At the Pulpit: A Women’s Outreach Event
Recently I was invited by the Women’s Outreach Committee of the LDS Public Affairs Department to attend a meet and greet with the editors and some of the authors featured in At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-Day Saint Women. This just-released book features 54 sermons from various Mormon women, many renowned, like Lucy Mack Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and Julie Beck, but others less well known, such as Ellenor Jones, a woman of mixed race whose sermon on prayer was published in the Women’s Exponent in 1882.
I applaud this latest project from the Church History Department, headed up by Kate Holbrook and Jenny Reeder. Highlighting women as theologians and making their words and thoughts widely accessible is a worthy endeavor. For women like myself, who hunger for insights and experiences of Mormon women, a project like this means something. It means that the LDS Church is making a real attempt to hold women up as spiritual authorities and considers this an important enough endeavor to devote researchers, time, and money to it. This book will be a useful resource for people committed to promoting Mormon women’s voices, since these women’s thoughts on faith, prayer, forgiveness can easily be incorporated into talks and lessons.
I just received the book yesterday, so I haven’t had a chance to do more than glance through it and read a few sermons, but I get the sense that these talks fall well within the the realm of what one might expect Mormon speakers to offer. Unsurprisingly, few grapple with issues of gender or race. But some, such as Elaine Jack’s and Chieko Okazaki’s sermons, strike me as fresh and grounded in the reality of women’s lives, and I appreciate that greatly. I’m excited to delve into it more in the next few days, and I expect I’ll find other sermons that resonate with me.
The event itself, which included a Q&A with Kate and a handful of sermon authors (Elaine Jack, Gladys Sitati, Virginia Pearce and Jutta Busche) was fascinating in and of itself. It was held in the Relief Society building, and there was something powerful about being surrounded by portrait after portrait of Mormon women leaders, as we simultaneously listened to Mormon women leaders discuss their contributions. The audience (which was comprised of “women influencers,” mainly bloggers or people with online presences) asked some good questions and the panelists gave thoughtful answers. One of my favorite responses came from Virginia Pearce after a woman in the audience asked the panel about how to contribute to society while also staying grounded in LDS teachings about motherhood being women’s primary role. Pearce responded that there is an ambiguity to women’s paths in life, and that it is up to us to get comfortable with that ambiguity, continually seek, and figure out our own paths.
A couple of times during the event, questions about Mormon women’s authority and importance arose. Exponent’s own April Young Bennett asked if there were any plans for this book to be used as church curriculum, as a counter balance to our nearly 20 years of using male-voiced Presidents of the Church manuals. Apparently not, though Kate mentioned they were working with the curriculum committee and magazine people so that more of these women’s stories and voices could be incorporated here and there.
The most powerful moment for me came when a woman asked how the panelists maintained such happiness and faith, given that this woman herself struggled so hard with our male-authored scriptures and male-focused God discourse and theology. Where was her Mother? Her question was sincere and raw and filled with pain and ambivalence. The panel could not offer her much of a response other than emphasizing faith (which is exactly what I would expect them to say in this context), but my heart sang that the question was even asked. That was more important to me than any answer the panel could have given. Her question was voiced, and consequently powerful institutionally embedded LDS women and men heard it and heard her pain and confusion. They sat with their discomfort as they struggled (albeit briefly) to respond. God bless this woman for her courage and vulnerability.
Another favorite moment of the event was when an older black woman thanked Sister Sitaki for her reflections, which included a tribute to her grandmother. This sister affirmed that in various cultures around the world, including her own, the words of grandmothers are treasured and valued. She also mentioned that when she was doing missionary work for the church, she discovered that women’s baptisms weren’t counted as progress for the church. Only the baptisms of potential priesthood holders were counted. She said that this was a very sad realization for her and that we as a church need to do some thinking about where to go and how to affirm the fact that women as well as men are made in the image of God. I was happy that this woman had this chance to share these thoughts and experiences, which emphasized the importance of women — and that there are some LDS practices and priorities in place which do not always seem to be in line with that conviction.
I thought this was a great event and I applaud the organizers for opening the panel up for questions from the audience. I’m sure they knew that such a decision was a risk and that they might get a hard question or two. So it was a brave decision to let go of the control and allow some authentic sharing and interaction between panelists and audience.
Kuddos to Kate Holbrook and Jenny Reeder for their work on this important project. I love the vision behind it, I love the introductory remarks written by the editors before each of the sermons in the book, I love that they tried to find a diverse array of voices, and I loved that this event they planned allowed for some authentic sharing between the audience and panelists. May there be many more such projects and events in the future.