On Welcoming.

Welcoming

A few years ago, my friend called me up and told me about the beautiful testimony meeting she had just experienced, that left her feeling the spirit more strongly than ever before. The one detail I remember now is that a lesbian sister spoke from her pain and her faith. I was surprised to discover later that the same meeting that meant so much to my friend, caused other members to walk out of the chapel, audibly voicing their distaste. I thought of these things again after a somewhat unfortunate series of events re-demonstrated that words that may be a balm for some may be a source of discomfort, fear, or anger for others. It has made me wonder if this will always be the case, and how a real unity–allowing for real differences–may be developed. It also made me remember something that I wrote here before, about belonging.

In that previous post, I wrote about a friend who was confident of God’s love, but didn’t quite feel like she belonged in her ward, because she was over a certain age, with a PhD, but without a husband or child. I wrote too, about another dear person to me, who had a husband and many children, but similarly felt the not-belonging feelings because she was older than many in her ward. And then I wrote about me, and how I have felt the feeling before, too, including during the period when I biked to church alone, and didn’t know who I would sit by, because my husband was in another state, with a relative who was not well. In my own instance, a dear women literally made room for me by scooting over, and inviting me to sit with her family. I felt the welcome.

So when I was recently asked to speak to the women in my ward about fellowshipping, I wanted to speak to all of these things. There are a myriad of reasons why someone might not feel like they belong. One of them is that they may feel like their truest thoughts and feelings don’t belong. It is why I was so grateful for President Uchtdorf’s remarks in his talk, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth” at this last General Conference.

The printed version includes the subject heading “There Is No Litmus Test.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies. There are some members of the Church whose testimony is sure and burns brightly within them. Others are still striving to know for themselves. The Church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony. I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, “Your testimony must be this tall to enter.”

The Church is not just for perfect people, but is for all to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.” The Church is for people like you and me. The Church is a place of welcoming and nurturing, not of separating or criticizing. It is a place where we reach out to encourage, uplift, and sustain one another as we pursue our individual search for divine truth.

In the end, we are all pilgrims seeking God’s light as we journey on the path of discipleship. We do not condemn others for the amount of light they may or may not have; rather, we nourish and encourage all light until it grows clear, bright and true.

There are so many things that strikes me in this, about pilgrims, and light, and individual searches, but also the parts that speak directly to welcoming. This Church is to be a home for all. It is to be a place of welcoming and nurturing. We can do our part to make it such. Our friend Chieko has been leading the way. She once made a call for women to “look around the room you are in.”

Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church.

When I looked around the room I was in, I saw the things she said I would see, and more. I saw a woman in the back translating the lesson into Spanish, and several smiling women with headsets on, listening to my words, and the words of their English speaking sisters translated into their own tongue. I saw women from other parts of the world and other parts of the country. I saw students and student’s wives. I saw big bellies with life inside, and a few babies who made their way out.

One of the sisters with a round belly talked about the beauty of becoming friends with women of different ages. She once sat in a group of mostly young mothers, when the conversation turned to how difficult it can sometimes be to relate to mother-in-laws. The one older woman present said simply, “You know, it is really hard to be a mother-in-law.” Everyone’s perspective and empathy grew. It reminded me of something my formerly elementary principal father had me consider about public schools, how they are among the only places where persons of the exact same age are grouped together. It is much more common in life to to have people of all ages learning and teaching one another.

We also read and talked about this quote from Elaine Jack.

We are part of a grand whole. We need each other to make our sisterhood complete. When we reach out to clasp the hands of our sisters, we reach to every continent, for we are of every nation. We are bonded as we try to understand what the Lord has to say to us, what He will make of us. We speak in different tongues, yet we are a family who can still be of one heart. We work, play, give birth, nurture, dream dreams; we cry, pray, laugh, sometimes clap for joy, and find that mortality teaches us our need for our Savior, Jesus Christ.

