Convergence


I must set the background for this piece by stating that I am not a huge Relief Society fan. Not that I don’t like the women in my ward. Most of them are very good people, and I like them … in a distant; “Hi & Bye” in the church halls; “Gee, aren’t their kids cute”; disconnected way. I even lobbied for, and received, a calling that I knew would make RS attendance virtually mandatory every week, just to have added incentive not to skip. I can’t even attribute my generally apathetic attitude to the fact that I’m in a family ward, because I had the same attitude when I was in the YSA ward.

So, why don’t I like Relief Society? It could be that I’m just not feeling very spiritual these days. A family member has been dealing with a case of extreme ecclesiastical abuse, and as the years have passed, I’ve found the best way to deal with it personally is to just not think about it too much. Spiritual coasting.

There are many other possible reasons for why I don’t love Relief Society, but they are really rather petty, and would make this post far too long, besides giving you a bad impression of myself, so I’ll skip them.

Anyway … after a month of being out of town or working (really, I do try to keep this to a minimum), I attended Relief Society at my home ward. Apparently they’d been getting Brother G to play the piano, and had even resorted to calling him Sister G, which he quite enjoyed. When I heard it, I almost suggested that we could swap meetings every once in a while, but I doubt the priesthood would receive me as well as the Relief Society has received Brother G. Thankfully, the songs chosen for this week were ones I knew, and I was able to play without humiliating myself.

Our teacher this week was KP. Who I generally like. But when I heard the topic for the lesson, I gave a large inward groan, and fixated one of those frozen smile on my face … you know, then kind that never reach the eyes. I think the title was “Marriage and Family Relations, “ or something or other. And I began to tune it out … hadn’t even brought my knitting, which I use to occupy my hands so that I don’t fall asleep. Again, I understand the importance of marriage and parenthood, but wish these could be taught maybe every tenth lesson, as opposed to every fourth, third, second, etc. I also wish it could be taught in a way that recognizes that there are many different types of situations … never married, married to a non-member spouse, married to an inactive spouse, married without children, married with children, divorced, widowed, etc. So, basically, I grouse because I feel like the whole marriage-and-family thing is being thrust down my throat, and because I don’t feel like I fit the template. That’s a lot of grousing, especially every second, third or fourth week.

However, I soon perked up, as KP had asked various people in the RS to participate. The lesson, which may have seemed kaleidoscopic to some, seemed to converge for me. And I felt like there may be a place for me here after all. The stories were very disparate, and not the type I’ve come to associate with sedate, correlated Relief Society lessons …

Wife who hasn’t sat next to her husband regularly in church for 30 years, due to his church service callings. That’s a lot of sharing of one’s husband. He was released last year, and she’s figuring out what to do with him.

Mother who has both teenaged children and ailing adult parents in her home. Experiencing several different stages of life simultaneously.

Single, professional sister in her 40’s. Has always felt included, and worked to correct those who (inadvertently) seem to have thought of her as a second class citizen. Has especially enjoyed working with the Young Women over the past few years.

Sister who has several children who have dissociated themselves with the church, one of whom is a gay son. Understanding that one does one’s best as a parent, and loving those who stray.

And while none of these stories closely mirrors mine, I felt a great sense of relief sweep over me. I felt something I haven’t really felt since Chieko Okazaki used to speak at General Conference. I felt that, instead of being expected to fit a mold, I had a place in the Relief Society because I was unique, and that I had a point of view that could be useful to others, and vice versa. I felt that convergence, without giving up individuality, was possible.

And so it is. I come every week with the hope of finding these moments … the ones that keep my spark alive. And I’d love to hear those Relief Society moments that have sparked your lives. How did it change or validate your point of view? How was it (or you) different from other weeks that didn’t inspire?

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. Anonymous says:

    How lucky for you, Dora! It sounds like a wonderful lesson. It is healing for everybody to realize that the mold we think we don’t fit might not even really exist.

    My good experiences in RS have not often been in class. They have been interacting with RS sisters in other settings.

    In our BYU married ward we had a RS president who was a few years ahead of me on the infertility journey (we had just been diagnosed, and a BYU married ward is a baaaaaad place to be for that!) She was mostly private about her struggles but reached out to talk to me about it one night during Homemaking (I think we were making cast paper temple pictures out of Charmin … or maybe learning creative uses for Rhodes roll dough … one of those old classic Homemaking activities!). I appreciated it so much at a time when I felt really alone. I believe she went on to adopt children out of the foster care system, which is what I’m getting ready to do now.

