Leaving the Old Ship Zion to Walk on Water

IMG_9053By Jenny

I noticed a theme of water analogies in the Sunday afternoon session of Conference.  These analogies made me think about perspective and how we perceive the world differently based on our different experiences.  First Elder Ballard shared a familiar narrative: The Old Ship Zion.  We are all in a boat representing the church and we must hold tightly to it and obey our trusty guides lest we fall overboard and drown.  Because of this narrative, I have spent my whole life fearing the unsure waters of the world, while I have had absolute faith in the boat, its captain, and my life jacket.  Little did I know that those would be the very things to cause doubt and cognitive dissonance for me.

I began to realize that my faith was slightly misplaced.  After all, faith has never been about staying safely on the shoreline or holding tightly to a boat.  Look at our great scriptural heroes.  They didn’t fear the water, they controlled it and conquered it with their faith.  Moses didn’t say, “Well it’s too dangerous to cross this sea so I guess we will stay on solid ground.”  No, with faith greater than his fear and uncertainty, he parted the waters.  Nephi and the Jaredites didn’t give up on discovering the promised land because the unknown waters were too scary for them.  No, they put their faith in God and conquered those waters.  Sure, they stayed in the boats, but in this case, the boats represent the unknown, not the safe, sure bet.

Peter didn’t stay in the boat.  He took those scary unsure steps out into the raging sea so that his faith could grow.  Like Peter, I also had to leave the boat in order for my faith to grow.  Sometimes it is necessary to plunge into the raging waters in order to build enough faith to walk on the water.  Isn’t that what life is for?  To discover our own divinity and power, not to obey mandates that take us all down one smooth safely charted course?  When I left the boat, all my ward members and leaders saw was me leaving the safety of the boat.  They didn’t see what I saw.  They didn’t see the Savior standing with outstretched arms, beckoning me, saying, “You can do it.  You were born to walk on the water, not to be afraid of it.”  So I can understand why their perspective is different from my own.

But just because I got out of the boat and learned to walk doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to come back to the Old Ship Zion and be with the people I love.  In fact, I wanted to jump back in the boat and tell them all about the amazing experience I had just had on the water.  Unfortunately my shipmates and trusty guides are all used to the familiar narrative that Elder Ballard shared.  From their perspective I had already drowned.  So they steered the ship away from me in hopes that no one else would fall over.  From my perspective, I was clinging to the boat when they pried my hands loose and sailed away, throwing my Mormon belongings overboard as they went.

Later in the conference session, Elder Larry S. Kacher talked about currents.  I enjoyed his perspective at first, because he was sharing from his personal experience.  He talked about a current he found when he joined the church that led him in a positive direction.  His family and friends couldn’t see it from his perspective.  I related to that because I have also found a current that is leading my life in a positive direction, but my friends think that I am trapped in the very negative current that Elder Kacher goes on to talk about.  He mentions two specific people he knows distantly and states that they have been swept up in negative currents that caused them to leave the church.  I hated these second-hand accounts of these two different men because he reduced their experiences to a formulaic statement that I doubt actually reflects or resonates with their true experience.  When we try to speak for another person and their experience which is different from our own, we are bound to get it wrong.  We need to stop doing this as a church.  Unfortunately I hear all too often these second-hand accounts from local and general leaders.  It’s sort of like an acceptable form of gossip.  But it’s not acceptable…not really.

I know that no one can share my story and get it exactly right.  Least of all, someone who won’t try to understand things from my perspective, but uses an old familiar narrative to prove a point.  My story has been shared publicly by my own leaders as a way to instill fear in others about the water.  After several meetings with my bishop and stake president in which they neither listened to nor tried to understand me, my bishop spoke in Relief Society and Sunday School about my situation.  I guarantee he did not get my story right, but it fulfilled his purpose of maintaining one narrative in the ward, that if you leave the boat you will drown, that if you aren’t careful about what you get into online, you will be swept away in the current.  When church leaders like Elder Kacher share other people’s stories in conference to promote this one-sided narrative, it gives local leaders the feeling that they can do it too.  The problem with maintaining this one narrative is that it doesn’t account for the fact that faith is an individual thing.  One narrative does not work for everyone.  That’s why it is important to listen to each other’s perspectives, and to understand that the church may be a good current for some, but it can also be a negative current for others.