I asked the women to think about times when they have felt welcome and people they know who are welcoming. We were trying to identify what some of the attributes of welcoming might be. I immediately thought of two women I met in Brooklyn. The first threw a baby shower for me days before she gave birth to her own baby, and made me dinner approximately one month after that, even though she had her own tiny tot and tiny toddler to care for. The second was a women who always spoke with warmth and grace. She was in the RS presidency, so might have felt some responsibility towards me, but she didn’t just introduce me my first Sunday. She officially welcomed me every Sunday for weeks, always adding something substantial about me, so the sisters got to know me in a bit more of a real way, and I got to feel known. I also saw her do this for many other sisters at a RS camping activity. As the women were gathered around the fire, she welcomed each woman by name, and shared something true that she loved about them. These were not trite compliments about external qualities. They were things she saw in their characters. It felt holy, like I was witnessing something Godly, that thing we call charity, the pure love of Christ.

I thought of times on my mission in Sacramento, California when it was 115 degrees outside and strangers rejected my message, but didn’t reject me, by treating me as a full person and offering me cool water. I also thought of physical spaces that make me feel welcome, perhaps because I am trying very hard (only somewhat successfully) to make my house feel like a home, and for me the details of welcoming are in delicious, healthy food, a bed, the internet, books, relative cleanliness, and simplicity.

We tried to brainstorm even more ways to be welcomers ourselves. I told the sisters that I am not interested in fake friendship (because I’m not), and that what I am after is real welcoming. With it, I shared this meaningful write up about Mr. Rogers, of the beloved childhood show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

Unlike on most children’s shows, Mr. Rogers played himself not just in name, but also in personality and mannerisms, changing nothing about how he acted off camera to how he acted on camera. His reasons for this were that: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”

I believe that adults can, also, making sincerity among the most powerful tools.

One thing this might mean is that our scope of welcoming becomes smaller, and that is ok. No one has the time and resources to be perfectly welcoming to every person, but every person can try to extend their welcome in depth or breadth. There are temperaments that overt welcoming may be tricky for. I know because I lean towards the introvert side of the spectrum. I recognize too that there are seasons. Life events like a lost job or sick child may at times take precedence. That is also ok! When you can do more, you will.

While Visiting Teaching and occasionally sitting by someone new are good ideas, they are not the only good ideas. One example that I shared is something else that I’ve written about before, here and here, also from Brooklyn, called Women Lecture of Faith Lecture Series. The idea behind it is that every sister has a story, with the creation of a space for those stories to be shared and listened to. Welcoming one another’s vulnerable, honest stories brought the greatest unity I have experienced in a Relief Society: we knew each other’s real joys and real sorrows.

Other sisters shared other examples of welcoming. Some were simple, but significant, like using someone’s name, smiling, good eye contact, or offering a hug. Some were less simple, like extending invitations to one’s home, sharing food, or engaging in meaningful conversation.

One sister talked about a time when she was singled out in a hurtful way at church, and how in the moment, she tried to act as if she was fine, even though she was not. Afterwards a loving sister found her, and talked to her kindly about what had just happened, understanding that it likely pained her. It helped soothe her, and was a powerful example of responsibility and care. We can look out for one another, both by mourning with those who might mourn, and rejoicing with those who might rejoice.

The last comment came from a sister who had felt poorly about herself around other women in her ward, until she realized that she had been comparing their strengths to her weaknesses, and that it was preventing her from simply loving them. Now she just tries to love the way that Christ might, and to keep a sense of humor. It reminded me of these words from Patricia Holland:

Obviously the Lord has created us with different personalities, as well as differing degrees of energy, interest, health, talent, and opportunity. So long as we are committed to righteousness and living a life of faithful devotion, we should celebrate these divine differences, knowing they are a gift from God. We must not feel so frightened, so threatened and insecure; we must not need to find exact replicas of ourselves in order to feel validated as women of worth. There are many things over which we can be divided, but one thing is needful for our unity–the empathy and compassion of the living son of God.

