the past thirty years since I was a little child, Mormonism has experienced a tremendous expansion in terms of overall numbers and worldwide reach. General Conference will be broadcast in 90 different languages, from Malagasy to Mandarin Chinese.
And yet Mormonism, despite its oft-touted status as one of the fastest growing religions in the world, is still a long way off from becoming a world religion on the order of Islam or Catholicism. Recent scholarship suggests that the presence of Latter-day Saints around the world is substantially smaller than what official membership records indicate, with retention often hovering between 20% to 50% in many countries.
Terryl Givens recently invoked the image of the Church as “a leaven in the world, suggesting an impact far out of proportion to size.”(1) This is not only a beautiful Biblical image, but, speaking as a breadmaker, it’s spot-on when you consider that in an bread recipe, yeast comprises about .3 percent (three one-thousandths) of the dough’s total weight. This is the same percentage of Mormons in many national populations around the globe.
For example, take Taiwan, my old missionfield. Everyone knows that Mormons have been in Taiwan for “a long time.” That’s where John Huntsman learned his Mandarin, right? Taiwan is a pillar of the Church, a familiar presence from church magazines. And yet the official number of Mormons in Taiwan, 55,805, puts them at .2 percent of the population, and .4 percent of total Mormons. According to one estimate, the number of actively practicing Mormons in Taiwan is even lower: just about 11,000.
Living abroad does not deliver a vision of Mormonism’s ever-expanding dominions. Instead, it makes one realize that the Church is tiny, its position is precarious, and helping hands are few. This is our church, and we are its people.
At this particular moment in time, as Mormons worldwide prepare to hear from their leaders at General Conference in April, members of the Church are engaging in exchanges, online and in person, to share sharp disagreements in their points of view about church practices and doctrine. The Church’s Public Affairs department has also entered the fray.
Particularly harsh words have been reserved for members organizing within the Ordain Women group, whom many church members view as angry, disaffected women trying to destroy the church by rejecting prophetic authority. One commenter wrote:
“The issue can go away just as fast as the Brethren can sign their excommunication papers. . . . 🙂 ”
I have also seen similar rhetoric leveled at Mormon feminists generally, suggesting that they are a bunch of nearly-inactive malcontents out to harm the Church and that “if they don’t like how things are now, they should just leave.”
When we use such harshly judgmental rhetoric to suggest that active, contributing members of the Church should be excommunicated or otherwise expelled from our fellowship because we deeply disagree with their interpretation of church doctrine, we are forgetting two things.
In the first place, we are forgetting that a group of people that comprises at very most .002 percent of the world’s population cannot afford to excise entire sections of its membership in a fit of temper. A recent study shows that the Mormon feminist blog Feminist Mormon Housewives receives around 25,000-30,000 unique visitors per month. (2) Of course not all unique visitors to Feminist Mormon Housewives are Mormon feminists, and an even smaller number of Mormon feminists are part of Ordain Women. However, just for the sake of getting some perspective, if you assumed that just half of these unique visitors were Mormon feminists (around 12,500-15,000), you still have more Mormon feminists than all the active Mormons in Taiwan.
Just as we would never consider simply excising all Mormons in Taiwan from the membership rolls if they all petitioned Salt Lake City to include Daoist liturgy in the baptismal rite, we cannot afford to dismiss Ordain Women supporters, or more generally Mormon feminists, as being anti-Mormon (I consider myself a Mormon feminist but I do not personally seek women’s ordination). (3) In the profiles on the Ordain Women website, we see talented, accomplished Latter-day Saints who pay tithing, nurture their families, and serve in the Church. During the Mormon Moment, when reporters were hungry to talk to someone fluent in both the language of faith and the language of critical analysis, many of these Mormon feminist men and women were on the front lines of media coverage, loyally representing the Church with insight and aplomb.
The other side of the coin is that liberal and progressive Mormons can be just as sharp and dismissive of those who disapprove of their proposals or feel that feminist interpretations of doctrine are deeply misguided. There’s no website to represent people who wish that Mormon feminists would discuss women’s issues in less confrontational ways, or people who don’t see any “issues” for Mormon women at all, but I know and love many of them among my friends and family. They, too, are talented, accomplished Latter-day Saints who pay tithing, nurture their families, and serve in the Church. They are eager to answer the call to service and grateful for the restored gospel.
In the second place, when we reject Latter-day Saints as unfit for fellowship on the grounds that we disagree with them, we are forgetting that we have bound ourselves to each other through sacred covenants. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:21, people who come to Christ are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” “Fellowcitizen” and “household” are words that powerfully illustrate parity and familiarity, in contrast to “strangers” and “foreigners.”
At General Conference two years ago, April 2012, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a talk entitled, “The Merciful Obtain Mercy.” He wrote:
“I imagine that every person on earth has been affected in some way by the destructive spirit of contention, resentment, and revenge. Perhaps there are even times when we recognize this spirit in ourselves . . .
