Feed My Soul

I haven’t attended Sunday Relief Society meetings regularly for over a decade. The lessons drove me away. I grew tired of the endlessly recycled themes: Restoration, Honoring the Priesthood, Motherhood, Sustaining the leaders, Temple blessings, Sharing the gospel. Messages didn’t change even when the manuals rotated through the lives of all the past Church presidents. I suppose that demonstrated the permanence of the prophets’ teachings. What it didn’t do was provide relevance to my life.

The new manual, Daughters in My Kingdom, is more woman and Relief Society centered than previous manuals—and it features quotes from women leaders and stories of women working in Relief Society. What it does not do, and what I yearn for, is provide examples of women who provide service outside of Church callings—service on their own without being directed by Church leaders.

An I’m a Mormon ad features Cecile Pelous, a French fashion designer who has founded an orphanage to care for 154 Nepalese orphans. Pelous and thirteen other exemplary women are featured in Mormon Women: Portraits & Conversations.

Included in this book are Carol Gray, who organized a relief mission to Bosnia during that war—with supply trucks driven into the battle zone by Relief Society sisters from her Sheffield, England ward. Also featured are:  Angela Cummings, business woman in Salt Lake, Maria Consuelo Dimaya, former guerilla medic in the Philippines, Lea Rosser, city manager in Australia, Victoria Fong Kesler, Chinese-American mother of 12, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize winner, Catherine Stokes, African-American nurse who was born to a Mississippi sharecropper’s family, Tsobinar Tadevosyan, Armenian survivor of a Stalinist gulag, Anne Perry, mystery novelist, Kiyo Tanaka,  Japanese news anchor for the deaf, Raquel Ribeiro,  city council member in Brazil, Christine Durham, Utah Supreme Court Justice, and poet Emma Lou Thayne. Olene Walker, former Utah governor, wrote the forward to this book.

Two other Mormon women I’d like to learn more about are Ariel Bybee and Karen Ashton.  A former Metropolitan Opera Star, Ariel Bybee also served as Relief Society President in her ward.  Karen Ashton, mother of 11 children, is a major contributor to quality of life in Utah County. A fund raiser and supporter of the Orem City Library, she also founded the Timpanogos Story Telling Festival and co-founded Thanksgiving Point.

There are scores of other Mormon women who exemplify a commitment to excellence in their lives—exemplary women who have handled challenges in their lives, including divorce. Let’s have lessons about women of faith who live beyond the circle of church and family. I want examples of flesh and blood women of today’s world—not hallowed pioneers. I hunger to learn about women notable in their own right.

Crossposted at http://annmjohnson.wordpress.com.

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Role Models

When I was in college in the early ‘60s, Stella Harris Oaks was a role model for young, Mormon women—at least in Utah. Stella, a community pillar, was often referred to as Provo’s city mother. Her husband died when their oldest child was just seven. With no Social Security benefits for widows and children back then, Stella returned to teaching to support her family.

Pursuing excellence was part of Stella’s creed. She even left the security of Utah to earn her Master’s Degree from Columbia University. She founded the adult education program in Provo and served on the city council and as assistant mayor for many years.

Stella was a single mom with a more than 40 hour a week job while her kids were growing up—but they survived and thrived. Her oldest son became an attorney, a BYU president, and an apostle; her second son became an ophthalmologist and, I believe, a regional representative. I recall her daughter being an outstanding student body officer when I was a sophomore at Provo High.

When I was a freshman at the College of Southern Utah (now SUU) in Cedar City, Stella spoke to the women students. She admonished us to not only finish our education, but to work to improve our communities. She counseled us about time use:  “Mormon women are wonderful at working in the church, but they need to go beyond. You don’t have to spend all your time on housework. If you must iron your sheets, don’t dust mop under your bed.” (Strange as it seems, some women in 1960 actually ironed sheets.)

Stella’s message was unusual, but not controversial at that time. Fifty years ago, women and girls heard very little from the pulpit about our divine role as mothers and the need for us to nurture children. Apparently, leaders assumed we knew.

My question is:  Why are women employed outside the home no longer seen as role models for Mormon women? When Chieko Okazaki became a counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency in 1990, her occupation as a teacher was mentioned in the Ensign, but I didn’t learn she had taught while her children were young until I read it in one of her books. Why didn’t the Ensign provide that information? I could have handled my balancing act as a working mother in the ‘80s much better by knowing how Chieko and her husband managed their home front while both worked. Instead of help, all I received from church as a working mom was criticism. In the eyes of the Church, I was failing my family by helping provide for our monetary needs.

Church rhetoric extolling the virtues of fulltime homemaking and the evils of “working mothers” ramped up in the 1970s. I can’t help thinking the ERA fight—and Sonia Johnson’s well-publicized opposition to the Church stance—permanently scarred Church leaders who apparently believed their own invective against ERA:

The ERA could endanger time-honored moral values by challenging laws that have safeguarded the family. . . Legislation that could blur those [fathers’ and mothers’] roles gives cause for concern. . . . The ERA could make it more difficult for wives and mothers to remain at home because it could require the removal of legal requirements that make a husband responsible for the support of his wife and children.