I closed my lesson with Lucy Mack Smith’s wisdom.

We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another, and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together.

 

When are times that you’ve felt welcome? How come?

Who do you know that is a good welcomer? What attributes do you see in them?

What are the physical spaces or elements that make you feel welcome?

How can we as sisters add to our level of welcome?

 

Rachel

Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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18 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Wow, Rachel. This is such a wonderful post. If I ever need to give a talk or lesson on fellowshipping, I’m going to poach these quotes and insights. I absolutely love how you made such an effort to quote from women on this topic.

    I feel welcome when people are vulnerable and honest about who they are and what they struggle with, what they doubt, and what they hope for. Often in RS I feel pretty shut down if everyone is voicing the same sorts of ideas and no one is willing to give an alternative viewpoint. So those times when a brave person speaks her truth about her gay son or her or her struggles with smoking, those are the times I feel like I may have a place in my RS and church in general.

    I also love and admire those people that are just so warm and unself-consciously welcoming. I went to a retreat once where one woman just wrapped every single person in her arms and gave her a big hug — didn’t matter if she knew you or not. I tend to be more on the introverted side, so I see acts like that and I admire them enormously.

    • Rachel says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Caroline, and I sincerely hope that you are given the opportunity to consider some of these ideas with your local sisters.

      When “everyone is voicing the same sorts of ideas and no one is willing to give an alternative viewpoint” I feel pretty shut down, too. I am so grateful for all of the brave women (and men) who speak their truths. Sometimes I can be that person for myself, and sometimes I can’t. It can be exhausting.

  2. EmilyCC.. says:

    This is lovely, Rachel!

    I found this particularly applicable to me, “One thing this might mean is that our scope of welcoming becomes smaller, and that is ok…I recognize too that there are seasons. Life events like a lost job or sick child may at times take precedence. That is also ok! When you can do more, you will.”

    Having often felt like I don’t fit in, I do usually try to reach out to people in my Relief Society. I love learning their stories, whether we are friends for 20 years or 3 months. But lately, I’ve done a horrible job. I’m not trying to meet new people, I make it a point to only sit by my friends, and I don’t attend much more than the 3-hour block these days.

    I’m just hanging in there right now. This year has been so painful for me in terms of my relationship with the Church that it is hard for me to feel like I want to reach out. I don’t want to talk about the things that make me different from the majority of my ward anymore (I used to be quite the MoFem missionary!). I feel bad about that. So, I can’t adequately express what it meant to me to see written, “When you can do more, you will.”

    Thank you.

    • Rachel says:

      I try to reach out, too, and have found that I am especially sensitive to the sisters that seem like they might feel the not belonging feelings I have felt, in the ways that I might have felt them. And like you, it has been harder for me as of late. (Since April really.) I think it has only been in the last month that I’ve been able to try again. I plan to keep trying, little bit by little bit.

      Thank you, Emily CC for all you have done, for all you can do now (however small it feels to you), and all you will do, when you can.

  3. Em says:

    I loved the quotes you chose. I like the Elder Uchtdorf one because it is such a powerful reminder NOT to say things like “if you don’t agree/like it then leave.” Souls are precious. If you have even just a desire to be in that building, then you are welcome. Faith starts with a desire to believe, and if that is all you have then that is still good enough.

    I also like the Mr. Rogers one. We know fake when we see it. I think that is why visiting teaching can be hard but also so rewarding. It can take a long time for me to feel like my Visiting Teachers really actually care about ME and I’m not just a name on their list, which is why I think lists shouldn’t change. By definition VT feels phony at first, because these people who maybe didn’t really socialize with you suddenly want to hang out. But I think it can be real, its an opportunity and a little shove outside the comfort zone. Sometimes it stays phony forever. But I think we know when someone really cares.