    Also in that ward, I had a visiting teacher who was placed on bedrest in the last part of her pregnancy and did her visiting teaching by inviting me to visit her instead. I loved that, mostly because she didn’t say “I can’t,” but instead found a creative way to help me when I needed it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I love Relief Society, I always have but then I never bought in to the idea that I was supposed to fit into a certain mold. I think I learned early on that the sisters in RS came in so many different characters that whoever we are we can fit. Since I’ve always been drawn to those considered “different” maybe that’s why. The lessons are designed for informing even “the least” and now, currently living in a very small branch in a country that has only been open to the gospel for 15 years I see the need for this type of correlation. I taught RS for many years and I appreciated sisters who brought up subjects that needed to be expressed, ie “what about sisters who can’t have children?” or some of us never married, are we second class citizens?”. It was amazing the responses these kind of comments brought and often they were much more effective than anything I could have come up with as the teacher. Keep trying to connect and remember that your knowledge and experience is just as valid as anyone else’s. Also remember, that perfect Molly Mormon we hear so much about DOES NOT EXIST.

  3. Caroline says:

    Dora, this is a great story. I’m so glad that a lesson that had such a potential to alienate turned into something that affirmed and included you.

    I have relatively positive feelings about RS in the abstract. I love it’s history, when women like Emmeline Wells and Eliza Snow were in charge. I love looking back at some glory years when Okazaki was in. I like all female environments on occasion, particularly when I can discuss women’s issues in such a setting.

    My positive feelings in the abstract unfortunately sometimes become less positive when I am in the act of experiencing the RS meeting. Those manuals are killers. (Though I appreciate that they could be very helpful for new members, as anonymous mentioned.) How I wish we could get some women’s voices into the lessons.

    I wish I could think of a RS lesson in which things converged so as to give me the spark you’ve recently felt. I’ll go with the hopes that that will happen someday.

  4. alisonwonderland says:

    i have not loved Relief Society, especially since 1988 when i got married and started attending a family ward. i was very happy with callings in Primary from 1990 to 2001 (as a teacher in several different wards, as secretary, and then as president). then i was released and – although i kept my hands in the children’s program for another three years as a Cub Scout leader – i’ve been attending Relief Society on a regular basis now for almost five years. some weeks are definitely more difficult than others (especially when the lesson topic is “priesthood”) – and occasionally i just want to skip out.

    but about a year after i started attending Relief Society, i had a thought that has made a lot of difference. that thought was this: i can view each woman in my ward Relief Society as having something of value to offer and share with me, despite our seemingly vast differences, just as i view my feminist friends, with all their various personalities and in their sundry circumstances, as having something to offer and share with me. just because i don’t see myself as a typical “Relief Society Sister”, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing for me to see as worthy in those that are. i decided that, as a feminist, i needed to celebrate sisterhood at Church as much as i do out of that setting.

  5. Two Old Ladies says:

    I too am not fond of Relief Society. I am weary of having to the lessons coming from the words of men. Surely, we have had and do have some women who have something encouraging, educational and inspiring to say. I would like lessons that are more contemporary to the world I live in. I have long given up expecting to not hear about how to raise children and how to treat a husband properly. I feel the lessons are to help us be “good sheep”, never sheepherders, except for herding small children.
    I go with no expectation of learning, only the friendly surface interchanges with the women. There are some great women in my ward and it is rare that anyone of them ever say anything that is not politically correct. Mostly they remain silent and smile approvingly at the teacher. Most of the time I leave with the same spirit and equal knowledge as when I walked through the door. Quite frankly, I get much more spiritual and personal uplift from watching Joyce Meyer preach. She is upbeat, practical, positive, and expresses what it is to enjoy a terrific relationship with Christ.
    I think, until there is a significant change to actually studying the words of women, the lives of women, and comtemporary issues that women must face, it will continue has it has all my life, nice, mostly comfortable and of very little value. I really don’t expect any major change in my lifetime. So sad that it is such a different organization in function from the early days of the church.

  6. TT says:

    Why do the women here always complain about RS, but never do anything about it. The idea of studying what other women in the past have taught is constantly mentioned, but everyone here seems to be waiting for someone else to do the work and collect these teachings. If you hate it so much, get off your bum and do something about it.

  7. Caroline says:

    TT, when I get appointed to the Church curriculum committee, you can be sure that I will indeed do my damnedest to do something about the lack of women’s voices in lessons. Until then I and my fellow sisters who would like to have lessons that occasionally quote women or talk about women will have to quench our thirst for women’s stories by reading some Mormon women’s history privately.

