“What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you look at this picture?” The Relief Society teacher asked me directly. The image was from a magazine and was what I would describe as mixture of Goths and eccentrically, darkly dressed women and men. I knew what the answer was likely supposed to be. But the teacher didn’t know me. She knew my name, and she knew me by the pastel floral prints that had I chosen to wear on my return to church a few years earlier. These pale prints grew within my wardrobe making me into a wraith of my former self. Choking on these pale forals, I longed for the company, asymmetrical styles, and nose rings of my pre-uber-Molly days.
I decided only honesty would do. “They look normal to me. I’d go over and say hi to them,” I said, barley louder than a murmur, grumpily looking to the ground, suddenly angry that she asked me. The teacher was shocked and stammered.
Someone else piped in to save her. “Dirty!” the rescuer said, “they look dirty.” Another said, “Scary.” “Wicked,” “immodest,” “worldly,” and other negative terms were cast at the stray image from around the room. With each, the teacher used a thumbtack to poke holes through the faces of the individuals in the photo, all of whom were deemed undesirable by the majority in that Relief Society room. At last, the teacher predictably revealed a lithograph of Christ underneath the gnarly, now obliterated first image. The torn and hold-riddled image of the Saviour was shocking, so everyone agreed we shouldn’t judge by appearance, and all seemed to get over the whole thing rather quickly. But I didn’t. The whole thing didn’t feel right to me.
A few weeks later, I saw someone new in the Relief Society classroom. She was friend. I didn’t know her, but I knew she was my friend. She had not been to church in years, I later learned. Yet she had the spirit, I could tell. In this, as well as in her physical dress, she appeared different. She had deep, dark, moody and twistedly, feeling flowers in her dress. My spirit was drawn to her depth. I introduced myself after the meeting and suggested we get together. Years later she told me that she couldn’t believe that such a Molly-looking person like me would ever understand her. But I did. And she understood me. Zara Fae and I soon became close. In the safety of her friendship, I unraveled my falsely floral costume and evolved into the real me.
Zara Fae and I confessed previous, current and even anticipated sins. She went with me to get my nose pierced; she forgave me when I skipped Relief Society even when she was chorister. I prayed that she wouldn’t get in a fight with the man she was shouting at the No Doubt/Bush concert we attended together, and I unflinchingly dumped orthodox “friends” when they judged her as uncharacteristic and unworthy to date a certain RM, or, incidentally, be my friend. We went to the Buffalo Exchange and we went to the temple together. Festive onlookers laughed at our rediculousness as we professed how little we spent on each others’ presents at one particularly pinched Christmas. They laughed, but we knew we did this as a means to ensure we had looked after ourselves before thinking of each other. They giggled and shook their heads, but we understood. In time, we attended weddings, including each others’.
In the years of our friendship, Zara Fae offered advice, listened to what I had to say and supported me, even at times she didn’t believe I was making correct choices. When I was “on vacation” from church, she sent me quotes about Christ that I still have, hold and treasure. She didn’t send these to “activate” me, she sent them because she loved me, did not judge my non-attendance and wished me to find peace in my struggles. Likewise, when her Church attendance waned, yet mine fluxed to regular attendance (and sometimes back again), we still spoke of Christ, prayed together and shared the light of Christ in our lives. Whilst the counterintuitive compatibility of our testimonies befuddled others in and out of organized religion, it was, within our friendship, amnesty.
Equally counterintuitive to this unorthodox Mormon friendship is the visiting teaching message of this month. The title is Activation, but it is flanked with messages I would not necessarily contribute to physical, attending, church activity:
It starts with:
President Thomas S. Monson, has encouraged us to “reach out to rescue those who need our help and lift them to the higher road and the better way. … It is the Lord’s work, and when we are on the Lord’s errand, … we are entitled to the Lord’s help.”
And ends with:
Eliza R. Snow, second Relief Society general president, gratefully acknowledged the efforts of sisters in Ogden, Utah, USA, to strengthen one another. “I am well aware that a great deal is donated [in terms of service] that never reaches the [record] books,” she said. But recognizing that a heavenly record is kept of the sisters’ work as they reach out to those whose hearts have grown cold, she said: “President Joseph Smith said this society was organized to save souls. … Another book is kept of your faith, your kindness, your good works, and words. … Nothing is lost.”
The middle of the message is traditional in that it defines a successful reactivation wherein the exampled couple becomes “active in the Church,” then sealed in the temple— as if as a fairy tale, ending in eternal marriage. But I don’t believe this happily-ever-after synopsis defines what “activation” means, especially post-sealing and well into adulthood when unimaginable challenges and cultural or traditional injustices can seem to shake us and our testimonies to dust.
So what is “activation”? I have been told that church attendance once every three months is considered acceptable in regard to “activity.” And I have had missionaries on my doorstep professing worry from the tragedy they assumed kept me from church that day. Better still, I attended a branch wherein I was lucky if I saw the Branch president at a sacrament meeting better than twice a year. And yet, the Monson and Snow quotes don’t smack me of proficient church attendance. Rather, they remind me to invite the spirit in all my communication, activating and seeking the spirit in all those around me. This doesn’t necessarily equate to me as constant or even consistent church attendance, though that is implied in the centre of the message. For me , it reminds me to seek and share testimony as directed by the Spirit… with everyone.
Do I want Zara Fae to sit with me at church? Of course. She is but one of a handful of pure, unadulterated kinships in my life. But her choice of where to sit on Sundays is not for me to decide, nor is it for me to judge her as “reactivated” should she decide to attend church, accept a calling or complete other religious promulgations. I also do not think it my place to remind her that I seek her companionship in a church building. But rather, because I know she has a testimony of Christ, I believe my place is to hear about her life and her unorthodox, benevolent and beautiful testimony when she is inspired to share it with me. Just as I share my unorthodox religious devotion with her.
I was reminded of this in a recent conversation with Zara Fae, as I breathed my deepest frustrations over a personal trial of immeasurable pain to my dear friend. My speech became slurred in sobs of testimonies of both darkness and light. In my raw and exposed confession to her, I was in a holy knowledge that she, of all people, could hear me as only this dear, kindred, herbaceous friend could. As I communed with and beseeched her, her silence and her words taught me about Christ. That He listens, He invites, He loves, just as she does for me. Through this, I am reminded of how to pray: confessing, crying, explaining, releasing, loving. Then– listening and feeling love, direction, empathy in return.
For her, I can do no less.
So in visiting teaching, I aim to listen as Christ does, to awaken a kinship of unspoken words, and to love without seeking institutional compensation. I seek to be a real friend.
“It is true that we are encouraged to plant our own seeds of faith in fertile soil and keep them well watered and nourished, but none of us does that task completely alone. In addition to the women and men of the scriptures, great women and men in our lives have pulled some of the weeds from around our seeds and handed us watering cans to revive wilting plants. As sisters in God’s kingdom we can, and are obligated to, nourish each other in the faith.”
-Norma B. Ashton, Women of Wisdom and Knowledge, Deseret, 1990, 23.
What does “Activation” mean to you?
How can we activate the spirit in each other, regardless of our inactive or even hyper-activite levels at church?