We’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.
I did not withdraw my name and was disappointed about those who did. We were such good friends. Why had they been part of the most familiar, open and loving conversation about what should go into our paper and then feel personally compelled to withdraw? I went from being irritated to feeling very sad for what overtook them that night. Fear? What was that about? But fear soon gripped me. After a few days of wondering if my phone would ring and my life as a devout Mormon would be altered, I called my bishop and asked to see him at church on Sunday. He agreed and we actually met in the middle of the gymnasium right in the middle of the basketball court. Knees to knees, we spoke quietly – since another group was trying to have a meeting on the edge of the court. I told him I was there for reassurance that I was not about to be excommunicated. He laughed, and looking back, I appreciate that response. He said it was absurd that I should fear. Why in the world would someone like me be excommunicated? Soon I laughed, too. It is absurd.
But then, equally absurd things happen to others who are like me in the church. They happened after Sonia was let go in 1979, and they happened again in 1993. In between, statements were made by our leaders that changed our status from “righteous women serving the Lord” to “enemy of the Church” – overnight. Confusion over the capriciousness and unpredictability of these things fueled the fear. Many began a habit of shaping their expressed beliefs by personally editing what they said in the presence of others – based on fear of being perceived excommunicatable. We still heard and even gave talks on how our faith is nurtured and developed by reading the scriptures and praying and living lives in service to others, but in our heads and then in our words, we shaped our faith in response to fear of persecution. Persecution? In those friendly rooms at church where lessons are taught and people bear testimony to the divinity of the Savior? Yes. Right there in those sacred places, I have watched my brothers and sisters self-censor as they tried to express their deepest feelings about what they believe. Later, they would often say, “I had other thoughts but I was afraid I might be over the line.” Or they said, “I really wanted to say something else, but I was afraid I would be misunderstood and people would think I was being too negative.” I always said, “I understand,” because I do. There is so much that was in my heart that I prayed to have it sent there from Above, but I would never express it aloud, as I had those same fears.
In 2009, I was called to be the Stake Relief Society of the Boston Stake. Because I am a feminist and my husband was not a member and I had been divorced and a single-working-mother, I was surprised. My stake president, Maury Hiers, told me to seek directly from the Lord more clarity about whether this calling was right for me. He said to “wrestle with the Lord” until I could really understand what my path forward should and could be. For two months before I was sustained in a conference, I struggled to know. One thing that held me back was the fear that the membership of the stake would not sustain me. Then I was advised to read 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God hath not given us the spirit of FEAR; but of power, and of LOVE, and of a sound mind.” (Timothy had been called as 1st bishop of the Ephesians, and Paul was advising him and encouraging him.) This advice from the New Testament was what I needed and I knew it. Fear is never the best foundation on which to build faith.
When others, usually women, shared their fears with me, I shared the advice that Paul gave to Timothy, and that Timothy gave to me. “Fear not.” Rather, I said, read the scriptures when gripped with fear. They reassure us. I knew it was part of my calling to help others to be rid of their fears. Fear limited their growth and the expansion of their faith in the Savior. As it says in 1 John 4:18 –“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”
Thus was I delivered from my fear of speaking seriously and calmly about my faith in Christ and in His Atonement. I never speak to offend others, but I try to be as true to what I really believe as I can be. The promise made in Psalms 34:4 was fulfilled in me. “I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.”
I was released from my calling in 2013, after almost five wonderful years working with Relief Society sisters in eastern Massachusetts. Their friendships were a gift to me. Since we spoke to one another with genuine love and acceptance we came to know one another’s hearts and souls.
Not until last week have I been reminded of how destructive fear can be. It was not fear in me that caught my attention, but fear expressed in the emails and phone calls I got from women in my ward or stake who said they might not go to church on Sunday, since they had expressed sympathy with Kate Kelly or for some of the things they had heard on John Dehlin’s podcasts. They were afraid that other members might pull away from them – somehow shun them for their views. My Stake Relief Society president heard it, too, and sent out an email urging women to feel comfortable and welcome at church regardless of their views. My bishop called to make sure I felt welcome, as he suspected that I had some views in common with Kate. It is not that I had expressed them, but “they fit” he said. Then he asked if I would reach out to others who might be afraid at this time. I did. At church I met with my stake president who said he had reached out to bishops and urged them to discourage any negative talk about those facing possible excommunication and about those who might be sympathetic. It seems they all did exactly that.
This week I have responded to Facebook messages and emails from some who do not live in wards of the Church where people have been sensitive to the opinions of others. Some have been shunned and told that they are apostates “just like Kate and John.” I urged, “Fear not. If you have to take a break from church for a while, do so. Or find ways to go to church and focus on your personal testimony while there – block out negative remarks. But do not sit silently in fear and expect faith to grow. The joy of worshiping with the saints will vanish.”
Choosing love over fear has preserved the joy I feel in living the Gospel. I am touched by the recent words of Jana Riess:
“If the point of these pending excommunications is to strike fear in the hearts of other Latter-day Saints who love the Church but do not always agree with it on matters of social justice, then it has already failed. For Zion’s sake, and for my own, I will not keep silent.”
Exponent II’s Special Spring 2014 issue, Women and the Priesthood, comes out next week. These copies have been selling quickly. Get your subscription here to ensure you have your copy!