International Series: Don’t Drink the Water

This is the first in our International Series here at The Exponent – over the next two weeks, we’ll be showcasing a variety of perspectives and viewpoints about life in the global church.  We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

mexico city aerial

An aerial shot of a small portion of Mexico City. It boasts an urban population of over 21 million people.

“Don’t drink the water.  Ever.”

That’s the first thing I remember learning after I stepped off the plane in Mexico City, having newly relocated there with my family at the tender age of twelve.  I was wide-eyed and terrified – I spoke no Spanish, so I couldn’t read any signs or orient myself to this brand new world.  I couldn’t eavesdrop on conversations to figure out where to go or how to get there.  I just clutched my suitcases tightly and followed my parents through an endless maze of people, into a car, and eventually to the house that I would call home for the next six years of my life.

“Remember, don’t drink the water.  Don’t take any taxis that aren’t approved – you can’t guarantee that unauthorized cabs will take you to where you need to go and that they won’t overcharge you or mug you.  If you need directions, ask multiple people – people will tell you directions even if they don’t know what they’re talking about, because it’s rude not to.  If you’re in a market, expect that they will quote you double the price of what they’ll actually sell it for.  Don’t worry about the guards armed with semi-automatic weapons outside the bank/grocery store/McDonald’s – they have to pay for their own bullets, so it’s unlikely that they’ll shoot them unless it’s a real emergency.  And don’t ever, ever, ever trust the police.  They’ll make you pay a bribe (at best) or kidnap you (at worst).  But don’t worry – you’re gonna love it here!”

Over the next six years, I developed a sixth sense for navigating the biggest city in the world as a blonde, blue-eyed, white girl.  I drove a low-profile VolksWagen bug so as to not attract attention from the police or thieves.  In the event that I did get pulled over, I knew to only lower my window enough to talk to the policeman and to hold my license up to the window, and to never – under any circumstances – hand it over.  If things went poorly, I knew to hold up a business card from a friend’s parent who worked at the US Embassy – that was usually enough to make me more trouble for them than it was worth.  I learned Spanish, stopped noticing the armed guards (who never did shoot), and depended on myself (and nobody else) to get me from Point A to Point B.  I learned to walk the fine line between being adventurous and being safe – as an American, I knew I had a certain amount of protection, because most violent criminals didn’t want to possibly deal with the blow-back of the US government.  But I also knew not to be stupid – just because people weren’t going to shoot me didn’t mean that they weren’t going to rob me or assault me.  I developed a strong sense of mistrust in almost everything I did – I knew to expect that any car would cut me off at any time (as they usually did).  I expected that anybody giving me advice or directions was either trying to sell me something or lead me into a compromising situation.  I expected to gather as much information as possible about any given situation, to review it with a healthy dose of skepticism, and then to make the best decision I could.


This sense of suspicion, combined with a large dose of luck, kept me mostly out of harm’s way during my teenage years in Mexico City.  I wasn’t mugged (like many friends were), or kidnapped (like my classmate or family friend), but I did have to pay an occasional bribe and interact with some unsavory members of law enforcement.  This mistrust bled into other areas of my life – I began to question the motivations behind everybody’s actions, large and small.  Do I trust my American teacher in his telling of the Mexican-American war, where we were tearfully admonished to “Remember the Alamo?”  Or do I trust the next year’s Mexican teacher who tells the same story as America’s violent and merciless theft of Texas from a sovereign nation?  If a doctor suggests an expensive medical intervention, is he/she doing it with my best interest in mind, or because he/she stands to make a lot of money from it?  And when I was living in a country where it was common knowledge that the previous president stole millions of dollars, it wasn’t a huge leap for me to think that Bill Clinton actually did “have sexual relations with that woman.”  I found that just because somebody has “power” or “authority,” it doesn’t always make them right.

So when my bishop came into my Young Women class and explained to us that premarital sex is a sin next to murder, I was skeptical, even with his seeming scriptural support.  When he said that the atonement won’t save us when we inevitably get AIDS from being promiscuous, I began to doubt his teachings even more.  And when he said that even though Christ will forgive us, no returned missionary would want to marry “damaged goods,” I was outright incensed.  It definitely helped that when I went home and related the event to my also-generally-resistant-to-authority father, he looked at me and said, point-blank, “Well he’s wrong.  You just can’t believe everything you hear at church.”

I don’t doubt that I would’ve had a subversive streak even if I had grown up in the US, but I know that my inherent suspicion of power and authority was extensively nurtured by growing up outside my native country.  When I went back to the US for college and couldn’t remember the words to “The Pledge of Allegiance” (and when I questioned the USA’s motivations in starting a war in the Middle East), I was called anti-American.  When I attended classes at BYU and scoffed at the conservative political bias of my PoliSci professor to a classmate, I was told that I wasn’t the expert, so I was wrong, and my opinion didn’t matter.  But that’s just it – after six years of navigating a foreign country and questioning every little thing in my life, my opinion DID matter – a LOT.  I had learned to trust my intuition, to listen to that pit in my gut, and to make my own assessments about life instead of being told what I should or should not believe/think/do.  And while I think everybody goes through this stage of questioning authority to some degree or another in life, it felt like my life as an expatriate teenager made me go through it at hyper-speed.  I suppose it’s no wonder that you now find me blogging at a feminist Mormon website!