A few years ago I tried to capture my perspective, conveniently enough, in a water analogy.  I had just broken through the mounting cognitive dissonance and realized that the raging sea is not what I had once believed it to be.  I felt a mix of exhilaration and sadness.  Exhilaration because I was learning to walk on water.  Sadness because I knew exactly how my experience would be perceived by my friends and family.  I knew that it would be almost impossible to help them see it from my perspective.  So, regardless of the narrative the church leaders are sharing about people like me who have experienced a faith transition, here is my narrative, based on my experience and perspective:

Oh to go back! Sweet sweet oblivion! My path is full of pain and anguish. I didn’t want to come head on with the construct of the world that I have always known. But once the cracks began to form, the water started seeping in. I tried to plug them up, but some cracks were just too deep. Soon my dam broke and the water came faster than I could handle. How much easier it might have been if I wasn’t surrounded by people whose dams are sure. They look at me and say, “You are only a ruined dam. You gave up everything because you let the cracks take over. You should have stayed on the safe side. Read your scriptures, pray, strengthen your testimony…” But I am NOT a broken dam! I am a river going beyond. I see a world that they will never know as long as they are a wall built to keep things in. I am not departing from the things I gained through religion. A dammed lake that becomes a river takes with it the essence of what it is. I take it all with me as I search other paths and seek for fertile ground. I keep the good and beautiful things and let go of the dirt that tries to follow. My paths are exciting and new. I change the world around me while my world shapes and directs me. I have a relationship with life and God that I never knew was possible during my time as a solid wall. Back then I was too busy keeping my lake stagnant and still, to notice the complexity of everything. Now the fear is gone and I am free. Free to roam, free to live, free to love, and free to learn. Yet still, it is hard to know that I am a river exploring new and beautiful places…because still, they call me a broken dam.
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Underbelly

In this short post, I want to ask, Who are we forgetting? Who are we leaving out?

In the ongoing journey for equality and civil rights for all, often times we forget about the underbelly of society (underbelly meaning hidden or vulnerable).

I currently work at a non-profit that works with active drug users and sex workers. A population that society has forgotten. A population that my organization seeks to include in conversations relating to policy and health. We constantly search each day for methods to better the lives of this group and to make them feel included within society. We work with those who are transgender and seek to protect their best interests with their help and input.

At our monthly trans support group last month, one transwoman remarked how she never leaves home without her long metal chain. It’s the only way she’s feels protected and it’s the only way she can guarantee her safety. Another transwoman from the group mentioned how often she has faced discrimination in searching and keeping jobs.

I live a bustling metropolis that prides itself on its open-mindedness and liberalness. How do we still have people feeling unsafe and unwelcome here? How do we do nothing to include them in conversations regarding their problems and safety? For such an open minded city, we close our ears to those in our midst whose voices need to be heard more than ours.

And so it is within the modern Mormon feminist movement. At least in my eyes.

We have made great strides in our community in making Mormonism more vast and egalitarian. We pride ourselves on being more open to change than the traditional orthodox LDS Church members. We’re ahead of the curve.

Yet….

When we talk about feminism, are we including transwomen into our conversations?

When we talk about equality (within and outside of the Church), why do we often forget our sisters of color?

When we talk about defending ourselves from the patriarchy, do we also include those who are gay, lesbian, or queer?

Courtesy of mormonfeminist.org

I still read and hear stories of Mormon women of color who still feel left out of the conversation (myself included). It is painfully obvious that there are few voices in our movement from those who are LGBTQ. And is there even a space for those  among us who are transwomen? Just because the numbers are small, doesn’t mean their voices shouldn’t be heard or included.

So, who are we forgetting? And how can we remember them?

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Faith and Knowledge 2015

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A conference was founded in 2007 for LDS graduate students in religion and related programs (i.e., philosophy, women’s studies, history, folk lore, literature, etc.) to think carefully about the relationship between faith and knowledge. It has continued every two years since that time. If you happen to be an LDS graduate student in a related field, and have special insights, research, or experience on this topic, please submit a proposal. The deadline for the Fifth Biennial Faith and Knowledge Conference is November 7th, 2014, so you have approximately two and a half weeks.

While I have not spoken at any of the four preceding conferences, I have attended one, and know the strength and beauty of what it can be. It was the Second Biennial Faith and Knowledge Conference, hosted at Harvard in 2009. I moved to Boston a few months before to study library science, but wasn’t quite sure about either the East or my choice of study. I missed my undergraduate discipline of philosophy; I missed religion.

Listening to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Kathleen Flake, Claudia and Richard Bushman, Gwen Reynolds, Deidre Green, Sheila Taylor, and others, I found it again. I felt that good home feeling that I hadn’t felt in a long time, that I was so hungry for. It shifted the trajectory of my life by setting me on a course to apply for a PhD program in philosophy of religion and theology at Claremont Graduate University.