    In case you don’t know about these books, here are some suggestions:

    Women and Authority by Maxine Hanks
    Sisters in Spirit by Beecher
    Women of the Covenant by Derr
    Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah by Bushman
    All Critters Got a Place in the Choir by Ulrich

    There are dozens more.

  8. Dora says:

    Ana and Anonymous ~ Thank you for sharing your experiences. I do think that ward Relief Societies can only be effective when they are brought down to the personal level.

    With regards to RS lessons being designed for “the very least,” and being exclusively male … well, I also find this problematic. The problem with TVL issue is that what we’re being given is the foundation, with little hope of ever elevating. As I think about it, the RS is the only place where there is no progression … priesthood holders are moved through YM classes, elders, HP’s, etc. YW have progression with age groups, as do the primary children. Even in Sunday School, one can move from Gospel Essentials to Gospel Doctrine, Temple Prep, and any other assortment of marriage and family type classes that the bishop sees fits to call. Yes, this may be a rather elitist view, but it’s something that I’ve been contemplating.

    To that end, as Caroline has said, most of the women I have known have turned to personal study in order to connect with historical female church leaders. There is a comfort in knowing that at one point in church history, female activists were not silenced, but even welcomed. Thanks for the suggested readings … while I was in SLC, I picked up *An Advocate for Women* by Madsen, *Red* by Williams, and *O Pioneers!* by Cather … all mentioned in previous posts or comments.

    In the end, ours is a huge institution. Change of any kind is slow and cumbersome, unless it comes as a direct command from the pulpit. And even though the prophet has advocated for women and men to get more education, etc, those aren’t exactly commandments. Sometimes I think that not fitting the mold can come from those little prejudices that quite naturally form in one’s mind when one is taught that there is only one path to follow. If one is single, why isn’t one married? If one is married, why doesn’t one have children? If one has children, why aren’t they serving missions/married in the temple/etc? I’ll confess that these thoughts run through my mind, even as I try to stamp them out. So, attending RS is part therapy (stamping out of personal (Victorianisms) and example (try to keep it diverse, and every once in a while comment).

  9. Caroline says:

    I agree with those of you, like Ana, Two Old Ladies, and Anonymous, who find personal interactions with other women the best part of R.S. While I’m often frustrated by the lessons, I really enjoy sitting next to a friend and catching up on the week’s events.

  10. Peter Priesthood says:

    Just hang in there. Priesthood can be just like RS sometimes.

  11. jana says:

    Church is always best when people are telling their stories, especially when they let their guard down and tell those stories that don’t fit nicely into a traditional Mormon narrative. This is why I will miss John Dehlin’s MormonStories blog so much. He figured out that stories are the best way for us to gain understanding about each other.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Things that sparked for me today: Several sisters giving me a pat on the back and saying, “Way to go with the patience!” after observing my interactions with two especially rotten children today (yes, mine)… Not ignoring my plight or glossing it over, but instead acknowledging that they also would have felt like choking someone or something. Two sisters offering to help with said especially rotten children. A 67-year-old woman whispering loudly to a 40-something bysitter, “Have you read Exponent, yet? Did you see the one about the boob augmentation?” An 80-something visitor reminding us all that no one is perfect and giving quite comical and “inappropriate” examples. The story of a recent Book of Mormon pass-along to a homosexual coworker who helped the sister overcome her assumptions about inviting gays to learn more about the Church.

    I wish everyone could be in our ward. I suppose we’re a “progressive” bunch? We have loads of older and single sisters, single moms, divorced women, working moms, and so on. Lots of “dysfunction” and “abnormalities” which make us all so very normal. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt truly a part of something Church-related that’s bigger than myself because it’s the first time I’ve ever been able to truly BE myself. We’re such a big, happy family. Everyone is so raw and so real and I feel like I can BREATHE in Relief Society. And I can have people over without paying for Merry Maids to come clean ahead of time.

  13. janescott says:

    Two thoughts about this thread:
    1. Anonymous (“Things that sparked for me…”)–yes, please let us know what ward you are in. I am very curious and very serious.
    2. Obviously, none of us will likely be on any kind of correlation/curriculum committee. I am interested in what we (as RS leaders/instructors/students) can do to help make RS fit its members. As leaders, how do we reach out to those nonMollys? As instructors, how do we encourage the nonMols to participate? As students, how do we make sure our voice is heard? I guess I’m wondering how we can make things better, given our roles?

  14. annegb says:

    What’s the calling? Is it piano?

    If I had to pick between Relief Society, Young Womens, and Primary, I’d pick Relief Society.

    But I’d pretty much pick laying in the recliner at home watching TV.

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