As my time in Mexico City was drawing to a close, and I was packing my bags to head to college, I remember staring at the sink in my bathroom.  For six longs years, whenever I woke up in the middle of the night, I had to stumble down a long hall, down a flight of stairs, through the dining room and kitchen, and all the way to the water cooler at the far end of the house to get a drink of filtered water.  Never once, no matter how tempted, had I broken the cardinal rule of living in Mexico: don’t drink the water.  And I debated: do I take the chance?  Is it worth the risk?  Should I always just listen to what people tell me to do?  I picked up a cup, filled it, and held it in my hand.

And then I dumped it down the sink.  But it wasn’t out of blind obedience, or without any thought of weighing my options.  It was because I knew it was a bad idea – I had heard enough tales of severe gastrointestinal distress to know that it wasn’t a risk worth taking.  Even as I ultimately followed the advice of those in authority, I made my own decision.  That is what living in Mexico City taught me to do.


I could write volumes on how living internationally shaped me as a person, and especially as an LDS woman.  We experience the church through the lenses we’ve been given, and while many of us have been given the American lens, it’s prudent to recognize that while church headquarters is in Salt Lake City, not everybody in the global church sees through that lens.  I’m eager to read the international perspectives that we have coming up, and we hope that our readers will gain a better appreciation for the diversity of experience that can be found in the international LDS church.

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Meet the Mormons

Apparently the church is releasing a new film on October 10th entitled “Meet the Mormons.”  Per the news release, the “film is an opportunity for people to meet — in a very personal way — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  It documents the lives of six different members of the church in different countries, ranging from a (female!) kickboxing champion in Costa Rica, to the head coach of the Naval Academy football team, to a WWII veteran who participated in the Berlin airlift in the 1940′s.

You can watch the trailer below:

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A Book Review: Girls Who Choose God


Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Courageous Women from the Bible by McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding, Illustrated by Kathleen Peterson

Girls Who Choose God is a book I wish I’d had as a child, and am thrilled to have for my children. Featuring 11 women from the Bible, this lovely book was conceived when my dear friend Bethany’s three-year-old daughter asked her, “Mom, where are the girls?” when looking through her cartoon book of scripture stories. Bethany wanted her daughter to know not only were girls there, but they have stories that are stirring in their boldness, unconventionality, morality, and dedication to changing the world for good. The women featured are,

Mahlah and her Sisters
Mary the Mother of Jesus
Samaritan Woman at the Well
Mary and Martha
A Generous Widow
A Healed Woman
Mary Magdalene

Each of their stories framed as a choice. For example, when Miriam sees Pharaoh’s daughter approach the basket in the river, the authors write, “Miriam had a choice to make. She could stay hidden to avoid getting in trouble, or she could speak to Pharaoh’s daughter in hopes of saving her brother.” The stories conclude with the choice the girl or woman made, and then provide a question for the reader. From Miriam’s story: “What choices have you made to bring your family closer together?”

I like that the women featured run the gamut from sister to prophetess, and I like that the questions are far-reaching, not at all pointing girls toward deferential female roles. There is Miriam’s question that may seem at first to point toward a role type-cast for women (nurturing families). But there is also Deborah’s question: “When have you chosen to be a leader?” And Esther’s question, “When have you chosen to stand up for others?” When I read this book with my kids they are enthusiastic about answering those questions, they see themselves as leaders, peacemakers, and helpers.

I love that the book uses inclusive language. Male names are not always first (“Eve and Adam” instead of “Adam and Eve”). The authors use the word God instead of Heavenly Father throughout the book. I notice a great effort they’ve made to use language to shine light on women playing the key role in stories that make up our spiritual heritage.

The women are described as people children can aspire to be, with qualities they might see in themselves. “Miriam was a quick thinker. [Her] boldness rescued her brother and reunited her family.” I am used to stories of prophets and heroes from the scriptures being almost always men, and it surprised me how I felt reading about the widow who gave her two mites: “Jesus admired her noble deed. He called his disciples over to learn from her actions.” To learn from her. Our girls need stories told in this way to help them see themselves as full agents in the gospel.  The words “bold” and “courageous” appear several times in this book, words usually used to describe people like David and Nephi, but now used to describe Mary and Mahlah.

I love that the authors included the Daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah and her Sisters), because this is one of my favorite Bible stories. To me this story has delicious subversive potential, but the question that follows is so perfectly relevant to children (and adults): “When have you chosen to solve a problem peacefully?” I didn’t know of this story until I was an adult. I hope it becomes more well known through this book.