This is why I ask you to try. Submit. Add your voice. Especially, especially your woman’s voice. Mormon Studies, like most fields, needs more of them. Maybe like me, you will find your home place. Maybe like me, you will leave changed and inspired. Maybe like others, you will change and inspire.

 

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A Book Review (Of Sorts): Way Below the Angels

Craig Harline

Not very long ago, I read this post, that made me want to read this book, Way Below the Angels: the pretty clearly troubled but not even close to tragic confessions of a real live Mormon missionary. Even shorter ago, I did.

While it isn’t a woman’s story, I still feel that it is worth reviewing here, in this women’s story space for two reasons. 1) The author, Craig Harline, does a fairly good job pointing out when women’s stories, voices, and presence are forgotten.

One example of this is when his Salt Lake Mission Home President tells a mixed group of Elders and Sisters that they are to dress like “local businessmen.” Another is when his going-Belgium group was moved to the Rexburg, Idaho LTM, and they held a nightly devotional with the older going-Belgium missionaries, that fully excluded the Sisters because it was in an Elder’s dorm room. The saddest examples took place in Belgium. The first question they asked women who answered the door was if they could speak to their husband. Not because they weren’t allowed to speak to women, but because they were taught that they should focus on the man. A woman named Lieve demanded focus, because she had a dream and a wish to be baptized. She also had a husband who did not share that dream or wish. He was required to sign a permission slip, which he did. But then he took it back. Lieve learned that if her husband had the dream and wish, her signature would not be needed.*

2) Harline’s ofttimes funny/ofttimes insightful words created a space for me to remember my own mission story.

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Sisters Speak: Reflections on Exponent II

Since the upcoming issue of Exponent II is commemorating Exponent II’s fortieth anniversary, the Sisters Speak column will center on women’s experiences with the organization. What has Exponent II meant to you? How has it impacted your life? What articles have meant the most to you and why? What do you hope Exponent II will address or accomplish in the next forty years?” 

To give you a little of my own story, Exponent II has enriched my life in many ways. Ten years ago, I found Exponent II through my visiting teachee Jana, who handed me a stack of her mom’s Exponent II magazines. I was entranced, and with Jana’s help, I threw myself into the organization, offering to edit with Jana a Southern California issue of the paper and then offering to start, again with Jana, a blog for Exponent II.

I can’t even begin to describe how much I have loved my association with this organization. Through it — the magazines, the blog, the retreats —  I’ve found women who ask hard questions and live wholeheartedly and generously as they work to find answers. I’ve found companions in my faith journey who fully understand the tension I feel as a Mormon feminist. I’ve found a support network that has strengthened me when I have felt beaten down and hopeless. Every time the magazine comes in the mail, I feel a renewed sense of hope about my Mormon faith tradition, inspired by women’s wise insights and complicated experiences that are articulated in the articles.

Please share your reflections about Exponent II. You can reply on the blog (I will email you and ask permission to quote you), or email me at carolinekline1 at gmail dot com to submit a response to this Sisters Speak question. The deadline is October 15.

 

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Digging Deeper: The Future of Mormon Feminism Part 1

Part one of two posts.

 

 Introduction

Maybe you won’t identify with this story. Maybe by the grace of God you escaped the curse of cultural or racial prejudice that affects both a person of privilege and a victim of racism. Maybe you were raised in an egalitarian environment and are truly free from such burdens. If so, you are among the lucky ones.

Others may find commonality with the thoughts and experiences I’ll share, especially women who grew up in Caucasian communities. And who, by osmosis, inherited cultural and racial biases from home, school, and church life. I see racism as a disease in America and I hope others will agree that by extension, racism is a part of the mainstream North American LDS communities where many of us live. (Perhaps some of our sisters abroad will share their experiences from elsewhere around the world in the comments below.)

I could try telling stories here about some of my sisters of color, but I don’t really know their stories well enough. Besides, they can do that for themselves. We would do well to seek out our sisters and listen carefully to their words.

My job is to tell my own story with as much accuracy and integrity as possible. So, I’ll start there, hoping it will lead to an increased awareness of how some of us can reach toward greater inclusion of all our culturally diverse sisters in conversations and as friends in our day-to-day lives. I feel moved to invite white sisters to actively acknowledge and champion the concerns and causes of Mormons of color as our own (feminist or not) or, I fear, we will ultimately fail in our mission as Mormon feminists.

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