A Reason to Believe
Gillian* caught my eye on that first Sunday. I was the new–and only–Young Women’s counselor in a small urban ward. Gillian’s schoolbooks lay in a neat pile beneath her seat, next to a fresh paperback copy of the Book of Mormon. Even during activities, her schoolwork was never far from her. Her parents, recent immigrants, had enrolled her at a local parochial high school — no small sacrifice. The public school alternative boasted the highest gang activity in the state.
I’m not sure where or when Gillian met the missionaries, but she somehow got hooked on the church and attended for nearly a year before her mom gave offered her consent to baptism. Well before this ritual, Gillian wanted to immerse herself in church activity. She even created a three-year plan for completing Personal Progress, though the suggested activities occasionally baffled her. [“Sister X. I don’t have a sewing machine, and I don’t know how to put together a fashion show. Can I give a presentation on female genital mutilation to the class? It made me so sad when I read about it.”]
One Sunday, a stake visitor taught the lesson. She asked the girls to write down who they wanted to be in ten years. Gillian took to the task seriously, and volunteered to share first. “I’m torn. Part of me wants to be criminal prosecutor but I might want to study engineering.” All of the answers were warmly acknowledged before the teacher introduced the topic of the lesson: preparing for motherhood. I caught up with Gillian afterwards – I had to hear more, to see if she had a good guidance counselor, to ask if she had begun prepping for the SATs. Here was a young woman who had friends who were having babies, and she wanted to be a district attorney! Surely I had some obligation to fan this desire. That week, I spent hours on lds.org, rustling up every reference I could find about women and education. The next week, we began the lesson with the following quote from Gordon B. Hinckley:
Find purpose in your life. Choose the things you would like to do, and educate yourselves to be effective in their pursuit. For most it is very difficult to settle on a vocation. In this day and time, a girl needs an education . . .. The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it. You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part.
Over the next few weeks, Gillian and I talked a lot about college and options for the future. When Gillian got baptized, I struggled to find an appropriate gift. The missionaries had given her a set of lovely set of scriptures and church books. I finally settled on a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. I saw in Gillian something of Eleanor’s intellect, integrity, and tenacity. It just felt right.
Then I moved. And got engaged. Then married. Life got busy, and she was better about staying in touch than I was. She left a phone message saying she had been accepted to an Eleanor Roosevelt Summer Leadership Institute. Another phone message told me that she was elected class president. And this March, she tracked me down to tell me that she had been accepted to three of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation to study biomedical engineering. Next week she’ll travel with duffle bags to her chosen institution — a prototypical Ivy with a grassy quad. When we spoke yesterday, she was tremblingly euphoric.
So here she is. A teenager. An African-American. A woman. An immigrant. A Mormon by choice. “Did I tell you? I’m going to double major in women’s studies!” I warn her not to overload her first semester – to get used to the new routine first. I tell her I’m proud of her. Unspeakably so. There’s a sense of destiny about her. Gillian believes – in herself, in God, in the gospel, in the future — and this church had something to do with that. I find that humbling.
I also worry. Someday, she will almost certainly encounter elements of church history, doctrine, or culture that perplex or hurt her. She’s a reader and a thinker. She asks hard questions. She’s passionate about women’s rights, civil rights, human rights. Since Sunday, I have been praying that when those times come, women will be placed in her path to nurture her. Because we need Gillian in this church. My daughters (if I’m so blessed) need to hear her Young Women’s lessons and read about her research discoveries. I need her; she reminds me why I am both a Mormon and a feminist: We worship a God who nurtures the divinity within us. We hold as scripture: “[God] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female . . . all are alike unto God.”
I believe in this. I believe in her.