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?