Girls Who Choose God is unique. I don’t know of another illustrated book on women in the Bible, and it’s definitely a first for an LDS audience. The illustrations are striking and accessible, and match the text perfectly in their portrayal of bold women. Excitingly, the Church has acquired the paintings and will install them in the Conference Center this year.  Finally, the authors are donating 100% of the profits to a charity called Interweave Solutions that supports educational and entrepreneurial endeavors for women.

I think this an important book for two reasons: it’s the first of it’s kind, and it’s providing something we have far too little of — examples of strong, godly women.  Stories matter.  They don’t determine what girls can dream of becoming, but they absolutely inform it, and these are stories I want my daughter to know.  It’s also a beautiful book, in prose and in the artwork.  I hope you have a chance to own it.


*If you’ll be at the Exponent Retreat this year, you can buy a copy from Bethany there.

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compartmentWhen I started my faith journey away from Mormonism, I was often met with one request: just ignore the parts of the doctrine that were bothering me. More specifically, I was told to separate my beliefs about social issues like feminism, homosexuality and race in secular matters from my church beliefs. It was fine to apply a feminist lens to the world I was living in, just not the  church. I was asked to compartmentalize.

I found I was incapable of doing that. I was unable to say “I’m not okay with this kind of behavior outside of the church, but I’m fine with it inside of the church.” My bishop said to me, “If you put aside the feminist stuff, how do you feel about the rest of the church.” He didn’t understand that I saw the church as a whole and was not able to just put aside the parts I did not like. My mother is a feminist, but remains active in the church. When I asked her how, she said she doesn’t apply the same criteria to the church as she does to other things. I’ve had Facebook arguments where someone has said in the same post that separate but equal laws are not okay, but it is fine for the church to teach separate but equal ideas. In all of these instances I find myself reeling. How does one compartmentalize like that?

I’ve started to wonder if that ability is the key for some people to stay religious. As I hear people’s stories about Mormonism, I see people in very similar circumstances choose to leave and choose to stay. Of course there are millions of reasons people leave and stay in religions, but is the ability to compartmentalize one of them?

I can’t divide the church from my “secular” beliefs. I can’t divide the church into bits and ignore the ones I don’t like. That inability is really the core of why I left. I wonder if I had that skill if I would still be Mormon.

There is a quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald that says: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Does the ability to compartmentalize make one more intelligent?

Can you compartmentalize? How has it effected you?


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We have to tell our stories


Just over a year ago, I sat in a cabin with some of my dearest friends.  They were women that I had gotten to know over the years when we had all lived near each other, but most of us had since moved away to different locations.  We had kept in touch via email – we had actually spent most of a year discussing various issues in Mormonism (particularly women’s issues), and we had enjoyed such a rich conversation that we decided to meet up for a weekend retreat.  We left 47 of our 50 combined children at home, packed our favorite treats and games, and met up in the mountains – away from the routine demands of life.  After a day of playing games, gorging on cupcakes, and catching up, we broke into small groups.

And we started to tell our stories.

As a background, I had heard about the Mormon Women’s Oral History Project through a podcast I had listened to – Caroline Kline and Claudia Bushman spoke with Dan Wotherspoon about their book “Mormon Women Have Their Say” (reviewed here by Rachel), and they talked about the project.  As my friend Melissa Mason and I planned our informal friends’ retreat, we talked about it and thought that we could use the Oral History Project as the central activity of the weekend – we thought it would be neat to hear everybody talk about their lives and hear some more background.  So we got some basic information from Claudia, included some USB recording sticks in our packing gear, and sat down to listen to one another.

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Guest Post: No More Fear-Driven Faith for Me!

Judy profileWe’re delighted to showcase some of Exponent II’s founding mothers and long-time contributors in the upcoming days and weeks. We look to them, those who have seen and weathered periods of apostasy accusations and members facing Church discipline, for their thoughts on the events that are taking place as a new generation of progressive Mormons search for our place in the Church.

No More Fear-Driven Faith for Me!
by Judy Dushku

After Sonia Johnson was excommunicated from my church in 1979, the women in Exponent II invited her to meet with us and discuss her views. Since we were also Mormon feminists and supported the ERA as she did, we thought it appropriate and indicative of our solidarity with many of her ideas. She came to Boston for a media event, and then came to my home for a warm and lively discussion. Laurel Ulrich later commented that Sonia seemed brittle and fearful; we were sympathetic and felt compassion.

As was the practice with Exponent II, our Board decided that we would publish an issue about Sonia Johnson’s ordeal and her views where we would invite a number of women to write their thoughts concerning this pivotal and highly volatile event. We were long-committed to that approach to controversial subjects: identify the issue, then invite many LDS women to share their points of view in our paper. We solicited opinions and soon had a paper ready to paste up for publication. On the night before we went to press, four (as best I can recall) of our number decided to have their names taken off our masthead. They did not want to be associated with an issue of Exponent II that might appear to endorse Sonia’s positions or behavior, lest we get excommunicated, too. They did not resign in protest, they said, but in fear.

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