    I also get the introvert thing. I don’ tdo well at parties or gatherings, but I think I am a good friend to one or two people in a small setting. Make the best of what you have I guess.

  4. Emily U says:

    One of the most welcoming things anyone’s ever done for me was make me a birthday dinner. It was summer term after my first year at college, everyone I knew had gone home for the summer, but I stayed on campus and felt terribly lonely. My new room mate made me dinner on my birthday, but not only that she called my mom and asked what my favorite meal was, got the recipe, and made it. I remember tasting my first bite, and saying, “these enchiladas taste just like my mom’s!” Then another room mate let the secret out, that it was my mom’s recipe. I’ll never forget that kindness, and it’s made me want to know people as individuals so I can welcome them as individuals.

    On the other side of the coin, once I was at a party where the guests wrote anonymous notes of praise to each other, and my note said the person liked me but felt that she couldn’t get to know me because she thought I was intimidating. I was a little crushed by that. I felt terrible that I’d communicated a lack of approachability. I do what I can to amend that, but it also taught me to make an effort to get over my own shyness and talk to people that intimidate me, because they are people, too, who might need a friend.

    Thanks for your lovely post, Rachel.

    • Rachel says:

      Emily U., that story of the birthday enchiladas made me cry. So beautiful and meaningful. A friend of mine went to BYU for summer term just weeks after graduating high school. Her birthday fell her first week there. My sister was living there then, and only knew her a little bit, but brought her flowers so she would know she wasn’t alone. I always admired my sister for that.

      You took such a good approach after that note. It can be so hard, but so worthwhile. I do suspect people who seem intimidating to us just need a friend, too.

      Welcome. Thank you again for your examples.

    • Em says:

      Lots of people tell me I’m intimidating too. I don’t really know what to do about it, and it sort of feels rotten. I don’t think they mean to be mean, in some ways it is meant as a strange compliment, but it doesn’t feel very good.

  5. spunky says:

    This is so important, Rachel. As I read through the stories and comments in the class you taught, I felt like so many of the examples were me… at different times, in different wards, and so on. It is so lonely at church sometimes. I love feeling through your post that it is lonely for many of us, and that we all still go– we all still try. You have inspired me to try again, as we look at going to yet another new ward next year–

    Thank you, very much.

    • Rachel says:

      “It is so lonely for many of us, and.. we all still go–we all still try.” It takes so much courage, I think. I want women who still want to go, and who still try to go, to have their courage met with love and open arms. I am trying to do that for others, and for myself.

  6. isabelle janicaud says:

    That was awesome! perfect week for it too.. thankyou so much

  7. Jenny says:

    I love this Rachel! I love how you make the distinction between insincere efforts to fellowship and genuine welcoming. As I read your post it made me think about my own ward and why I don’t feel welcome there. It’s not for lack of trying on my part, and it’s not for lack of good loving people in the ward. I have even had people reach out to me in genuine love and kindness. I have also had my fair share of insincere fellowshipping which only seems to detract from the genuine efforts others have made. I think what I need to feel welcome in my ward is to be able to be my authentic self and not have that be a threat to others. One line from your post especially stuck out to me: “…every sister has a story, with the creation of a space for those stories to be shared and listened to. Welcoming one another’s vulnerable, honest stories brought the greatest unity I have experienced in a Relief Society: we knew each other’s real joys and real sorrows.” That’s how I envision a welcoming ward and Relief Society, one where people know each others’ joys and sorrows, and subsequently mourn with and celebrate with each other at appropriate times. What a great lesson this must have been! Thanks for sharing.

  8. naomi says:

    What bothers me about this great article is that while we all benefit from it, those who might most need it to shape their perception of ‘the other’ may not see it, due to the nature of The Exponent. I wish this were posted in The Liahona/Ensign/LdsLiving, anything. Did you see that quote from the Orem RS Pres recently, on accepting and needing every woman? I felt similarly about that.

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