“This topic of judging others could actually be taught in a two-word sermon.
“When it comes to hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm, please apply the following: Stop it!”
We within this Church cannot afford to not treat each other like enemies, or opponents, or people who wish to do each other harm.
Of course we all know this. We all “want” to treat brothers and sisters like brothers and sisters. When being “nice” doesn’t work, however, then often we resort to angry and hurtful words. We justify this to ourselves by explaining that it is necessary to jar people out of their wrongdoing, to pull them from their narrow range of vision into the full scope of possibilities.
This is when things get acrimonious.
There has to be an alternative way to change the ordinary dynamic of things, to show where you stand, without creating an opponent and trying to destroy him or her.
What’s the way?
I think that we need to find new ways to be vulnerable to each other. Vulnerability not only breaks down social barriers, it also breaks down barriers to the Spirit. Here I’ll give two examples of this in my own life.
* About six years ago, all my hair fell out. It was hard. I felt as if everyone were staring at me. I felt so sad for my husband because, I felt, I would never be beautiful again. At the same time, this new vulnerability—being the bald Asian woman in the room—was also a blessing because it helped me be aware of others’ vulnerabilities that I couldn’t see. I also found that my feeling of “justification” for being snotty about people had evaporated. When you’re the bald lady in the room, what right do you have to be snotty about anyone?
* Our family babysitter’s name is Tang Jianhua (we call her Tang Jiemei 汤姐妹, or Sister Tang, because she is a member of our LDS Mandarin branch). She is a wonderful, kind, cheerful lady and an amazing blessing in our lives. In two years of working for us she has never once been late. She has only not come to work once, when she was sick. On this occasion, she sent a text to say that she was sick and that she would not be able to come that day. I made a pot of soup and brought it over to her apartment, a fifth-floor walk-up. When she answered the door, she looked different. She wasn’t dressed as she usually was for the day, but was wearing some cotton pajamas. Her hair was tousled. She invited us in cheerily, but we wanted to let her rest. We gave her the soup, walked back down the stairs and mounted our bike. I looked up and saw her waving to us from her balcony above, watching us go. As I rode away I had the strangest feeling. It was the feeling that you get when you have fallen in love with someone. It reminded me of the story in the Gospel of Mark of Jesus’s encounter with the rich young man. When the rich young man spoke to Jesus, Jesus, beholding him, loved him. As a missionary I always wondered how that was possible. When I “beheld” people, I saw them. When Jesus beheld people, he loved them. But now, riding away from Sister Tang’s house, I think I understood how it was possible. Sister Tang’s vulnerability on this day had somehow made me open to the Spirit, who showed me how Christ sees her.
In the first of these examples, I felt my own vulnerability; in the second, I felt the vulnerability of the other. When we accept our mutual weakness and yet strive to serve each other, the Spirit will open us to new sight.
This is what I love about my church—our church, our people. Jesus commanded all people to love one another, and we all try, but it’s hard to do. In order to help us with this difficulty, in restoring The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christ has given us a system whereby we are conscripted into binding relationships with people who make us uncomfortable, people whom we might not automatically love or even respect. I am so thankful for this.
May we all find ways to seek out someone whose views are not only different from, but contradict our own. At this moment when we begin to realize how division, judgment, and detached strategizing within the Church could be so devastating to our unity, I challenge Latter-day Saints to find these others and to reach out to them, extending ourselves in a way that makes us vulnerable. I challenge all of us to see others in their vulnerability and, as suggested by the title of Elder Uchtdorf’s talk, to be merciful to them. This mercy will be a great blessing. It will save us from the divisions that threaten to destroy our unity, our integrity as members of the body of Christ. It will open us more fully to the saving grace of the Christ’s atonement.
At this moment in our church’s history, on many fronts, we are undergoing a period of development, growth, and new awareness of who we are and what we can become.
We realize that continuing revelation is not just one-sided, not simply a matter of getting marching orders from the top. Nor is it simply a matter of learning things about God. We must be open to continuing revelation about each other, our brothers and sisters, so that we will be able to see each other as Christ does. Nothing, not even being right, is more important than this. The last verses of Moroni 7 say it best:
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren [and sisters], if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—
“But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.
“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 . . .”
You are my people. This is our church.
(1) Terryl Givens, Keynote Address given at the BYU Symposium on Global Mormonism, March 7.
(3) In contrast to some existing portrayals of Mormon feminists as a bunch of angry, disaffected, inactive women at the margins of the Church, a forthcoming survey of Mormon feminists found, among other things, that 79% of them hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. 81% percent of respondents attend church at least two or three times per month, 71% percent currently hold a calling, a job or position of responsibility in the Church organization, and 97% have held a calling in the last ten years. 42% of respondents work full-time and 16% work part-time. 62% are parents. 19% are stay-at-home parents, of whom 98% are stay at home mothers and 2% are stay at home fathers. 65% have been married and sealed in the temple.