No One Belongs Here More Than You.

Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Acceptance, Mormon Life, Mormon women, women | 25 comments

 

I remember a conversation that took place this past summer, at the end of August. It was with a friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time. She lived in Europe now, and I did not. But there we both were, walking around Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark in the rain, talking about matters of consequence. One of those matters was our place in the world; another was our place in the church. My friend had been struggling for some time in her new ward (not in Denmark), and still did not feel quite comfortable there. It was not that someone had been particularly hostile or unkind to her. No, the trouble was simultaneously more and less sinister than that.

She felt uncomfortable because she has a PhD instead of a husband and children, and because she thinks each member should be allowed to choose whether or not they will eat the coffee flavored chocolate in the box, before someone else decides to throw the whole lot in the dustbin (which someone once, really did). While the last answer is a bit tongue in cheek, it is indicative of a deeper ideology that my friend found alienating, and which made its way to the pulpit, week after week, in the form of overly literal, contentious, and conservative speech. Messages taught did not resonate with her own feelings on the gospel, consistently making her feel less than uplifted.

My heart broke a little bit, because the woman telling me these stories is more than her easily recognized stats of “single and childless.” She is even more than her stats of “single and childless and possibly liberal.” She is the best visiting teacher I have ever had (as well as one of the best friends I have ever had), and is an adventurer, scientist, reader, and world traveler to boot. It would be a shame if her strengths were ever considered weaknesses, or if the words said in sacred settings were to repeatedly lack the possibility of nurturing the spirit.

I also remember a conversation with a different woman I love, that took place approximately two weeks after the first. The second woman was married in the temple when she was quite young. And then had multiple children, one after the other, also when she was quite young. She served in many capacities in the church, including many leadership roles: Relief Society President, Young Women’s President, (I believe) Primary President, and so forth. Now she is older, and has grandchildren who call her nana, and a husband whom ward members call “Bishop.” And do you know what? This woman also told me that she feels occasionally uncomfortable, if not in church as a whole, at least during Relief Society. In her case, it is not because she is unmarried, or did not have children, but because she feels old in her very young ward.

I remember these conversations, because sometimes I feel uncomfortable (bordering on unwelcome) too. For me it happens when I am biking to my newish-ward by myself, and don’t know who I will sit by. Or when several couples introduce themselves to me the first Sunday my currently-working-in-another-state-husband is visiting, and ask us if we are new, when I have been there nearly every Sunday for two plus months. Or when lessons on The Book of Mormon devolve into conservative politics or economic plans, which they sometimes do.

And then I wonder what any of this means. What does it matter for us as a church, or for us as individuals if many of our best people feel like they do not quite belong? Or if they leave meetings feeling uninspired and un-uplifted? The first friend had asked me for advice, and I am not sure that I had any, or at least any that was good. I am still not sure that I have any on the latter point, but what I wish I said to her regarding the first is this, “No one belongs here more than you.” In this church, in that ward, etc. It is your church as much as it is another’s. Christ never asked anyone to go away, but instead asked everyone to come to him. Consequently, each person should be welcome in meetings and gatherings. None should be made to feel like they don’t belong. There are blessings here, and they are ours for the claiming.

I would also say, “All really are alike unto God.” Male and female. Bond and free. Rich and poor. Black and white. But more: Unmarried and married. Divorced and un-divorced. Fertile and barren. Stay-at-home mother and working mother. Young and old. Educated and uneducated. Liberal and conservative. Feminist and thinks-feminism-is-a-sin. Depressed and un-depressed. Returned missionary and non-returned missionary. And and and. Anything that divides us. Anything that makes us feel “other.” Anything that makes us view others as “other.” The church is big and God’s family is big.

There are even times when it is good to feel unwelcome. Or uncomfortable. Or vulnerable. The first can make us more sensitive to others who may feel as we do. The second becomes that place where our hearts can grow wide enough to love persons who seem so vastly different. The third may give others the opportunity to be gentle to us, and kind. For instance, the day when I biked to church alone, a woman and her family invited me to sit with them. And there were women in my ward who recognized me (and showered kindness) even before they knew I had a husband.

(As admitted, none of this solves the problem of what to do in a sea of doctrinally unsound or marginalizing lessons. I suppose that is another post.)

