Sitting in the Back Row on a Sunday
Almost as soon as we walked in the chapel, a missionary came and handed headphones to us. We were a few minutes late to church, and had missed the opening hymn. “Can you hear me?” asked the missionary in English. I nodded, and adjusted the headphones on my daughters who were delighted with the idea of wearing headphones at church.
It wasn’t a surprise that we stood out enough to be immediately handed headphones. After all, other than a few of the missionaries, we were the only people of European appearance at the LDS church that Sunday in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The chapel was prepared with wireless headphones that synced to a microphone where missionaries took turns summarizing and translating what was being spoken. It was different, and I like different.
Out of habit, I chose to sit on the back row. I had chosen this space for years, ready to make an exit in case some of the teachings made it too painful for me to stay. When I was an “older” young adult, talk of marriage depressed me and made me wonder why I wasn’t good enough to be married. As a newlywed, talk of equating womanhood to motherhood made me hate my body. As a childless not-so-newly-wed, talk of the divine feminine being based in fertility made me doubt god at all. And as a feminist through my entire life, talk of the subservience of women to men made me doubt the truth of the church, because I felt worthy enough to use the agency that God had given to all of us. So my home was on the back row of the church: it made for easy escape, where I could march out as silently as possible in my clickity-clackity Sunday shoes, only pausing if my heel was caught on the carpet for a moment mid-exit. Then I would be alone, soundlessly seeking Christ in the barren hallways outside of the chapel.
But this back row was different. And fun.
Accustomed to adult visitors of European appearance,
locals quickly accepted me as a standard tourist. But my hard-won, precious daughters? They were treated like royalty with a fun twist: people don’t often holiday with children in developing countries with unstable governments, so they were a rare sight to behold. For example, a few days earlier, when we attended a traditional, royal Cambodian dance performance in the city, I motioned to an usher and explained that my children were too small to be able to see the stage from where they were sitting. I thought booster seats might be available, or perhaps they could sit in a seat closer to the stage? The usher nodded, and then took my girls to the stage– where they sat on the stage steps—just a yard/meter away from the performers! The best seats in the house are ON the stage, after all! So the attention at church toward them wasn’t a surprise.
The following Sunday morning, when the tuk-tuk driver dropped us at the church, he said we should not call him for a lift back to the hotel—it was too far out of his way. I was disappointed, but not worried. I was going to church, and was confident we would find a lift back to our hotel.
Shoes were neatly placed about the entry doors of the church: this was common for places of worship in Cambodia, or for nicer hotels- it helped to keep the buildings clean, and invited a sense of the sacred. Often westerners were given a pass and allowed to keep their shoes on, but I liked removing my shoes. It felt peaceful, humble and right. Though the building looked quite similar to other typically western LDS church buildings, it was distinct in that it lacked carpeting, a characteristic common in Cambodia. So my daughters and I removed our shoes, and entered the building barefoot, padding our way along the tiled floors to the back row of the chapel.
The missionaries all wore shoes in the chapel, which I surmised was a mission rule. There were a handful of church members who also wore western clothes, with shoes, including the Bishop and a woman who I later learned was the Relief Society president. The boys who passed the sacrament dressed neatly, yet none had the LDS- traditional “white shirt and tie;” most were wearing flip-flops. Other ward attendees who appeared to be of more humble circumstance, and who were in the majority, were barefoot. I felt comfortable in this space among the barefoot. I wanted to be among the people, so the lack of shoes made me feel more open to that mindset. Importantly, I was equally not bothered by those wearing shoes. It was liberating in it’s own way.
As we sat in the back row of church, it seemed as though most members of the ward took little notice of me. But the children in the ward immediately took notice my daughters. They smiled and whispered to each as they looked at my gorgeous girls. My daughters had become used to this in the week prior to our visit, and they shyly smiled back.
I noticed that the boys passing the sacrament quickly and quietly had a short discussion. I soon learned why. After the bread and water were blessed- each of boys took one turn each of serving me or one of my daughters the bread, and then the water. It was a spiritually-invoking moment; we were each handed the sacrament personally, individually, and with intent. The symbolism was powerful; and I wept as I was taught by the spirit. It was one of those brief and inspirational moments where I knew that Christ would have me know that the atonement was for me. Because the atonement is personal, individual and made with the intent of saving me. Not just saving a long line of whoever was sitting in the back row. But me. And you. Personally. Individually. With intent.
My daughters wondered why I was crying. The headphones worked erratically, so much of what was being said we missed. Plus, there was no speaking during the sacrament anyway. But mostly they wondered why I was crying since this sacrament was exactly the same as sacrament in our home branch. Yet it wasn’t.
“Why mummy?” One pressed.
“Because I feel the spirit.”
She knew. “Jesus is here,” she said.
“Yes. Yes, He is.” I knew, too.
Most of the time, I know what people are saying at church. The rote handbook delivery, or the tired, traditional theological repetitions are words I am familiar with. Yet I struggle to feel even a breath of the spirit. But on that back row in Siem Reap, I knew none of the Cambodian words, yet felt all of the unquestionable, humble and sure-footed power of the spirit of Jesus Christ.
In the end, it turned out that a member of the ward was a tuk-tuk driver. He did not speak English as well as the city driver who had brought us to church, and because of poverty, I did not have to insist on paying him: he asked to be paid whatever we had paid the city driver that morning. Still, I paid him more. And though he shook his head to refuse what was so small to me, but life-sustaining for his family, I smiled. He took the money. And I thanked him.
For that one Sunday, I didn’t feel like I belonged on the back row. Because Jesus was there. With me. And you. And everyone.
I wish every Sunday was like that.