ERA did not pass, but even without the constitutional amendment, education and job opportunities opened for women. Male Church leaders since that time apparently believe Mormon women must be continually reminded of the importance of their home and children. Church lessons and talks routinely tell us motherhood is important. Condescending messages that we are awesome and the Church couldn’t function without us performing our traditional roles are delivered at nearly every conference.

I doubt that honoring successful single moms will convince many women that single-parenting is better than a two-parent home. What it would do is make single moms feel more accepted at church. After all, who needs a role model more than a single mom struggling with kids, a job, and lack of financial security?

I also doubt that many Mormon girls will choose to remain single if they become aware of successful single women with fulfilling lives. What may happen is that they will feel less pressure to marry a poor prospect.

What I am asking to see—and maybe the “I’m a Mormon” web page is a harbinger of such things—is to have women with interesting careers, regardless of marital and motherhood status, featured in lesson manuals for both Young Women and Relief Society.

And while I’m asking, why doesn’t somebody write a complete biography of the awesome Stella Harris Oaks?

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Changing the Church: One Pantsuit at a Time

Young Mormon feminists fill me with awe. Intelligent and well-educated, they have or are working towards fulfilling professional careers—even if their current role is SAHM. Not so my generation. When I graduated from a small high school in Utah County in 1959, only five of the 55 girls in my high school class went directly to college. And why should they? The only jobs for women we knew about were teacher, nurse, and secretary. Smart girls took typing and shorthand during high school, went to work in a local bank or business, and saved their money for a trousseau. Girls who preferred filing fingernails to filing folders went to beauty school. Of course, many girls married within weeks of graduation. Only a few of us with no immediate matrimonial prospects opted for college.

It wasn’t that most occupations were closed to women in those days—it was mostly because we didn’t know any women in professional fields.  We also weren’t prepared for higher education. When I chose to enroll in Algebra II as a high school junior, the counselor asked why a girl would take that class. Those of us who did attend college mostly majored in elementary education—so we’d have “something to fall back on, just in case.” A few super-brains majored in English, but elementary ed or, at BYU, Human Development and Family Relations (HDFR) was preferred because we could use what we learned with our own children.

Although ERA failed to pass in the 1970s, the discussion changed American culture. Separate laws banning gender discrimination in the work place passed. Jobs opened—telephone operators and nurses could be male. Radio announcers could be female—it took a few more years for women to break into TV.

The ERA debate stirred reaction in Mormondom. Rhetoric ramped up on the sanctity of the home and women’s roles as homemakers and caregivers. Sonia Johnson was seen as an example of what happens to women who let Satan distract them from their divine role as mothers and followers of the Priesthood. In the mid-70s, I took a group of bright, talented14 and15-year-old girls from my Seattle ward out for ice cream. Every one of them had the goal of attending BYU and majoring in HDFR.

Yet, even the Church cannot resist outside change forever. One of the most influential laws passed in the ERA period was Title 9 which mandated equal funding for girls’ and women’s sports in schools and colleges. The YW sports program expanded to accommodate girls who learned competitive team sports in school. The ‘70s was also a time of serious last days’ speculation and angst in the Church, and the YW camping program was expanded to teach Mormon girls survival skills.

I doubt Church Authorities anticipated the effects of young women competing in sports and learning to survive in the wild. Girls who defeat opponents on the basketball court are not afraid to tackle male-dominated science and math classes. Girls who build a snow cave and sleep outside in sub-zero weather know they can go abroad and serve missions. When our oldest daughter received her mission call 19 years ago, she was the first girl ever to serve a mission from our ward. Within the next few years five other girls from our ward chose fulltime missions.

Pandora is out of the box. No way can these capable, confident young women be content in the kitchen and nursery. How can they not question a role that relegates them to “help meet?” They have much to offer, and they want that opportunity.

Mormon feminists are not trying to undermine men. They’re asking for participation in ordinances performed for their children—for the opportunity to hold their own baby during a Church blessing—for the opportunity to give a “Mother’s Blessing” to their children without criticism. They see the contradiction in a proclamation which states that husbands and wives are equal partners, but the husbands preside. And, in a Church that proclaims ongoing revelation, Mormon women long to hear more about their Heavenly Mother as their role model.

In the modern world, men have learned to work with and for competent women. Many young Mormon men recognize that the Church would benefit from hearing from the other half of the congregation in decision-making councils. Elderly leaders, however, lack these experiences. I suspect their wives and daughters are generally satisfied with the status quo—and I doubt many elderly gentlemen listen to their granddaughters.

