In Praise of the Village that Raised Me

By SEP

I am back home from BYU in between semesters, and I am feeling nostalgic. Relief Society is what really gets to me. Growing up, I never expected to like it since my mom hates it. She struggles with many aspects of the church (the patriarchy, the temple, race issues, hypocrisy from members, etc.). Fortunately for her I guess, she almost always has a calling in Primary, the nursery, or the library.

With my mom holding down the fort in the library, I have been sitting by myself during Relief Society. I don’t know exactly how I fit into the ward anymore. (Some days I don’t know how I fit in the church either, but that is a more complicated issue.) I cannot picture myself as equal to these women that I have looked up to since my childhood. I find them more impressive and complex than ever before, which makes me conscious of my lack of life experience. Most Sundays, I just sit back and watch.

I watched a native Spanish speaker struggle to present her lesson in English. Before the class started, she had privately asked me if I could answer questions for her in case there was little class participation. But during the lesson, I hardly had the chance to speak. The class participated at least three times more than normal, providing her with enabling support and confidence. It was a beautiful lesson.

I watched a sister who had recently returned to activity become uncomfortable during a lesson on the Word of Wisdom. Finally, she raised her hand and expressed how hard she had been struggling during the past year to overcome her addictions. She spoke of her frustrations, prayers, and the years she should have been with her children but couldn’t be. I watched the other sisters immediately respond, not only giving words of encouragement, but also telling this woman what an inspiration her story was to them. She was more to them than her low-cut top and tattoos. They were more to her than their Utah Mormon roots or manicured lawns or conservative bumper stickers.

Each woman is an essential part of the odd tapestry that is our ward. There is the tireless sister that I knew for six years as my piano teacher and then for four years as my seminary teacher. She just completed her first triathlon. There is the scrappy convert from Boston who never lost her accent. During the holidays there are four generations sitting on her pew. There is the lost sheep sister who found herself in a jail cell a few years ago. She is back on track and has been working absolute wonders with the youth lately. There is the sister from Mexico who was the matriarch of a huge family here about 25 years ago. They are all in Utah now, but she comes back to visit at least every other month. There is the fiery sister who is the stake expert on genealogy and sass. At a certain age, I guess no one can disagree with you. Many others have come and gone and brought their own remarkable gifts.

Lately, I have been thinking about trying out some different churches. Just like my mother, there are many things that I struggle to understand in the Mormon church. A few weeks ago I thought, “Maybe I can just stay for sacrament meeting and then stop by the little church down the street”. But I still haven’t gone. That congregation meets at the same time as Relief Society and I can’t bring myself to skip. Being with these women has given me a strength and reassurance from God that I have been needing for a while.

I have a testimony of Relief Society. I have a testimony of the power that comes from strong women of God who “meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of [our] souls” (Moroni 6:5). I cherish that sacred, feminine space.

Please, keep on doing what you are doing: the smiles, service, compassionate comments, inclusive lessons, and everything else you do to feed the Lord’s sheep. You never know who out there is searching for a balm in Gilead. You never know when a queer BYU student will come home between semesters, looking for a place where she belongs.

SEP has three younger sisters and tries to be a good example for them. Besides Mormon feminism, she enjoys studying identity, intersectionality, and Spanglish. She has recently started publishing her musings at https://incaseoftb.wordpress.com/ .

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12 Responses

  1. Andrew R. says:

    “That congregation meets at the same time as Relief Society and I can’t bring myself to skip.”

    I envy you a little. To say I don’t enjoy my high priest group would not adequately, or accurately, describe it. I would hate to disabuse all you feminists who think that the priesthood holders have it all, and that our grass really is greener, but it isn’t.

    Although our active HP group membership is 18 with two in Primary, three bishopric members who wander (primary, YM, YW), four high councillors, two who can only be at Sacrament meeting for physical reasons, there can be few in there at times. I would not say that any of them are my friend (in the world sense of the word) though many are people I like, and have spent out of church time with from time to time). Our lessons can be dire, and participation is often just 3 or 4 of those present. Though I taught a couple of weeks ago with only two others for the entire time, and 2 (bishopric counsellors) for some of the time.

    So the type of lesson you speak of just doesn’t happen. Although we should be a brotherhood, we are not really. It’s a shame, but it is not unique to my ward.

    • Amanda says:

      Andrew R., there’s no need to pit SEP’s experience against your own. It’s not a competition and I think it’s fair to say you have mischaracterized how the majority of feminists would speak about priesthood holders.
      SEP, this is so very lovely. I don’t attend church but I daresay I felt the spirit (not really something I believe in these days, at least not in the mormon vernacular sense) as I read your recounting of RS. Your experience is powerful and you are a fantastic writer.

    • SEP says:

      I don’t remember ever hearing very high reviews of high priest groups anywhere. It is unfortunate that no one seems to benefit from or enjoy them. My Relief Society experience has varied significantly by ward, usually with class participation being key. But small numbers can sometimes inhibit a good discussion.

      • SEP says:

        Amanda, thank you for your compliment. I am glad that I was able to convey a bit of the same feeling that I have felt there.

  2. MDearest says:

    Andrew, feminists don’t think priesthood holders have it all. Patriarchy hurts men at least as much as it does women. I wouldn’t ever want to be in the position occupied by white male cis people. I don’t wish to derail the thread with a discussion of this, nor do I want to spend time educating you. There’s too much work to be done uplifting the disadvantaged.

    This is a beautifully written post about the good parts of Relief Society. I don’t attend much, for a complicated mix of reasons, but you have perfectly described how and why I was able to love it and find solace there, in spite of the harm it did me. Godspeed on your journey.

    • SEP says:

      Thank you. And I agree that it does sometimes bring harm. I wish that more people could find solace there. We all need solace somewhere. Godspeed.

  3. Caroline Kline says:

    Lovely post, SEP. The best parts of Relief Society for me are when people dare to be vulnerable and open up about the truth of their lives. There is magic in those moments.

  4. I couldn’t wait to leave YW, so as soon as I turned 18 I went to RS while all my peers stayed in YW through the summer. They called me to be the chorister. They asked me questions. They treated me as if I mattered, which I hadn’t really felt all those years in YW. I love RS too.

    • SEP says:

      That is understandable. I think many people (myself included) have a hard time connecting with youth because we forget how little we ourselves have changed. My thought process didn’t immediately become superior when I became an adult. If I were to have a conversation today with my teenage self, it would be a meaningful and deep conversation. Why should the teenagers in my ward be any different? Youth know and think and feel more than we sometimes give them credit for. I am glad that in RS you were finally able to feel that sense of belonging.

  5. Spunky says:

    SEP, this is such a powerful post! I really struggle with reluef society and as always have. I often feel more comfortable in conversations with men than with women, and have no remaining LDS female friends who make me feel welcome – genuinely welcome – in Relief Society.

    I’ve recently really enjoyed attending a non-denominational women’s bible study group, much for the reasons you shared regarding your relief society experience. Perhaps because it is non-denominational, the women share different interpretations of the scriptures and no one is judged – so I feel love there, where I haven’t in Relief Society.

    I envy your experience and your ward. Mostly, I think your mother and I would get along very well.

    • SEP says:

      I think that diversity of opinions and experiences can really bring the Spirit (as long as they are presented and listened to with love, understanding, etc.). Then we can appreciate the different ways in which God works in all our lives. It is truly beautiful stuff.

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