 

What do you do if/when you feel uncomfortable at church?

What has someone done to make you feel more comfortable, or welcome?

What can we do better, so more sisters and brothers know that they belong?

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25 Comments

  1. Beautiful writing, and so true!

    Please try to forgive those who come up and introduce themselves after two months. Us older folks are so forgetful that we may have already asked, or you may have your hair pulled back and look different. I admit, it could be handled more tactfully. I would just introduce myself and let them say whatever. But the alternative is that they never come up to you, which isn’t optimal, either.

    I teach Primary, I am out the minute the closing prayer of sacrament meeting is said, and I don’t know a third of the folks who moved into our ward in the fall.

    And yes, I feel like an outsider a lot.

    • Naismith, thank you for your kind compliment. And I will certainly try to keep that in mind. Just yesterday morning I exercised with a group of younger women in my ward, before having lunch with a group of (slightly older) mothers and grandmothers. I knew very few when I got to each places, and I think the callings and obligations many of them had was part of it. As was sitting in different spots in the Sacrament room.

      Spending the last 20+ years in Young Womens and Primary has contributed to the second loved one’s discomfort when she does get to go to Relief Society. I wish there was a better solution.

  2. Wow. What an excellent post. So many of us can relate to what you’ve written so beautifully. I don’t know what the answer is, except for what you’ve already said – we should all be made to feel that we belong.

    • Thank you, Suzanne! And yes, I think that is a key, but the how is a tad tricky.

  3. In many ways you’ve answered your own questions. What to do if you feel uncomfortable? Based on the examples given, it’s to realize that most everybody feels uncomfortable in different situations, at different times in their lives, etc. You’re not alone in feeling alone. Hopefully that makes us less judgmental of one another. Next, you have to get to know others. Obviously that’s not always easy, as people are introverts, shy, have callings and/or family situations that don’t allow for too much interaction. But take advantage of all opportunities to interact. Chit chat before and immediately after meetings with the person sitting beside you. Leave religion and politics out of it until you get to know them. Compliment. Smile. Be friendly yourself if you want to have friends. Ward demographics usually change over time. At some point you may be the grandmother amongst a bunch of 30 somethings raising their families. If you’re in leadership, don’t pigeon hole or type cast. Let the 60 year old grandmother visit teach the 25 year old mother of two. Even better, let them be visiting teaching companions. And so forth and so on. For most, there will be a few friendships that blossom. The rest will be really good acquaintances. That’s okay, because you only have so much time in your life to dedicate to relationships beyond those of spouse and children and other family members. But there’s no reason not to feel comfortable sitting next to anyone in your ward. When you can treat the members of your ward as extended family, things usually fall into place.

  4. Having felt particularly isolated during this election season this has been on my mind. I have avoided non Sunday gatherings as I know where the conversation will likely go. Really I don’t fit in in many ways- married when I was 32 to a non-member, working mom with an only child (an no more will follow), post grad education and liberal leaning. About 15 years ago I was attending a singles ward in Arizona and was having a hard time making connections with other ward members. I was complaining to my Dad and he wisely said that there were likely others feeling isolated as well and so why didn’t I look for them on Sunday, sit next to them and introduce myself. It reminded me that as much as I expect to get out of church that really I needed to think about what I could contribute. It is one of the things I love about our church, that we share the responsibility to teach and serve one another. I have something to offer, maybe because of my differences rather than in spite of them.

  5. I miss my mother she has been beyond the veil now for almost two months. The questions that my mother always tried to help me answer. She would tell me, when you feel lonely find someone else who is more lonely than you and befriend them.

    Another thing that I was taught growing up is to look for opportunities to serve. In my life it has been hard to feel out of place while I am serving. Like president Hinkley would say every convert (or member for that matter) “need a friend, a calling, and and nourishment by the good word of God.”

    It’s hard to be thinking about yourself when you are thinking of others. I love what Kennedy said in one of his inaugural speech. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” I love the proactive nature of such a quote. Our destiny is in our own hands. we can allow ourselves to feeling lonely and or ostracized or we can do something about it by being proactive.