Change in Mormon Church structure doesn’t always come from the top. Sunday School and Primary were begun by individual members who saw a need and acted. I suspect women’s role in the Church will be changed by individual women who are willing to speak their mind in meetings, who talk about Heavenly Mother, and who are even willing to show up in church wearing nice pantsuits.

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Out of Touch Leaders

It’s easy for Mormons to scoff at elderly, celibate Catholic bishops making decisions about birth control for married Catholics, but I’m afraid our own GAs are equally insulated from problems of average Mormons. Except for July and August, General Authorities rarely sit through a three-hour block in their home ward. Even then they are unlikely to be asked to substitute in Primary or to accompany Scouts to camp.

When GAs do attend their home ward, it is a homogenous group of white, middle class Mormons. I doubt many GAs live in lower income areas on Salt Lake’s west side. Those whose addresses I’m aware of live in middle or upper middle class suburban neighborhoods. Those with high income careers before their Church calling occupy the hillsides overlooking the valley. Do they have any idea how their policies affect members outside their circle of associates?

Sure, GAs travel the world, visiting stakes and missions. But who do they talk to? Not to the drop outs and less actives who skip their meetings. Brief visits to the field allow little time for meeting members not holding stake callings. Information GAs receive about average Church members and their problems is filtered through anxious-to-please Stake Presidents.

Another isolating factor is that General Authorities aren’t subject to problems many Church members face. They never have to worry about losing their jobs, health insurance, and retirement benefits. GAs also receive perks beyond job security. In the past GAs, their wives and children enjoyed discounts from ZCMI—and possibly other Church businesses. Apparently, they can be exempted from certain policies. DMBA, the Church-owned health insurance company, has long excluded birth control prescriptions from coverage. I know of one instance where the daughter of a GA was denied insurance coverage for her BC pills. She called Daddy, and DMBA picked up the tab for her pills. Nice for her, but unfair to other women on Church health insurance.

General Authorities do work long hours—spending nearly every weekend visiting stakes and missions and speaking at conferences. Of course, they are exempted from ward callings. Do they realize that many ward members work long hours, sometimes at two jobs, and still need to fit service to their wards into the remaining hours of the week?

Mormons are told that Church activity is a blessing—and it is—to a point. When I was teaching full time, working on a master’s degree, and trying to meet the needs of five teenagers at home, I hated to hear my phone ring. I knew it would be someone from the ward asking me to do something I had no time for—and I didn’t feel I could say no.

A few years ago, the Church added another duty to callings, home and visiting teaching, temple work, and assignments at welfare farms and canneries. When the Church announced that weekly building cleaning would be done by ward members, I assumed it was a temporary measure to offset losses suffered by Church investments in a bad economy. I also assumed that expenses were being cut in other areas, but I haven’t noticed any. The rate of temple building—surely a major expense—has not been reduced. A very expensive renovation of the burned Provo Tabernacle into a temple is currently underway.

Certainly temples provide spiritual opportunities for Saints in far flung countries throughout the world, as well as jobs for faithful members in those countries. Still, the cost to members who are expected to finance temple building and maintenance—including four in Salt Lake County and four in operation or under construction in Utah County—needs to be considered.

In a wonderful piece in this month’s Sunstone MagazineDana Haight Cattani outlines the burdens the Saturday cleaning schedule places on ward members. She quotes an exhausted ward member who confided to her as they finished their meetinghouse chores, “I’d rather pay 11% tithing.”

Each week has only 168 hours, and family budgets are finite. When the Church demands too much time or money, individuals and families suffer. I suspect some of the drop out problem which currently concerns Church hierarchy is not due to hurt feelings, loss of belief, or desire for a glass of wine with dinner. Some of it is just plain fatigue—physical and financial.

Since Church leaders are fallible human beings who can’t always distinguish inspiration from desperation or correlation, GAs at every level need to leave their ivory towers periodically, spend a year as a regular ward member, and feel the effects of their own policies. Alternately, callings for all General Authorities could have time limits.

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Helping My Sister Find Faith

My younger sister, Pelly, has terminal cancer. She lost her faith in Mormonism following a mission where she heard several contacts relate their search for God. These good people had investigated many churches, prayed, and were miraculously guided to the right church. The problem for Pelly was—the church to which these sincere people were led and which gave them peace wasn’t the one she represented. A bad marriage finished her faith in our family religion.

Now that she is facing death, Pelly seeks belief in some kind of afterlife. She has sought solace with Catholic nuns, from Tibetan chants, and through Zen meditation. Pelly calls to discuss religious philosophy. She trusts me not to try to talk her into our childhood faith. I have no answers, but I’m open to any theory that provides comfort.

Because she’s interested in the possibility of reincarnation, I sent Pelly a copy of a book I’d just started reading, The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. She called a few days after receiving her book. She’d read the entire 400 pages. I agreed with my sister that reincarnation sounds more fair than Mormonism— having multiple lifetimes in which to work out our salvation rather than one strike, you’re out for the rest of eternity.

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