    Architecture school is a very competitive environment. Some of the students were straight out rude to me. It made me feel small, and out of place, and the more I spoke with fellow class mates about it the more I learned that they had similar experiences. The rudeness comes from insecurity in position. The only way to overcome it is to be confident in something, moving forward and encouraging others along the way, or I could choose to stay small and out of place till I am just as insecure as those who were so unkind in the first place.

    Don’t feel preached to in this comment. It is just as much a reminder for me as it is telling it to anyone else.

  6. “No one belongs here more than you.” I like that very much.

    I like Ralph’s mother’s thoughts on loneliness, too. I feel sheepish admitting this because I am blessed to have a very full life with a dear husband and lovely kids, but I feel lonely for “couple” friends sometimes. Like in Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. For the first time in quite a while we have no plans to share Thanksgiving with friends or family, and I’m kinda sad about it. I hope I can find some people who are also lonely to invite to our house for dinner.

  7. I totally agree with the sentiment of this post, and I wish I had read it and thought about it ten years ago. That being said, I think too often the burden of making oneself comfortable in an overtly apocalyptic, cloistered church is shifted back on the person who doesn’t feel welcome; there is only so much one person can do on that front. It’s already easy enough in the church to dwell on one’s imperfections, and I worry that this suggestion might reinforce feelings of inferiority. Besides, maybe you are personally “strong enough” (I say that ironically since church attendance shouldn’t be a feat of strength. If you think it should be, maybe revisit the Gospels), but what about the person next to you who, along with feeling out of place, has some other stuff on her or his plate. There is no reason why the LDS Church can’t be a big-tent kind of place. It currently is not. The first step is for a person to acknowledge without shame that he or she doesn’t fit in, which this post does. The next step is to confront the culture (doctrines?) that alienates people.

  8. A very interesting article. I am currently attending a mid-singles magnet ward, where singles in their 30s and 40s can attend a family ward, but also have Sunday school and activities together. I had previously been attending an all-family ward since “graduating” from the young singles ward by age, rather than the easy way of getting married. ;) I often feel out of place and odd, being single. Oddly, I felt more comfortable in the all-family ward, even though I was one of only a few single sisters in the ward. This isn’t because people in the ward are less welcoming or have said things. It’s because I feel there’s more expectations on me to be a certain kind of person.

    And this comes from me, not from others. I know this is not always going to be the case for people, since we’re all imperfect people, so there will be those who make unkind comments. But I think some of the solution is for people to take more responsibility for their place in the church. I go to church on Sundays for the opportunity to take the sacrament and feel the Spirit. The social things are secondary. Maybe it helps that I’m something of an introvert, so I don’t crave the social interaction that others might. But if I go to church looking for someone else to make me feel like I belong, I am much less likely to find it than if I find ways to make myself feel like I belong. YMMV, of course!

    Regarding the talks and lessons that are doctrinally unsound or marginalizing: This is actually something that makes me a lot more uncomfortable than someone asking how long I’ve been in the ward (over a year!). I had a Sunday school teacher in my teen years who was what I like to call “edge of the herd.” She focused on one very small aspect of the gospel, to the exclusion of just about everything else, and it’s an aspect about which there is very little revelation, so there was a lot of speculation. I was very uncomfortable, and I would be “sick” a lot of the time to avoid sitting through those lessons. With talks, there’s not a lot you can do, but I have become a world-class commenter in Sunday school and relief society lessons. If I don’t like what’s being said, I try to inject a more doctrinally sound or more inclusive view of the topics. The biggest challenge for me in these settings is to make sure I’m doing it from the right motives and with the most gentle manner I can, rather than trying to bring in a contentious aspect to the lesson. (And there’s one of my fellow mid-single sisters that I sometimes just let have her moment, because I know I will not be responding from the best motives if I comment after one of her more …. annoying utterances. Quite a challenge for me to find charity for her, rather than just being irritated by her!)

    Another thought–even those who might seem to be good fits for each other, because they’re all young mothers, or perhaps all with teenagers, can also be divided and feel left out–working mothers vs stay at home; parents of special needs kids; parents who want more kids but can’t have them; parents of kids that are straying from the gospel. Hundreds of things. The more we are aware of this, the better, I think. I mean, I used to have a hard time sitting through fast and testimony meeting, hearing about kids who were so grateful for their wonderful parents and families, since my parents divorced and my dad has some bad issues. By being more open about my own family situation, and about how the gospel has helped me cope with it, I’ve found that there are a lot more people who fall in the “imperfect family” category than you’d think from the testimonies. That has helped me be more comfortable talking about some of the issues, too, because of how helpful I found it knowing I wasn’t alone, even if my struggles weren’t exactly the same as someone else’s challenges.

  9. “No one belongs here more than you”? Not my experience. Not ever. I never fit in. I never belonged. When I dared say something I truly thought, it was either ignored or ridiculed. I would be openly shamed in RS meetings for mentioning the books I read, or the music I listened to, or just because I didn’t enjoy quilting. This wasn’t one experience in one ward, it was my entire adult life. Finally, I wised up and realized that I didn’t fit the mold and was never, ever, ever going to be accepted for who I was. So I quit. Life’s too short to be a square peg forever trying to fit into a round hole.

    • Dear Spiderlady,

      I am truly sorry about your experience in various wards, and circumstances through your adult life. One of the major reasons I wrote this post is because so very many of us have felt those feelings of unbelonging. The biggest point is that for Christ, we do belong. Even, and maybe especially if it doesn’t feel like it. He is the most welcoming, I think, because he knows what it was like to be unwelcome. He knows what it was like to not have a place to lay his head. Even as a baby, that Christmas story we all know, and that many of us love, tells how there was no room for him. In my own small way I am trying to make room for every one who wants to be a part. But, like the commenter below, I hope you found the peace and joy and acceptance that you were seeking, wherever that might be.

      Sincerely,
      Rachel

    • You and I are a lot alike, I grew up much differently than many of the people I know and as a result, I think and feel differently than many people, in addition, it didn’t help that I had a speech impediment. I never ever did fit in, anywhere, especially church. What I wish is that people in church would stop demanding that everyone be the same, that’s impossible.

  10. Sister Spiderlady – I know I am not alone, in hoping, praying, wishing that you find what you are looking for – that you find peace and joy. That is really what it’s all about you know – the pathways from here to there (heaven). Clearly, we are not a perfect people – but if we were, we would not need the church. As it is, I suspect the Lord gave us the church to help us practice. Some of us should practice a little harder – but none of us, if we understand and know Christ, will ever wish you anything less but happiness on your journey. If you should somehow make your way back, please remember that we are not yet who we know we can become, but at least we are trying. That is something, isn’t it?

    • It is something.

      And you are not alone in wishing Spiderlady (and everyone) good thoughts and feelings. :)

  11. I love this post, Rachel. I wish I had a deep comment, but I really don’t. Your post and the comments arr real and powerful. Thank you.

    • Spunky, thank YOU for your kind compliment.

  12. I’m with Spunky…I keep trying to think of something profound to say, but I can’t say anything, but “Amen!”

    • Thank you, EmilyCC. :)

  13. I don’t think I have ever fit in like I want to in any ward. My fault, but still painful. I think even people who fit in, feel at times they don’t fit in. It’s part of learning to become united. Zion isn’t coming for me for a long time.

    • “I think even people who fit in, feel at times they don’t fit in.”

      I think that is exactly right, and what I am trying to open my eyes to, to help me be more brave and vulnerable when I feel like I do not.

  14. Rachel …. you have said what I have thought …. many times … about myself and others. Like you, I believe that we all it in the church and in the Gospel of Christ, but it’s hard to always feel that. Is there someone or something to blame? Probably not. I think the church and it’s culture contribute some – and we contribute some. To make it work, we have to work hard …. all of us. But when it does work, it’s such a beautiful thing … so, I think it’s worth the battle.
    Thanks for your thoughtful thoughts.
    Suzette

    • Thank you, Suzette.

      It IS so hard to feel, and so beautiful when it works out. You are right. And I agree that it takes work to reach that beauty.

  15. Beautiful post, Rachel. This is what I would call a classic Exponent II message of inclusion and big tent Mormonism.

  16. Rachel, BCC sent me. Thanks for the inspiring advice. I needed it today.

    BTW, did you perchance just move to Brooklyn?

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